Adventures in ham radio

The June ARRL VHF contest is awesome. Summer is happening, the weather is frequently nice, and I am right at the tail end of the academic school year. The contest is my first taste of “vacation.”

This year, I did a lot of improvements to my roving station. Contest preparation began months in advance, but it seems like everything ended up being compressed into the last week. I found myself soldering up the last couple of coax connectors late Friday night.

Last year’s June VHF contest was simply incredible–a long sporadic E (Es) 6 meter opening on Sunday allowed me to activate three relatively rare grids (CN76, CN77 and CN78) out of may airplane rover for 19 states, as well as Canada and Mexico. I ended up with 210 QSOs and 69 grids for 6 meters, and a total of 358 QSOs. The final score of 38,950 was good enough for first place Limited Rover in the Western Washington Section, the Northwestern Division, and the West Coast Section. It set a new Limited Rover record for the Northwestern Division. Overall it was 6th place for U.S. Limited Rover.

Plans:

This year, the weather leading up to the contest looked excellent for roving out of the car and airplane. I began with the following plan:

Saturday:

  • CN85 1,785′ Kalama, WA 11:00 am – 12:15 pm
  • CN86 1,700’ Kalama, WA 12:45 pm – 2:00 pm
  • CN97 3,100’ Mountain near Wilkison, WA 5:00 pm – 6:15 pm
  • CN96 3,200’ Mowich Lake Rd, Carbonado, WA 7:15 pm – 8:45 pm
  • CN86 3,150’ Mowich Lake Rd, Carbonado, WA 9:00 pm – 9:30
  • CN87 2,100’ Mowich Lake Rd, Carbonado, WA 9:45 pm – 11:00 pm

Sunday:

  • CN98 2,700′ Mt. Pilchuck, Granite Falls, WA 7:30 am – 9:00 am
  • CN88 400’ High School, Lake Stevens, WA 10:00 am – 11:15 am
  • CN76* 16’ Ocean Shores, WA 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm
  • CN77* 15’ Ocean Shores, WA 3:30 pm – 5:00 pm
  • CN78* 320’ Sekiu, WA 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm

The * denotes grids that would be activated out of the airplane.

When I checked the weather forecast on Friday night, everything looked spectacular except for one thing: The weather in Ocean Shores called for 20 knot gusty winds on Sunday. The 20 knot winds don’t bother the airplane. But the portable antennas and mast system I use are relatively lightweight and a bit on the frail side. Twenty knots is pushing it. I would have to drive instead.

The forecast had been so good leading up to the contest—and I had been so busy—that I didn’t bother creating alternative plans. If I had, I might have flown to Ocean Shores on Saturday morning, then on to Sekiu and a switch to the car on Saturday evening for CN88 and CN98. But I didn’t. So on Saturday morning, I got an early start to Kalama, WA. On the long drive there, I went through the timing calculations and came up with this revised plan:

Saturday:

  • CN85 1,785′ Kalama, WA
  • CN86 1,700’ Kalama, WA
  • CN76 16’ Ocean Shores, WA
  • CN77 15’ Ocean Shores, WA

Sunday:

  • CN96 3,200’ Mowich Lake Rd, Carbonado, WA
  • CN86 3,150’ Mowich Lake Rd, Carbonado, WA
  • CN87 2,100’ Mowich Lake Rd, Carbonado, WA
  • CN97 3,100’ Mountain near Wilkison, WA
  • CN88 400’ High School, Lake Stevens, WA
  • CN98 2,700′ Mt. Pilchuck, Granite Falls, WA

The disadvantages of this plan are (1) I don’t activate CN79, and (2) there is a long drive from Woodland to Ocean Shores on a route that isn’t conducive to VHF or UHF contacts. Things went, more or less, according to plan. On Sunday, I had to go to an alternative location at 1,300′ for CN97 because a forest service gate was closed. Also, I ran out of time for Mt. Pilchuck and went to a 600′ alternative location instead.

Platform and Equipment:

For the January (2013) VHF contest, I was roving out of my econobox car. It worked well, but was tough going on some dirt and gravel roads. In February, Kathy and I acquired a 1988 Toyota 4WD pickup truck. It got its first workout as a HF mobile platform during the Idaho QSO party, and I tested it out, one band at a time, during the VHF+ Spring Sprints.

Essentially, I transferred the bracket holding an HD-73 rotor and mast from the rear of my Hyundai to the bed of the pickup truck….

