Maritime QSO Party 2012… contest good, aftermath bad !
Jeff VE1ZAC / VA1GE
The 2nd running of the Maritime QSO Party was weekend of June 2. This event is organized by the Maritime Contest Club. A team consisting of Ron Cunningham and myself (VE1ZAC) entered last year, one of two entries in the combined mobile-rover class. This team didn’t win, but did learn enough to use the intervening year to plan a very competitive entry for 2012, with the intent to win the combined mobile-rover class this year.
Strategy for this year included planning for a new and easier to setup and use antenna, bringing another operator along, Tony Ratajczak ,VE1ZA, look for new multi county site opportunities and again operate under the VA1GE contest call sign belonging to me. We wanted much more operating time than last year. Rule changes were expected because of complaints the winner made about our operation in 2011. Winning this mobile event was very much front and center in our goals.
Atomizing this strategy into specific tasks produced the following task list with the attendant background for each.
It didn’t seem like much fun to just go out and do the same thing as 2011, so we hunted out some new multi county opportunities. One of our stated side goals was to travel around our fair province and visit new areas. This is probably half the fun for us. Last year we used Google Earth to preselect our sites and then confirmed them by driving to all the spots before the contest weekend to check them out, secure permissions, measure travel times, etc. It’s a lot of work to do this, but we considered it essential. Last year we travelled a route through the SW portion of the province. This year we were leaning towards the central part.
Coincidentally, Ron likes to travel backroads on his way to his camp in Cape Breton , and called one weekend with the excited discovery that he had found a spot on the intersection of 4 counties that we could get a vehicle on ! Oh boy. We had not thought we would find such a spot. In a contest that allows multi county siting, this is a huge find. It is located near Dean’s Settlement, on East Loon Lake. When we got to the recon trip there were several issues. One involved the exact location of the 4 county point. When you are doing two counties and a county line, it isn’t hard to find the actual line. In this case, it was pretty near impossible to identify anything other than signage. Looking around for survey marks found nothing. Locals knew it was there, but the best that could be done was figure it to within a 50 ft radius of a map spot. A further problem, is that this spot was right underneath a 78 KV 3 phase distribution line, that wasn’t very high off the ground. Since the antenna was going to be pretty high, it was decided to back off a little from the map spot for safety reasons, but kept the antenna within 75 to 100 feet of a mark, if there had been one. Google Earth became the best reference available. Coincidentally, the area was scanned with a small R2 scanner during the recon trip to check for HF noise, and it was very quiet. This spot looked like a good bet.
Figure 1: The exact spot to operate from
There was nothing in the published rules that said a contestant actually had to move around, so this spot was picked as the best spot to get 4 counties in the contest. The intent to “work” this spot for 4 counties was transmitted to the chief contest organizer. No objections came back.
Last year, the team used a decent trap dipole for multiband use and a pushup 35 foot pole supported by the truck. It certainly worked ok, but it took a lot of space to set it up, and it was awkward and time consuming. Before seeing the pre contest published rules this year, a vow was made to find a lighter , and easier to setup antenna. After much model simulation and multiband antenna thinking, it looked like a vertical would do the job just as affectively. Having a German 30 foot carbon fiber “Fishing pole” mast to hand, a 30 foot vertical element looked like the way to go. With some ground plane wires tossed around and the car body, it would give a good account of itself on 40,15, and ten meters without to much of a matching struggle at its base. However 80, 20 and 6 showed a highly reactive feedpoint. If matching could be dealt with, this could be a pretty good contest antenna. Plus, it was very light.. 2 lbs for the mast plus the weight of the wire attached to it, and easy to support with a wooden base and a few braces attached to the mast with rubber clamps. This was chosen as the ticket for this year’s antenna.
Figure 2: The new 30 foot car vertical
Coincidentally, the published rules that came out in the spring said there would be only one mobile class, and the rig must be able to operate while moving. Nothing was said about having to move during the contest. In fact, this is generally not possible anymore while driving legally, these days, unless the gear is located in the back of a van or something similar. Certainly the effective strategy is to be parked somewhere safely while operating. Since there was no stipulation about moving the rig during the contest, this rig was qualified. There was a stated desire to activate as many counties as possible, and this was fulfilled by locating the 4 county intersection. The antenna and setup was shown to the chief organizer before the contest, and no objections came back. The idea is to travel with it collapsed, stop and erect the mast. It took about 15 minutes to put it up or take it down… an acceptable time compared to last year’s mammoth antenna effort.
Without something at the base, the rig tuner (our K3 unit) would have to deal with the awkward matches at many of the bands. While this might work, it would result in some very high SWR’s right at the rig connector, especially at 80 and 20 meters. 20 meters is very important for this contest. In fact, the bulk of the contacts would be on 40 and 20 meters. 80 would be nice to have and might pick up a few multipliers and contact points, but we could live without it.
