SFI > 250 or bust!

SB80 just like last year. Reasons why? Just like last year: Propagation above 20m sucks. Twenty and forty are a splatter infested limbo of hell. So that leaves only 80 since I avoid Top Band whenever I can. Last year was fun and I was amazed by the result so why not again this year? Yes, afterwards we’re always smarter… Little did I know that there would not be any propagation to suck!

My new work schedule since two years doesn’t get me my Friday afternoon off. I had a few daylight hours to spare on Tuesday so I cranked up the tower then and adjusted the 80m ground plane from CW to SSB. With all the work done this summer I also used another stretch of coax (better cable = lower loss) from the coax cabinet outside to the 6×2 relay box. I hooked up the antenna analyzer right at the antenna which was seemingly fine. But on the transceiver’s end it had SWR > 10:1. Darn! It turned out to be a bad N-plug on the new coax. Not badly soldered, it was just a type of plug that doesn’t really fit the exotic RG-217 cable. The center pin was too far back to mate with the socket. That RG-217 cable has been discussed here before, mostly with topics as ‘hard to find suitable plugs’ and ‘got into trouble with a nonconventional plug’. It’s a good cable and I nailed a real bargain for a 100m drum, however it turned out to be a pain to find suitable plugs. I put the old coax back into action and the problem got solved.

On Wednesday I put up the terminated RX loop. As usual pointed to the US of A. That has helped me the past summer and proved a winner in this contest too. Thursday evening I prepared the shack. Updated all software and took out the headset. SSB voice keying and VOX were working fine. Super! Technically I was prepared. Mentally too: low expectations and only looking for amusement. The WX had been fine and was said to be calm and dry over the weekend. What could go wrong? The sun, for instance. K-values of 6 the days before the contest. I didn’t know how bad that affects low band propagation. I do know now! We all do.

Friday night I went to bed and set the alarm a little late. On purpose since I was only in it for the fun and the first hour usually is very hectic. As soon as I launched my first CQ with the PC voice keyer, I was in for a nasty surprise. The audio from the PC sounded distorted on the monitor. I didn’t test the voice keying with the amp on the other day… The fact that it sounds distorted on my side is not a problem. As long as it isn’t distorted when it leaves the transmitter. But no one answered when I sent my call. Bad sign. One of the stations I sent my call to, complained about bad modulation. There you have it. Live voice into the microphone was OK. Now what? A round of troubleshooting, that’s what.

  • It’s exactly the same setup as last year when the problem didn’t occur. Did something change without me remembering or noticing it?
  • The problem only went away when I transmitted at 50W or less. I’m not a QRP guy!
  • The problem only occurred on 80m. Not on any other band. Just my luck with a planned SB80 effort.
  • The problem persisted when I unhooked the RX antenna from the rig. You never know, right?
  • The problem went away when I unplugged the MIC from the MK2R+. The WAV files played back clean just as long as there is no connection between the headset’s mic and the radio.

So it was the headset’s mic lead that fed the problem into the MK2R+. I twisted the lead around a clip-on ferrite core but that didn’t help. At this point, it was almost one hour later. My bed was calling and the morale was far gone. I was about to quit even before I started.

I overlooked my options and noticed a 3.5mm jack-to-jack audio cable lingering on the ‘electronics work bench’ a/k/a the desk a/k/a messy heap of various stuff. I don’t know why but I plugged it in the MIC socket and tried. That loose end didn’t pick up the RF. As a last resort I took this lead, twisted it around three ferrites and looked in my audio-adapter box for combinations to get this between headset and MK2R+. I had a set of male/female professional audio XLR-type adapters that accept 6.4mm jacks. I had 3.5-to-6.4mm jack adapters. Eureka! This kept the RF away from the audio. This amazing piece of audio-gizmo’s position on the desk was crucial. Sliding it to the left or right made things worse. And touching the metal case of the XLR-adapters with my finger, distorted the audio again.

80m_mic_rfi

However I was back in business and I felt ecstatic. Not only could I do the contest but I also was satisfied with my problem solving capabilities. And glad I have a dozen boxes and containers full of extension cables, exotic parts, RF and audio adapters, plugs and what not. Once again my point was proven: you can NEVER EVER have too many of these around!

