QRP Aluminum Boat Dock Antenna

qrp antenna

Do you think this aluminum boat dock will work as an amateur radio antenna?

Today my good buddy and tormentor, Jim Cluett – W1PID, and I did a fun experiment.

We used my 40-foot aluminum crank-out boat dock as an antenna. Watch this video for the full story, then continue to read below.

We changed the feed point halfway through the experiment and had success. It’s important to realize the steel cable attached to the tree winch is also radiating and receiving radio signals. The steel cable from the winch has a metallic connection to another shorter loop cable that touches the aluminum frame of the dock.

If you’re an antenna expert, you can deduce or ponder how changing the feed point from the bottom of the dock rail to the steel cable at the tree would make a difference.

I was able to make two contacts in just ten minutes, HI3CC in the Dominican Republic and IO5O, a radio club in Italy. You can see here I was pretty pleased with the outcome.

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It wasn’t too cold, but there was a stiff breeze from the north coming across the water. It can send a chill through you if you’re not wearing a dandy Irish wool scarf. I’m so lucky to have one!

It was a fun experiment and I recommend you try wacky tests like this to see how you might be able to make a contact.

A QRP Test at New Hampton Meeting House

W1PID

Here’s Jim Cluett, W1PID, after he’s set up his small emergency kit. He’s listening with a small set of earphones as the LNR radio has no speaker.

“Listen, I’ve got this small Pelican 1120 case with an LNR Mountain Topper rig in it. I have everything in the case to make a fast emergency contact. Let’s test it today.”

This plan was hatched early in the morning as part of the secret message CW training Jim does for me to help improve my Morse code copy speed. Today was to be a wonderful sunny day as opposed to the gray cold rainy day yesterday. November in New Hampshire can be sullen so when the sun’s out, you take advantage of it.

New Hampton Meeting House

We decided to operate at picnic tables at the New Hampton Meeting House. They were in the sun and rarely do we see people here. That means we can operate in relative peace. It’s an old building, erected in 1798, as you can tell!

“It looks like I’ll get there before you by a few minutes. I’ll scout out a picnic table in the sun.” I mentioned this to Jim as we communicated on VHF 147.540. We routinely talk on simplex VHF on our mobile radios as we drive to meet each other on our adventures.

We arrived at the New Hampton Meeting House precisely at 2 pm. The sun was shining brightly but it was low in the sky. The temperature kissed up against 42 F and fortunately there was no wind to slice through our lighter-weight clothing. It was a blue-bird gorgeous November day.

LNR mountain topper

Here’s the 40-meter resonant antenna Jim decided to use with his tiny LNR Mountain Topper radio. There were two pieces of 26-gauge wire on this spool, each 33 feet long. The wires would connect to a banana plug adapter which attaches directly to the tiny radio.

Jim had his emergency kit unpacked in seconds.

“Boy, it sure is easy to unravel the antenna wires with two people!” Jim obviously has had trouble in the past deploying this thin wire by himself. This very thin wire which can get intertwined faster than you can open a prize from your best friend!

While he connected the ends of the thin wire to his banana plug adapter, I suspended the two strands of wire in a straight line just about four feet off the ground in the limbs of nearby bushes and scrub trees.

It only took us about five minutes to set up.

“Already the experiment failed.” Jim pronounced with a tone of disgust. His small home-brewed iambic paddle was malfunctioning. A very important part of this emergency test was that everything needed to work so you could get help or transmit a message for someone needing help.

“That’s what happens when you don’t test your equipment before going out.” I don’t have a strong sense of empathy when it comes to my buddy Jim because he’s quick at the draw to point out my shortcomings. A crisp example is the day he swore I was sending Morse in reverse. But I digress.

I opened my backpack and pulled out my coveted micro Pico iambic paddles so Jim could continue on with his experiment. He was quite appreciative.

W1PID

Here’s Jim impatiently waiting for other operators to end their extended conversations.

The goals of the experiment were:

  • to set up quickly
  • to make a fast contact

Jim hunted for other operators and found four, but they were all in long extended conversations we hams call rag chews.

Then Jim found an operator who must have had his radio set up to send CQ automatically not allowing another operator to answer him easily.

