23 March 2016

March 2016

Good news this month: not only have I received my P5/3Z9DX QSL card from Dom but the ARRL will now accept it for the DXCC award.  Checking took a wee while but it appears there was no evidence behind the objections raised. Seems to me they were scurrilous and baseless rumours, rotten eggs chucked by a jealous competitor of Dom's in the exotic travel business.

I scored a disappointing 3,000 points in BERU (the RSGB Commonwealth Contest) due largely to being on a family trip during the day and chasing 3C7A by evening. Condx were good to the UK on HF on the Sunday evening and I am grateful for the semi-exotic British Commonwealth QSOs to add to my 2016 Challenge totals: J79, 5X, VP9, 9M2, GU, 4S, VU and others. 

I couldn’t resist chasing the 3C for an ATNO during the contest, despite weak SP signals and a huge pile of callers. He called CQ VK a few times - never CQ ZL as such but along with ZL1BYZ we took our chances anyway. ZS1C spotted him on the cluster with some helpful comments about hearing me so I guess my signal was reasonably strong in Africa, if only 3C7A wasn’t located on the wrong side of a mountain. LP signals have been weak to nonexistent so far. A couple of days later, Ken was kind enough to break away from an EU pileup on 20m to try for VK/ZL on 15m ... and we made it. Signals were weak on the short path via Antarctica and nil long path over Alaska. He confirmed on LoTW shortly after the trip - what a star!

That’s DXCC 325 with 324 confirmed (current). Assuming my FT4 QSO is confirmed, I still need 6 more confirmed DXCCs to hit Honor Roll, or 15 more to have 'worked the world'.

VK0EK came on the air today (March 23) from Heard Island. Sounds like the crew had a good voyage and excellent weather for their arrival on that forbidding antarctic island. I couldn’t hear them on 40 or 30m but I arrived in the shack well after dawn and their first operating location is on the wrong side of the mountain for us (yes, that is a recurring theme, all part of the fun of DXing from ZL). Their real-time logging system is sort-of working with some teething troubles: amazing that it works at all from such a remote spot.

Late afternoon on the 24th, I think I made my first ever Heard Island QSO on 30m. Their signal was weak and warbly but I'm pretty sure I heard them send my call twice and the default 5NN report. The real-time logging appears to have packed up at the moment so now I'm waiting anxiously to find out whether I'm in the log and DXCC 326 is in the bag ... and sure enough once DXA3.org updated it looked like it's a good un:

Mmm, well maybe. The 30m blob mysteriously disappeared for a while!  There are some features of DXA that I appreciate but inconsistent and unreliable info about completed QSOs is unhelpful.  As with previous attempts at real-time logging from remote DX, DXA is somewhat unreliable. I presume a dodgy satellite Internet connection is the main issue, plus ‘teething troubles’ (bugs) in the DXA system.

Despite my complaints, the real-time news updates from the team at VK0EK are quite nice. I guess they could be using the DXcluster network also to pass out little messages about their situation, via self-spot comments or announcements, or their own website/blog/Twitter/whatever. I wouldn’t miss the rest of DXA though, and I hope it’s not diverting anyone there from assembling and operating the radio station. Nice try but more work required, methinks, before the next DXA outing.

Meanwhile, VK0EK are also uploading the log to Clublog where there was a separate problem:

I expected to see "New" in all those red squares since I've never had a Heard Island QSO before VK0EK. It looks like the blob-filler utility is interpreting VK0EK as Antarctica, not Heard Island.   [This has since been fixed.]
None of my VK0EK QSOs are in LoTW as yet, despite other early donors saying they have got LoTW confirmations already, so I don’t know what’s going on there either.  Maybe my donation wasn't early enough?  Not to worry, I'm sure it will all sort itself out in the end.

Right at the end of the month, FT4JA appeared on the air from Juan de Nova Island, a French military base between Madagascar and mainland Africa. In contrast to VK0EK, they have been very active already on several bands. I spent the morning listening and occasionally calling them LP on 15m but couldn't quite broach the enormous US wall. With relatively weak signals from FT4JA, the usual assortment of VFO-challenged callers, IQ-zeros, frequency kops, tuners and lids didn't help matters ... but hey it's all part of the fun/challenge of DXing these days. I'm quietly confident that we'll hook up before they head home to France.  Keep up with developments in next month's blogging ...

February 2016

Happiness is ... another 11 ticks on LoTW including South Georgia Island confirmed on 80m - a rare one that.

As of Feb 20th, I’ve worked 200 DXCCs so far this year, putting me near the top of the annual league tables on Club Log.  Despite the disappearing sunspots, I wonder if I’ll match last year’s total?

