Yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving, I had the rare opportunity to do outdoor radio with three seasoned QRP operators: W1PID – Jim Cluett, K1SWL – Dave Benson and W1JSB – Hanz Busch.
Here I am with Jim Cluett and Dave Benson. Photo credit: Hanz Busch – W1JSB
We decided to meet at Winslow State Park on the northwest flank of Mt. Kearsarge in Winslow, NH.
The tip of the red arrow points to a rare flat spot on the flank of Mt. Kearsarge. The view to the west, north and east is dramatic. Image credit: Google Maps
The WX was forecast to be extremely warm, as much as 15-20 degrees above normal. It was warm down in the valleys, but it was quite windy and chilly as we settled in to have some fun.
The last time I operated from this picnic area the black flies ruled the day. I suffered for a month from the bites of those little devils. Today, there were no bugs, and we were rewarded with some very good contacts.
It didn’t take long for Jim to set up. He’s been doing outdoor radio for so many years he knows how to set up his 28-foot wire in a tree faster than you can say “Practice fifteen minutes a day every day and you can be a respectable CW operator in six months or less.”
Here is Jim Cluett, W1PID, setting up his halyard. He can almost always get the right branch first throw. Photo credit: Hanz Busch W1JSB
Dave and Jim decided to operate at the end of the flat prominence while Hanz and I selected a picnic table about fifty feet south.
Here I am about ready to release a small piece of railroad ballast that’s tied to a 3-foot length of 3/16-inch parachute cord. Photo credit: Hanz Busch
It was partly cloudy with a strong wind. At first I thought there’d be enough solar radiation to keep me warm, but I was wrong.
I had an excellent throw my first time up into the trees next to the picnic area. I’ve discovered that you must use a thicker piece of cord that’s attached to a partially filled water bottle, a rock or some other weight. If you just use thin, 1/16th-inch, micro cord only you’ll get a nasty rope burn as the twirling object releases and sails to the sky.
While Hanz and I set up, Jim was busy. He wastes no time making DX contacts. Here’s his list of contacts for the day:
VP5/W5CW Turks and Caicos
PJ6/OH3JR Saba Island
CT9/LZ2JR Madeira Island
EA8/RC5A Canary Island
Hanz and I started out with my reliable YouKits HB-1B, but soon we switched to the MFJ 20-meter cub radio Hanz helped me build over the past two years.
Here’s a dandy QRP radio. The MFJ 20M Cub. It’s 1.5 watts or so is more than enough power to have fun. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
This radio, in my opinion, is a true QRP rig. On its best day it puts out just under 2 watts. It didn’t let us down as we worked two DX stations with the attractive radio and my resonant 20-meter dipole antenna hanging perfectly vertical from the tree next to us.
Before switching to the MFJ 20-meter cub Hanz said so very politely, “Tim, I don’t think your antenna is working as well as it could.”
Here’s W1JSB, Hanz Busch. He’s quite serious in this photo. When you meet him, he’s got an infectious laugh. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
He had been hearing strong signals coming through the HB-1B, but no one could hear him come back.
“I know the antenna is tuned just about perfectly for the part of 20 meters we’re working. We can set up my Par EndFedz antenna if you want,” I replied shrugging my shoulders. It didn’t matter to me what antenna we’d use.
“Let’s get out the Cub you helped me build and try it first.”
Hanz was agreeable to that as it took just ten seconds to disconnect the BNC connector to my RG-174 coax cable from the HB-1B and put it on the Cub. We rotated the power button and the Cub came alive!
Within thirty minutes the magical little Cub did some magnificent DX with the resonant 20-meter dipole. It turns out that sometimes you just have to put the blame on the propagation instead of the antenna. I had put the antenna on a tester, so I knew it was rock solid.
Here I am trying to stay warm in the windy conditions. The 20-meter Cub would not let us down on this day. Photo credit: Jim Cluett – W1PID
Our first contact was YT1AD in Serbia. He must do CW as a profession as he’s got over 117,00 lookups on QRZ.com! Some of that must be automatic contesting lookups from those operators who have their radios connected directly to QRZ or other databases.
Next up was WQ9H in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Hanz had a short rag chew with Mike and he wished us well on our outside adventure.
It was time for more DX. Hanz snared a Ukrainian operator who was in the Canary Islands. It was: EA8/UA3RF. He was going fast – probably 35 WPM or better. That’s far beyond my humble current listening speed.
We finished up with Dick, W9AK in Wisconsin. He gave us a 589 signal report so the little Cub was doing just fine with its 1 or 2 watts.
While Hanz was operating I took a break and went down to visit Dave Benson, the founder of Small Wonders Lab. Dave’s got an admirable legacy with many QRP operators who have his creations in their shacks.
Here’s Dave Benson, K1SWL. He loves the outdoors and doing radio. Photo credit: Jim Cluett – W1PID
It was a fun outing and everyone there worked stations. Jim and Dave had the most flexibility with each of them using their Elecraft KX3 radios. The KX3 can cover all the HF bands so if one is dead, you try to go hunting elsewhere. Hanz and I could only do 20 meters and weren’t disappointed.
You’re looking due north and can see Jim and Dave grabbing code from the ether. Photo credit: Hanz Busch – W1JSB
After about an hour, we decided we’d had enough of the wind. We packed up and went down the mountain for a cup of coffee. Another successful outdoor outing!
