Field Day 2020 In Quarantine

This year’s ARRL Field Day was noticeably tinged with difficulty, problems, and loneliness. The goal of Field Day is to set up our radios with makeshift antennas and operate on emergency power while making as many contacts as possible for 24 hours. Adaptation in the face of adverse conditions is the heart of these field exercises. Unfortunately, because of These Uncertain Times, my radio club was unable to meet for a team event, so those of us who operated did so at our homes.

My hamshack at the hopeful start of contest on Saturday

I decided to get a 2x power multiplier on points by running on battery power for the whole weekend. So I spent time last week measuring the power consumption of my radios, doing some math, and then getting a charger and two big batteries that would float me the entire event. How serious was I about running class 1E (one radio, emergency power)? This serious:

Over 110 Amp-Hours of power. Damn right I’m serious about 1E. Chargers connected to mains power cannot be used during the contest (generator or green power is permitted).

In summary, the power source problem was the easiest problem of the whole weekend. 12V is 12V is 12V, and after I built the cable sets to connect the new batteries to my power distribution block, that was that. These big-boy 35Ah batteries performed perfectly, but I only used one of them with all the transmitting I did on Saturday. The other battery is still unused, and I only used one of the 8Ah medium batteries (in back) just to float me the last hours of the event while working FT8 (digital modes are power hungry). So that’s some wasted money.

Back side of rigs, with big battery going to power distribution, plus a rat’s nest of wires and coax. Manual antenna tuners for power thrift and for false earth ground. Manual antenna switches for ease of band changes. Old modem speaker top center so I wouldn’t wreck my ears with headphones. Icom radio “on the bench” on lower right.

Really, the bigger issue was dissatisfaction. I goosed myself into looking forward to it, and I had hoped to make lots of contacts, but ultimately, even after I had adapted and got over my self-imposed 50W limit and set the radio to 100W, the bands were so crowded with people running 1D (home commercial power) with their linear amplifiers that I just could not break through any pileups to get a contact exchange with most of these loud superstations you find when doing the hunt-and-pounce methods.

  • My 100W is just too weak in a pileup, even though, thanks to logarithmic Decibel scales, it’s only 1 S-unit over 10W on the received side.
  • My homebrew antennas are just that shitty and are too low in elevation for any respectable takeoff angle to be heard by anybody in a pileup.
  • My voice is just too deep for clear comms in a pileup.
  • My 2×3 callsign is just a mouthful when superstation operators are hitting people rapid-fire for contacts in their pileup; when I’m done saying my last “romeo” they’re already deep into an exchange with someone else.

My judgment is that radio contesting is a battle of strength through superior firepower. It favors property owners with space to hang antennas, suburbanites outside of RF-noisy urban centers, and sneaky rule-benders. It’s enough to dissuade anyone casual from serious contesting.

I still tried, though, and managed to get 21 voice contacts and 5 digital contacts, which is more than I’ve ever done on any Field Day (my previous record was last year with 8 QSO’s during the club meet). But still, it feels like an abject failure. My social isolation doesn’t help; I wish I had some ham buddies around to lean on for guidance, or advice, or just some attaboys to get me going again.

When you’re going through failure and are about to give up, a kind word or an admonition to keep going is all it takes to keep going. Just ask any marathon runner, and they’ll tell you the value of people cheering from the roadside.

The biggest problem of the contest was when my Yaesu FT-857 went half-dead. I got an alert on my laptop that the USB-Serial converter had stopped responding. Shortly thereafter, I noticed that the audio going from the USB Signalink interface into the radio was nonfunctional. The Signalink was triggering the PTT, but the radio wasn’t modulating; the sound going into the radio wasn’t doing anything. The front-panel mic was just fine. So something happened with the radio and affected anything connected to it. When setting up, I tried my damnedest to get rid of excess RF in the shack, from using lots of clamp-on ferrite beads on signal and power wires, to stringing wires around my apartment to act as a false earth ground (for better propagation and to cancel RF noise). But with my antennas 20ft away through a sliding glass door, it’s impossible to rid myself of all RF energy, and I think I fried something.

Great, another damn HF radio fried. That makes me 2 for 3.

So I had to put my Icom IC-706mkIIG back into play, even though I had declared it was too power hungry to run on batteries. Adapt again and make concessions. Thankfully, I had previously configured my logging software to control both radios, so it was a simple exercise of connecting the radio and switching the configs. Still it was a pain to deal with, especially in the middle of a contest.

Thankfully it worked, but I wasn’t happy about it.

This morning, I opted to sleep in because I needed it. Woke up with 90 minutes left for the contest, so I started a pot of coffee and a bowl of granola and made a last-ditch effort to rack up points with FT8. That eventually was problematic, because the ancient Signalink interface married to the Icom was having problems holding down the PTT for longer than 4 seconds, so I had to use the “delay” button on its front panel just to keep the PTT closed for the entire 12 second cycle. Another adaptation.

But I got 5 digital contacts. 10 points. 20 after power multiplier.

My experimentation tonight after the contest showed me that the Windows audio output to this device was set too low, and the Windows enhancements like bass boost and loudness control were causing the output signal to drop below the Signalink’s PTT threshold during FT8, thereby cutting my transmissions short at 4 seconds. Once I disabled enhancements and bumped the volume slider up on that mixer, the problem disappeared. But I didn’t know until after the contest event.

Now I know.

Station at the messy end of the contest. 20m FT8 on screen, with Icom control head in front of dead Yaesu. Battery meter in back says 12.4V.

I wish I had known all this would happen and how to fix it beforehand. But no one can predict this. Shakeouts like this are how we know something is misconfigured, broken, or on the edge. If we don’t run our radios in emergency practice scenarios, we cannot possibly expect that they will perform during an actual emergency. I’m dissatisfied and concerned about how my own hardware functioned, even after all the love, money, and time I put into it, but now I know some things. Now I know what its limits are. Now I know what my limits are.

N3FJP Field Day logger, showing 26 QSO’s in total. Meager, but that’s a solo 1E for you.

I know this is an amateur hobby, but I want to get better. If only I could rise above the solitude of it and make real connections, or create a sense of purpose, or something rah-rah like that, then I could enjoy it again. I’m past the wide-eyed learning-about-science phase; now I’m into real learning through actual experiences, and it’s frustrating. I tend to drop my playthings when they resemble actual work, but I need to stop doing that. That’s not how adults should go through the world.

I’ve had a taste of contesting, real contesting. Not with a club, or a team, or anything where someone else sets up the radios, antennas, and software. But for myself. Clubs can’t earn a Worked-All-States award, but I can. I hear my friends talk about chatting with Germans or Australians or Brazilians with a 5W radio and a wire thrown into a tree, and here I am going, “What the fuck am I doing wrong?” Well, I’ve just found a few things I’m doing wrong. It’s time to do them right.

Published by Shawn

He's just this guy, you know?