SFI > 250 or bust!

The XYL is right (for once): I have done a lot of work since spring. First I finished the field day mobile mast installation in May. Early July I traded the X-frame base that holds a pole for a concrete foundation. Next I finished and installed the new small tilt over tower and *drumroll* I finally buried the conduit that takes a bunch of cables across the garden.

This last job was supposed to be done three years ago when we bought the extra lot. But the guy with the excavator broke his word and didn’t come before the new fence was installed. Once the garden was closed, there was no way anymore to enter with a big machine. That left me three options: do nothing, dig by hand or find a smaller mechanized-motorized alternative. The last option would have to be mini because even a medium sized machine would damage the garden.

I’m not afraid of manual digging and I have done my share. Even as a toddler I liked digging holes in my dad’s vegetable garden. Wearing a kid sized overall like the real workers. The record was as deep as I was tall. But this time it meant digging half a meter deep, thirty five to forty meter long through very dense and heavy soil. There are a few companies around that rent small trenching machines. That was it! The smallest fitted my trailer and could easily be driven through the gate and would not turn the lawn into a war zone. Another rental firm had a movie that showed the machine in action. A nice clean cut, a neat heap of loose excavated soil nicely on the side and apart from the trench, the lawn survived unscathed. Little did I know that this was quite a misleading infomercial!

I booked the machine for a day in June when both the XYL and me had a day off. I like some company and a helping hand. I booked the trenching machine for half a day. The trip to and from the company would take an hour to pick it up. And another hour to take it back. I planned an hour of digging and half an hour of pressure wash cleaning. I hooked up the trailer at sunrise and we left home early. We dropped the kids at school way before the bell rang. The forecast put showers on the WX menu but so far it was dry. All went according to plan and by 9 AM I had the machine in place in my backyard and the engine was roaring. It had taken me some time to figure out how to handle the beast but finally I was ready to lower the blade and slice through the dirt. And then it started drizzling. Which soon turned into rain.

To say that we had a wet spring would be an understatement. For a few weeks in May and June, record breaking showers brought liters of rain. This rendered the soil very wet up to more than half a meter deep. And the top layer was soaking wet. As soon as the blade descended into the hole I had dug as a starting point, the machine operator (that’s me!) descended into hell. Unlike in the movie, the machine didn’t bring up a nice portion of loose soil. Instead I got a sticky ball of clay. I hadn’t moved an inch and yet the machine was dirty all over. And dirt all over the lawn too. Faint heart never won fair lady so full throttle and let the blade grind. It started raining heavily so I knew I was in for a muddy ride.

Next problem: there was hardly a ride! The wheels did nothing but slipping over the soaked lawn. The wheels buried themselves instead of moving backwards to dig a trench. No grip whatsoever. I started, no: I exploded into a raging fireball of cursing and swearing. Nothing I could do but try to move a bit, then go back and retry. Soon there was more damage from the wheels than anything else. The machine just sank into the lawn, creating huge holes. Frustrating. Suddenly digging by hand looked appealing. I could do that whenever it was dry and it would have left the lawn intact because I could put the clods with the grass on top back and have a clean garden.

It was then I realized I had been misled by the accompanying video. It’s easy to dig a trench in light and bone-dry soil under a pleasant sun. Then shoot a movie to show how easy and clean it is. In the real world (the one I happen to live in) it becomes a mess when you do it in heavy soaked soil when it’s raining cats and dogs. But the machine was here, the damage was already done and I needed to hurry. Hurrying usually isn’t a good idea – more on that later.

I decided to move the machine to the other side of the garden, where I had planned to finish. That way I could take a clean start and advance in the other direction. The XYL kicked down an open door: “put some boards under the wheels”. As if I hadn’t thought of that myself but I didn’t have anything that came remotely close to use for this purpose. Except for the ramps I rented along to get the machine on and off the trailer. That was it! I took the two aluminum trailer ramps and let the machine drive on that instead of on the lawn. I had to move forward every meter and a half to relocate the ramps but this way the machine actually moved and didn’t dig itself into the ground. Once I had figured out the routine, I was able to finish the job in due time. Actually a little over the budgeted time but I had built in some leeway in the schedule.

During my muddy adventure the XYL had already installed the pressure washer. This was a vital tool as well. After all the terms of the rental stipulated I had to return it spic and span. It was a fairly new machine with the paint still shiny and clean. A least until I started my work. Now I needed to get all the dirt off and make it shine again. As with all jobs, this took longer than anticipated. The pressure washer only worked intermittently. I use this device only once or twice a year and just like always there were some small dirt particles clogging the nozzle. Poke it, wash it. Poke it, wash it. After a few poking cycles the nozzle got freed up and the pressure washer worked at full duty cycle. The dirt stuck stubbornly and huge chunks of lawn were flying around. Me: wet from the rain, wet from the washing, wet from the sweating. Once the trenching machine and the ramps were clean, I took a wet cloth and started wiping and drying the operating console and the joysticks. If I didn’t want to pay for a whole day, we’d better hurry and move the machine on the trailer and get going.

I turned on (or off – depending how you look at it) the ignition safety and pulled the cord to start the engine. It took two tries, I yanked the starter a third time but the engine didn’t start. Which was weird because it started right away the other times I had pulled the cord. I checked the fuel level – more than half full. I was getting pretty annoyed by the impending deadline to return this devilish machine. And so I pulled the cord with my typical enthusiasm and power. The engine didn’t start but I broke the starting cord. Yet another round of profanity for all to enjoy. Now what?

My wife asked from a safe distance: “Did you move that switch into the on position”? Of course I did. “Then why is it still off?”, she replied. Like a raging bull I ran to the machine, called her close and finger-pointed at the ignition switch which I had set in the on position. “No, not that switch, THIS switch here – it’s still off”. HUH? WHAT switch? As it turns out there is an emergency switch on the backside of the operating panel. I didn’t notice it and I accidentally must have hit it with the cloth when cleaning the console. I did wipe the backside clean but did not look at it. That’s why the engine didn’t start when I yanked the cord. But Lady Hawk Eye had seen this switch.