As you can see from the map below, we have our choice of great mountains to operate from here in New Hampshire. We’re blessed with striking scenery and wide-open vistas.
The red ballon shows Mt. Kearsarge in the lower left corner. That green patch of hills, well that’s the famous White Mountains of New Hampshire. Image credit: Google Maps
Today I was bumbling in the brambles next to the rushing waters of the Pemigewasset River adjacent to Profile Falls just three miles south of Bristol, NH.
What is that bright dot of a person doing sitting on a small flood-plain shelf next to the rushing waters of the Pemigewasset River?. Photo credit: Jim Cluett – W1PID
Jim Cluett, W1PID, provided that apt description above of me setting up my resonant 20-meter dipole antenna as we drove back away from the falls.
When we made plans to go out just 90 minutes before, it was mostly sunny and about 47 F with no wind to speak of. It was much different from when we were out just four days before at the Newport, NH airport.
Just above where I was sitting in the brush, there are three wonderful picnic tables under a majestic giant pine tree. It’s wonderful to sit at the tables and look down at the river.
I tried to get my halyard micro-cord up to the perfect branch, but I released the swinging cord two tenths of a second too early and the throw went low. But as the rock on the end continued to soar towards the river, it went higher in some trees by the riverbank.
Frustrated and in no mood to throw the line again, I noticed once I was down in the brambles that the micro cord was falling straight down. This side of the cord was perfect all except I was not going to be sitting at a table, but in some dry leaves.
Immediately I scrambled up the hill and retrieved my waterproof box that had my HB-1B and all my other gear to get on the air. Minutes later my earphones were in, my micro pico paddles in my hand and the radio was on with 11.4 volts showing. I was all set to start hunting.
Most everything I need to operate fits inside the small clear waterproof Outdoor Products plastic box. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
Within ninety seconds I contacted N8ZYA. My signal report from him was only a 349. John told me he was at 5 watts on his ICOM 703 and was happy to hear I was outdoors doing QRP too. “FB ON 4 WATTS POWER. HAVE FUN OUTDOORS.”
I told John I was on a hike and that I’d send him a link to this story.
I started doing this recently because Jim told me the operators he’s contacted for years love seeing the photos of where he’s operated outdoors. One of his friends in Europe described it as putting “flesh on the skeleton”.
After I finished up with John, Jim hollered down to me about a huge contest happening over in Europe.
“They’ll be going really fast. All you need to send back is 599 and 8.”
I took a small break and just gazed across the fast flowing water. The Pemi was up perhaps two feet from it’s normal level from a heavy rain two nights before.
It seemed like I was closer to the water than I was. Even if I fell in, the water at the edge is probably only 2 feet deep. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
I tried to go down the band towards 14.025 deeper into the jungle. This is where I have to be brave, but I heard no one. My General privileges only allow me to go that far. This winter I’m trying to get my Extra privileges so I can explore the entire portion of 20 meters allowed to amateur operators here in the USA.
Twenty minutes later after hunting around the band and talking with Jim I heard N9ZXL calling CQ. His signal wasn’t as strong as I’d like, but I felt I had nothing to lose answering him.
Sure enough Dave heard me and gave me a respectable 549 signal report. My hands were starting to get a little cold by this time, so it’s possible he gave me a 459 and I transposed the numerals. I returned a 559 and told him, “WX MOSTLY CLOUDY TEMP 45 F”.
Here I am happy as a pig in mud avoiding the skunk. Jim says I’m getting better, but I know I still have a very long way to go. Photo credit: Jim Cluett, W1PID
As often happens I hear others calling CQ but they can’t hear me. I clearly heard AA7FV, KK4UOE and W2NRA. Perhaps I’ll connect with them another day.
With less and less daylight each day as we approach the winter solstice, it was time to pack up and head back. Jim got eight or more QSOs. A few of them he snared on 20 meters in the European contest while I was playing patty-cake with my antenna halyard.
Each time on the air my skills improve. I’m excited about that.
Today the signals radiating off my 20-meter resonant dipole antenna were really taking off. It was hung straight down from a majestic pine tree branch next to the grass runway at the Newport, NH airport.
The end of the grass strip is adjacent to the Sugar River which you cross using the historic Corbin covered bridge.
Here’s the stunning Corbin covered bridge built in 1835 and restored 159 years later! Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
It was a remarkable late fall day and Jim Cluett, W1PID and Dave Benson, K1SWL joined me to bask in the intense sunshine of this cloud-free day. November in New Hampshire can be day after day of cold, penetrating rain.
Jim is well known in the outdoor QRP radio community. Dave is the founder of Small Wonder Labs and is responsible for inventing many tiny low-powered radios not the least of which is the famous Rockmite.
Jim and I decided to travel west to see Dave because Dave’s traveled the sixty miles to the Lakes Region to play radio with us. We keep thinking we’ll have our last outing for the year, but the weather continues to be unseasonably warm and sunny.
I asked if he caught anything and the fisherman grunted at me. He wasn’t too happy. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
While I was walking near the bridge looking at the placid water of the Sugar River and watching a fly fisherman, Jim was busy setting up his antenna. He’s such a pro and rarely gets his halyard line tangled. I believe today he got the branch he wanted on his first throw.
