October 11-12, 2008
I'm currently preparing for the PA QSO Party. It's an amateur radio contest. Operators outside of PA seek to contact as many Pennsylvanians as they can while people in-state (I mean, Commonwealth) try to make contact with other Pennsylvanians, Americans, and Canadians. Everybody's score gets multiplied for each unique PA county with which they make contact. There are a total of 67 counties in PA, so that's a lot of Pennsylvanians and a lot of multipliers!
I am going to be going home the weekend of October 11-12 and will operate in the contest from Union County. It will be the forth contest that I have experienced, the second that I operate in, and the first where I get to use my own call. (Yes, I know, I let my nerves get the better of me at the IARU and QRP Afield contests!) This is also a special event because it will also be the first time that I operate CW (Morse code) in a contest. We'll see if those four months of preparation were enough to do at least decently. I also plan to visit my local ham friends while I am home and operate with them from the club station, K3FLT, for a while. It should be fun. I need to practice the club call, though, since the FL is a tricky pair of letters to send in a row.
There is a lot that I still need to do in order to prepare for this radio contest. The to-do list is
1. Design the antenna
Even though I could take down my current apartment antenna for use in the contest, I am not going to do that. It would take forever to remove all that clear tape and then refasten it around the glass of the window. So, instead, I need to build a new antenna. This requires a plan. Factors that had to be considered in developing this plan were:
- What bands I want to operate on (this will determine the length of the antenna)
- The distance to the nearest tree from the station location (this determines where the antenna will be placed)
- Ways to ensure that nobody (and no bunnies) handle or otherwise encounter the antenna while it is in use (I want to avoid tripping, RF burns, and other such things that could be caused by my antenna. And as far as rabbits go, I want to avoid the loss of my antenna! I know from experience that rabbits love chewing through wires...even ones plugged into the wall!)
2. Get the materials
Once the plan is in place, I can make a list of what I need to buy. There is a hardware store conveniently near my apartment, so I will have to stop by sometime on my way home from work to pick up wire. I would have done that today, but I had not yet accurately calculated the length of my antenna. I plan to cut the antenna for 80 meters and the middle of the CW portion of the 80 meter band is 3.550 MHz, so:
Purely scientific calculation: ((300/3.550 MHz)/4) = 21.12 meters = 69.31 feet
Calculation in my manual that considers real world factors: 234 / 3.550 MHz = 65.91 feet
3. Build the antenna
After all that math, this part won't be hard. All I have to do is measure and cut the wire and the counterpoise(s) to go with it.
4. Set-up the antenna
Again, this shouldn't be hard for the end-fed wire. I just connect one end to the antenna tuner and the other end gets hung up in a high tree branch. With the antenna aloft and the counterpoise(s) running below, I am ready to tune and transmit.
In order to keep track of my contacts, I could use paper, but that would be kind of hard to do because I would need to create a special table to check for duplicate contacts later in the contest. Logging with a computer, I wouldn't have to hassle with making a dupe chart and all the important information would be readily available on the screen with the press of a button: who I contacted, what counties I have yet to contact, my current score...
To prepare my laptop for logging, I found that I had a lot to do. I have a macbook (and I love it), but just about all ham radio software is written for Windows. The solution: I had to find a way to get Windows to run on the Mac.
1. Back-up the laptop
I went shopping for an external hard drive earlier this week and found a nice one on sale. It's just the size I need (160 GB) and is compatible with both my PC and Mac. The best part is the interoperability. I thought that backing up the laptop would be a cumbersome process, but as soon as I plugged in the HD, the macbook popped up a window asking if I wanted to back up my system and when I clicked yes, it did everything for me with no further prompts. Woah, TimeMachine, I love you. Needless-to-say, this part of the process was a snap.
2. Install and Configure Windows XP
Once the macbook was backed-up, I was able to partition my macbook's hard drive in preparation for the installation of Windows. I know, I know, the macbook was very insulted. But, well, you do what you have to! The partitioning went very smoothly, too.