“He wants to call CQ for twenty minutes!” Jim was exasperated. He wanted a fast contact!

It’s important to realize this exercise was to do a simulated emergency as if you were out in the wilderness and someone needed help right away. In that situation, you don’t want to be lollygagging around chit-chatting with your soulmate about what movie you’re going to watch on Netflix tonight.

Jim has an overabundance of positive qualities too many to name but patience is not one of them.

W1PID

We were set up surrounded by evergreen trees that exceeded 110 feet tall. That’s pretty normal for trees in New Hampshire. They’re spectacular.

Jim was locating strong signals but each one was an operator engaged in a long conversation.

“The guys are having Thanksgiving dinner here!” I couldn’t help but laugh at Jim’s quandary of locating some operator not engaged in an extended rag chew who would just call CQ and allow Jim to answer back. CQ is the universal acronym in Morse code operators send inviting any listening station to answer back. Sometimes the CQ is sent with another acronym to filter out some operators.

After about fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, Jim finally made contact with K8AI in Michigan. It’s important to realize the radio Jim was using transmits a very low-powered signal and we had an antenna just four feet off the ground. It was remarkable that it worked if you have a grasp of antenna theory!

I had decided to take advantage of the glorious day and quickly set up my Elecraft KX2. I got out my trusty water bottle and had my 29-foot vertical-wire antenna up in less than two minutes. I connect this wire to a 9:1 unun. This lowers the impedance in the wire antenna to a respectable amount so the internal tuner in my KX3 can maximize my output signal.

The first throw of my water bottle launched my halyard over a dead branch about 50 feet in the air.

It didn’t take me but a few minutes to locate a tasty long-distance contact in the Caribbean, FM5KC. It was the Ducos Radio Club on the tiny island of Martinique. I was on 20 meters and used skills taught to me by Jim to quickly get the Ducos operator to hear me before hearing some other more-powerful station.

To think one can do this with a radio that sips power from a small 3 Ah BioEnnoPower LFP battery and transmits out a signal using just five watts of energy still astounds me.

W3ATB

Here I am happy as a clam after making two DX contacts in less than ten minutes in not-so-favorable conditions! Outdoor radio can be very challenging. No, I’m not bald, but I do have a growing bald spot on the back of my noggin!

After entering the data in my logbook I went hunting for another contact. Within minutes I had a fast exchange with ZF2MJ, another Caribbean station. It was Dan who was either vacationing in the Cayman Islands, or he might have a winter residence there as he possesses a Cayman Islands callsign.

We decided to pack up after I logged Dan. We had been at the Meeting House for nearly an hour and a cup of hot coffee sounded great.

Jim decided to help assemble my gear and focused on getting the wire antenna out of the tree.

“You wind the string onto the reel first, don’t you?”

Always the quintessential jokester Jim tries at every chance to get a rise out me. He knows to wind the wire on first and if you ever see him, ask him about the time he decided to load my shorter 17-foot counterpoise wire onto my Trident finger reel instead of my antenna!

It was a wonderful afternoon and believe me the days like this left in the year might be able to be counted on one hand. Soon the cover snow will happen and you won’t see the carpet of leaves or grass until April.

El Yunque National Forest Puerto Rico Adventure

kelly carter

When it’s time to go on an adventure to discover hidden prizes, you better have an adventure hat on! Left to right: Jessie, Sarah, Kelly

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a story about doing outdoor radio at the El Yunque National Rain Forest in Puerto Rico, but the radio operation was a tiny part of the overall experience. It’s my hope you savor the story and are lucky enough to walk away with prizes like I did.

“Where are your adventure hats? I see your Dad is prepared with his sporty wide-brimmed blue adventure hat. How can you expect to have fun on an adventure without a hat? I had trouble myself selecting which hat to wear.”

Sarah was letting my daughter Kelly, and her good friend Jessie, know that they weren’t prepared for our imminent departure to the El Yunque National Forest just east southeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“We didn’t get the memo!” replied my daughter Kelly in a slightly sassy but happy voice. Howls of laughter filled the lobby of the hotel as we made last-moment preparations to leave. We had to walk a quarter mile up Calle Del Cristo street to get to our parked rental car. Mila, another young woman who rounded out Kelly’s friends was to meet us at the parked car.

mila

The mysterious Mila. Don’t underestimate her wit and spunk!