Here’s Jim just after getting his halyard line up into a gorgeous pine tree. You can see the runway markers. I set up just to the left of Jim’s head where you see the third pile of pine needles. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
I decided to wander about 200 feet east of Jim and Dave along the north edge of the grass runway. The sky was so blue it almost hurt your eyes to look at it.
Today was not my day and I struggled to get my halyard line up to the branch 40 feet up in the air. I believe I had no less than six pathetic attempts at getting my thin micro-cord up to the correct branch.
It’s not as easy to throw the line up as you might think. Release too early and the rock and line goes at too low an angle. Release a fraction of a second too late and the rock and cord goes vertical.
While I was making a fool of myself, Dave and Jim were gathering QSOs and no doubt talking about old times. They seemed to be very relaxed today.
You’re looking at two giants in the QRP field – Dave Benson is on the left and Jim Cluett is sitting in the chair. I’m so lucky to be able to learn from both. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
Jim and Dave are experienced operators. They were sharing Jim’s Elecraft KX3. Here’s a video of them having some fun. Dave decided to try to get a QSO for me as I was shooting the video. Listen to the code he sends! This was a last-minute idea and no planning was involved so the video could have been much better.
Jim had just worked FG/F6ARC in Guadeloupe. The video may be confusing, but I think it will give you a flavor of the afternoon and the surroundings.
Once I put up my antenna, I wasted no time getting on the air. It didn’t take me but three minutes to avoid the skunk! I heard N4NQ, Sid, finishing up a QSO and jumped right on his di dit (shave and a haircut) throwing out my call sign.
Sid came right back from Lawrenceville, GA. He was blistering fast for me, but I heard my RST and I gave him the 599 he deserved as his signal was loud and crystal clear in my tiny HB-1B radio.
Bingo! There I am in Sidney’s log! TNX Sidney for your patience with me. Image credit: QRZ.com
I’m trying to get more and more practice so I can hear Morse above my turtle-slow 11 WPM.
Next up was Ken, KG4LLQ in Asheboro, NC. Obviously my signal was strong to the south. I experienced some significant fading, QSB, during the exchange, but was able to copy my RST of 559. I gave Ken the same signal report.
Here I am concentrating trying to hear Ken, KG4LLQ. Photo credit: Jim Cluett – W1PID
Ken was interested to discover I was QRP. My HB-1B was only showing 10.8 volts rather than the 12 it normally shows, so that means less output. I may have only been at 3 watts.
Last up was Jim, W8RTJ from Amherst, OH. He was kind enough to slow down for me and we did a quick exchange. He gave me a 559, but I sent him 599 back as he was so very very strong into me.
It was time to pack up and head back home. Sometimes Jim and I go browsing at firearms stores on our adventures and there were two gun shops on our way home.
I felt very lucky to be with Jim and Dave today. The are very patient with my developing skills. If you’ve never operated outdoors, I highly recommend it. It’s even more fun if you bring along a buddy or two!
I took some extra photos of the covered bridge because it’s one of the gems of New Hampshire. She’s 180 years old!
Yesterday, while on a vacation to Cincinnati, OH with my wife, I operated from a serene limestone bench at the Cincinnati Nature Center. Joining us were my oldest daughter Meghan and her husband Brent.
The Cincinnati Nature Center is dotted with wood and stone benches donated by people, and family members, who have enjoyed the serenity found in this parcel of majestic trees, meadows and creeks. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
Twenty years ago, maybe more, Kathy and I used to take our kids here for hikes through the woods in this rare piece of terra firma that still has some old growth forest on it. Believe it or not, we had similar 300-400 year-old trees behind our own home located in Amberley Village, a suburb of Cincinnati.
Kathy and I had traveled a few days earlier from New Hampshire to visit her aging father. The trip was planned to also take advantage of our oldest daughter Meghan and her husband Brent being in town. We hadn’t see either of them in over a year since they had moved to California.
The weather was splendid. High thin clouds allowed the sun to bless us with a high temperature of 61 F. The trees had shed all their leaves, so the warm rays of the sun had no trouble finding us down in the forest.
The Cincinnati Nature Center is big. Some of the trails go down into the valleys you see here. CLICK this map to get an interactive map so you can see where it is. The lookout tower icon is where I was. Image credit: Google Maps
After hiking for about 45 minutes, Kathy, Meghan and Brent sat on a wooden bench while I set up my HB-1B QRP radio. I decided to put up my resonant 20-meter center-fed dipole antenna. There was a perfect tree next to the limestone branch that would allow the antenna to hang vertically.
Everything I need to operate fits into the clear plastic box and the two sandwich bags. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
I decided to hang out around 14.060 MhZ to see if I could find any other QRP operators.
It didn’t take long to find George, K2WO.
He was in Orlando, FL, so my 4 watts of power and the vertical dipole were doing a great job on this day. I gave him a 459 signal report and he gave me the same one back. I was happy with that.
Next up was W3ZMN, Conrad coming to me from Bethlehem, PA. His signal was really pretty strong and he had heard me finishing up my QSO with George.
I had a huge grin on my face when he called out to me, “W3ATB DE W3ZMN.”
I gave him a 599 because of his crystal-clear signal. I received a 579 RST signal report from him.