The antennas visible here are:

  • 50 MHz: Homebuilt 3-element Yagi (bottom–note that the element ends are missing in this installation photo)
  • 144 MHz: A 6 element WA5VJB “Cheap Yagi” (middle)
  • 222 MHz: A 7 element WA5VJB “Cheap Yagi” (top)
  • 432 MHz: An 11 element WA5VJB “Cheap Yagi” (top)
  • 54 MHz: 6 meter mag-mount vertical (modified 11 meter antenna)
  • 146/440 MHz: Hustler whip

In addition to these antennas for stationary use, I wanted a second set of gain antennas that I could rotate and use while in motion. I had purchased a second HD-73 rotor and control box on Ebay a few weeks before the contest. Of course both components needed rebuilding—something I was doing the week before the contest. A home built bolt-on bracket for a front-mounted rotatable mast was needed:

In Washington state, the maximum front overhang is 3 feet beyond the front bumper. This is an easy limitation to work with for 2 meters and up. But six meters is a bigger challenge. Many VHFers swear by a 6 meter Moxon for their rover. But this antenna has a turning radius of 3.58 feet, making it not street legal for my installation. My first thought was to build a 6 meter broadband hex beam, but even that has a turning radius of 2.9 feet. With the mast already sitting a little forward of the front bumper, the antenna would not qualify as street legal.

The “classic” Hex Beam was the answer. It has a turning radius of 2.64″, or slightly more, since the elements don’t go exactly to the center of the antenna. This still puts the antenna a little over the 3′ limit, but I built the bracket to lean slightly toward the rear of the vehicle, so that, at about 8′ up on the mast, the antenna easily falls within the street limits.

My aim was to build a lightweight Hex Beam with low wind loading. I ordered some lightweight filament wound epoxy tubing (three 0.298″ x 32.5″ and three 0.392″ x 34″) from Goodwinds. These were cut in half and “telescoped”. I made the hub out of two 6.5″ disks fly-cut from 1/8″ marine grade Okoume plywood (they were, in fact, scraps from rib lightening holes on an airplane project). Small 0.395″ radial stiffiners were cut from spruce. Here are the structural components before being glued together.

To this, I added mounting brackets, wire elements (through the tubing) and a SO-239 connector:

The rest of the front mast was populated with additional bands. Here is the stack, looking out the windshield, while underway:

  • 50 MHz: Two element classic hex beam (top)
  • 144 MHz: A 4 element WA5VJB “Cheap Yagi” (middle)
  • 222 MHz: A 6 element WA5VJB “Cheap Yagi” (bottom right)
  • 432 MHz: An 8 element WA5VJB “Cheap Yagi” (bottom left)

And, here is a view inside the “shack”.

The rack of radios included the following (bottom to top, left to right):

  • A Kenwood TS-480SAT for 6 meters and 222 MHz SSB and CW (hidden at the very bottom). The remote head is visible through the steering wheel.
  • An RF Concepts 4-110 amplifier, 100 Watts on 432 MHz.
  • A TE Systems 0510G Amplifier, 170 Watts on 6 meters.
  • A TE Systems 2212G, 100 Watts on 222 MHz.
  • A Jetstream JT220M, 50 Watts, for 223.5 MHz FM.
  • A Alinco DR-590 dual 2 meter/440 MHz rig for FM simplex.
  • A Yaesu FT-857D for 2 meters and 432 MHz SSB and CW.
  • A K1el Winkeyer.
  • A black box to switch the microphone and PTT switch between the TS-480 and FT-857 hangs on the left side.
  • A Elecraft XV-222 222 MHz transverter hangs on the lower left side of the rack (uses the Kenwood as an IF rig).
  • An Alinco DR-M06 rig for 6 meters FM simplex hang on the right top of the rack (hidden).
  • An RM Italy KL-145 2 meter 200 watt amplifier hangs on the lower right (just visible in red).

To the right of the rack, the rear rotor control box is visible. Above it is a set of 4 antenna switches to switch between the front and rear antenna for each band. Not visible on the left side of the rack is another switch to move the 222 MHz antennas between the Jetstream or the Kenwood. A second rotor control box is partially visible in the passenger foot well, angled up toward the driver. The paddle is a W5JH portable paddle. Behind the passenger seat is a second car battery, connected in parallel to the truck’s battery, and a N8XJK Super Booster.

This set-up gave me the ability to simultaneously monitor 6 meters (or 222 MHz) SSB/CW, 6 meters FM, either 2 meters or 432 MHz SSB/CW, both 146 MHz and 440 MHz FM, and 223.5 MHz FM (unless the 222 MHz transverter was in use). And I could rotate the front antennas to peak on three SSB/CW bands and anything on the 222 MHz band.