Much analysis of a 30 foot vertical was done and feed point impedances calculated using EZNEC modeler. An idea was hatched to add a stub element at the base of the antenna to lower the reactance in the difficult bands, and perhaps live with higher reactance in the other bands. The idea was to incorporate a stub that would lower the overall stress on the matching device, whether the rig one or something else. After a lot of spreadsheet work and vector algebra, a suitable compromise stub was created. This was tested against a convenient 30 foot ground plane antenna in the yard at VE1ZAC and extensive measurements were made with an AIM4170C analyzer. The stub was made from a hunk of 75 ohm RG-6, and was now included in the intended program.
Figure 3: MFJ 927 and RG-6 stub located in plastic box on roof rack. Radials plugged into jacks as needed.
So far, so good. But here is where the program took a bit of turn into the realm of “lets make it more complex”. The best of all worlds would be to have an auto matching device right at the base of the antenna. So, an MFJ 927 was purchased just for this contest use. During trials and experiments with this device, there were no end of problems with it. Eventually, in frustration, it was sent back to DX Engineering for a warranty claim, and they promptly sent along a new one. The replacement unit worked ok with the yard vertical and the experiment concluded successfully last fall. The experimental part of the setup was put away for the winter.
In the spring, the final version of the antenna was built and the setup was put on a Subaru Outback for tests in the yard. When tested with the K3, it worked very well. The automatching device made a good match with radials, without radials and on all the intended bands accept 6M. The MFJ 927 only works up to 30MHz, so it was left in bypass and the rig tuner was used on the 6M band. During tests, contacts were made and the unit was run all afternoon at around 80 watts output from the K3. No problems. All that was left to do was to install some common mode chokes on the coax feed to the rig, and all would be well. ( Not quite, it turned out )
The Rig Setup
Last year we made a little fitted operating table for the front of a 4Runner which worked admirably during operating. The 4Runner was traded in this year on a Subaru Outback, so a whole new platform and shelf was needed. We incorporated some lessons learned from last year. Make the shelf in two pieces so it could be installed and removed easily ! It worked fine, and in some ways was an improvement over last years effort. A bit cramped in the front seats, but comfortable enough. The contest started and ended with the K3 and an IC706 was available for backup. The K3 developed a frightening glitch though, which at one point made us think we had fried the rig ! It involved having a mic plugged into the rig and was caused whenever the rig band switched through 60M. The rig would lockup and go dead. It happened 3 times during the contest. This problem will have to be sent to Elecraft for diagnosis. If the reader has an interest in this glitch, contact VE1ZAC for more information. When the rig was returned to it’s home QTH, it seems to be working fine, so whatever happened is likely a glitch.
Figure 4: The operating station
N1MM software was selected for logging , the same as last year. ESM mode was setup by VE1ZA and it worked very well. The intent was to run the software on an ASUS netbook running WIN7 starter, the same as last year. A big mistake was made in not testing this setup before the contest. A bad assumption was made assuming it would be fine, since it ran last year fine. More on this in the ‘Murphy’ section.
The K3 was powered from a fancy deep cycle ‘Spiro Tech’ battery. Backup power was available from a gel cell golf Kaddy battery and a series of DeWalt 12 volt drill batteries and a harness that was originally designed for SOTA backpacking operation. The large battery powered the K3 for about 7 hours before needing recharging. Since Anderson power pole connectors were used for all power cables, it was easy to switch to one of the other batteries while the big battery was recharged from a vehicle. After this one charge, it just about made it to the end. About 30 minutes before the end of the contest it started going flat and the golf Kaddy battery had been depleted. The last 30 minutes of the contest were operated on DeWalt drill batteries, having to keep changing the batteries from a batch of 6 of these things available for the job… it worked, and kept us operating to the end.
The computer was powered from a 75 watt plug in inverter from the car battery. Last year, the net book used such little power, that there was never an issue of supply or reliability. This year, the contest was started with a major computer /N1MM glitch which forced a switch to the backup computer. This was an older Sony Viao notebook which obviously used a lot more power. It could run off the car battery for 2 hours but at that point had depleted the battery enough to require charging. The first time this happened, it almost killed the Subaru battery. After that.. charge state was watched carefully and charged every 2 hours until the end of the contest.
Figure 5: The DeWalt drill battery power supply. Diodes in box allow ‘hot’ battery switching.
As it turned out, all of the batteries and power supply equipment brought along was used.