A few minutes later I was able to work K9OSC, Bob up in Friedley, MN. His signal was so strong I thought he was in the Nature Center parking lot. I gave him a 599 and he gave me a 579 report.
I mentioned to Bob where I was and he wished me good luck on the rest of our hike.
A cold front was approaching from the West that would bring wind and rain to Cincinnati in just a few hours.
Winter is coming and there are just not that many days you can get out and operate comfortably. Yesterday was one of the handful of days left.
I was beaming to have completed three QSOs on my own at one outing. Each time out I can see improvement in my skills. It’s really gratifying.
If you’ve never done outdoor low-powered operation, I encourage you to try.
Yesterday before sunrise I was one of the few people at blustery and chilly Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA. The lake water crashing on the beach was screaming that winter is coming.
Yes it is.
The red arrow points to where I parked my car along a narrow road that parallels the beach. Image credit: Google Maps
My wife Kathy and I had stopped in Erie to break up the fifteen-hour drive between our home in central New Hampshire and Cincinnati, OH. We were on our way to see family in Ohio.
I’m an early riser and Kathy’s a night owl like her dad. That gives me about three hours each morning to explore or conjure up an adventure. Today I was determined to operate from the shoreline of one of our Great Lakes here in the USA.
The temperature was 36 F, it was mostly cloudy and I estimate a stiff 15 mph wind was coming out of the northwest along the water. I arrived about fifteen minutes before the sun peaked over the horizon.
In warmer weather you could easily use the trees on the other side of the road and sit at a picnic table next to the water. How lucky the hams are who live here in Erie, PA!. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
Because of the cold, I decided to operate inside my car so I’d be more comfortable. There were plenty of tall trees right next to the road that would kindly accept my green micro cord I use as a halyard to pull up my par EndFedz 10, 20 and 40-meter antenna.
I brought with me a fine flat stone from NH to use as a weight to get my micro cord up about 30 feet, or more, into a tree. My first throw was perfect and the stone dropped straight down so I could easily retrieve it.
Within a few moments, I had deployed my antenna and I attached my 25-foot piece of RG-174 coax cable that extended from the antenna matchbox to the inside of the car. I had tied the one end of the halyard to a 6×6 support post to an adjacent picnic shelter.
You can see the magical matchbox at the end of the Par EndFedz multi-band antenna. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
It only took a few moments in the car to get on the air.
I figured my QRP outdoor radio mentor, Jim Cluett – W1PID, would be up and moving about so I texted him saying I was on the air.
He texted back suggesting we go to the upper part of 40 meters because the massive Sweepstakes ARRL contest was in full swing.
I had no trouble doing a fast QSO with Jim and his signal was booming into me. He gave me an honest report, that’s all I ever want, of 569. Of course he got the 599 he deserved.
Even though we did an official QSO, I never feel good about working Jim under these conditions. What I mean is I had to text him to get him to be where I was.
Sure, the band conditions were favorable and we did a QSO, but I feel the real ones are the ones you get when you stumble across, bump into or pounce upon that invisible person you can’t see.
Jim suggested I send CQ on the upper part of 40 meters between 7.110 and 7.115 MhZ. I tried for 20 minutes or more and gave up.
I decided to descend into the wild jungle.
Off I went to the mid part of 20 meters and it was a cacophony of code.
This is where my radio was and you can see me in the jungle. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
I started fine tuning my HB-1B and found W1SJ calling CQ. He was so strong I had to turn my volume way down.
I’m not a contester. I did happen to work one a week before – the Zombie Shuffle – but it’s a fun, low-intensity contest. This day you’d find the animals roaming the bands eating small grasshoppers like me much like a small oyster cracker that disappears down one’s throat.
I was in a pileup but believe it or not he heard my weak 4-watt signal and came back. I thought I heard a RST of 599, but I didn’t. I estimate his sending speed at probably 25 WPM.
I had no idea what he sent as my listening speed at this time is half that on my best day.
Little did I know that RST was not part of the official exchange for this contest. What an idiot I was to wander into the jungle without knowing the rules.
I sent back his RST of 599, PA and the number “1” as he was officially my first contact in the contest.
Because I didn’t take the time to discover the rules of the contest, I was unaware I wasn’t providing the correct information for the contest exchange.
No doubt he was shaking his head tempted to send back LID. Hells bells, he probably did send back LID and I didn’t hear it!
I was happy, I barely survived the jungle, but survive I did for another day!
It was time to get back to see Kathy so we could continue our journey west.
Thank you Jim for teaching me all I know so far. I’m having a blast! I now know to read contest rules before communicating with a contester!
We were blessed with what I thought might be our last really warm day of the year.
The temperature was in the mid 60’s and had there been no clouds, there’s no doubt the thermometer would have climbed above 70 F.
Jim set up at his usual spot by the flat rock above the old abandoned mill foundation that’s right at the falls.
I walked about 150 feet north on the railroad tracks and set up at my usual location. This rail line used to part of the Boston & Maine Railroad and it’s still in use by the small scenic Plymouth and Lincoln Railroad.
My HB-1B radio was soon to snag two QSOs out of the ether.
“Are you going to use your new 20-meter resonant dipole today? If so, I suggest you shorten it by one inch to get better results.”
