A Little Back-Story:
When I was first licensed in the early 1990’s I traveled a fairly standard ham radio pathway. I bought a Kenwood TH-78a (There were no ‘Fengs) and I already owned a few decent SWL rigs. I had access to all the test equipment I grew up with, and had my dad as a tutor on some electronics concepts. I needed that because I went from Tech to Extra in about 8 months. That also involved learning code. I passed the then-maximum 13wpm, but was able to pass a 20wpm for fun a few months later. The basics of VHF repeater operation and HF SSB/CW are still a large part of my ham radio experience. I also had interests like hiking, camping, road trips, and I liked to build antennas. It wasn’t long before I found out about VHF contesting, and the Rover classification. I worked with another ham, N1QVE, to assemble a rolling station and we did some good work in VHF contests in the 90’s.
I have been in and out of active ham radio operating for about a decade. It wasn’t until 2019 that I started thinking about improving my equipment and getting something better than my attic dipole for HF. I also had one eye on VHF all mode operation. I owned a Ten Tec Scout for HF mobile, and few of the Icom single-band VHF rigs like the IC-202/402/502 for VHF SSB/CW. Then I splurged and bought a “shack-in-a-box” Icom IC706, soon upgraded to the IC706-mkII, and that was my main radio for a few years. I’ve since owned a few of the Yaesu FT-857/817 family, and found them to be great radios. Looking around the catalogs in 2019 there were not many V/U All Mode options. I was running a Xiegu G90 (great rig) but it had no VHF+ capability. I decided on a Yaesu FT-919A and have been very happy with that radio.
2020 ARRL September VHF – Initial Low Drag Rover Concept:
In the summer of 2020, COVID-fever was at a max and any reason to get outside was a good reason. I used my free time to scout a few hilltop locations and figured I would give the ARRL September VHF Contest a go. The design restrictions were pretty simple:
- Single Op setup, so everything had to be riggable by me, alone, quickly, in whatever conditions I dared operate in.
- I ruled out operating on the road. I would only operate fixed. My days of running a recorder in the car and reviewing audio logs were well behind me.
- No major gear purchases. I only do it for fun, so why shell out for an extra few DB here or there
- Keep the rove manageable and fun. No slogging through vast stretches of highway in the dark of night for a possible grid activation.
- Have Fun.
I packed my 991A, my ELK LPDA, and a PVC mast on top of a PA speaker stand, and hit the road. I had a good time and actually racked up a respectable 2,325 points on SSB only, logging by hand, and only having a 5/8-wave 2m whip for 6m. This is how I learned to do it over 20 years ago, so why add more complexity for my first outing?
2021 ARRL June VHF – Lessons Learned
Over the nine months since the September contest I have put together a better portable setup for both POTA-style HF ops as well as VHF hill-topping and contesting. I built a wire Moxon for 6m and tried it out in the January VHF contest (a wind-driven washout), and liked it so much I purchased a PAR SM-50 Stressed Moxon and have been running it for a few months. I also upgraded my homebrew “tesla cell” LiFePO4 battery to a Bioenno 20A unit. As for my antenna rigging, some time in a hardware store with calipers netted me a 12-foot painter’s pole that is a slip fit to the ID of my speaker stand tubing. It also has an aluminum hex shaft which is perfect for the SM-50 mounting clamp.
I am still running RG-8X feedlines, and am not running any preamps, or power amps. This means I am making 50W max on 6m and 25W max on 144/432 with the 991A. It really is enough for the kind of operating I am doing. There is a huge spectrum between “stay home” and mega-rover. Even if the scoring system has no way to identify the details, I know my score came from single-handed barefoot operation with simple and affordable antennas.
I also made the switch to computer logging. While it *almost* violated my “no new gear on contest day” mantra, I picked up N3FJP’s VHF Contest logger and had enough time for a brief dry run before contest weekend. I knew I would have to work out the fine points under contest conditions, but I also brought a pad and pen JIC. I also ran WSJT-X to get me on FT8. I wish I had success with employing the multicast protocol because I missed having GridTracker, but maybe next time. TIP: Let N3FJP handle rig control. I lost mode tracking when I let WSJT-X control the rig.
VHF Digital Lessons/Issues:
I have been lucky enough to operate FT8 during some good 6M Es openings during May and June 2021. My experiences on HF FT8 translated very well. I was able to use the same techniques of moving my transmit frequency, strategic CQ calls, and so on. I expected things to work just as smoothly during the contest. Yes, there is one born every minute.
