Sunday, March 8, 2015


Call: VE8EV
Operator(s): VE8EV
Station: VE8EV

Class: SOSB/20 HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 28

 Band  QSOs  Mults
Total: 1018    94  Total Score = 287,076



I thought this would be a good year to go single-band 20m.  I still think it was the right choice but the band conditions had me pulling my hair out most of the time.  The band was open to Europe for almost the whole weekend but not many are awake during my best openings in the wee hours before their sunrise. I would frequently run out of callers and have to give up and come back later.  The solar flares and and aurora would often make for very slow going at times.  N1MM says almost 23 hours of off-time but a lot of that was just when no one was answering. There also seemed to be very few JA's about and only one lonely ZL heard from all of the South Pacific despite spending a good chunk of time beaming out that way. In contrast to the propagation over the pole there was hardly any North-South propagation except for late Sunday afternoon when I scrambled to find as many Caribbean and South American mults as I could.

High point(s): The handful of African stations that kept popping up in the middle of their night, almost like a "midnight peak" on both nights.

Low point: I overshot a nap overnight on Saturday and instead of having Europe all to myself the band was packed from top to bottom with loud EU stations working the USA East coast shortly before 1300z. When I finally found a spot to squeeze into and got a run going some sort of solar wind anomoly wiped out the entire band in a matter of minutes!  Eu was completely gone so I turned the beam to see if I could scare up some South Pacific stations.  After a dozen or so unanswered CQs I pulled off my headphones and turned to find the XYL standing at the door of the shack holding a bleating CO detector and looking EXTREMELY unimpressed...

All in all, not too bad considering the flux numbers, the solar flares and the geomagnetic situation but I find I'm missing the early days of the cycle when the sun was a bit calmer.

John VE8EV

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Stationmaster

Back in October I wrote about finally getting around to building my multi-port antenna relay matrix.  The matching component to "The Matrix" is my automatic antenna tuner/selector which I've christened "The Stationmaster"

In concept it is a very simple device.  The upper deck is an antenna tuner with motor-driven tuning capacitors and inductance selector.  The lower deck contains a microcontroller which adjusts the tuner components, selects the antenna matrix relays, and sets the channel on my amplifier (which also has motorized tuning presets for each amateur band). Although it all sounds fairly straightforward, the devil is in the details and between the massive amount of wiring under the hood and writing all the software, I'm relieved (and even a bit surprised) that it actually works!  

The entire contraption is built into an old UPS chassis.  I even found a way to utilize the original AC power receptacle opening for some switches!

The tuner uses a differential-T circuit with an extra tunable capacitor instead of a roller inductor.

Just about everything came out of the junk box except for the microcontroller.  No Arduino or Rasberry Pi here, for this project I used a controller from JKMicro called the Flashlite 186.  This board emulates an old 80186 processor and runs a freeware version of MS-DOS.  On top of having loads of digital I/O ports to drive relays with, you can program it in old-school BASIC!  That was just fine with me as this project wasn't about learning new tricks, it was about getting the job done.  I wrote all the firmware using Microsoft QuickBasic in a DOS box under Windows Virtual PC.  I hadn't written anything in QB for years but it all came back to me pretty fast.

There's no school like the old school...

The board at the top is the microcontroller, the one on the bottom is an analog I/O board with a real-time clock.  The three smaller boards are 16-port relay drivers and the terminal strips are for interfacing to the Matrix and the amplifier. There's almost a 100 feet of 30 gauge wire wrap in there!
On my main station computer I added a bunch of new code into a Windows project in Visual Basic that I wrote a couple of years ago to track propagation indicators and display some nice clocks and the weather.  The VB software was also straightforward although I'm a real hacker when it comes to coding.  I'm sure a professional developer would call my VB code rubbish but, happily, once its all compiled and working no one can tell the difference. Now, when I change bands on the radio (and in some cases when I change frequency within a band), my software will automatically determine which antenna is required, what tuner settings (if any) might be necessary, and what band-channel preset needs to be called up on the amplifier.  It sends all that data to the serial port on the Stationmaster which then goes about switching relays and turning knobs for the desired effect which is a 1:1 SWR on the proper antenna and full output from the amplifier.