I took Jim’s advice and used my SOG Flash II pocket knife to carefully strip the insulation from the thin 22 gauge stranded wire. It’s such a good knife that I have two of them in case I lose mine or they stop making them.
Twenty meters was active. My antenna was doing a great job in a vertical position. From the center-fed connector, I had a 25-foot length of RG-174 coax.
Here I am copying the QSO from W4LYH. Photo credit: Jim Cluett – W1PID
I heard lots of stations and soon I heard W4LYH calling CQ. Immediately I responded with my call sign.
It was Martin and guess what? He was outdoors at Douglas Lake in TN. It’s a TVA flood-control dam.
He was operating with a Ten Tec “Rebel” at 5 watts and gave me a 559.
I was probably at 4 watts as the voltage on my HB-1B was just at 11 volts.
How fun to have a QRP/P to QRP/P QSO!
There was some fading (QSB) but I was able to copy most of the exchange, even with my poor and still-developing CW hearing skills.
Just as I was finishing up, Jim came down. He only tends to operate for about twelve minutes, sometimes fifteen, then puts away his equipment. In that time, he can usually complete four or five DX QSOs if the bands are open.
He sat down next to me and I knew I was about to get another lesson. How lucky I am to have a kind and generous QRP Outdoor Radio Sensei.
“How are you doing? Give me one of your earbuds and let’s see what’s out there.”
Within a few moments we heard Bert, F6HKA.
“Oh, that’s my friend Bert. We’ll work him.”
Jim seems to have a mind like a steel trap. He remembers call signs and each person’s name like I recall childhood memories.
Bert was in an extended QSO so we waited.
Once we heard the 73 each operator was giving, I threw out my call sign.
Bert heard me! He gave me a 569 and I gave him a solid 599 as his signal was so strong, I had to turn the volume way down on my HB-1B.
What a thrill to work a French DX station with my tiny radio and simple vertical dipole antenna.
When I got home, there was a message from Peter Ackerman, DL3NAA from Germany.
Holy Cow! It looks like my antenna and the ionosphere were perfectly aligned on this day!
Soon the wicked winter winds will be howling and it will take lots of courage to stay outdoors.
Those words were spoken to me many moons ago by my CW, QRP and outdoor radio sensei Jim Cluett, W1PID.
He wasn’t talking about the Zombie Shuffle, a fun low-intensity contest that’s held each year on the Friday night that’s closest to Halloween.
This year the shuffle was on Halloween Eve, a perfect dark evening to have some great fun.
Jim’s advice about courage had to do with getting on the air and wandering into the jungle of invisible radio waves as a CW beginner.
Believe me, it can be a scary place.
But last night, I was brave. Unbeknownst to me over the past two weeks I had reached yet another plateau on my long and arduous CW journey.
I was about to discover I finally had listening skills that would allow me to have the most fun yet on the air. And fun I had!
Last year I signed up for the Shuffle and was lucky enough to garner a very special number. Zombie numbers are given for life.
Mine was 1111.
The two ghouls behind the Zombie Shuffle are Paul and Jan Harden, NA5N and N0QT. They refer to themselves as the Grand Zombie Grand Witchess and Contest Coroner.
I want to thank both for creating a special memory for me. Prior to last night the most QSOs I’d ever done on one day was three, maybe four.
In just over two hours last night I’d do thirteen.
Yeah, if you’re an experienced pro, you can do 100 or more Qs in two hours, but years ago you were where I was last night. You didn’t start out doing CW at 30 WPM.
But I digress.
The shuffle is a fun contest. It’s not meant to be a high-speed adrenaline-filled sprint or like the madness of Field Day.
“There is no point to the Zombie Shuffle whatsoever except to get on the air and have fun with fellow Zombies and QRPers. Even with only 2-3 QSOs, you can earn a fairly large score to brag to your co-workers and QRO buddies. If you haven’t been on the air for awhile, or you are a new CW ham, your fist is “rusty,” or your code speed is slow, this is the “contest” to put a few contacts in the log. Note that the scoring is based on SERENDIPITY rather than operating skill.”
I was sending at 12 WPM with a spacing of probably 10 WPM. Everyone who I worked slowed for me and I was able to copy 98 percent of everything sent. I was euphoric.
Moments before sundown last night, that’s when the contest starts no matter where you live, Jim called me.
“Do you want me to work you right now on 3.560 for the Zombie Shuffle so you don’t get skunked?”
“What? Oh my gosh! That’s right, the contest starts in just a few minutes. I forgot about it! Thanks for calling! And NO, I don’t want to work you now. I’ll not be begging for QSOs tonight. I emailed you my goal of ten Qs. I’ll do just fine without you.”
What was he thinking? Well, when viewed from his perspective I’ve not been putting in the requisite time to become a skilled operator.
But Jim doesn’t know me that well. When I decide to do something, I do it. The issue with CW is that I’m still a working stiff and a few other things have nudged me away from the key.
I hung up the phone and rushed up to the shack.
Quickly I reviewed the frequencies, made a crude logbook in my notebook and turned on the radio.
I started out at 40 meters because I thought that would be alive at this time of day / pre-night.
I wasn’t disappointed. I went to 7.030.30 and started to call CQ.
Because I’m a rookie contest grasshopper, I did my CQ wrong.