Returning the machine in time became impossible. Returning it at any point in time was impossible as long as the engine wouldn’t start. I can hold my own in French but this time I asked my sweetheart to do the call. I was too effed up to talk in French. The rental company is in the French speaking part of the country and they don’t speak any Dutch there. Hell, they speak nothing but French there. Apparently these guys weren’t too eager to send a repair tech. Soon the talk got too technical and the XYL handed over her phone and walked away. Left to my own devices. They wanted me to unmount the starter, go there for a repair, come home to mount the fixed starter, and then load up the machine and take it back. That meant the rest of the day commuting and burning diesel. I got some quick guidelines over the phone on how to dismantle the starter. They must have taken me for an idiot because all it took was loosening three M8 bolts and take off the cover. My area of expertise does not cover combustion motors and I certainly don’t perform surgery on a machine that isn’t mine but for which I did pay a 300 Euro warrant. As it turns out, the part they wanted me to bring in for repair was a small spool with a piece of rope and the other piece of cord that broke off. If this is all there is to it, it’s something I can fix myself. Err, no I can’t. Fingers too fat and rope too small so I called in the XYL. She tied the loose ends together and wound up the rope. I reassembled the starter and tried starting the engine. Nothing to lose. All I can do is win. This time with the emergency switch disengaged of course. It took a few pulls because the rope was now shorter and it was hard to get the motor over the critical point. But I heard the engine was eager to start. I couldn’t yank too hard because that would either break the cord again or loosen the knot. But then the engine started and I ecstatically drove it up the ramps and onto the trailer. In the end the company did only charge me half a day and did refund the complete deposit. Neither did they charge me for the broken cord. Which I guess is more the southern style of the country: laid back and relaxed. That’s why I forgive them their monolingualism ☺☺

As it turns out, as soon as the digging was done, the sky cleared up and it stopped raining for the rest of the day. Apart from the bad start I was quite happy. In two places I had to deepen the trench a few inches by scooping out dirt with a pickaxe. And apart from the place where I didn’t use the ramps to drive the machine on, the lawn was pretty intact. Now I needed to get the conduit in. I chose to put all the wire and cables in the conduit first before laying it in the trench. It was a gamble but I wanted to put as much copper in the 50mm tube as possible. That means: one RG-213, one RG-217 (1/2”), one 3G1.5, one 3G2.5 and one ‘two pair balanced audio’. A remainder of my career as broadcast service techie. This is in fact two shielded twisted pairs. Good to drive some relays or so. I have no clue what I’m going to do with all this. But it opens up perspectives now that all these cables run from the garage to the most remote part of the garden. Out of sight and out of reach. The RX loop antenna had booked one coax already.

All this copper makes for a long and heavy sausage. I had to call in the XYL a few times to squeeze this copper baloney through the conduit. In retrospect I shouldn’t have asked her that. She’s strong but simply lacks the muscles for this kind of job. And I get cranky because can’t see why something that goes for me doesn’t go for anyone else. We had to do this job two times: once to get the whole length into the conduit and then the excess length into another existing conduit that I put underground when we rednewed the terrace in 2009. Even my wife, who is always friendly, reverted to world class Olympic gold medal winning profanity while she was cursing me and I quote: ‘your F***ING cables’. I was proud that she finally swore along with me. I was the ‘swearee’ but that’s a small price to pay.

The cables terminate into a metal powder coated cabinet. This is put in the concrete floor of the dog’s kennel with four threaded rods size M8 and chemical anchoring. And two and a halve tubes of silicon sealant. I gave the cabinet two coats of quality paint and I put several cable glands on it. Even two big ones where I can put an RG-213 through that has a PL or N style plug already attached. That makes it easy to get runs of spare coax in and out of the cabinet without cutting and soldering.

My dad had half a trailer of dry, light and fertile soil in excess. I picked that up and distributed it on top of the closed trench and used it to fill the holes. This light dirt is ideal to get the lawn seed germinating. My youngest of four and a half helped me out to sow the grass. It took three weeks of daily watering to cover all the dirt with fresh green grass. Done!

This is one of the projects that take a huge amount of time to finish. I’m glad it’s finally done and I hope to harvest the fruits of my labor in the coming years.

Finally a perfect contest. Everything was perfect or close enough.

This is the perfect contest format: only twelve hours so you’re done before it gets slow and boring and before you fall asleep. It has CW for the real contester, SSB for those who don’t know CW and mixed mode for those who like their shots diluted.

It’s the perfect contest for those with limited antennas. No DX to be worked, only EU-EU so those with smaller and lower antennas get their share of fun too. And there is a lot to be worked, you never run out of stations to work.

It was the perfect weather here. Dry and no wind. Warm enough but not hot. No thunderstorms close by.

It was the perfect timing: I badly needed a perfect contest.

I wouldn’t be myself if among all this perfectness I wouldn’t point out some less perfect items. Like the QRN from thunderstorms to the east of me: Italy, the Balkan, the Baltic states. Which is exactly where I point the yagi from here (90°). Although the QRN was more pronounced on the low bands. And the propagation. At the start I thought I was without 10/15 but that more or less solved itself along the way.

But these two little beauty spots could not ruin my perfect contest. I never did so well in this one and broke my personal record from 2013.

  • Best score:  390567   now: 432378
  • Most QSO:  1289        now: 1378
  • Most mults:  303        now: 314

I had a very slow start. I tried ten meters but it was almost dead. Not many callers and all weak signals. I didn’t want to get on 20 from the start. I commuted between ten and fifteen meter but it was slow. I had come to terms with 2016 being a slow year with average scores and this contest would not be an exception.

