2017 ARRL January VHF

updated 2021-01-10

Well . . . it seemed like a good idea at the time. Such is the epilogue to many of my bold plans that turn into wild adventures, and this was no exception. Interestingly, this was actually not my first experience contesting. I set up once the year before and made a few 2 meter contacts from a low elevation site. I did not do all that well, but I did have fun and got hooked on contesting.

One year and a lot of preparation later I was fired up and ready to go. Antennas are everything in radio so I brought out the big guns . . . as in moonbounce-class BIG GUNS! Go big or go home, right?

The more sane readers may be asking themselves why I using moonbounce antennas for hilltop contesting. Well, it was part of a bigger plan: At that time I was a new accountant and was flat f*^#!ng broke. I was getting into Summits on the Air, so my rig had to be something portable like a Yaesu 817. Without money for a second, higher-power rig I needed a way to get into contesting with only a five-watt output. Clearly some drastic measures were needed.

If you are able to keep feed line losses minimal you can actually make up for low transmit power by increasing your antenna gain. The person on the other end of the contact does not know whether you are running 50 watts into an omnidirectional antenna or five watts into a directional one – it is all the same on their end. A plan was forming.

My radio for SOTA had to be backpack-portable, but my antennas for contesting only needed to be pickup-portable. I could theoretically use as large an antenna as I wanted, so that is what I did. I built two of the “High performance yagi” designs from the ARRL Antenna Book. The 2 meter version gave me 12 dBd of gain, and the 70 centimeter model gave me 13.2 dBd of gain.

Portable contest station for ham radio
Still setting up after about three tries. To my credit, I only dropped the antennas three times.

In practical terms, the gain with those antennas took my five-watt QRP signal and gave me a nearly 50-watt EIRP in the main transmit lobe. That’s not enough to work the Carribean or anything like that, but it was more than enough to get me started in the game. 6 meter antennas with high gain would have been absolutely massive, so for that band I settled on a three-element design.

On receive, a signal that would have barely burped the meter at S-1 (if I were using an omnidirectional antenna) would now rise well above the noise at around S-6. It just goes to show, you can never be too rich, too good looking, or have to big of . . . an antenna.

Except when you do . . .

VHF and UHF contest antennas at a portable station
Yes, the antennas are leaning . . . badly. I never set them up like that again, but it got me through the day.

The proverbial wheels fell off the equally proverbial bus when I tried to lift all this $#!t up into the air. With all-aluminum construction the antennas were very light. Hanging two of them at the end of 30 feet of pipe was not so light any more. It took me over an hour of cursing, moaning, straining, groaning and dropping gear on the asphalt before I finally got everything up in the air. And when I did, one of my feed lines had a bad connector, so I had to do it all again after soldering on a new connector in the field.

I considered packing it in, but that is just not my style. Like the wise man says, you hike with with boots you’ve got. So I carried on, got everything in the air, and finally started transmitting.

Ham radio portable power supply and inverter
My brand new power boxes in operation. Battery on the right, inverter and power pole distribution on the left.

I was also testing other gear for the event. For power I had what I called my “power box”. It consisted of an ammo carrier that had been converted to hold a DC volt meter, 300 watt 120 V inverter, and DC power pole distribution block with fuses. By having only these items together and keeping the battery separate I had options on power sources. With a quick plug/unplug I could run from vehicle power, any available battery, or even “shore power.”

Rover station with mobile radio
You can tell by the mess of coax and cables that I was new at this.

My plan was to operate from the passenger side of the cab. That sort-of worked. The placement of my antennas was constrained by the small pull-out I was parked on, resulting in some of the feed lines not being long enough to route them through the back window as planned. Some of them had to come in through the passenger door, requiring the door to be left open. Similar issues presented themselves on the power side, forcing me to set up the power plant on the ground next to the truck. That negated the benefits of working “inside” the cab.

I carried on though, and kept things working as best I could. Another problem quickly showed up with my laptop. The battery at that time was going on five years old and simply would not hold a charge the way it used to – forcing me to run the AC adapter to keep the laptop (and my N1MM logging software) running. Converting power from a 12 V DC battery up to 120 V AC in an inverter is inefficient, at best. Converting the same power back down to 19 volts DC to power a laptop is just getting retarded.

Pushing electrons is what we do in ham radio, but pushing them up and down like that involves a lot of losses, and I was quickly burning through my battery power. Temperatures of about 35 degrees and a steady cold wind were not helping things either. My flooded cell battery was already losing voltage simply from the temperature. The additional drop from running the laptop was adding insult to injury.

Ham radi ooperator N6BSC in a contest
Now that I live in Alaska I think back to how “cold” I was that day and I laugh.

These contests are usually quite busy in southern California. The airwaves light up like a war zone: portable stations run QRP from the hills, home stations zap birds out of the sky with amplifiers and beams, and rovers tear up the highways (and the occasional low-hanging sign) going from grid to grid. On that day . . . there was a whole lotta nuthin’ going on.

6 meters was the busiest band, as expected, with 2 meters and 70 centimeters coming in behind. Overall I think I only contacted about 15 or 20 other stations that day, which is extremely low for this area.

Contest station looking over the Inland Empire
The view from this location did limit me somewhat.

It was a day of antennas collapsing, feed lines failing, power disappearing, and operators despairing. By the end of it I was having fun, but the few victories of the day were all hard-fought. With all those problems how did I do? Well . . . I won, of course!

First place for Orange Section in the Single Operator Portable category. Read it and weep!

Despite all the hard-knocks lessons I learned that day and all the things I did wrong there were two things I did completely right:

  1. I showed up!
  2. I never gave up!

The weather that I fought against kept some of the big gun stations out of the fight, and closed off some of the best operating locations. My compromise site and ramshackle station carried the day simply because I was stubborn as hell and stuck it out.

In VHF contesting you need a lot of power, a lot of gain, and a great location. Or you could just be too stubborn to quit and win by default. LESSON LEARNED!