All this capability comes at the expense of complexity. It used to take me a couple of hours to install everything into my car, and 30 minutes to completely remove everything. All that has more than doubled. Routing the four runs of coax and rotor cable from the front mast into the cab took about 30 minutes alone.

The Contest

CN85

Kalama, Washington is about 2:40 from my house. With a stop for fuel and to account for other delays, I had to start driving at the ungodly hour of 7:45 am local time. But the location makes up for the initial agony. I found this spot along Green Mountain Road, near Kalama, Washington, during the January Contest. It provides spectacular coverage into Western Oregon and excellent coverage into Western Washington and up into parts of British Columbia. Aside from its distance to my other locations, it makes for a great starting location. Here is the view to the southwest just before the contest started.

Notice I extended both masts up to 20′. I didn’t always feel the need to do this, but with paths in opposite directions to two major population centers, it is worth the extra minute of tear-down time to set up the front mast as well as the rear mast.

Just after the contest started, I called CQ on 50.125 MHz and announced a change to 50.140 MHz. The next 15 minutes was filled with a nearly continuous stream of 26 QSOs. To my surprise, I worked K7NG in CN72, W2VJN in CN83, and W7EW in CN84. When the initial burst of activity dried up, I split my time between the four bands. I managed to work K7NG again on 2 meters and W7EQ again on 2 meters and 432 MHz. To the north, I managed to work several stations in CN88, including VE7JH, on 6 meters.

I left after 1:20 minutes. In retrospect, the log sheets were thin on 222 MHz and 432 MHz. I am not sure if I was too obsessed with the lower bands or other stations were, but I missed a great opportunity for more 2-point QSOs and maybe a multiplier or two.

CN86

The CN85/CN86 border was 1.5 miles to the north. I found this new CN86 location at 1,700′, just 20 minutes away. The path is not quite as good to the South, but is still quite good. Here is the view to the west….

Again, I put up both masts. This location was moderately productive on 6 meters, particularly to the north. It worked well in both directions on two meters. I worked KG7O in CN84 to the south and VE7JH in CN88 on Vancouver Island to the north. Actually, I worked VE7JH on all four bands from this spot! I think I left after 1:45 minutes, but I didn’t note the time in my log. I stayed in the grid for another few hours, driving to Ocean Shores, working a few additional stations along the way.

CN77
I passed through CN77 around 0034 UTC and worked a few people on 6 meters, and I worked Gary, WA7BBJ who was in CN76. I made a beeline for the Ocean Shores Airport in CN76, expecting to see him there. He wasn’t. He was a few miles to the south, and he invited me to his beach-front location (here). Off I went.

CN76

It was actually Gary’s wife Robin, WA7YOQ, who spotted me while out on a walk. She directed me to where Gary was. We visited for a bit and then I put up the masts and tried to work stations.

It wasn’t happening for me. For some reason, my radios worked poorly from this location. The other thing was that there were some brief openings to the south, and I felt like I was probably ruining Gary’s fun trying to work them—we were way too close together. So after chatting a bit more, I headed back to the airport, where 6 meters continued to suck for me. I did manage to work some stations on the higher bands.

CN77—take 2

Soon I headed down the road to this spot just north of the airport.

Things picked up a little on 6 meters (11 QSOs). And 2 meters (10 QSOs) and 432 MHz (10 QSOs) were quite productive. Only 222 MHz was a little thin with 4 QSOs. Unlike last year, I never found any windows out of the region on 6 meters from Ocean Shores.

The CN76, CN77, CN86, CN87 corner

Around 10:15 pm local time, things dried up, and I departed for the 2:45 trip back home. There was one last thing to do…stop at locations near the intersection of CN76, CN77, CN86, and CN87 and fill in missing QSOs with John, KF7PCL, who lives in Ocean Shores. He was listening until 11:00 pm. In this spot, highway 109 passes through CN77, then briefly through CN76, and then into CN86—there are good pull-over spots in each. A little side road, Grass Creek Street, takes one a little ways into CN87. It isn’t a place where one can sit for long periods, but it is good for a quick couple of QSOs.

Just after working KF7PCL on 432 MHz in CN76, a pick-up truck pulled up and a man jumped out. Now…the last time a guy in a pickup truck stopped to talk with me in this location—during the January VHF contest—the gentleman wanted to know if I was a “prepper”. But this time was different. The man told me his brother and father were in the contest. I recognized his brother, Nelson, W7LUD, who I had met and worked many times in recent contests (see Nelson’s write-up (pg 12) of his first portable expedition during the Sept 2012 VHF contest). I had also worked their father, W7QHX, earlier in the contest, although I didn’t realize it until the next morning when I worked him again.