The whole shebang.  I had to put in a bigger rack to make room for everything.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Thrill of the Chase

It was the bottom of the solar cycle when I first started to get a bit more serious about DXing.  If I happened to hear about a major DXpedition somewhere I would likely try to have a listen for it.  Between the low solar flux, my modest home station, and my location under the auroral oval I usually didn't have much luck.  Some parts of the world were simply beyond my reach and propagation often didn't support communications on any band during the brief windows when a rare DX location was active.  I did manage to catch a few operations like K5D (Desecheo) and VP8ORK (Orkney Islands) but there were several once-a-decade type DXpeditions that I will be waiting a long time for a second chance at, like BS7H (Scarborough Reef) and FT5GA (Glorioso).

With the dramatic improvements over the last few years both to propagation and to my station I've come to realize that I have at least a reasonable chance of working just about anything that comes up if timing and conditions are in my favour.  I managed to work all of the major DXpeditions in 2014 (many on the first or second day) and have been successful in picking off numerous smaller operations, inching ever closer to being the first VE8 station to earn "Honor Roll" status by working (practically) all of the current DXCC entities.  Working and confirming 46 ATNOs (All Time New Ones) in the past year has been an amazing experience and, other than a handful of mostly African countries, all the rest I need end with "Island", "Reef", or "Rocks".

This DXCC timeline chart from ClubLog shows the slow march to Honor Roll.  I wasn't very active between 1996 and 2000 and off the air completely between 2001 and 2008.  Now I'm trying to make up for lost time!

I've been lucky with the propagation (from up here under the auroral oval conditions are often very poor) and my antennas aren't anything too special, just a tribander at 70 feet and an assortment of lesser wires and such.  However, my Flex-3000 software radio has an outstanding receiver which is a huge advantage as the signals reaching through the aurora here are mostly very weak and a legal limit (2.25kW PEP in Canada) amplifier sure helps in the other direction.  The real secret, though, to working DX is mostly just paying attention and making it happen.

VP8SGK is perfect example of how it works.  I've never worked South Georgia Island and it is extremely rare on the radio.  The last big DXpedition there was 2002 but every once a while a visiting ham can make a brief appearance from VP8SGK, the British Antarctic Survey base station at King Edward Point.  I had heard that Mike, GM0HCQ, was working on a ship in that area and might be able to get ashore and on the radio during his brief stop there.  I put a reminder in my calendar to check his web page again when he was closer to the island.  A week later I read that his ship was delayed and his arrival was pushed back for several days.  Then the day before he was to arrive he reported that due to the weather their docking was further delayed and he would not be able to operate from the base at all.  It was too bad but that's the way it goes.  At least I had been paying attention! 

The next day at work I just happened to think about GM0HCQ and thought I should check to see if anything had changed.  There had indeed been a change:  he was reporting that if all went well he might be able to get ashore for a couple of hours and be on the radio at 1745z!  I looked at my clock and it was already 1815z.  I checked the spotting network but no spots had been reported yet.  Since it was 11:15am local time, I decided immediately I was taking an early lunch and jumped in the truck for the 15 minute drive home.  On the way I contemplated how strange it was that here was some guy in the Arctic rushing home to attempt to contact some guy who had just arrived on an island in the Antarctic.  That right there is the magic of DXing!  I dashed through the door and into the shack, frantically pushing buttons, turning antennas, and warming up the amplifier.  As soon as the computer was up I checked the spots again and there it was: VP8SGK had just been spotted on 21.200MHz!  Within 20 minutes of receiving the news I was sitting in the shack with the radio on, the big yagi pointing to the South Atlantic, the amp all warmed up, and my ears straining to hear the signal from South Georgia Island.

This story does have a happy ending but probably not what you were expecting.  As it turned out VP8SGK only made 35 contacts and his signal was inaudible here and most everywhere else.  After about 20 minutes of listening to the static and the occasional other stations on frequency calling "in the blind" or just stating the obvious - "I can't hear him..." - I turned everything off, made myself a sandwich, and went back to work.  But I was smiling.  In this case it was all about the thrill of the chase.  Mike says he'll probably be back there again this time next year.  I'd better be paying attention!