Because on-street parking is harder to find in Old San Juan than a sober person, the plan was for Mila to take over our parking space with her rough-and-tumble pickup truck the second we pulled out of it. We executed the plan perfectly, Mila jumped in the car and the happiness volume knob in the car was turned on full.

old san juan

This is typical on-street parking in Old San Juan. Yes, believe it or not, there is a street on the OTHER side of the cars. You bet it’s narrow!

Four Young Chicks & One Old Goat

This was my last full day visiting my daughter Kelly who’s worked in Old San Juan for the past twenty months. She was conscripted to the island paradise with Jessie by Sarah who needed help running a boutique hotel after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in September of 2017.

kelly and dad

Here’s my Kelly. It’s hard for her to be so far away, but she’s got to chase her dreams. I get it!

Mila was working at the hotel and it didn’t take long for the four young women to become thick as Caribbean pirates. Their love for each other was as infectious as Yellow Fever as we made our way out of the fortress walls of Old San Juan to the closest gas station to get multiple six-packs of cute small cans of Medalla Light beer to quench the unending thirst the rain forest creates.

old san juan fort

Walls taller than this surround most of Old San Juan. Think of the insane amount of labor it took to build them. No power tools or engines! Manpower and animals only.

Within minutes the day was dubbed Dad’s Day as Sarah had made it crystal clear four days earlier upon my arrival that I was to be her surrogate dad during the stay. “You’re the first parent to come visit any of us!” Thus this old goat now had four vivacious young daughters for the day.

el yunque

Look at the prizes at the end of the rainbow! How lucky was I to be with my daughter Kelly and my three surrogate daughters for the day. Left to right: Kelly, Mila, Jessie, Sarah

You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see right away that lots of lifetime memories were in store as we drove towards the El Yunque rain forest.

Puerto Rican Cuisine & Spirits

It’s important to realize my daughter and Mila are bartenders in Old San Juan. My daughter happens to work at El Batey, the oldest bar on the island. It has a rich history. I was surrounded by four young women who not only knew about drinks, they were experts at drinking. In the previous 72 hours I had consumed more liquid courage than I had in the previous ten years!

el batey old san juan

Here’s the center of the vortex of El Batey – the oldest bar in Old San Juan.

About forty minutes into the drive we pulled to the side of the road to grab some lunch at a typical roadside food stand. This one also served up drinks and it’s a good thing they did. Their supply of spirits prevented the stash of Medalla Light from dwindling down dangerously low.

food stand puerto rico

Here are the four young lasses ordering lunch. Dad picked up the tab. Mila speaks fluent Puerto Rican Spanish being a native and made sure everything was perfect.

Outdoor seating is common and most roadside foot stands have both covered and uncovered seating. After all, you’re in a lush warm tropical climate. We all sat at a nice round table, drank, ate and talked about the upcoming visit to the rain forest. I stuck with water since I was the designated driver.

El Yunque Rain Forest

Soon we were back on the road and the rain forest was but 10 or 15 miles away. El Yunque is only about a one-hour drive from San Juan. As we started up the two-lane road into the mountains, I became aware of the dense jungle vegetation and the wet roads.

el yunque

This is the typical vegetation you’re going to see at El Yunque. Beware of creatures of all types behind that green curtain. That’s not the type of prize to go after on an adventure like this.

“Dad, you need to toot the horn as you approach these blind turns,” Mila recommended from the backseat. Each of my surrogate daughters decided to call me Dad for the day.

Mila is a Puerto Rican native and shared with me that the traffic laws in Puerto Rico are for the most part recommendations. Tooting the horn no doubt helps prevent crashes from other drivers cutting the turn too short. I got pretty good at tooting quite fast!

I also became acutely aware of any number of late-model Jeep 4×4 rental vehicles. Each time I saw one, I looked to see if it had a Jurassic Park logo on the side doors. The rain forest was so dense I thought a velociraptor could pop out of the brush at any moment.