I decided to use the online score board. Two of my fellow countrymen joined in: OP5T and OR5T. It drove me mad to see them run away from me. Especially OP5T built a big score. I knew this was only possible by running on twenty meters which seemed to be the only productive band. So I decided to let it go and continue my own tactic. That is: try to make the most of 10/15 because 20 will be good later on too. In the meantime OR5T and I switched positions on each update but OP5T ran away and was in the top 5 position. I was… top 20 material. I’m a nice guy and I grant everyone their pleasure and success but my contesting ego wanted to restore the Belgian pecking order.

The second clock hour was above 100. This was acceptable especially coming from a first hour of only 75. But not what it should and could be. Then the rate picked up and I was on a roll. I left both my Belgian friends behind and could focus on a few other calls and climb my way to the sub-top. You can say many things about the online score board but just like in IARU last month, it added an extra dimension and made me stay focused and active when things got slow.

After the slow start the rate picked up and stayed high enough. My personal benchmark has become: try to work 100 QSO/hr averaged over the duration of the contest. So this would mean 1200 QSO in 12 hour. It became clear that this goal was within reach and along the way I logged more multipliers and a higher score than ever before. So in the end I was very happy. I would have never believed this eleven hours earlier.

Graph courtesy of N1MMLogger+

Graph courtesy of N1MMLogger+

Each year the question arises: how do the top scorers get so many multipliers??? And why can’t I?

I found Top Band to be very noisy and no skimmer outside of EU picked me up. I look at the propagation on the RBN and indeed: there was not a single EU-DX trace on the map. Only inside EU. This accounts for the lousy state in which 160m was.

After the contest I posted my score on 3830 and sent in the log because I was going away on Sunday. At night I went outside for a fresh nose and to flex the sore muscles. And a pee for the dog. The sky was clear and I got overwhelmed by a huge sense of satisfaction. This really was the perfect contest!

I know that many readers have been holding their breath since last year’s sneak preview. Finally I finished this project.

When we bought this house, there was no cable TV. That was the very first thing we ordered and had installed. Not so much for TV but for broadband internet. The previous owner, an old widow, used a rusty satellite dish and some disintegrating VHF/UHF antennas. These were mounted on a six meter high steel tower that held another two meter mast on top. I couldn’t care less for the antennas but the structure was a nice bonus for someone who had to build an amateur radio station from scratch. It held the first dipole legs and later on L wires and elevated radials up high for many years. But as I said: the TV antennas were falling apart. The tower itself was completely corroded. Not a trace of galvanizing or paint. Cracks were appearing in several places. And the installer didn’t spend much on the concrete base. The foundation was simply too small and the whole tower sank away together the sinking base. A few degrees closer to the ground each year. Needless to say this was bound to go wrong one day.

I removed the TV antennas ten years ago. I didn’t like climbing this small tower nor put a ladder against it because the tubes may have been rotting from the inside. I had been wondering what to do when I removed the old tower. After all it was a vital point in my low band system. And how to get rid of this dreaded heap of rust? Without damaging the hedge, the fencing, the house, the crops on the adjacent lot…

The replacement issue was simple: I would make my own small steel tower. Not that I have a bucket list, but if I ever had one, ‘weld yourself a tower’ would have made the list. I am not a welder nor a fabricator but I file myself under ‘wannabe metal worker’. I had to decide how high. Six meters would do, like it is now, with some tubing on top. Triangular or square? I settled for square. Since I cannot get more than three meter lengths on my trailer, I decided to make two sections each three meter long and then weld them together. It would cost me more to have six or eight meter sections delivered to my doorstep than the bill for the steel itself.

I wanted a lightweight (relative of course) structure that I could tilt over. Light means I’d better not climb it. Tilting it over means easy access for antenna experiments and safer when yet another record storm is upon us. I calculated the weight of two designs. A triangular model with round tubing and diagonal cross bracing or a square model with L shaped flat stock. Since the weight for the same length was about the same for both models, I opted for the square design since that seemed easier to weld inside the construction.

I made the base for the tilting in summer 2015. I also made an anchor with six M16 threaded rods that I put in a new concrete base. By the end of last year’s summer I had given the base three coats of quality paint and bolted it to the concrete base. And I finished the lower section of the tower. That was the end of summer and the tower section hibernated in the garage. When my 2016 summer holidays started I wanted to finish this project ASAP.

Welding the second tower part was easy now that I knew how and how not. I had made a jig to keep the corner profiles at the exact spacing when welding the cross members. Joining the two parts in a straight line and not warped was a real PITA. In the end I just yelled ’To hell with it’ and welded away. A few hits with the hammer and the result was pretty acceptable. It would of course be much easier if I had a loooooooong welding table and not just a 80×80 cm plate. I had to use a ladder on each end to support the ends and then try to align both sections in the middle on the table. All by myself. If I had to start over I would first join the individual L stock and then weld the six meter long tower in one piece. Actually, knowing what I know now I would probably go for the triangular model with round tubing, with what I know now.

Next up: painting. One layer of anti-rust base coating. Two layers of high quality finish. Dark green for the lower quart, the other part mat gray. This turned out to be a pretty good choice to minimize visual impact. The base section blends in the crops and trees. The upper section blends in the sky. Painting this construction with a brush was no fun. It’s only corners and edges. For the finishing I decided to dilute the paint a bit and used the paint gun. I should have done this for the primer and the other layers too.

