Ten days on the radio

The weekend of December 10th I finally put up a second loop to compare to the short beverage. For this I made a third 9:1 transformer and provided a 450Ω termination. The loop hangs on the ‘auxiliary tower’ and favors USA just like the beverage. Once again one of my boys lent me a hand. It was the impatient one. “Here son, hold these ends up for me.” While I was marking the middle of the wire to serve as the loop’s apex, he decided that it took too long and that the wire could be used for rope skipping.

To do a real time A/B comparison I needed a switching system. My first thought was to use my old A/B switching relay. The one I used before 2011 to switch the sloping dipoles for 40m. The problem was I needed to make a new interface to do the switching and provide DC power from the shack to the relay. But then I got another idea. Why not simply use the stackmatch? That one has A/A+B/B switching capability and I had a button box with the necessary cabling. Yes I have a stackmatch. Only used once though. Back when I was still ambitious.

That weekend I did some 160m SWLing. I heard three Belgians call CQ on Top Band and get answered by many Americans. It was soon clear that in all cases except one, the loop had a better S/N than the beverage. Only one station was louder on the beverage but still too weak to copy. On a few occasions I could copy the W station right away when the ON I was SWLing upon had troubles hearing him. Or maybe I’m just better at taking calls in CW. Anyway the loop is a keeper. Furthermore it doesn’t need a coax running over the front lawn and the driveway.

I did some more SWLing the day after. Again two of the same Belgians were working USA. I was limited to SWLing because the TX antennas were down. Since the WX forecast didn’t show any significant wind speeds, I decided to crank the tower up to the max and pull up the 80/160m vertical wires. I have a calm period at work with some free time so why not do some low band DXing? Standing by as an SWL is not for me. I want action.

Of course I didn’t work many Americans. Not because of bad propagation: a few east coast skimmers picked me up. Simply because the bands are virtually empty on weekdays. I admit that most if not all of my operating is done in the weekend contests. It seems that more and more people limit their radio activity to the weekends. By this time I had connected the JA/ZL loop to the stackmatch. So I can now listen to both loops at once and select A or B alone. This helps on all bands from 160 to 30m. I haven‘t tried the other bands since my yagi is OK and I’m not interested in the regular bands outside the contests.

On a few occasions the morning path to JA provided a bunch of contacts from the land of the rising sun. My sunrise and their sunset more or less match and it’s a path that works best from 07.30 to 08.15 utc. Because the pulleys and support masts were in use for the 80m and 160m wires, I had to take down the WARC wire dipole. I put up a monoband 30m dipole as a vertical dipole. Top about 18m high and the bottom about 3m above the ground. It helps to have a whole range of antennas coiled up in a box.

Then came the next weekend. My initial plan was to participate in the 9ACW contest. But even though I had marked this on the calendar, the XYL managed to schedule a social event on Sunday. The good thing was that this weekend also had the Stew Perry contest. With the tower and the low band antennas up, I decided to play in Stew Perry and do some SB80 in the Croatian CW contest. Nothing serious. The goas was to fill the log with as much DX as possible.

Stew Perry rules stipulate that cluster assistance is  a no-no so I decided to submit a checklog. While a noble effort to keep this an old skool contest, I find it a bit naïve. Over here everyone uses the cluster and people just submit the log. Maybe just a few people deliberately cheat by using spotting assistance and claiming unassisted. But the vast majority doesn’t read rules, doesn’t care, and just submits unassisted anyway. Mainly because the default setting in the logging soft says ‘unassisted’. As I’m typing this, the preliminary results are out and I managed to be the best DX for AA1K. My best DX is K0RF who is 7851 kilometer away from here.

Saturday afternoon only brought me EU on 160m. There were one or two spots for JA stations but I didn’t hear them. A44A was loud, and possibly a new DXCC for me on 160 but kept CQing in everyone’s face. Late in the evening P4/DL6RAI was loud. But he kept calling CQ and he didn’t reply to any of the callers from around here. Strange and most of all too bad for the DXer in me. I also worked a few Americans. Those closest to EU of course while their sun was setting. But it wasn’t much and the signals were not what I heard while SWLing the week before. I made a quick 80m run in the 9A CW test and then went to bed. The plan was to get up early and try 160 again.