Listen closely enough and you could hear the frightful purring that velociraptors make. We captured it in this video:

Our first stop was a steep rock-wall waterfall. We parked in a small lot just above the waterfalls. A pop-up shelter was just 100 feet away and a young park ranger was sitting at a table under the shelter as we walked to the falls.

el yunque waterfall

Here’s Sarah quite happy about being at El Yunque with her best buds and surrogate Dad I might add!

“Good afternoon! Are you going to drive up past the falls? I just wanted to let you know that I have to close and lock this gate at 6 pm. You have plenty of time to go farther up the road and swim at the waterfalls in Juan Diego Creek.” She said to just be sure to head back from the swimming hole no later than 5:45 PM.

Once at the waterfall just past the ranger, I noticed warning signs that flash floods could create a significant safety hazard as a downpour of rain just a half-mile away could transform the magical placid waterfall into a raging torrent in seconds.

el yunque waterfall

This placid waterfall can kill you in seconds if there’s a downpour just 1/4-mile from you. Don’t underestimate the danger here.

All of us made sure we climbed to the falls to touch the rock wall being washed by the water.

Low-Powered Amateur Radio

Just about one-half mile from the waterfalls was the Yokahu Tower. This ancient-looking 60+-foot-tall round turret tower was built in 1963. It’s just an observation tower that allows you to get a more panoramic view of the north and east. On a clear day, you absolutely can see the deep blue sea.

yokahu tower

Here’s Yokahu Tower. Looking at it you might think it’s 200 years old. Wrong!

I decided to set up my Elecraft KX2 radio on a handy bench just below a magnificent tree that would support my 29-foot vertical wire antenna.

I employed the same technique to get my string up over a branch as I’ve always used. You can see how it’s done in this video that I recorded a month earlier in New Mexico.

While setting up my equipment, a small crowd was attracted to my string halyard and the antenna that dropped about 35 feet from the tree. As always, people want to know how in the world I lofted that string way up in the tree. I told them about the video I had just recorded.

W3ATB El Yunque

Here I am getting ready to deploy my 29-foot wire antenna.

Two of the tourists were Americans who are in the US Army. They were simply amazed at my tiny radio and the ability to communicate great distances using Morse code and a tiny BioennoPower 3 Ahr battery.

Sarah was kind enough to log for me and it didn’t take long to hear a few signals. I knew I didn’t have much time because it was now 4:00 PM and we still had to get to the Juan Diego Creek and hike a short distance to the falls. I had a feeling I was going to be conscripted to do a photoshoot of the four young women that were making my last full day in Puerto Rico extra special

W3ATB El Yunque

If you’re lucky enough to have a companion log for you, outdoor radio and adventures can be so much more fun. Sarah did a great job for her first time. Thanks, Sarah!

As I didn’t want to be trapped within the rain forest behind the sturdy iron gate, I decided to limit my time on the air to no more than 20 minutes. I had visions of becoming a tasty treat for one, or more, of the creatures that were undoubtedly lurking in the dense vegetation that surrounded us everywhere.

It’s important to realize that when I do outdoor radio it’s done with a small radio that has a quite weak signal compared to some home-based amateur radio stations that can transmit with hundreds of watts of power. My Elecraft KX2 is capable of 10 watts output, but normally I operate at 5 watts. That’s just about the amount of energy being output by a soft glowing nightlight.

Within a few minutes I heard a somewhat weak signal from Janusz, SP9JZT, who lives in Poland. We did a quick exchange and his signal report to me was 339 and I gave him the same report. We were on 30 meters as I couldn’t hear any activity on 20 meters.

Sarah must have gotten distracted because the next thing I knew my sweet daughter Kelly was logging for me. I decided to go back to 20 meters to see if anyone was there.

Lo and behold I heard PP7LP, Lucio down in Brazil! But alas, he couldn’t hear my low-powered signal. Such is the life of an outdoor radio operator!

Glancing at my analog wristwatch, it was time to pack up. Sarah, Jessie, Mila, and Kelly had been so patient and they helped me pack up so we could get to the swimming hole beneath the falls at San Diego Creek.

The Photo Shoot

The paved road into the rain forest that we traveled is a dead-end road. The trailhead to the waterfalls at Juan Diego Creek was just a few minutes away from the Yokahu Tower. I expected to have to hike ten minutes or so to get to the waterfall, but surprisingly it was only about a two-minute walk, if that.

juan diego creek el yunque

You’re at the trailhead of Juan Diego Creek.

