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The 2005 QRP ARCI Hoot Owl Sprint

A few days ago I got an email from someone asking if I could help them with adjacent Indiana County here in PA. I had to reply no, because I had never done any mobile or portable work. Well that's not true any longer. Let me elaborate.

Although I did operate portable from an apartment I had in Pittsburgh when I worked there, and also from my cousin's house here in Kittanning for the CQWW DX test a couple years ago, I had never really set up and operated a true portable station. All that changed this past weekend. A few weeks ago Tom, KB3LFC asked me if I wanted to set up a portable station with him for the ARCI Hoot Owl sprint. It sounded like something different to do, so I agreed. We discussed it and made our plans, trying to make sure we covered all the angles and to be sure we would have everything we might possibly need when time came for the actual operation.

A couple of days before the sprint, Tom's wife JoAnne drove us out to the site that was located on Tom's property. The operation was to take place from a remote location, and we both agreed this was definitely remote. Other than Tom and his family, only some illegally trespassing ATVer's were about the only people who ever visit the site. The grass was quite grown up to around 18-24 inches, and we took along a mower to cut out an area to set up our operating tent. Once Tom used his voodoo magic to help JoAnne get the old mower started, I cut out an area about 20' X 20' in a small clearing in the woods. And hey, I only stalled the mower once in that tall grass.

Once that was done, we figured out the best place to put our antennas, and went ahead and erected the random wire we would use for 80M. I tied a rock to the end of the wire and tried throwing it up into a tree, but the wire got caught in the still high grass where I was throwing from, the rock came off, and the wire fell short on the first throw. We then found a short length of a heavy tree branch and tied that to the end of the wire. That made a more secure connection than the rock, and Tom held the wire free from the tall grass as I tried again. A couple more throws and the end of the wire was up in the tree and fastened off. We temporarily tied off the other end near the operating site, and proceeded on to pound in the 4-foot ground rod. That went without incident.

That concluded our setup for that day. The other antennas we would put up on the day of the sprint itself.

Around 5 PM on Sunday, we packed all the stuff in the car, and JoAnne drove us back to the site. Tom, JoAnne, their two sons Ariel and Ethan, and I carried the equipment a couple hundred yards to the clearing and started setting up.

The first step proved to be a real challenge. Our tent came in approximately 3 dozen pieces of aluminum tubing, a half dozen plastic angle brackets, the large covering that went over the frame, and worst of all - an instruction manual whose pages had become stuck together and now resembled a piece of stiff cardboard. It was impossible to get the pages apart, so we had to proceed by guesswork what piece went where. After quite a while figuring out all the possible combinations we finally found one that worked, put the covering on the frame, and raised it into position. By the way, a week after the event Tom told me he had just gotten another copy of the manual and he said we weren't even close to setting up the tent correctly. But gee it worked for us so I guess that was the bottom line.

After that ordeal, we had about an hour until the contest got started, and still had to get our 20M and 40M antennas erected. Both were dipoles, so we looked for two properly spaced trees for each. When we found a likely combination, we tied a rope to an old claw hammer that would be the throwing weight this time. After a few attempts, I got the rope up over a suitable branch, and we pulled the 20M antenna into position. That procedure was repeated for the other end of the 20M dipole.

We hooked up the ground wire to our tuners and set up the rest of our two stations. I used my friend KB3BFQ's QRP+ and an old homebrew tuner and SWR meter I built years ago. Tom used his HW-9 and MFJ tuner and SWR meter.

The CQWW WPX contest was still going on and I wanted to see if I could catch some 20M DX to see how the station was working. That's when the problem surfaced. Although the QRP+ was showing 5 watts output on its meter, my SWR/Power meter on the tuner was only showing less than two watts. I could get the SWR down to near 1:1, but the stations I was calling were not hearing me at all, and they were just booming in. I knew I should be able to work them easily, but I wasn't.

It was getting close to contest time now, and we still had to get the 40M dipole up. After a few unsuccessful attempts and relocations, we achieved that goal.

Just about then, JoAnne came back with our supper. Thanks JoAnne. We ate our hamburger, potato salad, and vegetable salad, then posed for the picture below before gettting into the contest.

pix_hootowl (193K)

Tom started on 80M, and I on 40M. I was still having the same problem with the power output, and wasn't sure what was going on. I kept calling stations without success. Finally after a half-hour, I started making QSO's. I worked a couple S&P, then called CQ. My meter started getting even flakier now, and after working Jim, W1PID who told me I was chirping and jumping in frequency, I knew for sure something wasn't right.

I had assumed that the car battery I was using was providing the proper voltage to the rig since the power meter on the QRP+ was showing 5 watts output. However I was really putting out only a watt or so of a very chirpy unstable signal. No wonder I wasn't being heard at all or only weakly. At an hour and a half into the test, I had only 7 QSO's despite hearing a multitude of stations.

Tom had two gel cells, and told me to try the spare one on the QRP+. I did and immediately the results were better. Now my tuner was showing the full 5 watts output. I got the SWR down to 1.3:1 or so, and soon was working stations with ease. The next 16 minutes brought as many QSO's as I had in the first 82 minutes.

Apparently Tom's car battery that I was using was not putting out its full voltage despite seemingly being fully charged. The next time I use a battery, I definitely will make sure of its voltage. Also I will believe my tuner meter rather than the one on the rig.

All in all it was a learning experience, and a fun one as well. I wound up with 40 QSO's in 19 states plus Ontario. The most distant QSO was with Randy, K7TQ in Idaho. I stayed on 40M all the time, and Tom stayed on 80M so we both will be single band entrants. I believe Tom wound up with 17 QSO's on 80M. He is going to write his own story and post it on the NAQCC web site, so I won't say more about his efforts here. However I will say thanks Tom for getting me into doing some real portable work. I truly enjoyed it.

JoAnne came and picked us up just after Midnight. After we extinguished the lantern, we finished tearing down by flashlight. I kidded Tom that we should have something like miner's caps to help us. Holding a flashlight with one hand and working with the other when you really needed two hands to work wasn't easy. We did finish though and packed the stuff into the car and headed home. It was interesting getting the tent into the car. I'm always amazed how small something like that is when it's in its original package, and how big it becomes once it has been opened. It's almost impossible to ever get it back to that original small packaged size.

A couple days after the sprint I learned something from Larry, W2LJ that I have always suspected. Larry said my signals in the Sprint were the strongest he's ever heard from me. So I do lose something by living down here in the valley. The Sprint was operated from the top of one of the hills that surround Kittanning.

If you, as it was with me, have never operated truly portable, I'd suggest giving it a try. I'm sure you'll enjoy it as much as I did.