South Arm Stage NEFR Radio Challenge

South Arm NEFR – A Tough Radio Challenge

South Arm ME topo map

This is the actual South Arm racecourse. The black letters A-J are radio operator positions.

The South Arm and Icicle Brook stages of the New England Forest Rally (NEFR) present challenging communications issues for radio operators. The communications for this gravel-road racecourse have been done for years using 2-meter simplex. This radio frequency is considered very high frequency (VHF) as it’s in the 144-148 MHz part of the radio spectrum.

This racing event features powerful cars that go very fast. Drivers, their support teams, and spectators rely on lightning-fast communications during the event.

It’s important to realize that when one radio operator transmits during the rally, it’s imperative all other operators on the course hear that transmission.

Radio Relaying = Recipe for Disaster

Radio operators are spread out along the route and in the past the start (radio position A) and finish (radio position J) officials have had to rely on a relay operator as you see in the second topographic map image below. The relay operator is where the blue hexagon symbol is on the map.

The relay system works because the 2-meter signal can slip through the notch on the east side of the tiny mountain. Look at the topographic map below and you can clearly see how there’s a direct pathway between the start and the relay operator’s position. However, relaying messages slows things down and it becomes a huge handicap in an emergency.

A Fresh Perspective

I was asked to take over the chief of communications for the NEFR beginning in 2018. It was a baptism by fire and I had never even been to South Arm before. The leadership of the rally told me they’ve always had comms problems at South Arm and once I arrived I could see why. There was a formidable small mountain in the middle of the racecourse. The radio frequency, 2 meters, they had been using for years doesn’t play well with mountains!

If you want to get over mountains with 2 meters, you need antenna height and power. Many NEFR volunteer radio operators in the past only had Technician privileges and radios that could primarily transmit and receive on 2 meters. It was time to try a different approach. After the 2018 rally, I conducted an exit survey and discovered most of the operators had no high-frequency (HF) experience.

I decided it was time to recruit some experienced HF operators who would work with me to solve this communications conundrum. It’s imperative that the problem be solved because the NEFR is a world-class event with some drivers coming from different countries to race. We must provide a reliable communications system for them, the race teams, spectators, and all volunteers.

Believe me, bad things can happen during the NEFR. Watch this video to see why we need to have reliable communications:

What is the Primary Problem?

Look at the topographic map below and pay attention to the steep hill/mountain inside the red circle. The top of it is 1,200 feet higher than the roadway at the start and finish of both stages.

This map includes the South Arm and Icicle Brook stages of the NEFR. The red balloon at the bottom is at the approximate start of South Arm and the finish of Icicle Brook. The purple star is the finish of South Arm and the start of Icicle Brook. The blue hexagon is an ideal location for a radio relay position. The red circle identifies the wretched mountain that tops out around 2,700 feet above sea level (ASL) while the stage roadway hovers around 1,500 feet ASL. Do you think for a moment a 5-watt HT has a chance to conquer this conundrum? Copyright 2019, Google, Inc.

What Can Be Done to Ensure Clear Communications?

You need a tall antenna and lots of power to get a signal from the start to the finish if you intend to conquer the mountain using simplex VHF transmissions. The distance between the start and finish as the crow flies is just under ten miles!

A repeater could be located across Upper Richardson Lake about 2/3rds of the way between the start and finish of the two stages. At this location, it would have a very clear shot of all radio operators along both stages. The tall mountain would not hinder communications whatsoever.

You can also put a repeater in a circling airplane or suspended from a tethered balloon. Both of these options create their own set of very specific problems, not the least of which is cost.

Are Repeaters the Answer?

There are other significant issues with repeaters. Here are but a few of the challenges:

Repeaters offer up a sole point of failure. If the repeater fails during the stage no one can communicate. With the current simplex setup, if one operator’s radio or antenna fails, only his position is affected.

Duplexers can be sensitive. They are required in a repeater to make the same-band repeat magic happen. These cans usually don’t like being bumped around traveling on gravel roads that have more potholes than Dunkin has doughnuts.

The provider of the repeater has to set up the repeater, controller, duplexers, etc. as well as the antenna in a short amount of time before the stages run.

The repeater location across Lake Richardson may not be accessible just before the rally. The roads may get washed out and the owner of the road may not repair it in time nor want to invest the money to repair it.

The repeater location at the top of the mountain in between the start and the finish has no road, no trails, and it’s extremely tough hiking with all the needed equipment. Keep in mind the need for the repeater is but six or seven hours. The people working this event are unpaid volunteers and to expect someone to backpack all that gear up to the top of the mountain is a lofty expectation!