I had planned to remove the old tower and install the new all by myself. I knew this wasn’t a smart plan and in the end I asked my neighbor to give me a hand. We have done many jobs together here and at his place. He’s my age and a real DIY-guy too so I knew his assistance would be very welcome. It took us half an hour to remove the old tower. I cut the tubes with an angle grinder. This is the machine I fear the most. Especially since I didn’t know how the tower would behave. I was afraid the cutting disk might jam when the slicing through the tube. My assistant kept the tower tensioned in the direction it needed to fall. No margin for error! I decided not to cut through all the pipes and lattice bars. In the end the tower was just held by a few points. I whacked it with my heavy hammer and suddenly it snapped and fell right where it needed to land. What a relief, really! I cut the thing in half and loaded it on the trailer. Good riddance! The plan is to clean the mess at the base and cover the concrete with something (woodchips? gravel? huge flower pot?).

Then it was time to put the new tower on its tilting base. Last year’s sneak preview movie is the evidence that it should fit and actually it did. But there is no way I would have done this without the help of my neighbor-friend. Not even the XYL would have been of any use (sorry my dear). When the hinging bolt was in place and secured, I put the tower straight up vertically. I was very glad to see it was straight. The construction was not bent and it was square with respect to the horizon. This was confirmed by holding a level against it. This was important to me because I see things being level, straight and square as good craftsmanship as opposed to the poor work of a quack.

To end the job I only had to mount the three meter aluminum tube on top. This is in fact the boom of my old three element monoband yagi for 28 MHz. It holds two pulleys. One for the L-wire for 160 and one for who knows what. I also put an eye bolt in one of the cross members. This holds the rope to tension one of the 80m elevated radials. To make the tilting easier I looked for some counterweight at the base. I had some old fitness weights lying around. I used a threaded rod to make a ‘weight satay’. This counterweight helps but some more weight would be welcome as it’s pretty hard to get it down or up. I will look in the scrap container for some heavy stock next time I’m at the steel yard. Or just fill a PVC conduit with concrete and put a rod through it.

This project took a big bite out of my spare time. Time for the hobby but during which I didn’t get to fill the log. I’m very glad the old crooked tower is gone. And I’m glad with the result of this construction project. Time will tell if I did the job right. Will it last as long as the tower I just cut into pieces..?

And what about the ugly? That’s how the bad looks. Read along.

Today the results came out. Turns out I am Numero Uno in the 12 hours subcategory. I think I did not even operate the full twelve hours. I have a pretty low error percentage, in fact the best of all. That’s what I aim for: logging accuracy.

So far for the good. Too bad that the stupid WX made me quit early. That’s the bad.

This afternoon I had to take some parts out of my plastic field day container. I was shocked to see that it was very wet inside. The rain and thunderstorm during field day didn’t affect this box? And it was dry when I put everything in it. The container was sealed and put under a shelf in the garage so it can’t be from recent showers. Yet everything was wet and a musty rotten smell penetrated my nostrils. Some ropes even had mold on them. There you have it: the ugly!

Then it hit me. When I put everything away, it was seemingly dry but in fact it wasn’t. Many lengths of rope had soaked up all the water. Afterwards it evaporated in the sealed container only to condensate right away. This caused the nasty smell and the mold stains on some items. That did not happen last year because it was dry and warm. This year it was wet from the rain at night and the fog Sunday morning.

Lesson learned: before storing the container for another year, let the ropes dry a for couple of days.

I have been thinking about doing SSB field day, but OT1A has failed to answer my request so far ☺

Finally it was time for a serious contest effort in over four months. Not only was it time, I also actually had the time. And the WX would cooperate. All of the forecasts were in sync: possibly a local thunderstorm on Sunday late in the afternoon. But by then the contest would be over and the tower down.

I decided to crank up the tower and install the low band wires on Friday night. The weather was calm and it was an enjoyable evening. The tower went up smoothly after being nested for over four months. I had to reinstall an elevated radial that I took down for field day. I had to lengthen the 80m wire from SSB to CW. Last usage was ARRL DX SSB, go figure! And it was a test for the new pole I put in ‘quick concrete’ three days before. This pole has a pulley and I use it to keep the 80m L wire tensioned high up in the air. It had sat on an X-frame for many years but the XYL got tired of always having to stay clear with the lawnmower. Me too but my priorities are slightly different from hers. As a result the weeds were thriving around the base. Now the X-frame is gone and the pole sits in concrete, resulting in a smaller footprint. And yes it held up nicely for this simple purpose. It also held the 10/15/20 vertical for SO2R. That one will probably be replaced in the future. So no high band SO2R in this contest.

When all was up, I did a quick test in the shack. No issues detected: SWR was as it has always been so I figured all was well. Apart from the solarham.net graph that sowed a dreadful K index. Oh well, we’ll see what the bands bring. I had low expectations anyway.

Saturday morning I decided that I would need an RX antenna for the low bands. I have the Wellbrook RX loop that seems to work. But my guess is that without spending money you could homebrew something at least as good. But that would have a bigger footprint. Wait: avoiding homebrewing and small footprint were the key elements in deciding to buy this loop… Since there currently is no coax anymore from the garage to the corner of the garden where the loop is, I decided to try something. Something completely unscientific. No calculations, no modelling, nothing copied from notorious Low Band Bibles. Just a crazy idea. I put the spare 80m dipole on the lawn from East to West as a DoG (Dipole on GND). And then I got the unsolicited but highly appreciated help from my oldest son. Together we put a fiber glass pole against his climbing tower and we made a single terminated K9AY-style loop. With a terminator and a 9:1 transformer and a ground stake. That one was perpendicular to the DoG. Since I have only one spare coax from garage (i.e. the hub between inside and outside) to shack, I had to combine these RX antennas. For that I bought an RX-only antenna combiner (Diamond SS-500). So I simply combined the loop and the DOG. I cannot do this with the RX loop without rearranging many things because this active antenna has DC power over the coax. One crazy experiment. And I was glad that my oldest son was eager to help me out. My guess is that he had spent all his TV-time credit and was looking for a plan B activity.

