Thursday, February 19, 2009

My call is VE8EV... and I'm a DXer

I've been in denial for along time. "I don't chase DX" I'd tell people. The whole concept of DXCC kind of annoys me because VE8 isn't considered "real" DX. And DXing from up here is incredibly difficult. According to the ARRL there are only two VE8's with a DXCC certificate hanging on the wall. I remember getting my cards checked at Dayton back in '96. The card checkers were snickering at the signal reports! 53, 51, 44. Working and confirming 100 countries from inside the auroral zone, at the bottom of the solar cycle, without packetcluster or internet access, barefoot and with a little tribander at 30 feet was damn hard! It took me a year to work the first 50. The next 50 or so took almost three years. I wasn't fussy, either. I'd work any band, any mode, any time. By the time I got DXCC I was burnt out. I hardly got on the air at all for the next four years and eventually the antennas came down and the shack was turned into a kid's bedroom.

Fast forward to 2007. DW wants to be a ham and I'm keen to get back into it and be the Elmer. I read about the BS7H expedition to Scarborough Reef and thought that would be a good place to start. So I put up a small vertical, dusted off the old rig, and got up at 4:30am for a week straight trying to catch them. I didn't hear them at all on any band except 15 meters. We had a short, weak opening every morning at their sunrise. The only day they were actually strong enough to work the 15 meter op spent the entire opening ragchewing with a buddy back in Finland. Oh well, there'll be another expedition there someday... right?

Lots of guys complain about the "midwest black hole" but I live for the days when the propagation here is as good as an average day in the midwest. CQWW last year was one at those days. It was the first time out with the new contest station. We were QRO for the first time and Saturday night 40m was wide open. DW sacked out around midnight but I stayed up til 3:30 chasing DX on forty. The smart thing to do would have been to find a clear spot and run run run but spinning the dial and hearing all those rare mults was mesmerizing. We worked 109 band/country mults, 57 on forty meters alone. Now THAT was a good day!

I started making plans for Desecheo as soon as the dates were confirmed. We put up the big tribander on the portable tower in the driveway and I started getting a feel for the propagation to KP5. The bands were in great shape leading up to the expedition. I'd usually spend 45 minutes or so each day after work swinging the beam back and forth between South America and the Caribbean and Asia. I even worked about a half dozen all-time new ones including XW1B and a very short 59-both-ways rag chew with PJ2DX on the same day the K5D crew landed on Desecheo. With visions of all the different band/mode combinations I was going to work them on I even took that Friday off so I could make sure to get in their log before the propagation went sour. Unfortunately, that happened all too soon. I heard the 17m station when it went on the air. 4 by zero all afternoon with too much QSB to even bother trying. Just before sunset they were peaking S-5 on 20m CW but they were calling for JA-only. And then the bands tanked. All we got after that was a weak opening on 17m in the early afternoon and another one on 20m at sunset. Every afternoon for an hour I'd listen to them on my scanner at work on 17m. S-nothing but Q5 copy. After work they'd be just barely workable on 20m CW but only calling for JA's. Uh oh, wait a minute. JA sunrise is the same time as MY sunset peak. What can you do? Nobody ever says "OK, everyone standby, just stations from the Arctic please, Arctic only, call now." Yeah, right. After a week of this I was starting to get worried. I was actually planning to take the rig to work with me to have a try at getting them on 17m during the afternoon. That's when I knew the jig was up. There's no point in trying to deny it anymore: yes, I am a DXer.

So what happened? The same sort of thing that always happens with the crazy propagation here. I came home from work today, went straight out to the shack, turned on the radio and checked the K5D spots. They had six bands and three different modes on the go. Nothing to be heard on 15 or 17. I could just barely copy them on 20m SSB "JA only". The pileup on 20m RTTY was outrageous and I couldn't hear them anyway. I didn't even bother to check the low bands. There I was slumped in my chair listening to static and watching the spots go by when I saw they were also on 30m. I switched to the 17 foot whip antenna, dialed up the QRG and there they were, peaking about S-3 on CW. And the first thing I hear is: "KL7-- 5NN TU K5D" That sounded promising. I hit the autotuner button on the radio but the whip is too short for 30m. I switched in the big manual tuner and loaded up the whip, then picked a transmit frequency about 1.6kHz up and set up the split. I was in such a rush that I momentarily forgot I wasn't the best CW op but I instantly recognized my call coming back from Desecheo. All that time, effort and frustration and it was over in two calls with 100 watts to a short, non-resonant whip. Go figure!

Now that I've admitted I have a problem I can start to do something about it. I think the first step is going to be getting some QSL cards in the mail. Then I need to go find some new ones. I'm only about a dozen short of having 200 worked!

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