2018 ARRL June VHF

updated 2021-01-10

When I moved to Alaska I had to take a break from contesting for a while. But once I was settled in it was time to get back on the air. That presented some problems though – when moving up here I had to leave behind a lot of my bulkier stuff. Things like furniture, tools, and high gain VHF-UHF antennas all had to be sold or left behind.

That was just as well, because south-central Alaska is fairly limited when it come to high-elevation sites where you can get a vehicle in. Setting up a backpack-portable station is easy enough – you can hike to wherever you want. But vehicle-portable sites are few and far between. It was time for a different approach: a rover station!

Ham radio vehicle with tolt-over mast mount
The tilt-over mast worked very well, although it was too heavy for a full day of setting up and tearing down at each site.

Traditional rover stations will have the antennas mounted on a rotator, attached to the top of the vehicle. This obviates any need to set up and tear down each time you move to a new grid square. I didn’t do that.

In my defense, I was very pressed for time in the lead up to the contest. I had to build new antennas, and getting them finished was the priority over getting the rotator setup working. I built two of the WA5VJB “cheap Yagi” designs: one for 2 meters and one for 70 centimeters. For six meters I was a little more limited for antennas. I used a loaded vertical antenna of the type commonly used on vehicles.

Mobile ham radio contest station with tilt over mast
The dimensions were worked out so that the antennas would be behind the vehicle when the mast was tilted over.

As a stopgap measure to get me in the game, I elected to build a simple drive-on mast mount. The mount uses a base made from two pieces pf plywood with a hinge. The lower piece is larger and is where the vehicle’s wheel is driven onto. The upper plywood sheet is smaller so that it does not end up under the wheel. With a tripod attached to the upper piece you can tilt the tower up or down as needed, making for easy setup in the field.

Portable mast and VHF rover station
Tilt-over mast set up and pointed back towards Anchorage

Everything worked reasonably well, but the drive-on mount turned out to be very cumbersome to set up at each site. The entire process consisted of unpacking the mount, driving on, and then attaching the antennas and coax lines. Basically, the whole station has to be built and rebuilt at each grid square.

This kind of setup would be perfect for a portable entry, where you are not activating multiple grid squares throughout the day. It would also be an excellent setup for a special event station, or an emergency communications group. For roving through it leaves a lot to be desired.

The contest itself went really well. Alaska has a small population, with few amateur radio operators, and fewer still who are active on VHF.

There has long been a kind of “chicken or the egg” thing happening her with regard to VHF operating. With few people being active with weak signal VHF work, fewer people up here get started in it. With fewer people getting started, fewer people each year are active, and so on.

The overall effect is for there to be very few stations who have SSB capability on anything other than the HF bands. Most HF transceivers have 6 meter capability, but few operators have antennas for that band.

With such a small population doing weak signal work, most VHF activity is actually on FM, and you actually use the national calling frequencies to find contacts. Try getting away with that down south!

Ham radio operator KL7BSC operating mobile
Operating from the cab was pretty comfortable, although I had to get in and out repeatedly any time I wanted to turn the antennas.

Despite the challenges of spurring activity in Alaska the contest went really well. Quite a lot of other hams were looking for more activity up here, and putting the word out about the rover route was the nudge they needed to get back on the air.

This was also the first time trying out anew radio – a Yaesu 857-ND. With capability to run higher power on all bands than my Yaesu 817, this radio offered a much-needed boost in performance now that I was operating from ground level. My previous contest entries had all been from locations fairly high up. At elevation there is less of a need for high power since you are transmitting to other stations from above.

Down at ground level you are transmitting around and through all kinds of obstructions: trees, power lines, and more. Power cannot overcome an RF path that simply will not work, but on a marginal path a little extra power can get you through. Having the extra power came in very handy during the contest. There was just one wrinkle though that I didn’t catch.

Little did I know that the brown wire coming out of the back of the radio was not just a second ground wire. What it actually did was act as a power-limiter: when that wire is closed to ground the radio;s transmit power is limited to 20 watts, regardless of the menu settings. While I’m sure that someone has a use for such a feature, it made no sense to me. A radio with a feature to automatically limit transmit power is like having breast implants that automatically shrink when squeezed . . . who would think of such a thing!

Yaesu 857 mobile radio on a truck seat
This was my first contesting run in Alaska, so simple was the name of the game.

The funny parts was that I had wired that power limiting wire in with the main ground wire, and had run the whole contest with no more than 20 watts. It’s amazing how well you can do when you don’t realize you are working with one hand tied behind your back!