Here’s what I sent: CQ CQ CQ BOO W3ATB W3ATB K
What I should have sent was: CQ BOO W3ATB W3ATB K
Oh well, the pros knew what was going on and were gentle with me.
Within a few minutes N8RVE came back. BOOM!
I had my first Zombie QSO.
Then another, and another and another.
I can’t remember if Jim texted me or called me, but over the next hour I’d text him at least five or six times and we’d talk on the phone a few times.
I was so excited I was telling him what was happening.
Early in the contest I had five or six QSOs to his one!
Hah! We eventually worked each other on both 80 and 40 meters. You’re allowed to work the same station more than once so long as you’re on different bands.
Time passed quickly. Before I knew it I had been on the air for over two hours with just a 10-minute break for dinner.
Jim knew I’d love to work an Elvis in the shuffle.
Elvis and Elvira stations are operators who you can work to get 666 extra points.
Jim found WA5TCZ on 20 meters and texted me.
After several attempts, he finally heard me and was extremely patient as I was battling lots of fading – QSB.
By 8:30 pm I was tired. What’s more, my body chemistry was changing as the adrenaline that powered me two hours before was being neutralized in my veins.
It didn’t matter. I had a grin on my face as big as any carved pumpkin in central New Hampshire.
It was a night I’ll never forget and there’s lots to be said about being brave.
It was a bright cloud-free day and even though we’re just days away from November, there was still lots of color on the trees. Fall came late this year because of a very warm September.
Here’s what I was looking at just after leaving my driveway. It was going to be a splendid day!
We met to go to the falls after I left my truck to get serviced at a local Ford dealership. Jim and I had at least two hours to play radio and get some lunch. We ended up stretching it to three hours as it was such a gorgeous day.
As we walked down the dirt path to the falls, we could hear the roar of the water.
This is the Pemigewasset River just before it dives down the falls. You can see the first step in the falls in the lower right corner.
The Pemigewasset River cuts across some very hard metamorphic rock that’s been polished and rounded by countless gallons of water over thousands of years.
I couldn’t resist shooting this video of the rushing water.
Although Jim and I have been here at least two other times, this was the first time I had wandered down to the water’s edge. There’s a giant sand bar on the west side of the river and someone had stacked a few stone cairns.
This cairn was about 18 inches tall. I wonder how long it will stand?
It was peaceful down by the river.
As I was admiring the falls and soaking up being next to the roaring water, Jim was busy setting up next to some railroad tracks above the river.
Jim’s a pro. He found a perfect spot in the sun with a nice flat rock to use as an outdoor ham shack.
He’s my outdoor QRP radio sensei and he’s a pro at working as many bands as possible in a short amount of time.
Today would turn out to be one of his best days ever with respect to other operators able to hear his signal. Propagation was superb and he was racking up the QSOs.
Here he is working his first contact. Years ago Jim was a TV news producer and helped create lots of news video, but as you’ll soon see, he doesn’t like to be on the other side of the lens.
I After shooting the above video, I wandered north up the railroad track about 150 feet and set up.
Here I am just before I make my sole QSO with G4MLW. Photo credit: Jim Cluett – W1PID
I’ve got a dandy HB-1B and was only able to work 20 and 40 meters.
Twenty meters was quite active, but for some reason many of the stations I could hear well, they couldn’t hear me. Jim thought it was my piece-of-crap 3-foot BNC cable that connects my radio to my par-EndFedz antenna.
He could be right.
I was trying to hunt and pounce and all of a sudden I heard a station BOOMING into me. It was Ian from England – G4MLW.
He was going much faster than I could copy, but I got part of his call sign the first time.
He came right back to me giving me a 559 signal report and I clearly copied his name.
I responded with a 599 as his signal was so strong it was as I was sitting next to him in his shack.
I asked him to repeat his call sign and he did.
By that time Jim had wandered up the track and took one of my ear buds. He was able to hear, with ease, Ian’s call sign.
I barely avoided the skunk, but the glorious WX made up for my dismal performance.
Winter is just around the corner and you can probably count on one hand the number of great days like today that we might get out to do more outdoor radio.
The Beginners Guide can be found after the following story. I encourage you to read the story and look at the photos before reading the Beginners Guide.
Tim Carter – W3ATB
The Head of the Charles Regatta is a world-class public service event for any amateur radio operator. It all started in 1965 and it’s held in Boston, MA every October.
Here’s how the organizers of the event describe it at their website:
“Since its origin in 1965, the Head Of The Charles® Regatta has welcomed the world’s best crew teams to the banks of the Charles River for the ultimate two-day rowing competition.”
I’ve worked quite a few public service events, including the Boston Marathon and if you’re an amateur operator that wants to challenge your skills, the Head of the Charles is one you don’t want to miss.
Yesterday, October 16, 2015, I worked the regatta for the first time. I was out on the wind-swept water of the Charles River in an odd open fiberglass pontoon boat as part of a three-man team. My tactical call sign was Safety Launch 3.
You can see a few of the odd open pontoon boats docked here at the MIT boathouse. A crew is pulling into the dock from an early practice on the water. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
Amateur radio operators provide critical communications during the event in case crew members tumble into the cold waters of the Charles River and need to be rescued.
I’ll share my story of the day’s events and then I’ll provide you with invaluable tips that I wish I had known about prior to arriving in Boston.