What About an HF Solution?

Yes, you might have great success using high frequency (HF) on 80 meters. It’s even possible to get a NVIS signal on 40 meters. All operators would have to have HF equipment and be able to deploy an 80-40M Near Vertical Incidence Skywave (NVIS) antenna.

The US military relies on NVIS operations in battleground situations. It’s that reliable.

A NVIS antenna can be just a simple thin wire suspended about 4-8 feet in the air. You can drape the antenna over tree branches or bushes. You can also use some simple wood stakes or inexpensive fiberglass electric-fence posts to hold it above the ground. I recently switched to these fiberglass poles/posts and they’re excellent.

Here’s a video I recorded in August of 2019 showing how easy it is to build and deploy this antenna. NOTE: This antenna set up flies in the face of the optimal theoretical antenna design created by fancy software. Realize that this antenna you’re about to see works VERY WELL. I urge you to try it yourself. You’ll be amazed that it works.

How About 10 Meters?

Ten meters is a very strong candidate to solve the vexing issue. It’s very close to the citizen’s band (CB) of eleven meters. This band has a respectable pedigree for traveling 30 to 50 miles out in the open plains. With altitude, it can go even farther.

The other benefit is the antenna is so much shorter. You can create a vertical center-fed dipole that’s just 16 feet 4 inches long! You can hang this from a tree with little effort.

Finally, those who only have Technician privileges can operate in the ten-meter band. This means any NEFR operator with a 10-meter radio can be assigned to the South Arm and Icicle Brook stages.

On October 10, 2020 I’m headed to South Arm with four other seasoned radio professionals who have worked South Arm before to test both 10 and 80 meters. I’ll be creating a separate blog post about the outcome.

UPDATE: July 22, 2019On Friday, July 19, 2019 I did an 80M NVIS test at the start and finish lines of this stage. I was assisted by Sean Tarbox, N1BOX, and Tim Foy, W1FOY. Sean and Tim, along with Tim’s wife Monica, were just below the start of the South Arm start line. I was a mile beyond the finish line of South Arm.

We established crystal-clear comms using a simple antenna that was about 2 feet off the ground at my end. I was only transmitting with 13 watts out of my Elecraft KX3. Sean and Tim experimented with different power levels up to 50 watts. At 50 watts it was if they were standing next to me. A stunning 5-9 signal report.

Watch these videos to get an idea of how easy it is to do NVIS comms:

If you have ideas, put them in the comments below.

 

 

Ken Block 2018 NEFR Crash

Ken Block NEFR Crash and Burn

Ken Block, a world-class rally driver, crashed at the 2018 New England Forest Rally. His car caught fire immediately.

Watch the quick video just below. Then I want you to imagine you’re a ham radio operator standing within 100 feet of the burning car.

  • What would you do as soon as you saw this happen?
  • Are you mentally prepared to maintain control of yourself, gather the needed data, and transmit it to the stage captain?
  • Will your equipment be up to the task? Will you be able to hear if a crowd forms near you?

What questions did I forget? Put them in the comments below.

How to Build a 2M J-Pole with Ladder Line

Ladder Line 2M J Pole Antenna – Easy to Build

Ladder line is heavy duty and can easily handle the 50 watts put out by most mobile radios.

A ladder line 2M j pole antenna is a perfect antenna to hang from a tall tree branch to boost your outgoing transmissions and to help you hear weak stations.

Watch these videos to get an idea of how to build a 2-meter j-pole antenna. The top video has a very nice part that allows you to connect your coax to the antenna.

Are There Other 2M Antenna Options?

Yes, Ralph Milroy – KB1CPM, shared a tip about a quarter wave 2M antenna that you can suspend from a tree branch. That video is the BOTTOM one in the stack below.

Here’s the 2M VHF 1/4-Wave Ground Plane Antenna video:


There are MORE how-to videos on YouTube. Just enter ladder line j pole antenna into the YouTube search engine or CLICK or TAP HERE.

New England Forest Rally – Radio Equipment

NEFR

New England Forest Rally | This is what you see if you’re the radio operator at the start of each stage. Copyright 2019 Tim Carter W3ATB

New England Forest Rally – Radio Equipment

The radio equipment you bring to the New England Forest Rally (NEFR) is of the utmost importance. Here are just a few reasons:

  • Your radio equipment may save someone’s life
  • You need to be able to communicate with all other operators in case something happens at or near your position
  • You need to be able to hear all other operators who are part of your team

What Are The Two Most Important Things?

