Saturday, January 5, 2019

10 Years On

It seems hard to believe but its been 10 years since I first started my little blog here.  So much has changed over the years.  Ham radio still has its exciting moments but I don't seem to feel the same urge to prattle on about things as I used to.  Whenever something new and unusual happens I do try to write something about it but the past few years have mostly been just working DX and incremental improvements to the station.  What strikes me most looking back is how my interests have evolved along with my station improvements and, mostly, the progress of the 11-year solar cycle.

Beginning back at the last solar minimum it was so difficult to make contacts here.  I just couldn't understand how a single station could make thousands of contacts during a weekend radio contest when we struggled up here just to get a hundred into the log.  Boy, that sure changed as the cycle ramped up and we finally started to have some decent propagation.  I nearly lost my mind the first time operating in a contest where the signals never got snuffed out by the aurora: (ARRL DX - Life is Like a Box of Chocolates...)  Only a few years later as the cycle peaked I was setting records and hanging contest award plaques on my wall.  Unfortunately, after the highs of the solar maximum I seem to have completely lost interest in radio contesting.  Going back to the huge disparity between the conditions up here and "down south" after seeing what I was able to do on a more-or-less level playing field kind of saps one's enthusiasm for that sort of activity.

Some things just got left behind as the cycle ramped up.  I really enjoyed working amateur radio satellites and had hoped to one day build an EME-capable station.  One of my all-time most popular blog posts is the story of the capture here of telemetry from a wayward NASA satellite: (NanoSail-D: Sailing the New Sea)  As HF conditions improved, however, I spent most of my time building out that part of the station and the VHF/UHF stuff was put aside for another day.

Other things were left behind for different reasons.  Several extremely rare IOTA island groups were nearby and I invested a huge amount of time and treasure in "activating" them.  The culmination of my efforts was a 5-day stay on Greens Island in the NA-182 group: (CK8G - The Perfect Storm)  I made almost 5000 contacts from there in April 2010 but after that the novelty started to fade.  The next year VE8GER and I traveled to Tent Island in the NA-193 group.  Propagation was lousy and we ended up getting chased home by some unexpected bad weather: (XK1T - Snake Eyes)  It made for good stories but I haven't really had the urge to go back to any of these places yet and, thanks to my efforts, they are no longer considered that rare.

I had always been a bit of a DXer but once conditions had improved I realized that if I paid attention to what countries were active I could generally work anything that was on the air.  Between the countries I had worked as a beginner back in the nineties and the new ones that came along regularly, I did a pretty good job of getting everything in the log that was available, at least on one band or mode: (The Verdict is In)  By the time we slid into the current solar minimum I was needing only a couple of dozen more to have "worked them all".  The new ones keep trickling in and I try to make sure I don't miss any.  I still need a few that have been around sporadically (like SV/A and VK0M) but sooner or later I'm sure they'll find their way into the log.

The biggest shocker of all was the low bands.  When solar minimum conditions returned in 2017 I knew that was time to concentrate on trying to work new ones on 80m.  I thought that maybe if I focused my attention it might be possible to work 100 countries there and be eligible for the 5-Band DXCC award before I passed on.  I figured I might have four years now and at least four years at the bottom of the next cycle.  After that I wasn't so sure but if I worked at it then maybe it would happen.  What I didn't count on was how the new FT8 digital mode would take the ham radio community by storm.  Released in mid-2017 it allowed contacts to made under very marginal propagation conditions.  The instant popularity combined with being able to "see" all the stations that were active meant that instead of taking a lifetime it only took me 13 months to work those last 70 countries I needed to earn DXCC on 80m.  Now I think that DXCC is possible from up here even on 160m (and I'm well on my way already!)

I intend to keep writing here, perhaps not as often as I used to, but certainly whenever something noteworthy happens.  I don't know how many people out there actually read what I write but I love being able to go back myself and take a little walk down memory lane once in a while.  Maybe someday I'll turn it all into a book.

John VE8EV

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

DX Year in Review

Well, another year gone by.  Surprisingly, even starting 2018 with 316 current countries already confirmed it turned out to be a pretty exciting year for DX, even at this part of the cycle.

My first surprise was a "pop-up" dxpedition to Somalia in January.  Ken LA7GIA and Adrian KO8SCA traveled there in conjunction with Medecins sans Frontiers for a week long stay.  Conditions up here were especially bad and I was thrilled to make a single contact on 40m CW as I don't recall hearing them on any other band.

The next surprise was from Newington.  The ARRL unexpectedly announced that (finally!) the Republic of Kosovo would be added to the DXCC list effective January 21, 2018.  A massive dxpedition was quickly organized and went on the air as Z60A within days of the announcement.  Conditions here were abysmal and I only had a few days to try and work them before I set off for Hamcation in Florida.  I managed to pull a single CW QSO through the aurora on 30m right before we headed off on our trip.  The op at the other end busted my call (always the same story,  they hear VE8 but then they think that can't be right and change it to something more common like VE7 or, in this case, KE8) but that was easily fixed after the fact with a quick note to the leaders.