Departure Time – 5:30 AM
While the competition is a two-day event, the hundreds of teams from around the USA and the world practice on the Friday before the event turning it into a three-day event for the hundreds of volunteers like me.
I decided to only work the practice day to get my feet wet. I’m glad I did because all volunteers need to be present for 6:00 AM meetings at the various boathouses dotting the shoreline of the infamous Charles River on the two competition days.
On the Friday practice day, that arrival time is pushed back to 8:30 AM. I decided that I’d leave my central New Hampshire home at 5:30 AM so I’d arrive in Boston just after 7:30 AM. It’s only a one hour and fifty-minute drive so I thought I’d pad in some time for rush hour.
Since I rarely drive into Boston on a work day morning, I discovered that the commuters must leave their homes at 4:00 AM to try to avoid the snarled roadways that feed into the metropolis.
Stressed out after three, not two, hours of fighting stop-and-go traffic I pulled into an empty parking spot at the MIT boathouse in the famous Basin of the Charles River.
It’s just upriver from the Route 2A bridge that spans the waterway soon to be clogged with hundreds and hundreds of the sleek sculls. I discovered I had to move my truck to a parking lot about a half mile away, but that had to wait until after the brief organizational meeting down next to the dock in the boathouse.
The boathouse was clogged with volunteers of all sorts getting other volunteers checked in. Safety launch boats and other launches were being readied for the day.
Many of the launches were manned by women and men who’s job it was to try to keep the sculls from crashing into one another along the three-mile section of the Charles River where the regatta takes place.
As the day progressed I discovered these other launches would be anchored near bridges and tight turns in the river. Using megaphones the workers would alert the crews and coxswain about impending danger.
Visibility at the arched bridges that span the Charles can be limited as late in the day an eight-person scull nearly crashed into the launch I was in as we both entered, from different directions, a bridge archway.
WX – The Ham Acronym for Weather
The weather forecast for Boston yesterday was spot on. It was cloudy and windy in the morning. The air temperature was in the mid 50’s F, but there was a stiff 15 mph wind whipping across the water from the west. It felt much much colder than it was. A passing light rain shower happened just before 9 am and I was fretting being out in the rain all day.
Here are the flags that flew from a pole attached to the seat of my launch. You can see how cloudy it was and the pennants are unfurled flapping in the stiff wind. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
As the morning passed, the sun made a welcome appearance and it was quite sunny until sunset. The wind didn’t let up all day although it was much stronger in the morning than the afternoon.
The weather almanac shows it reached 61 F in the afternoon, but I was wearing long underwear and four layers of clothes on my body core and was just barely warm enough. You can’t bring too many clothes to this event.
Here’s what the weather looked like after lunch. It was a great day on the water. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
Each safety launch is assigned a section of the regatta course to patrol. There were only five safety launches out on practice day, but on Saturday and Sunday there are usually no less than ten of the funny open pontoon boats scattered on the Charles River.
Our captain, Kevin, was an experienced pilot and this was his third year working the event. We kept to the Cambridge side of the river and hugged the shore because some lane buoys were often just 100 feet, or less, from the shoreline.
Here’s Kevin checking out the launch controls before we left the dock. Photo credit: Tim Carter – W3ATB
We spent the day motoring at no-wake speed going up and down the river always scanning the rowers looking for someone who was in trouble. Fortunately no one ended up in the water all day. That’s what we, as volunteers, want. No medical emergencies were reported all day. That’s also a good thing.
The radio operators in charge of the event set up three different frequencies to handle the radio traffic. Two of them utilized local repeaters and the third frequency was a local simplex radio-to-radio frequency.
Signal propagation can change from day to day and hour to hour. We discovered that the Bravo – or secondary repeater – produced a much better clarity so all of us switched to it by Noon.
Here I am with wind-swept hair. The Weeks Bridge is in the background. It’s just down river from the historic Harvard Boathouse. Photo credit: Patrick the BC student First Aid crew member
I was equipped with two Yaesu VX-7R hand-held radios. Both had the three frequencies pre-programmed into the memory. That makes it easier to switch from one of the three frequencies we were using.
What it’s Like on the Water
It’s hard to describe what it’s like being on the water and watching the sculls go faster than the launch.
That’s why I taped a video. Watch it:
End of Day
The crews vacate the river after the sun sets. Each safety launch is released from duty once their section of the river is clear of the sculls.
We pulled into the dock at the MIT boathouse as twilight was deepening. I turned in my life preserver and Kevin and I walked the half mile back the parking lot where we could saddle up and head home.
He had a two-hour drive back to CT and I was headed north up I-93 to central New Hampshire.
I thoroughly enjoyed my day at the event and will be back next year. If you’re an amateur radio operator, I encourage you to volunteer. You’ll be a better person in many respects if you do, and you’ll get a handsome jacket and hat for your efforts.
The Amateur Radio Operator’s Beginner’s Guide to the Head of the Charles Regatta
If you’ve never worked the Head of the Charles (HOC) Regatta as a ham radio operator, the following should help you.
To the best of my knowledge there are just a few different assignments. I base this assumption on the assignment sheets the organizers sent out before the event.