So instead of unwinding in front of the TV as a mind-numbing therapy before the contest I spent the morning outside. We also made a long bicycle tour with the family including the dog. The real live pet, not the DoG! I took a shower and had lunch with half an hour to spare before the start. Of course I got a serious energy dip and almost fell asleep on the couch. Just in time I landed in the operating seat. I started the contest low power because the amp had to warm up. So the first bunch of contacts were made with 30W or so. I decided to keep the operating style calm and expectations low. I wanted to avoid frustration. I’m hooked on rate and the propagation wasn’t really helping. So no SO2R. I had a very, VERY slow start. It was hard to push the rate meter above 50. There were short lived spikes but I logged 170 QSO or so after the first THREE hours. That usually is logged in the FIRST hour alone! In a bigger contest, agreed. The rate was a huge disappointment and I blame the disturbed conditions. Ten meters was dead. Fifteen was as good as dead and everyone landed on twenty meters. So we’ve reached that part of the solar cycle! I took a few short breaks. One to sprinkle the lawn where I dug a thirty meter long ditch two weeks ago to bury a bunch of cables.

In the meantime I had rediscovered the online score board. I quickly configured the logger and I was in the race. There were a few callsigns that I had set to compete with. And that has kept me from taking more and longer breaks. Without this I probably would have been less active and less motivated.

IARU contest overview. Thanks to 3830scores.com

IARU contest overview for the last five years. Thanks to 3830scores.com

Around sunset things went better and there was a short burst of activity on 28 MHz. There even was the first of only three hours that would yield over 100 contacts. The best hour (yet only a lousy 160 QSO) was on 20: from 2200 to 2300 utc. Then the rate collapsed. I started doing SO2R after all. I could switch between 40 and 20, and later on between 40 and 80. I went back to fifteen well after sunset and found it to be quite productive. Relative to the first hours that is, not like a few years ago. Same counts for 20. When these bands were totally closed I had to reside on 80. From 2AM to 4AM I didn’t even make hundred contacts combined. The low rate combined with a sudden craving for sleep made me decide to take a nap. I already had a short seven minute black out in the chair. I was back in the shack for sunrise but it was a total non-event. The rates remained low, following the propagation on the higher bands. I made a third +100 hour at 9AM. I wonder why there wasn’t much activity on 160? Don’t tell me that band was hopping when I took a nap? I worked VA2WA there for my only DX. I had a hard time working USA on 80. I gotz much cq in da face homie!

Comparison of the rate this year (left) and last year (right). Thanks to N1MMLogger+ for the graph.

Comparison of the rate this year (left) and last year (right). Thanks to N1MMLogger+ for the graph.

As for the RX antenna experiment: I used it to listen in diversity mode on the low bands. It heard pretty well, and it had a lower noise level than the verticals. I think I will spend some winter evenings doing real comparisons. If all goes well and not like it has gone two winters in a row. Anyway, it’s still summer and I had an enjoyable time on the air. Given the propagation and my location, I think I did well. But I’m not sure about WAECW with these conditions…

You might be an HF operator if your youngest son (4 y 4 m) mocks your new antenna for 6m by saying: “Ha ha ha what a small antenna that is”.

Indeed, between the HF antennas it looks a bit tiny. I might be looking for something new to do in ham radio. New but then again not radically new. No DMR chitchatting, no EME no PSK. I have never been very active above 28 MHz, as the right column indicates:

I once made an antenna for six meter: The Hentenna. I also found out that a WARC triband antenna has a low SWR on 50 MHz. Both my triband fan-dipole as well as the ‘permanent WARC antenna’. Does not work in any way but it accepts power and doesn’t make the rig or amp unhappy…

I also bought a two element yagi three years ago. What was I thinking? Even that little thing is too big and heavy except to put it on the main tower, which I refuse to do.

Recently there were many 50 MHz spots, so I it was time again to try something there. This time I made a 5/8 wave vertical. Yes with a matching coil. Yes with radials. Yes I tried the new AA-54 antenna analyzer. But it wasn’t easy to make it work by trial and error and I really have too much work and too little time to dig into literature and keep trying. The small support I use for my SO2R triband vertical was still free after field day so I decided to use the unused yagi parts and make it into a simple dipole. I have to start somewhere and my start on HF was with a dipole too.

I have made many dipoles, from 160 up to 144 MHz. It is the simplest antenna and almost always works. A dipole is very easy to get resonating and can be fed with 50 ohm coax. Catch: this 6m yagi uses a gamma match and doesn’t have a split driven element. My first thought was to use it ‘as is’. But the analyzer showed it was not resonating where I wanted it and the huge amounts of possible combinations of element length and position of the gamma match scared me. The easy way out would be to cut the tube in half and make a split element feed point with no matching. The road that has always led me to successful dipole construction. Problem: I didn’t have fitting material for the center isolator and I didn’t have access to a lathe to have someone turn it down to the right size.

My garage roof is Antenna Parts Walhalla, with many unused and decommissioned antenna parts. One of these parts is the mounting bracket for the 10m three element yagi. I did a remake of that antenna somewhere late 2011 when the cycle began its peak and 28 MHz was wide open. I had wild dreams of putting up a second beam for 28 MHz, doing power-split in two directions etc. The problem is that I never had the proper support to do that. I now have. And maybe a second and more permanent option in a while…

It was time for some affirmative action. I coldheartedly cut the tube in half. Since the elements are not long thus not really heavy, the four clamps (two on either side of the dipole half) provide enough clamping force. Just to be sure I hastily cut a small strip of insulator to provide some extra stability.

Mathematics and measurement were on my side. The calculated half wave length for 50.2 MHz and the measured length of the dipole were the same. I had some excess centimeters should tuning and pruning be needed. I had a piece of coiled up coax in my parts-bin with the shield and center conductor split and with cable eyelets on it so I took that to hook it up to the feedline. I think it’s a salvaged part of the hentenna. With the dipole about six meters high, the analyzer revealed that this antenna was good to go. SWR dip nicely around the part of the band I’m interested in. I hooked it up and went into the shack.