I had never operated WSJT-X in contest mode before and hadn’t really thought that through prior to the start of the contest. As I set up and started making a few pre-contest trial contacts it hit me that something was different. For one, the QSY on left pane double-click acts differently. As well I was having bad luck when replying to CQs while transmitting in a “clear spot”. I often had to reply on the calling station’s TX frequency. So while the potential for digging out more QSOs by working weaker stations was there, the reality was not so simple. I could have worked SSB stations much quicker, and “run the bands” much easier… if so many stations weren’t ditching SSB for FT8!
I put in a fair amount of time, at least 25%, working non-digital modes. There were times when I was making good contacts, and others where the CW/SSB was dead and FT8 was the only thing where a contact was possible. I was able to work W1AW and W1AN on 6M CW from Mowhawk Mtn. That was pretty cool. As much as I enjoy digital modes I do think the CW/SSB action is more enjoyable.
I decided to activate FN41,42,31,32 this year. The 1800Z start time for Saturday of the contest is a real style-cramper. I get it, but really? For a rover it leaves about seven total hours of daylight on Day 1. With many parks closing at sunset the decision to move locations cuts into a lot of operating time. My memories of driving through the night and only making a few new contacts, while hearing the same big-gun stations made the decision simple: Start on time, wrap it up at dark, get home, get some sleep, and put in a good shift in FN41 on Sunday.
Now that I live in coastal Rhode Island it makes the route-logistics a little more complicated. I started the contest in FN42 at a hilltop in Charlton, MA. That spot is great but they are all only as good as conditions (foreshadowing) allow. If I had just stayed there until dark I would have had a better overall contact/points total, but I was up for a drive and wanted to try a new spot for FN32.
After many different ops operating from hilltops in the NW Connecticut and Western MA area (FN31,32) it is hard to break that habit. They are good locations, but not perfect. That spot was the parking lot at Haystack Mountain in Norfolk, CT. It’s got a lot of trees blocking the RF/View, and the entire northern half of the azimuth is blocked by a mountain, but it isn’t terrible. Not great either. You get about 100 degrees of actual azimuth to play with from maybe 120-240 degrees.. Next was Mowhawk Mountain in Cornwall, CT. Mowhawk is a great location, but there is a lot of RF equipment up there and noise/intermod levels can by nasty. Bring your bandpass filters! Neither location “popped” but I did activate the grids and get a few new worked grids in the log. All in all not worth the drive (points-wise), but on this beautiful June day the drive was spectacular.
I had a nice time operating on Sunday from FN41. A local high-ish spot at a local farm field gave me plenty of elbow room and a safe off the road location to operate from. The RF conditions were not super. Normally I’d be ok with hearing some distant grids but not being able to work them. I wasn’t even hearing that! It was a grind. I did manage to get some good runs on 6m and 2m, add a few worked-grids, and even snag some DX with a VP8 and an EA7. What we had here in the northeastern US was a nice opening to Europe! Even then I wasn’t hearing too many Europeans. It was just a soft day on the bands. After about 5 hours I worked a nice run of locals on 2M FT8 and called it a day.
It wasn’t a terrible contest. For the type of operation I describe here it was a success. It looks like I tallied just north of 3,500pts, activated four grids, and put on about 300mi. Those are Southern New England Miles. It’s like dog years compared to other parts of the US. I think it’s fair to say conditions for this contest didn’t favor my low power setup. I was counting on a strong opening to the mid-west or southeast and it never materialized. Fun was had. I’m looking forward to the next one.
- Rovering is a great way to wring out your mobile/portable setups. I feel like my POTA setup got better, and I have a few ideas for improvements.
- Something was very odd with beam headings. I felt like I was way off heading on a few contacts where I set the beam heading by ear.
- Also, setting the beam heading on FT8 while armstrong-ing the mast with one hand and reading the screen and running a mouse is not easy. Ideally I would watch the waterfall and try to peak a station visually. Easier said than done.
- I ran my 20A LiFePO4 DEEP into the cycle and it held up beautifully. I have a Bioenno 1503CAR for charging on the go. It helps to recover charge but won’t fully recover the charge on a short drive. The way to go is probably switching between 2x20Ah, or just a 50Ah cell.
- It’s a fun way to get out and play on the high bands. Give it a shot even if all you have is a FM rig and a small beam. If nothing else use an all mode receiver (SDR is a great way to go) and monitor the high bands during a contest. It’s a good way to hear HF-band levels of activity on VHF+ and you might get motivated to join in.