I got home an into bed around 2:00 am. The alarm was set for 6:30 am.

Traveling through CN87

I was on the road shortly after 7:00 am, heading to CN96 along my favorite roving location on Mowich Lake Road. But I had an hour+ of driving through CN87, so I put the front antennas to work. The route along I-405 and Hwy 167 is low, if not in a valley. I was pleasantly surprised to work en route nine stations on 6 and 2 meters, eight on 222 MHz and seven on 432 MHz.

Traveling through CN86…again!

On Mowich Lake Road, one reaches CN96 after traversing several miles of CN86. The going is slow on this gravel road with washboarding and potholes. So, once again, I was spending time in CN86…up at 2,000 to 3,000 feet this time. I didn’t think I would work many people in motion, but did manage a few 222 MHz and 6 meter QSOs. I bounced back and forth between CN86 an CN96 over the next few hours (there are pull-over spots about 1000′ apart). I managed another 35 QSOs in CN86, including AA7A in DM43 and N7TP in DM16.

CN96

I spent a lot of time in CN96, at 3,200′, hoping for an Es opening. Alas, there were only the most fleeting of openings during which I worked Wa6KLK in CM89 and AA7A in DM43. Overall, however, the grid was good, with 44 QSOs on 6 meters, 23 QSOs on 2 meters, 10 QSOs on 222 MHz, and 12 QSOs on 432 MHz.

Back in CN87

I made a brief 25 minute stop in CN87 at about 2,100′ along Mowich Lake Road. This yielded a dozen additional 6 meter QSOs and a handful on other bands. After taking down the rear mast, I heard a commotion on 6 meters. It was W7YM in DN57 booming in from Montana. I peaked him on the 6 meter hex beam, and promptly worked him before continuing on my way.

CN97

My next stop was a mountain top location near Wilkinson, WA. This required traversing a forest service road for about 30 minutes, but yielded a fantastic 3,100′ location. Alas, upon arriving at the start of the forest service road, the gate was closed. Fortunately the gate is only five minutes off of my main route, so I lost little time. I had planned for this possibility and had an alternative spot ready—Mud Mountain at 1,240′.

This spot was relatively productive (23 6 meter, 15 2 meter, 9 222 MHz, and 12 432 MHz QSOs), but contest activity seemed to be tapering off. I left at 22:30 UTC with 4.5 hours left in the contest, and 2 hours of travel time to the next grid.

CN88

I arrived at Lake Stevens High School (400′) and got set-up by 0030 UTC. To my relief, the school parking lot was empty—I had neglected to check the graduation calendar before the contest. I went to work making contacts, but with only modest success. The location is noisy on 6 meters, and not very high. But I think many stations had already left the air.

After about 15 minutes, the parking lot very quickly started filling up. There was some type of event taking place! I decided to move on to my last grid after 45 minutes and 15 6 meter, 10 2 meter, 3 222 MHz, and 7 432 MHz QSOs.

CN88

I had intended to end the contest near Mt. Pilchuck at 2,700′, but the location was an hour away and I had never been there before. There would only be 30 minutes of time left in the contest once I got there (I needed to stop for fuel). Instead, I headed for my alternate location—the Lime Kiln Trailhead at 600′, just 20 minutes away.

I arrived and got setup with 70 minutes remaining in the contest. The location was moderately productive. On 6 meters I worked VE7XF in CN89 to the north, and W7EW in CN84 to the south. In all, 21 QSOs on 6 meters, 13 QSOs on 2 meters, 5 QSOs on 222 MHz, and 8 QSOs on 432 MHz.

Score

The final QSO count was 497 (non-duplicate) QSOs for a total of 637 QSO points, and 35 grids worked. I activated 9 grids, giving a final multiplier of 35+9 = 44. This yields a final (unofficial) score of 28,028. This is quite a bit below my 2012 official score of 38,950. But the increase in total QSOs, from 358 (2012) to 497 (2013) shows solid improvement. Here is the breakdown by band:

QSOs
Points
Grids
6 meters
222
222
15
2 meters
135
135
9
222 MHz
58
116
4
432 MHz
82
164
7
497
637
35

Compared to last year six meters was disappointing. The QSO count slightly increased from 210 to 222, but the grid count went down substantially from 69 in 2012 to 15. Clearly, this difference is entirely because of the spectacular Es opening last year. Last year, I was in the right place at the right time and milked that baby for all it was worth! The fact that the QSO count matched, and slightly exceeded, last year’s results must be considered very positive.

