Sunday, May 16, 2010

The QSL Factory

The first wave of 700 CK8G QSL requests ready to be answered.

I really don't mind answering requests for QSL cards. I've had several people offer to be my QSL manager but I've got a great system for processing QSL requests that really makes it a breeze. The cards for my CK8G NA-182 expedition arrived this week so it was finally time to clear the backlog of requests that had built up since the operation ended. My post office box was already full when I returned from the island and in the intervening four weeks I've amassed a stack of envelopes about 500 strong! Add to that another 100 via the on-line QSL request system and 100 more for the GDXF bureau system and it could take weeks to get caught up. In fact, it took me all day Saturday from start to finish. Here are the secrets of running your own 'QSL Factory' for your next dxpedition or special event station:

  1. Start with a clean log. Every busted call in the log takes extra time to find and correct at QSL time. It's well worth taking an extra few seconds to confirm a call while you're on the air than to have to search for it in the log when its not correct. I try pretty hard to keep the average error rate below 1% (1 busted call in 100).

  2. Pre-print the QSL labels. Yes, ALL of them! I export the entire log (dupes and all) into Excel, sort it by callsign, and then run a mail-merge in Word to print the labels on Avery 5160 Easy-Peel laser printer label sheets, 30 to a page. Even up here in the Arctic a box of 3000 labels only costs $65. Once they're all printed I bind them (optional) with a plastic binding bar to become an easy to use book. When I get a QSL request it literally takes seconds to grab the book, flip to the right page and peel out the sticker and slap it on a QSL card.

  3. Don't try to do too many things at once as your workspace will get too crowded. I usually open all the mail as it arrives, check which operation it is for, unfold the reply envelopes, put the card inside the reply envelope with the IRC or return postage, and set it aside for further processing at a later date (usually when the cards arrive from the printer).

  4. Have self-inking stamps made for return address and verification (the little circle with your callsign that says 'QSO VERIFIED' or something like that). My arm would fall off if I had to hand write my return address on every envelope!

  5. Organize your workspace so everything you need is within reach. Blank cards, labels, stamps, tape, etc.

  6. Find a work flow that you're comfortable with and use 'key events' to regulate the flow so no steps are missed. I use the verification stamp as the key event to file the received card and switch from QSO lookup mode to envelope stuffing mode. The return address stamp is the trigger to set the now sealed envelope aside for adding postage and grabbing the next one.

  7. Don't waste time with distractions. Any request that needs something unusual (not-in-the-log, SWL request, requests for QSL's from multiple operations, etc.) just put it aside for later and keep going.

  8. Get self-adhesive postage stamps! I get mine in rolls of 50 stamps and I can stick them on a stack of envelopes faster than I could run the same amount of mail through a postage meter (although a postage meter is an option if you have access to one.)

  9. Know your postal system. You don't want any mail coming back to you or being delayed because of things you should have caught before it went out. Postal rates and requirements change often. Have a talk with the postmaster or a postal manager about what you're doing when you go to buy postage. Is there a discount for bringing it in bundled and sorted? Maybe a special deal for 'bulk' mailings that might be applicable? This would also be a good time to talk about IRC's and any specific requirements for trading them in for international postage.

Having all the QSL labels pre-printed really is the key, though. Forever more (and you will have people looking for QSL's forever) all you need to do is grab the book off the shelf and stick the label on a blank QSL card. No computers, no printers, no hand writing.

All the CK8G cards are now in a big shopping bag by the door ready to drop off to the post office in the morning. It almost didn't happen, though! I was not impressed with the quality of the QSL cards that I got from the printer. I know if I called to complain they would re-print them for me but that would mean waiting for another month and without much guarantee that they would be better the second time around. In the end I decided to send them out as-is. The color balance on the photo is a bit off but maybe I'm too much of a perfectionist...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

VE8EV/P - Instant Expedition

I've always put a great deal of effort and planning into my island trips. I've operated from up here for years so I know what the requirements are for success. Go when the propagation is good, take the biggest antenna you can, and run as much power as you can bring with you. Then, if you're lucky, you'll be able to fill the log with many contacts. How do I know all this? I've done it the other way before and it sucks! Low power to a dipole antenna from inside the auroral zone is next to useless except under optimal conditions.

When an emergency work trip to Sachs Harbour on Banks Island (NA-129) came up last week I grabbed my radio and the backup dipole antenna that was still packed from my Greens Island trip and set out to see what I could do with it in my spare time. The first night I was there I strung the antenna from my favorite flood light pole and spent a few hours on the radio. No huge pileups but with perseverance I was able to make a few dozen contacts on CW and SSB. It was all downhill after that.

For the rest of my four day stay I was only able to make a handful of additional contacts. The bands were crowded with no less than three contests running on the weekend (one each on CW, SSB and RTTY), the propagation got worse every day due to multiple solar flares and there was persistent local QRN that I couldn't locate. I called CQ endlessly, alternating between SSB and CW without any answers. At one point I even got up in the middle of the night and went up to the airport to try my luck during the peak midnight sun grey line hours. One contact. After a while I gave up and went back to bed.

I'm not giving up forever, though. I just need to be better prepared next time. Instead of a dipole, I'm going to build a lightweight, collapsible ZL-Special antenna for 20m. If I can find a way I'll get a little 300-400W solid-state expedition amplifier that'll lend an extra 6dB to my signal without the huge weight penalty of the FL-2100B. Then, a little Arrow dual-band yagi will get me onto the satellites to hand out the rare grid square to VHF operators. Hopefully I'll have everything together in time for my annual trip to Ulukhaktok on Victoria Island (NA-006) which I've conveniently scheduled to take place during the IOTA contest in July ;)