It was very misty at the falls and the swimming hole was quite large. The water was only about 4 feet deep and it didn’t take long for the four young women to wander out into the water.

juan diego creek waterfalls

Here are the soothing Juan Diego Creek waterfalls.

“Dad, take my picture!” each one cried and soon I felt like a Sports Illustrated photographer as most of them struck goddess poses on the rocks adjacent to the falls. I was having as much fun as they were on this Dad’s day just capturing their happiness with electrons on my smartphone. They were enjoying the water and their day away from the hustle, bustle, and heat and humidity of Old San Juan.

juan diego creek waterfalls

What a great time the girls, I mean young women, had! It’s a day I’ll never forget.

Before we knew it, it was 5:30 PM and time to head out of the jungle. All of them were dripping wet and the humidity of the rain forest would not allow them to dry out anytime soon.

As I drove the rental car down the serpentine roads with the blind corners I tooted the horn as I was taught by Mila earlier in the adventure. Several times the toots produced laughs from the wonderful girls.

“Don’t forget to stop at the one store so we can take photos.” I can’t remember which of the girls blurted it out, but the car erupted in laughter once again. Laughter was the theme of the day.

el yunque

Happiness on steroids. Do you think these four young ladies are going to forget this day?

The tiny roadside store was closed by the time we arrived, but the painted plywood cutouts with the face holes were there for us to create more memories.

el yunque

Kelly and me. I had no idea I was in this particular cutout. Oh my!

We took turns being different characters before deciding it was time to get going. The sun was low in the sky and soon it would be dark.

Once back on the main road we were blessed with a stunning sunrise. Little did I know the happiness was just about to ratchet up as our next stop was a very unique mile-long strip of food joints and bars. Every imaginable Puerto Rican delicacy could be had here including the industrial-sized containers of liquid courage.

sunset puerto rico

Yes, this is exactly what the sunset looked like. And yet another prize!

Within minutes a mojito that appeared to be in a small garbage can was placed in front of me. I was thirsty and it didn’t take long for me to make it disappear as the sun had 30 minutes earlier. All of a sudden it felt like a high-speed freight train was barreling around a bend in my head. Whoosh! I was three, no four, sheets to the wind!

We ate, drank, and toasted our never-to-forgotten adventure to El Yunque. The day was filled with too many prizes for me to count. I was blessed to spend a day with Kelly and her closest friends. I avoided the dreaded outdoor radio skunk. I got to visit a rain forest for the first time. I got to drink a mojito that would douse a forest fire. I could list several more, but I feel you get the point.

mojito puerto rico

When you’ve not eaten in six hours, it’s probably not a good idea to drink a 32 oz mojito in 15 minutes.

I highly recommend going to this wonderful National Forest in Puerto Rico. Just don’t forget your adventure hat and take your soulmate if you can because El Yunque is a magical place indeed!

puerto rico

Look who got adventure hats at the end of the adventure! This is just before we ate dinner and I got wasted.

The Pemigewasset River Adventure

W1PID Jim Cluett

Here’s Jim praying for great band conditions so we don’t get skunked. Doing outdoor low-powered radio when sunspots are taking a nap makes it challenging to fill a logbook. Actually, Jim had just launched his water bottle into a tree adjacent to the picnic table we were using.

Jim Cluett, W1PID, and I took a walk down to the banks of the Pemigewasset River this afternoon. We were parked at Profile Falls, a recreation area under the supervision of the Corps of Engineers just south of Bristol, NH.

The day started off with a magnificent sunrise and when the adventure plan was hatched just after 8 AM we had both hoped that the day would remain sunny.

sunrise lake winnisquam

This is the dreamy sunrise I captured this morning sitting alone at the top of the stairs above my dock on Lake Winnisquam. It’s hard to enjoy these sunrises alone.

The weather was cool but not cold. There was nary a puff of wind which can cut like a knife this time of year. It definitely wasn’t scarf weather. That’s just a few weeks away as November in New Hampshire can come in like a happy baby goat, but leave like a honey badger that hasn’t eaten in a week.