I didn’t hear much. Antenna not really working or just a case of Tragic Band? I called CQ with 500W output and watched the RBN. I wasn’t getting into the skimmers, that much was clear. There were a few question marks thrown at me. The signal had that distinct ‘local sound’. Sure enough it was an ON4. He put me on the cluster after the QSO but no one else called me so I called it a day.

The day after. A few spots again but I couldn’t hear much. I only heard ZA/HA2SG which after logging him, might be a new DXCC on 6m. Later on there was EI4KF calling someone without success. So I asked ‘EI4 PSE UP 1’ and went CQ’ing there. I logged EI4KF who was S7 for what I believe is another new entity on 50 MHz. There was a German skimmer picking me up pretty loud but no one else answered me. I tried again three times later that afternoon and evening but never did I get a reply and never did a skimmer pick me up seriously.

I admit that a dipole is not much. I agree that it might be too low. But is it really the antenna that is bogus or is it just that whenever I tried, the band wasn’t productive here?

I didn’t bother to take pictures when I made the antenna on Wednesday. I’d do that the day after. I wanted to get on the air ASAP. Only it started raining yesterday and it’s raining again now on Friday so… No pictures for now. Hey it’s just a piece of aluminum in the air. Too small and too low perhaps?

The quest for a compact yet performing way to raise wire antennas’ feed points over 15m high for field day.

Or for an IOTA expedition to EU-xxx? First some historical facts.

2001-2002: My first steps in HF contesting. What can be used as a small mast but is stronger than fiber glass fishing poles? Telescopic aluminum tubes, clamped to pole in parent’s garden. Take small ladder, pull upper tube out, tighten clamp’s bolt, pull out second section etc. There were seven tubes so six sections to lift. I could go almost 10m high but when the load was heavy, this became impossible. I could raise a three element yagi for 28 MHz like this, but I am known for having strong arms. Not for weaklings.

2003-2004: We bought the house and I brought the telescopic mast here. It held a four band fan dipole about ten meters above the ground. I put it in the center tube of a solid tripod that was used to mount satellite dishes to. This support was bolted to six concrete blocks each weighing fifty kilograms. Then came the big tower and this system took a break.

June 2006: This system got hauled to OT1A’s place for field day. We tied it to a post driven into the ground or something. Ten years is too long to remember details.

2006-2009: The system became my 80m inverted L with two elevated radials. On top of the aluminum push up mast,  I put another few meters of fishing rod. Pushing this up contest after contest was a real pain and caused some strained muscles and bruised flesh. On one or two occasions I lifted a section a bit too high so it got pulled out of the bigger section underneath. Result: mast down and torpedoed into an adjacent lot. I had drawn lines on it to see what the limit was, but these marks faded…

2009- 2011: Not used. Only touched to move from one corner to another whenever it got in the way. On one occasion I did use it though:

June 2011: Dragged everything to OT1A’s again for field day. This time with tripod and concrete blocks. There we faced a major problem. If we assembled the mast horizontally on the ground and tightened all the clamps, it was too heavy to raise and put into the tripod’s tube. And the tripod could not be turned upwards with a few hundred kilograms of concrete on it. If we did it the classic way, pushing up section after section, it became too heavy to hold and some clamps couldn’t be tightened enough. We wasted a lot of time and energy there. Bottom line: if this stuff was to be used, a better system had to be found/bought/made.

Summer 2013: I wanted a system to put up a second antenna for contesting. And maybe hold a temporary thing for 50 MHz. So a plan hatched. I couldn’t weld and didn’t want to ask my dad anymore. He’s done with welding at 77. But maybe I could bolt something together? I bought a 50 cm by 50 cm plate that is 10 mm thick. I drilled holes to put ground stakes through, and bolted two pieces of angle to it. This was the hinge point for the aluminum mast. The benefit of laying it on the ground was that I could replace the tightening clamps with two simple bolts. This way the sections could not collapse anymore because two bolts ran through the joints. One summer evening I was able to test this and it worked. There I stood, with an erected pole in my hands. Pun intended. But was of absolutely zero practical use. I had to keep my hand on it. Why? Ground stakes too flimsy. Maybe guy it? And by all means the small two element yagi for the 6m band was way too heavy for this. If I wanted to realize this system and make it usable, I would have to weld and use more and heavier steel. And a winch. And so I bought a small inverted type welder and enrolled in an evening course ‘welding for beginners’.

Spring 2014. First attempt to make a serious system. Design goals:

  • Manageable by one person (=me).
  • Compact: should fit on my small trailer and easy to store the rest of the year
  • Solid and safe, both the design as the built and the use
  • Use only tools available for construction (basic hand tools, bench press drill, hand drill, miter saw, angle grinders, stick welding station up to 160 amps)

First I got a trailer full of metal. I welded a two meter long U-profile (110 mm width) to the 500x500x10 mm base plate. This held the winch. I reinforced the corners with gussets and provided two holes to fit a length of threaded rod. That goes through the bottom of the aluminum mast and is the hinging point. I made a wheel and put that on top to guide the steel cable for the winch.

Four 14mm rods held the thing in place when hammered one meter deep. It was very conceptual and certainly not to welding contest winning standards. But it worked, proven to be strong enough and I had made it completely on my own. The ground stakes were again on the light side, especially when winching up and down. So I used some bags of sand as additional weight.

2015 Field Day. The system got put to the test with a bigger ground plane (50cm long angled profile 50x50x5) for more stability. OT1A was amazed to see how fast we put everything up, and more important: without any effort or problem. I even added three meter of length to the aluminum mast with some extra sections. And I provided a pulley to lift the antennas after the mast was up and guyed. That way winching it up would cause less stress on the mast because it was lighter. The system was a winner. But it needed refinement and a few layers of paint.