The two most important things that will ensure your transmission will be heard and you will hear others are:

  • Power
  • Antenna

After the 2018 NEFR, I had a phone call with Dale Clement – AF1T, one of the top New England experts in 2-meter communications. Dale spent his entire career working for Cushcraft designing VHF and UHF antennas.

Once I described the challenges of the rally, the hilly terrain, and the remoteness, he said, “Tim, it’s all about power and having the best antenna. Power can force the ground wave up and over most hills, but not all. The higher up a vertical antenna is, the better.”

What Dale is saying is a 5-watt HT with a rubber duck stubby antenna is the worst primary radio setup.

A 50-watt mobile radio connected to a portable j-pole antenna suspended from a nearby tree would be your best setup. Watch this video about roll-up j-pole antennas:

If your 50-watt mobile radio has crossband repeat capability you’ve got the ultimate radio setup.

What is Crossband Repeat and Why Is It Useful?

Crossband repeat is a function some radios possess. The radio can simultaneously receive and re-transmit a signal on two different frequencies. CLICK or TAP HERE to read more about crossband repeat.

Crossband repeat is a game changer.

In simple terms, you can have a low-powered HT set at 1 watt and on a 440 MHz frequency. Your higher-powered 50-watt mobile radio in your car or truck can be set to hear anything on that frequency and re-transmit it on the 2M frequency your other team members are using at that stage.

It works exactly the same in reverse. If some other operator on the 2M stage frequency transmits, your mobile radio receives the signal and re-transmits to your HT on the 440 MHz frequency.

This setup allows you to be away from your car or truck so you can wander around your position. If there is an incident NEAR your position and it’s SAFE to go there, you can be right where help is needed to communicate back to the stage captain. Being at the scene of an incident is so much better than relying on second or third-hand information screamed back at you should you be tethered to your vehicle.

What’s the Best HT Antenna?

You’ll discover a 1/4-wave antenna attached to your HT will increase its performance. Bring one to the rally. Remember, a rubber duck antenna is pretty much worthless.

Should my HT have a Tiger Tail?

Yes, a tiger tail is recommended. CLICK or TAP HERE to discover what a tiger tail is and how to make one in minutes.

What About Portable Mast Antennas?

A portable mast antenna is a great idea. The mast can be supported with a simple patio umbrella stand or you can make one using plywood and pipe.

CLICK or TAP HERE to see a few designs used by a ham at a winter rally. You’ll also see a copper 2M j-pole antenna at the top of the mast.

CLICK or TAP HERE to see the portable mast support made from steel by a friend of mine. I use surplus military aluminum tubing for the mast. Here’s a photo of the drive-on stand that supports the mast:

What Else Do I Need?

Here’s a short list of other things you need or you may find enhance your experience:

  • your radio(s) manuals – download the PDFs to your smartphone at the very least
  • extra batteries
  • radio battery charger
  • extra antenna(s)
  • lapel microphone
  • earbuds to help you hear transmissions if you’re in a noisy area
  • string and weights to create a halyard to get your portable j-pole antenna up in a nearby tree

If you have other helpful suggestions about radio equipment, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS below. My comments are set for approval, so they don’t automatically appear.

 

Cookie Crumble 2019 Scores

Call Sign Name 2019 Score
KE3V Kevin Noname 5147
WC3R 4358
NJ3K B. Manning 3958
W3ATB Tim Carter 3369
KA3D Dan Farrell 3308
KC3FVN Keith Comp 1910
W5QLF Joe Noname 1682
K5LRW 1430
KC7FCW Heidi Morton 1380
W1PID Jim Cluett 1318
K0EMT Bryan Nehl 1225
N3CU Ken MacIntire 1100
WI1G 1054
KM3D Harry Bump 1038
N3AMB 1020
KA3TTT 1000
AB9BZ Dave KuKulka 951
N6WT Kent Olsen 764
KK4ITX 710
K9FH Phil Noname 685
N4IX 595
AD0YM Mike Smith 434
WX5DC 370
W0ODJ Josh Wood 360
KS4YX Gil Huggins 345
N2EI 281
K1AUS Roxie Klaus 235
KE0GVW 225
KG5FP Sam Pitts 225
KA1PPV Joe Molon 157
F5PBL 60
NA0ED Erik Dunn 20