It appears there are radio operators at:
boathouses on the course
key bridges crossing the Charles River
walking teams that go up and down the Boston and Cambridge shorelines
safety launch boats
event main tent – to communicate with HOC organizers about major problems
There could be other assignments, but this is what I could decipher from the assignment sheet.
The walking teams probably are with first aid volunteers to offer assistance should a scull capsize near a shoreline. That’s just a guess as I’ve not talked with an operator who was on a walking team.
I wonder if it wouldn’t be a wise idea to have the walking teams use bicycles for faster response time, but once again, I don’t know enough about what they do to surmise if that’s a good idea.
Parking in Boston and Cambridge can be a challenge. The universities seem to provide parking passes for a few parking lots near key meeting locations.
I was able to park in an approved lot about 1/3 of a mile from the MIT boathouse. It was a short walk and quite safe.
If you work on the Saturday and Sunday you should never have an issue getting into Boston at 5:30 AM to make your 6 AM meeting time.
If you work the Friday practice day as I did, plan for SEVERE traffic congestion within a 10-mile radius of the regatta course. It took me an hour to go the last ten miles of my journey.
Take extra time before the event to acquaint yourself with the exact location of the parking lots and how to navigate the dreadful one-way roads in Cambridge and Boston.
Add in enough time to walk from the parking lots to your assigned meeting place.
Don’t trust Google Maps to provide you with the correct location for any names and/or addresses of the places the ham organizers tell you to be at for morning meetings. Google Maps sent me to the wrong MIT boathouse down river from the correct one.
Request from the communication team leaders satellite maps from Google Maps like the one below that has an annotation oval or arrow showing you the exact meeting places / parking lots / etc.
I’m told past regattas have ranged from hot to snow, sleet and driving rain. Only a tiny handful of radio operators would be under any sort of cover for the day.
If you’re out on the regatta course, you’ll have NO COVER. The safety launch boats are wide open like a row boat.
If it’s raining, plan that you’ll be out in the rain all day.
If you get wet and cold, you’ll be useless to the crews in the sculls.
Wind is an issue. It cuts like a knife coming across the water.
The seasoned workers I saw had some or all of this:
highly water-resistant ski pants / jackets
rubber boots to keep feet dry
special fisherman overalls to keep legs and body core DRY
many multiple layers
waterproof shoes or work boots
Whatever clothes you bring must fit in a backpack you can carry all day. Store extra clothes in waterproof bags inside the back pack. There’s plenty of room on the safety launches for large backpacks if that’s what you want to carry.
Food / Drink
Lunch is provided by the HOC event organizers. It was delivered to those of us who were out on the water. I suspect the same held true for all the other land assignments.
Bring snack food.
Bagels and doughnuts were provided at the early-morning meetings. I took two extra bagels and put them in my backpack. I was glad to have them as I had eaten breakfast at 5 AM. They made for a great mid-morning snack.
Radios & Gear
Hand-held radios work fine for this event.
I brought two of my expensive Yaesu VX-7R radios on the safety launch. That was a risky gamble in case there was a catastrophic accident aboard my launch.
It might have been smarter to bring two Baofeng $30 radios that could sleep with the fish at the bottom of the Charles River in the event I and the radios tumbled into the water.
Losing a favorite high-performance HT overboard would not be a pleasant experience.
I should have brought one of my Baofengs to see how well it performed. My guess is it would have had no trouble hitting the two repeaters.
Test your radios as you walk from the parking lot to the morning meetings to ensure you have programmed in the correct frequencies and settings.
BRING YOUR RADIO MANUALS or download a digital copies into your smart phone.
If you’re on a safety launch, attach a flotation pillow or put some bubble wrap inside your backpack. You want it to float in case your backpack ends up in the Charles River. Be sure there’s a name tag on your back pack.
Store your secondary radio in a sealed zip-lock freezer bag so it’s waterproof. Put some air in the bag to help your backpack float.
Speaker microphones come in handy.
Do NOT use VOX.
Check your radio to ensure it’s not sending out the 1750 Hz burst tone.
It’s very important for you to know where you are at all times. If there’s an emergency, you can bet the first thing net control will ask you is,”WHERE is the EMERGENCY?”
If you’re on a safety launch, ask the pilot if he knows the names of all the bridges. The pilots are given very detailed maps of the regatta course and I’m certain the maps show each bridge name
You need to know the names of the bridges if you’re on a safety launch. You need to know where you are if you’re on a walking team.
You need to know distances. How many feet or yards are you away from a bridge? Always be aware if you are up or down river from a certain bridge.
You need to know what side of the Charles River you’re on, or the nearest shoreline. It will either be the Boston or Cambridge side.
If you provide the wrong location for where the emergency is, precious moments could be lost that could make the difference between life and death for a crew member.
Bring a great attitude with you and soak up the excitement of the crews and the many sculls on the water at once.
Remember always that the crews and event organizers are quite aware of your presence even if they don’t say a word to you. They appreciate your efforts to keep them SAFE.
They realize you’re there to HELP them in the event something goes wrong. Don’t expect anyone to thank you, but if it happens it’s icing on the cake.
Respect the operators at net control and keep the frequencies open at all times as you never know when a full-blown emergency can happen.
If you have questions or if you’re a seasoned operator who’s worked this event, please ask questions in the comments below or provide MISSING INFORMATION or TIPS there.
Thanks and enjoy yourself when you work this event in the future.