As Jim started to unwind the string from his reel to get his antenna up in a tree, I wandered to the shore of the Pemi as locals call it to listen to the tumbling water and enjoy the glistening diamonds on the water as I faced southwest. The day had become a light overcast so there was enough sun to grace the fast water with countless glittering diamonds.

Pemigewasset River

It was a diamond day next to the Pemigewasset River. I’ve heard different translations for this Native American river name and don’t quite know which one to believe.

“Do you think the ragged bark on that branch is going to cause problems?” Jim has so much experience launching his nalgine water bottle to get a string up and over branches, so I didn’t understand why he was asking me.

Up his water bottle went, but it didn’t want to come back down to the ground without a fight. It took about three minutes of tugging back and forth before it dropped far enough where I could grab it with my hiking pole while standing on the picnic table. At least I didn’t have to put Jim on my shoulders as happened last winter at Potter Place!

We got the 29-foot wire attached to Jim’s 9:1 unun which he connected to his Elecraft KX3. A dandy BioennoPower 3 Ahr NFP battery provided the needed electrons into the miserly Elecraft radio allowing us to capture and send the invisible happiness waves.

W1PID Jim Cluett

Here’s Jim finding the SOTA operator. It’s like being at a church carnival when you spin the VFO knob on a radio. You never know what prize you might win!

Jim at first heard another operator who was on top of a mountain trying to activate a Summits on the Air (SOTA) mountain. He decided to send out a rare CQ call to attract other operators who were trying to contact the SOTA operator. After sending CQ for a painful 45 seconds, maybe more, Jim gave up. Patience is everything when it comes to low-powered radio operations I’ve come to discover.

Soon Jim found a really strong signal where one operator was talking with another. In these situations, you need to be polite and wait until the conversation is over before you call the operator.

“What good is a strong signal if he’s writing a novel!” Jim said exasperated after waiting about 30 seconds for the conversation to end. It was time to spin the VFO knob once more for a prize.

Not too long after this Jim found Paul, KW7D in New Mexico who lives somewhere out in the woods. Paul and Jim had a somewhat long conversation and that allowed Jim to avoid the wretched skunk. No one likes to go do outdoor radio and not make at least one contact.

W1PID Jim Cluett

This is what happens when Jim makes a QSO with another operator. Can you feel his happiness? I’ve been the recipient of this long-distance endorphin injection! It’s bliss I tell ya!

I decided to capture part of Jim’s conversation using the video software on my Moto G7 smartphone.

“I got some great video,” I told Jim.

“We’re not putting up any videos.” Jim hates video more than getting skunked.

“Oh, yes we are.” I retorted.

“No, we’re not.”

Too bad Jim doesn’t know the code to break into my phone. Here’s the video I shot of part of Jim talking with Paul:

After signing off, Jim handed me the tiny Pico iambic paddles so I could add Paul to my logbook. Paul must have been running automagic software as the instant I sent my callsign he came back, “Great to hear you, Tim.”

W3ATB Tim Carter

Here I am talking with Paul in New Mexico. Why yes, I did take a shower today and my hair was combed this morning, thank you. I happen to love tousled hair!

I did a fast exchange with Paul telling him I was with Jim and we were on a hike next to the Pemi River in New Hampshire.

Today I was in a really happy place and when that happens, the sarcasm between Jim and I ratchets up two or three levels.

W3ATB Tim Carter

I’m pretty happy but would have been happier if Jim had told me my hair was all tousled. I wonder how that happened?

After signing off with Paul, Jim tried to find a few other stations but gave up after two minutes or less. It was time to walk back the half-mile to our vehicles and head to Dunkin’ for a cup of coffee.

“It’s nice to walk on the ground.” Jim stopped and spoke looking down at the dirt road carpeted with brown leaves.

“Soon we won’t see it until April.” He finished. Jim’s right. Any week now the first full-cover snow can happen and you won’t see the ground or tread across it until the sun climbs high enough in the sky so Mother Nature can send the frozen water to the fish and lobsters in the Atlantic Ocean.

We had a really fun afternoon adventure and my only wish is that you could join me one day to hear the Pemi as it talks to you. It’s magical.