The morning offered much more Americans and they were much louder. Groovy! I could not log stations deep into the continent. The usual W1-2-3-4. The odd Texan. I worked K0RF at 06.54 and at 08.02 I logged NP2X for my last DX. I quit a few minutes later because the band died. That Sunday morning didn’t provide any new contacts on 80 in the 9ACW contest. I made a dozen QSO on the other bands just to hand out points to the signals I heard on the 21 and 28 MHz bands. UR3GU asked for a QSY to 160 which I was glad to do.

There had been a problem when I was using the K3’s second receiver with the JA/ZL loop on 80m. The internal relay started rattling. That is a problem I discovered and solved a few years back. But it returned. To make a long story short: the DMM showed the relay wasn’t activated when it should have been. One of the solder connections had come loose, presumably because of insufficient strain relief on the PTT cable. A touch with the soldering iron and all was fine again.

That’s typically me: I make something conceptual, as a quick prototype, to see if it works and whether it solves my problem. Then I get ecstatic when it does but the temporary ‘proof of concept’ prototype is never replaced by a decent thing. I now added a few wraps of electrical tape as strain relief. That should keep it going for another few years.

While I was troubleshooting the device, I started philosophizing. The first thought was: why didn’t I draw a schematic of this when I made it? I’m pretty sure I drew one, but it got lost or thrown away. It’s not a complex thing but I route the 13.8V in an unconventional way from the PSU to the PTT back to  the relay in order to save a plug and not having to drill an extra hole in the little box. And now I forgot which wire went where so it took me five minutes to reverse engineer my own device. I was looking for a small LM7805 regulator TO-92 style on the small perf board PCB. The reed relay is 5V and the PSU gives 13.8 V. As it turns out, I didn’t use the regulator but a combination of resistors to make a voltage divider with the relay. A schematic would have shown this right away. Then my mind took a leap to the next thought. An ode to the joy of basic electronics. Twenty years ago I was studying electronics. Time sure flies. It were the only three years between kindergarten and a higher education degree that I actually liked going to school. The fun of learning things, understanding them and putting them to use. Ohms law. Basic analog circuits. Once again I used these skills to solve a problem. And I probably would never have become a ham radio nutcase with another degree.

While screwing the lid back on, my thoughts landed. How can you enjoy ham radio to the max without basic knowledge of electronics? I’m not talking complex RF design or crazy VHDL stuff. Just the basics. I would never have understood the Elecraft note about the rattling relay in the subreceiver. I would never have been able to come up with a simple solution, order the right parts and do the basic engineering. Which is a far too expensive word for this relay gizmo. How much current will the relay draw? Is that within PTT specs? What resistors do I need to put in parallel and series to get the voltage down from 13.8V to 5V? Won’t these resistors become too hot? How to use the DMM to track down problems? You don’t need to know it all per se, certainly if your social network (the real one, not the fake cyber one) counts some tinkerers. But I can’t detach electronics from ham radio. With the lid back on the aluminum die cast box and all cables connected, it was time to spray some RF in the ether.

Apart from trying to work DX on 160 I mainly hung out on 10.1 MHz. I like the predictable paths. JA in the morning with some ZL/VK in the mix. I haven’t tried the long path W6/W7 long path opening in the evening this year. With a single element fixed antenna, I cannot focus on any path but it is a long path opening. Too early for the east coast as it’s still broad daylight there. But it is sunrise on the west coast. But 30m is a crazy band that redicules the laws of propagation. I worked a ZL and two JA at 11 utc last week. That is my local noon! With a few hundred watts and a simple vertical dipole. And an RX loop, it helps. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: 10.1 MHz is the best and easiest band to work DX. If you care to learn CW.

I’m typing this on Christmas day. Earlier this week, the forecast predicted a storm for the north sea and heavy gusts for the inland. I decided to be safe and lowered the tower on Thursday. It was all the way up and loaded with wires for 80/160/30. I didn’t have the time to be in the shack – closing the schoolyear’s first trimester and family obligations of the season. That means I didn’t do the RAEM contest this year. Too bad for me as it’s one of my favorite events. The WX forecast is set to calm again and my holidays have yet to start so I might as well crank up the tower again and work some DX. I hope the holidays will draw some more hams into their shacks. I already said that many times far away skimmers pick up my signals yet no one answers my CQ. I am part of the problem: I’m not active on weekdays either. But it’s a shame that my 80m signal is audible in VK, ZL, JA, USA and Central America but I only get called by a few Europeans. Though it’s hard to be part of the solution. On weekdays I too am kept hostage by agendas, time tables and schedules. And to survive this, I need to be in bed when the other side of the globe is calling CQ…

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