2016: Time for some improvements.

  • Isolate aluminum mast from the support construction. That way it can be used as a vertical antenna.
  • Make footprint wider. Now I have a one meter long piece of 50x50x5 angle on all four corners.
  • Replace 14mm anchoring rods with homemade 30x30x3 T-anchors.
  • Provide a 40x40x3 tube to extend the height of the support with two meters. If the aluminum mast is 16m long, I took it up at 2m from the bottom before (1/8), where not it’s at 4m (1/4). This makes the aluminum telescopic mast bend less when winching it up.
  • Make sure everything is self-contained. All parts bolted together when moving and when stored.
  • Put wheels under it because with all this steel, it pretty heavy even for me.

The finished product

This is it. It works. It does a field day job. It’s solid. As always many things could be better. It is a prototype after all, designed and made along the way. Because there is three years of welding epxerience in it, I can clearly see how my skills have improved. Practice makes perfect. If I ever build another one of these, it will be bigger and better. But for now, it will have to suffice.

I needed to realign the yagi with respect to the rotary dipole. I established that it was not the 40m dipole that moved during a stormy night last November. It was the yagi’s boom that shifted away from its bearing. My plan was to tackle this once and for all because by now I know what the problem is.

Way back, in 2005 when I was still a construction n00b and my father was still in charge of all things metallic, he made special plates for the boom-to-mast clamps. By now it’s clear that these plates are made of too thin sheet. The plates deform and compress when the bolts are tightened. So the distance between nut and bolt head shortens, which in turn decreases the clamping force to the mast. This was one of the jobs on my list for this summer. But even with a tilt over tower it isn’t always easy to reach certain parts. So I was thinking of an easy way to access these remote parts. I was looking for a scaffold. But where to store that away the other 364 days a year?

Earlier this week I was moving stuff in the garden. When walking under the yagi I saw a part on the lawn. I immediately recognized it and knew where it came from: the parts I used to keep the current choke balun from touching the yagi’s phasing lines on the feed point. I strapped this part to the yagi with zip ties. In April 2007. And now it seemed the zip ties broke. Both. At once. I looked up and saw I was right. A second part had also come loose too but it was still bungling up there. The balun was still in place but was now attached only to the PL-socket on the driven element. So all the stress of the weight was on the PL socket. Not good.

For over six months I got upset by seeing the dipole and the yagi not perfectly aligned. But that’s nothing but a visual nuisance. This was far more serious. The feed point connection could snap under the weight of the balun and coax. So last Wednesday I tilted the tower over and reinstalled the spacers. Now with six cable ties instead of four. And a beefier type. I find it hard to believe that four zip ties snapped at once due to being ‘worn out’ or so. But I see no other possibility. They clearly look broken, snapped in half. But four at a time? In a short interval? Could it be exposure to the elements for over nine years? Anyway this was a quick and easy fix.

With the tower down anyway, my plan was to realign both antennas and change the plates while I was at it. For that I needed to loosen and remove the bolts and replace the plates on the clamps. But I can’t access these bolts because my ladder is too short.

Wait a minute. I hear you thinking: “You still need a ladder with a tilt over tower? And your ladder is too short? What’s the use to tilt it over then?” Exactly. Two problems. First of all, I can’t get the tower lower than the longest yagi element or the lower boom half. When something hits the ground, the tilting has to come to an end or I will bend or break something. But to me, the major problem is a helluva design flaw. The manufacturer, a notorious brand of crank up towers in the BeNeLux, decided to put the winch to crank up the tower, on the side of the triangular tower that faces ground when tilting it over. So you can’t completely lower the tower or the winch would get squashed between a few hundred kilograms of tower aluminum and the ground. OT1A has exactly the same tower, and his winch is mounted on another side of the tower, so the side facing the ground being clear. He can put his tower completely horizontal on the lawn when there is no antenna on it.

A dozen years ago I was so glad the tower finally arrived after a long delay past the due date that I didn’t notice it at first. Slim chance that I would have sent it back though, risking another few months of delay. So this is a major screw up by the engineer and welder who put this thing together. Oh well.

So with the antenna parts still out of reach with my modest ladder, I decided to quit trying to fix the boom to mast clamps. I actually tried reaching the bolts but I had to stretch my arm and the wrench slipped and I bumped into a protruding part. That hurt. This is exactly the situation that causes injuries or worse. A scaffold would be nice. The working platform only needs to be two meters high. A few years ago I used one of a friend and it was really handy but the owner doesn’t have it anymore.

In the end I was able to align the yagi to the dipole. Just by pushing the boom opposite to the displacement and rotating it over the mast. Another proof that the clamps are loose. That means that the next strong gust or modest storm will dislocate that thing again. It’s still clamped enough that it won’t completely come down, but this needs a decent permanent fix.

After the repair I took the antenna analyzer to see if all was still fine but this one died suddenly. It already had a few problems. Like not operating from batteries anymore. But now the display is black and it doesn’t respond to the keyboard anymore. It has served me well since 2002 or so. It wasn’t an El Cheapo either! You can now buy better, smaller and lighter analyzers for half the price. Which is what I have done right away.

No pictures. I never carry my phone when working and I’m so preoccupied with the job at hand that I forget to take pictures with the big camera. I’m just over a thousand words so the text will be close enough to a picture.

I started setting up the station on Friday, mostly laying out and fitting everything. The antennas went up Saturday morning.  Being: a dipole fed with ladder-line from my SG-239 smarttuner. And a low 40m dipole for NVIS. I already played with that idea but a chat with ON4WW revealed his team was going to put a stack of chips on NVIS so…

The main dipole’s feed point was about seventeen meters high. End points float a good six meter high. But the garden is too small so the length is a compromise and even then one end was drooping down. But it worked on 40-80-160, the only three bands in my category. Actually it worked as in ‘the smart-tuner made it 50 ohm on the three bands’. It didn’t quit work well to get stations in the log. Especially not compared to the teams with full size and presumably monoband antennas of either polarization.