Without a doubt, the most anticipated dxpedition of the year was 3Y0Z, the huge operation scheduled to operate from Bouvet Island.  Now, when I say "scheduled" maybe that overstates things.  Perhaps "forecast" would be a better word.  The "forecast" given before the operation had always been "January 2018".  Around November 2017 I had realized that my winter holiday to Florida might conflict with the 3Y0Z operation so I rescheduled our departure from late January to early February just to be safe.  Time stood still in January leading up to our respective trips.  In mid-January the dxpedition team arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile.  We waited.  Days went by.  Finally, a week later, they set sail for Bouvet Island.  Its a two-week journey and I knew that was only going to leave me a small window to get in their log before I had to head out myself.  I got psyched up.  I've made it into the log on the first day with several other dxpeditions before.  I'll stay up all night if I have to.  I can do this!  The days dragged on as the ship steamed across the South Atlantic.  Finally, only six days before I had to leave, the team dropped anchor off Bouvet Island.  I know they'll need at least a couple of days to get set up and on the air.  Things are looking up but then the weather tanks.  High winds and rough seas.  Fog.  The days tick by.  Two days before my trip the awful truth dawns: I'm going to miss Bouvet!  There's no way now that they can possibly get ashore and get set up before I have to leave on my vacation.  I felt sick.  When would I ever have another chance at Bouvet?  I'll never forget that Saturday afternoon.  I was sitting at a local pub, glumly nursing an ale, when I heard the breaking DX news: BOUVET CANCELLED!  The ship had developed engine troubles and the captain decided it was unsafe to continue so they left.  Everyone was shocked and heartbroken!  Well, almost everyone was heartbroken.  I tried my best to look sad...

When summer comes to the Arctic I'll often go for weeks at a time without ever turning on my radio.  The summers here are fleeting and I usually concentrate on outdoor activities.  This summer, though, I had put a reminder in my calendar for the end of June to have a listen for the Baker Island expedition.  Not the best time for that kind of operation but that is the only time the authorities would permit them on the island.  OK, well, the mid-Pacific is a chip shot from here and even though our sun never sets at that time of year I figured I could probably even get them on 80m if I got up in the middle of the "night".  I made it into their log on the first day and the next day I turned on the radio to see if I could pick up a few extra bands and modes.  For the better part of the past year I had also been trying to work the lone ham radio operator in Libya, Abubaker 5A1AL.  He was quite active but not often on 20m which was pretty much the only possible band to work a low-powered station with wire antennas on the other side of the world from here.  Since I was in the shack I almost automatically took a look to see whether he happened to be on the air.  At that particular moment he was on 20m FT8!  I swung the antenna around and switched to 20m and there he was!  Not strong, only -16dB but for the first time ever he was "audible" here.  I fired up the amp, switched it to "Trans-Polar Mode" (ie; full power) and 5A1AL answered me on my first call.  A little while later I noticed that the Rx window in WSJT-X also still had my QSO with Baker Island right above the contact with 5A1AL so I grabbed a screen shot.  I looked back in my logs and it had been years since I had worked a new DXCC entity in June and the last time I had worked more than 1 new one in June was back in 1995!  A couple of days after that I did get up in the wee hours and worked the Baker Boys on 80m CW.


The last one on my radar for 2018 was VP6D, the expedition to Ducie Island.  I still remember back in 2008 when I was playing Elmer for VE8DW.  He called me excitedly one day to tell me he had just worked Ducie Island.  I had a pretty good recollection of what was on the DXCC list and I figured it was just some IOTA station.  It wasn't until a few years later I realized that it was a new DXCC entity.  Now, 11 years later, I finally had another chance.  I wasn't at all concerned about this one.  No matter how bad the propagation was I was sure it would work out ok.  Ducie is straight south of us and October is about the best month there is.  Sure enough, I worked them on every mode and every band from 160m-17m.  I even tried them a couple of times on 15m but without a proper antenna up for that band they never heard me though the big pileups.

80m was very good to me again this year.  On November 22nd I worked my 100th country on that band.  Instead of a lifetime, I worked the last 70 I needed in only 13 months, mostly thanks to FT8 but the total does include about thirty in CW and a dozen SSB contacts.  I've got them all confirmed now too but waiting for just one more on LoTW so I don't have to deal with any paper cards to apply for my 5-Band DXCC award.  I've also started dabbling in 160m and picked up a bunch of new ones there also but I don't expect to put nearly as much effort into that band as I did for 80m.

With Ducie in the log I've now started the countdown: only 10 more to go until DXCC Honor Roll.  I really have no idea how long that is going to take.  So far there are only one or two on the horizon for 2019 but time will tell!

73 and good DX
John VE8EV