After it was partitioned, the macbook and Apple documentation walked me through setting up Windows on my laptop. (I didn't wipe out my Mac OS, by the way. I have both operating systems on the laptop now. I chose which to load at start-up.) The process of installing and configuring Windows took a good 2 hours, I think. I was up past midnight getting Firefox installed. I couldn't sleep until that was done - haahaa.
3. Buy, install, and configure the logging software
I needed to get the logging software next. There are free programs that I could use, but I intend to stay in this hobby for a long, long time, so I am going to put a little money into getting good logging software package. Don't worry, it doesn't even compare to the cost of all that Adobe Creative Suite software that I had been eying last year. (The new Creative Suite is out, by the way, and I am trying not to look, lest temptation grip my heart...)
In addition to software, I had to download the PDF version of my radio manual, the amateur frequency allocation chart, and other reference materials so they will be "near at hand" for easy reference on my desktop. I don't want to dismantle my apartment station's bookshelves when I could have them with me in digital form. PDF format also provides me with instant keyword search capability.
No, I didn't mean LotR. I keep thinking that every time I see it, though. LOTW stands for Logbook of the World. It's where I will upload my digital log of contacts from the contest after it is over. I had to go through a lengthy registration process for the logbook account, but it is finally ready. All that remains to do is get the digital certificate on the laptop and test it out.
Last but not least...CW!
Perhaps most importantly, I need to be able to send clean code during the contest. I have to overcome the nervousness that always interferes with my sending and get comfortable operating on the air. I also need to train my ears to receive accurately the first time. I don't want to have to ask for repeats all the time and I am sure the other stations agree. So, this is my plan for CW practice:
1. Morse Runner
This is that CW contest simulator program I've talked about before. It'll help me get used to hearing more than one station at once. Hopefully after practicing, I won't be totally disoriented when I am on the air. Also, it will help me to get used to contest exchanges.
2. LCWO Call sign exercise
LCWO stands for Learn CW Online. It's a fun CW learning and practicing site that I discovered recently. I have a new favorite "exercise" (it's more like a game) where the goal is to copy 25 call signs in a row correctly. If I get one right, the next one is sent 1 wpm faster; if I get it wrong, the next one is sent 1 wpm slower. It is a lot harder than it sounds, because I want to go as fast as possible, but it gets out of control fast! I hit 22 wpm, but after that things are a blur. I think this will help a lot with my receiving as well as working in the midst of the thrilling tension of the moment.
3. On-the-air QSO
Yes, I need to talk to people on the air. That is the reason why I got a radio, after all! There's no practice like on-the-air practice. My receiving speed has jumped a few levels since beginning on the air practice. I have a new sked (schedule) planned for tomorrow night. Wish me luck!
4. Off-the-air sending practice
Just sending code to myself ought to be good practice, too. I can practice sending the actual PA QSO Party exchanges that way. I also need to practice sending my club's call sign, if I am going to operate from their station. I have asked whether they have any sort of key there at that station, but I am still waiting for a reply. Sounds like the Bencher (my Morse code key) may go for a ride to the EOC in Lewisburg. That Bencher has had an exciting life!
1. Memorize the 67 PA counties and abbreviations
If I have a mental map of PA, I won't need to constantly look at the map in the software. Also, if I know what the abbreviations are, I won't be surprised by the exchanges that I hear. In order to accomplish this, I have printed a map of the counties of PA and have it posted on my desk at work next to the organizational objectives. I take a glance every now and then to learn one county at a time.
2. Figure out VHF/HF on my radio
I really need to figure out what configuration I botched up to cause my radio not to transmit in the HF bands last Monday. I would like to chat with my friends on the repeater at home before the contest starts, but I don't want to do that if it means that I will disable HF again!
So, that is my to-do list. And I only have three weeks left to get ready?! That wouldn't be a problem if I didn't have to work during the weekends and evenings. How I long for free time! When I get it, I will fill it with radiosport, Bible studies, and all the sleep that I am behind on.
And next year...
Apparently Adams county has even fewer operators than Union County. I know where I will be next year for the PA QSO Party: on Seminary Ridge under the North Carolina monument in Gettysburg with my FT-817ND :) That is, if the park service allows such things.