The low 40m dipole resonated down in the band with SWR = 1.2:1. I got lucky. A quick RX test revealed that it showed a slight improvement for ON, G and PA stations. Maybe the difference will be more pronounced with a vertical or my rotary dipole high on the tower. I didn’t make much use of it.

I had planned to use at least one RX antenna. I wonder why. Choices included a BOG, my Wellbrook loop or an ad hoc K9AY. In the end I deployed a DOG: my spare 80m Dipole laid On Ground. That seemed to help a bit, at least it heard the EU stuff. Don’t know about DX. But it’s worth to experiment further on because it’s easy and cheap. I didn’t want to waste a long run of RG-213. Rather: I didn’t want to unreel a long stretch of that in the wet grass, only to have to reel it back in the day after. So I dug up a length of RG-58 from back in the days at my parent’s house. It was only 15m long and low band RX only so that shouldn’t be a problem.

Everything worked, from antennas to rig and software. I didn’t expect a fast start, but it was painstakingly slow. After a few hours a competing team called and they had exactly one QSO more. Good! At least their number for me was one less than what I gave them. A few times I heard raindrops on the tent. But it stopped after a few seconds so I was hoping for the rain to go away. Around 20.45 utc I decided it was time to cover the generator with my improvised shelter. The rain intensified. As I exited the tent and strolled over the lawn, there was a lightning bolt followed by some thunder.

This is wat I had feared: yet another thunderstorm. Suddenly more lightning and loud thunder and more rain. As the interval between lightning grew shorter and the thunderclaps following sooner, I decided to shut down for a while. I put the rig and laptop inside and waited… And waited… for over an hour. After an hour and a half it was still going on but I must have fallen asleep at that point. I woke up at 3 AM local, which is 1 AM utc. The forced shutdown once again took away my motivation. Well, forced… No one was pointing a gun at me but better safe than sorry. What happens at music festivals can happen when you’re hiding in a tent under tons of copper wire and aluminum.

My first thought was to quit and sleep more. Winning had been impossible from the start, and the fun factor was pretty low. But I felt I owed it to my wife because she once again set up the tent. Just like in 2014 when a thunderstorm ruined it for me too. I filled up the generator. It struck me that the level was still high after six hours of use. I reconnected the rig, laptop and peripherals and was good to go. But it wasn’t easy getting stuff in the log. I didn’t hear much on 160 again. Where is everyone? Sunrise on Top Band was uneventful and it was a bust on 80 too. Four to five minutes of CQ CQ CQ between two logged contacts. Rate less than 30/h on any band. I was tired and bored and I decided that nine more hours of this served no purpose. I started breaking down with just over 400 QSO in the log. And I could submit in the meaningless 12h subcategory.

I’m used of doing contesting on my own but this is another thing. Rates are low and no second radio to get at least a feeling of not wasting time. I have done FD in the past and always had someone around to joke with, to whine about the low rates or to take over the key or me to catch some sleep. Never say never but I think solo operations are done. Mind you: I didn’t want to do it alone this time. No one could or wanted to join me.

Besides that, FD from my garden is something I won’t be doing anymore either. If the goal is to be active, have fun and make a bunch of contacts, it’s the perfect spot. Technically it’s feasible as I have proven two times now. If you really want to be loud and play with the big boys, you need more space. Setting up is a pain too. Routing guy ropes and antenna wires between the tower and yagi elements, taking down elevated radials… A clean field with no obstacles is a blessing.

This was the warmest of all my field day nights. Usually it gets very chilly to plain cold overnight, but trading shorts for long trousers and putting on a fleece sweater was more than enough this time. I also enjoyed the sunrise with the birds waking up and starting to show off their musical skills. But the rate was just too low with no one to complain to next to me.

I learned a lot again this time. The mast support works. I get the job done on my own, but an extra pair of hands could speed things up. Should the need arise for ad hoc emergency comms, I’m ready!  ☺

NOTE TO OT1A: lots of electrical tape and cable zip ties were used in true FD tradition.

Last Tuesday I connected the laptop, the CAT interface and my Winkey (Stone Age Vintage 2001) to the K3 with my spare linear lab power supply. I didn’t want to remove one of both switched mode PSU from the rack under the shack’s desk. I had to reinstall the Prolific drivers as Windows reset them to the newer versions without checking with me first. In true Microsoft Windows tradition…

CAT worked right away after this driver downgrade. But it took me a while to figure out why Winkey wasn’t keying the rig. I forgot to switch to VOX from PTT keying on the rig. I was too lazy to get the dummy load so I had reduced the RF output power to zero watts. Once I figured the VOX thing out and keyed the rig, it shut itself down when I touched the paddles. Oh no. Now what?

Try again – same issue. This could mean two things. Either there is something terribly wrong under the hood of one of my K3 rigs or my spare PSU folds back under load. It has worked before: two years ago I made +200 contacts with 100W output using this old power supply. I had no option than to dive under the desk and dig up an SMPS. I tried keying the rig and it worked even at 100 W power out. It goes without saying that I went outside to the garage to get the dummy load after all. I would never key a 100W exciter into an open circuit.

In the evening I got out the generator. It hasn’t turned in two years except for a ‘does this thing still start?’ test last year. It got a new air filter and the oil got changed two years ago too. I decided to suck the gas tank dry. No worries, I have a tool for that. I use it to empty the lawnmower’s oil carter. That gas has been in there for two years so I decided to remove it and pour some fresh gasoline in it. Better safe than sorry. It took me a few pulls on the starter cord and off she went. I measured the unloaded voltage which was 230 V give and take a few. I let it run unloaded (and unleaded ☺) for about half an hour and decided it will work just fine. Fingers crossed!