Soon I found that the sun’s recent spasms didn’t do any good for the bands. Signals were weak, if any. It was hard to get USA in the log. And those who made it were weak. Even the beacons like K3LR, W3LPL, KC1XX… who should peg the S-meter even on eighty meters. Over the whole period the best hour was between 2z and 3z. About 120 contacts logged. And one of only two hours of +100. The other being 18z on Saturday.

Around 4.45z on Saturday morning I had my fifteen minutes of fame. But no more than fifteen. During that short time span it seemed that central America and the Caribbean were doing S&P low in the band. They all called me and I was amazed every time. It’s what I always say: keep running with a decent signal and the mults will come. I kept going for a while after sunrise but then quit.

I was home alone but I wasn’t really tired. I spent the morning outside putting up a BoG. Yes, another RX antenna. After all I badly needed multipliers from the east. In retrospect this turned out to be a total useless effort. There was nothing from the east! See the map generated by Adventure Radio Log Analyzer and thanks to ON3DI for the link (new gimmick!).

Where did my signals go to?

Where did my signals go to?

I can’t remember much more from the rest. It was boring. It was slow. I was a matter of bridging the ten minute gap between two contacts. Of course I encountered the usual German bulldogs from the German round tables. You know, the lot that owns a certain frequency to chitchat about the color of their socks. Like a dynasty, the QRG goes over from generation to generation. One of them even introduced the term ‘Funkterroriste’. For my English audience: it has nothing to do with a booty shaking style of music! My frequency (the one I lease, not own) got invaded three times. Two times a simple and polite request to move on was politely answered, with apologies to boot. The third was IR3Z. His antennas and location obviously outgunned mine, despite the much lower power limit in Italy. Oops: spewing out irony again! Like the saying goes: don’t wrestle with a pig. Both of you get dirty but the pig loves it (George Bernard Shaw). So I decided to be the bigger man and abandon my run. It had run dry anyway. Still I hate it when this happens.

At a given point I decided to catch some sleep. It wasn’t really needed but the boredom got unbearable. One hour later I woke up very suddenly and got a bit mentally disoriented. I felt sick and my stomach was upset. I hadn’t eaten in a while so it could not be food poisonging?I took a bucket with me to the shack just in case. Better safe than sorry. But I really didn’t feel well. Then it dawned on me: I needed energy. I ate two bananas while leaving the dog out to answer the call of nature and ten minutes later I was just fine. In time for Sunday’s sunrise. That one was even less productive than the day before. It bothered me that I didn’t even work a single PY for a double mult. A LU had called me, and a CE. Then PW8T was spotted but the packet pile up was just too intense.

I slept some more on Sunday during the day. And I decided to play around on the higher bands. What higher bands? Ten was silent apart from a few Italians and Eastern EU stations. Fifteen was a bit better. A bit, but not much. I tried my luck on twenty. As soon as I got spotted I had a mini-pile up to the USA. That’s the only thing I like about SSB: fast USA runs. The propagation treated me well between late 2011 and late 2014. Since then it hasn’t been the same. But this time it was pure horror… The KC1XX operator lured me into a QSY to 28 MHz. I told him the band was dead. He said it was open. I wrote down their run frequency on ten meters. A few minutes later I went to listen there. Nothing of course.

I don’t even remember what I did the rest of the day. Around sunset I moved into the shack again. Against common sense. Once in a while someone spotted me and I worked a dozen stations. Then it was slow… ‘Slower than molasses in January’ is what Redneck Rampage taught me.

Late in the contest MU0GSY and 7R7W called me for my two last multipliers. GJ2A was spotted but the pile up was just too thick and it kept being messy for quite a while so I never worked that multiplier. Not that it matters. The S5 guys who also did SB80(A) on 3830 seemed to have been in a different contest anyway.

My wife always asks ‘how’s it going upstairs?’ It’s hard to explain to my XYL why we do this. Obviously this wasn’t for fun this time. Slow rates, hardly any DX, poor propagation. But a true blue contester just can’t NOT be on the air. I’ve been forced to abandon my participation by storms too much over the last three years. So even this was better than not being on the air at all. I just don’t dare to say that it can’t get any worse than this. Suppose it can?

I don’t know about CQ WW CW yet. SBxx for sure. But what band?

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