For 2 meters, I went from 90 QSOs and 9 grids in 2012 to 135 QSOs and 9 grids in 2013. This reflects a healthy increase in QSOs for the same number of grids. On 222 MHz, I went from 26 QSOs and 4 grids in 2012 to 58 QSOs and 4 grids in 2013, more than doubling the QSOs, but no affect on grids. Finally, for 432 MHz, I went from 32 QSOs and 5 grids to 82 QSOs and 7 grids. This represents a huge increase in QSOs, more than doubling them, and a modest increase in grids.

I have to conclude that for the things under my control, this year’s performance was substantially improved.

Here is a breakdown of the QSOs by grid activated:

6 meters
2 meters
222 MHz
432 MHz
Total
CN76
9
7
3
5
24
CN77
14
11
4
10
39
CN85
36
13
4
5
58
CN86
44
29
10
12
95
CN87
22
14
10
11
57
CN88
14
10
3
7
34
CN96
41
23
10
12
86
CN97
22
15
9
12
58
CN98
20
13
5
8
46
Total
222
135
58
82

I spent a huge proportion of the contest in CN86, and activated it from two high-elevation locations, but spending hours in unproductive long commutes through the grid. The most efficient grids were CN96, CN97, and CN85. Given how much time it took to activate CN76 and CN77, these results were a little disappointing. Activating these two grids by plane is probably more efficient, particularly if I can hit CN78 as well. On the other hand, the location has proven to be excellent during an Es opening.

Lessons

Every contest serves as a test run for the next contest. Here are some lessons learned during the contest about what works and what doesn’t:

  • The front mast worked very well! Some kind of “auto-fixed heading” option, perhaps using a Picaxe controller, would substantially enhance it (hmmmm…)
  • Better (longer) 2 meter and 432 MHz antennas on the rear mast would be a useful modification.
  • Some kind of audio control panel would be a very useful addition.
  • I was getting RF into the microphone on the headsets on 6 meters. Ferrite beads might be necessary.
  • Better power management for cell phones and GPSs is needed. The DC adaptors couldn’t always keep the devices charged.
  • The WinKeyer command to change the paddle between the Kenwood and Yaesu is too slow. A toggle switch to switch the paddle between rigs would work better.
  • Setting up the 222 Mhz transverter is too slow, requiring band changes and menu changes on the Kenwood. Perhaps a Picaxe controller could do it faster.
  • A coax “snake” from the front grille to under the passenger seat would greatly simplify installation.
  • Better antenna switching capability (DPDT to switch 2 rigs between 2 antennas) would be very useful.
  • It is still worth hunting for new roving locations.
  • Make better weather contingency plans.

Overall, it was an excellent contest. Sure, it would have been nice to have an extended Es opening, but given the conditions, it seems like everything went really well. The experiment with the second set of antennas was quite successful. Oh…and I had a lot of fun!

(Short link to this post)

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Comments on: "Roving the 2013 June ARRL VHF Contest" (9)

  1. Thanks for the comprehensive write up. Very interesting.

  2. Thanks for the great story….I’m going to give rover a try in the fall…You’ve given me a lot of information to ponder
    Steve
    KE7IHG

  3. KF7PCL,
    You’re welcome. Thanks for all the QSOs!

  4. Steve (hamboy56),

    Good to hear it! We always need more rovers—it keeps things much more interesting, even for other rovers, by keeping more fixed stations on the air for longer.

  5. One suggestion. Change WA6VJB to WA5VJB, so that anyone else looking to make one of those handy yagis can Google WA5VJB and get the instructions 🙂 Nice article. It almost motivates me to rove, but alas I just don’t have enough sticktoitiveness to make it happen. — Mike / AA8IA

  6. Mike,
    Fixed! Thanks for pointing that out.

  7. […] rover is similar to what I used for the June VHF contest, but optimized for a two-band contest. Here are the antennas on the rear of the 1988 Toyota 4WD […]

  8. […] station was quite similar to what I used in the June VHF contest (photo here). The one major equipment difference was that I replaced the RM Italy KL-145 with a RF […]

  9. […] third antenna was mounted on the front of the truck, on a bracket normally used to mount an antenna rotor in VHF contests. This was a stalk for Hustler resonators. The antenna was connected to a Yaesu FT-857d that was […]

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