Mr. Murphy Visits.. and Stays
Like last year, the drive time was a little underestimated, despite the reconnaissance trip from the week before. The team arrived late at the site after 9AM start time and began setting up equipment.
Problem number 1.. N1MM and the netbook would not recognize the USB/RS232 cable going to the K3. This worked perfectly last year, but was untested before leaving home. Oooops.. big mistake ! Same cable, same radio, same computer, same software. This was fooled with for an hour and nothing would get the radio and software to work. The decision was made to bail out and switch to the backup computer, which worked fine.
Later, when all this equipment was returned home, the K3, netbook and cable was set up again. The N1MM page allowing configuration of the K3 could be accessed and setup, but would not stick when it was closed. Hours and hours of troubleshooting were spent wrestling with this problem. The N1MM support group was contacted, and no solutions were available there. Finally, a review of what might have changed from last year was done. N1MM was upgraded, but worked fine on XP on another computer. K3 firmware was upgraded, but worked fine everywhere else. Win7 had various updates throughout the year. It seemed like the problem was related to Win7 and N1MM, but no one could put their finger on it. Finally there was a hazy recollection of a Win7 update that wound up changing the optimum resolution of the screen driver. The screens on these netbooks are pretty tiny. A separate monitor was plugged in and there it was… the configuration window for N1MM extended below the bottom of the netbook screen, and revealed a missing “OK” button. When this was pushed, everything worked fine. Holy moly ! A quick reconfiguration of the netbook screen resolution, and the problem was fixed.
The main lesson learned: test everything before you go ! Don’t take anything for granted.
Problem number 2: The MFJ 927 auto tuner crapped out during testing ! Beyond 50 watts this unit seized up and stopped functioning, on almost every band. Not believing this was possible after all that work and a second tuner, another hour was lost screwing around with this device. In the end, it was removed and the rig tuner/matcher was used throughout the contest. It worked OK, but probably cost some output on 20M and on 80M. Further, on 80, the rig would not load unless we screwed around with some of the plug in radials. (These were all 20 feet long with banana plugs and small bean bag weights on the other end. In the end, VE1ZA plugged a few of the radials into the radiator wire, and the rig would load on 80M. It also caused the rig to be RF hot and all three 80M contacts were accompanied by painful RF “Nips” from the paddles.
Later, during home troubleshooting, it was discovered the tuners PIC controller had burnt out. There appeared several issues with this unit which are the subject of another note to appear on this site “Improving the reliability of the MFJ 927 auto tuner”.
Bugs ( REAL bugs !)
The black flies were out in full force this weekend. It was relatively tolerable in the car but they still swarmed thickly even while inside. It was way too hot to leave the windows up. An “Off” bug lantern seemed to be very effective last year, and one was used this year as well. It was kept going in the back of the cargo area of the Subaru with a package of refills. No bug bites while in the car. When cleaning out the car the next day, there was a pretty solid layer of dead black flies all over the car’s dash.
Ron’s wife, Donna, made us a pot of homemade chili complete with garlic bread and treats which really hit the spot at supper time !
It was discovered after the contest that there were some cool improvements in N1MM to enhance multi county mode. Unfortunately they weren’t implanted during the contest, so the N1MM score was massaged after the contest to determine the final score. There were 124 QSO’s ( most of them CW), 233 QSO points and 65 multipliers, plus 6 bonus point contacts. This produced a score of 15745 per county, times the 4 counties, for a final score of 62,980. The counties were Halifax, Guysborough, Pictou and Colchester. The CW exchange went something like this “599 PIC HAL GUY COL” with lots of spacing between the counties. There were surprisingly few requests for repeats, considering the unusual exchange. The antenna was clearly effective on 40, 20 and 15 as intended, for regional and DX work. The strategy was to work CW on a band until there was a clear lack of new ones, then switch to SSB. A few SSB stations were moved to other bands for new multipliers.
Figure 6: Tony, VE1ZA cranks out the contacts in N1MM CW ESM mode
Figure 7: Ron offers encouragement to Tony while operating and acts as a decoy for the black flies.
This is where the fun part of this event ceased. The only close competitor who scored around half the points of the VA1GE effort started pressuring the contest committee, of which he was a member, the day after the contest, and within the next few days, the “Rules” changed, to allow him to be a winner. Shamefully poor behavior on his and the contest organizers part ensued. VA1GE pulled it’s results from the contest, as it entered to win the mobile/rover part of the contest, not be awarded a consolation prize for all it’s hard work. In other words, MQP ceased to be a contest. The VA1GE team feels like it was conned and had by this group. Too bad, it has left a stain on the reputations of Maritime hams for what should have been an easy to run and credible event. The VA1GE team hopes the Maritime Contest Club will find a way to turn this poor reputation around and do better , in the future.