I’ve put up my 5 element 15m monobander, retrieved from ZM4T’s former contest site.  Nice to be loud on 15m for a change!  The old HyGain TH3 tribander needs to be stripped down and cleaned up, again, but meanwhile I’m using Lee’s homebrew version of a trapless Force-12 2 element tribander, and that’s OK.  The new HF quad is coming along slowly as ever: next job is to repair the fibreglass coating on the spreaders and repaint them.

LU1ZI is a scientist/support bloke based on South Shetland. He’s fairly active and a good op.  Caught him on 20/CW so far.

3XY1T is a mostly Italian group in Guinea.  Naturally they are keen to work their pals in Europe but it’s good to catch their ears occasionally with the ZL prefix too.  By sheer guesswork, I figured out that their op calling “CQ up five” in English on 20/SSB was then adding something along the lines of “My Japanese friends: ignore the unruly pile five up and call me up ten ...” in very fast and indistinct Japanese.  Though I don’t speak Japanese, the pile of JAs ten up was a bit of a giveaway.

A31MM Hiro (JA6WFM) and the group at A35T are enjoying themselves on Tonga, and 5W0RR Roly (ZL1JQD) is having fun with 5W1SA Atsuo on Samoa, while 3D2AG Anton hands out Fiji to the deserving, mostly on digimodes lately.  I hope the 200 mph severe tropical cyclone Winston spared them, their families and hosts, oh and the antennas and shacks.

8R1AK is Esmond in Guyana, worked with a weak signal on 40/SSB but a distinctive Caribbean lilt and an excellent hand-drawn QSL card.

Z81X in Southern Sudan is proving elusive - although he is quite active, he rarely chooses bands that are open to ZL.  I caught him on 17/CW in the midst of ARRL DX CW contest, when most of the rest of the world was frantically swapping 5NNs with NA.  5V7TH has been quite active for some months now from Togo.  I’m still hunting an even more elusive D3AM in Angola ...

Also during the contest, KG4HF in Guantanamo Bay was hanging out on RTTY.  

Talking of the contest, I’ve noticed a distinct latency when working maybe one in five W’s.  They call CQ, I call them once and pause for a response, hear nothing and start to call again when they come back to someone ... by which time I’m also transmitting so we are doubling.  If we’re lucky, I catch them on QSK and interrupt my memory keyer in time to copy at least the end of my callsign and a report, but it’s touch-and-go, and I worry about mistakes in the prefix part of my call.  There are several possible causes for the pregnant pauses, including:
  • Slow ops, perhaps a bit tired and emotional from slogging away at the contest
  • Slow radios with noticeable digital processing delays (my end and theirs!)
  • Weak, indistinct signals due to poor propagation, so they are unsure whether I have stopped calling or plummeted below the noise floor
  • SO2R computer tangles - hitting the wrong keyboard shortcut, stepping on the wrong side of the footswitch, mental battles between the left and right brain ...
  • Duelling SO2R ops interleaving CQs and QSOs on other bands
  • Multi-ops contending for the transmitter 
  • Distractions in the shack such as reading a book, catching up with emails or grabbing nanna-naps between QSOs
  • Satellite delays, perhaps literally, if they are using remote stations or remote receivers via the Internet
  • Pennies dropping: yes, it really is a Kiwi calling!
So I guess that’s the state of the art of contesting at the start of the 21st century.  Obviously enough, the delays and doubles harm QSO rates so I predict the apperance of “Low latency” in adverts for those fancy contest grade top-end software-defined radios.

C5DX is Alan G4DJX, on a school exchange trip in The Gambia.  He’s the headmaster, not a student, so he gets to ‘demonstrate’ radio while his colleagues help construct the biggest school hall in the country.  Alan hears me very well - 4 bands so far, all CW and all confirmed on LoTW already.

January 2016

Today, Jan 6th, I worked FT4XU Nicholas, a very French scientist on Kerguelen Island, the closest speck of land to Heard Island. He was working EU stations steadily at about 2/minute, using a barefoot radio and low dipole on 20m SSB. His signal came short-path via Antarctica with the characteristic flutter, S5 at about 18:00z, dropping down close to the noise floor at 18:30z and back up to about S3 when I finally caught him at 19:00z. An hour’s toil bagged me DXCC #325 all-time and #323 current.  :-)  The Cordell group heading for VK0EK Heard Island in March/April originally hoped to call in at Kerguelen en route but changed boats and plans.

K5P on Palmyra atoll was all over the bands this month and very easy to work from here, being “local”, a mere 5,500 km NNE across the Pacific.  Despite the moans from Europe, they were definitely making the effort to work EU, stopping their high-rate NA and JA pilesup when they hear/work an EU stn to call CQ EU ONLY.  Their QSO rate then plummeted, whether or not the path to EU was truly open ...  Anyway, just for fun I decided to take the opportunity to catch them on 160m right at the end of their trip, which entailed putting up a temporary antenna for their final evening on-air.  It took me an hour to get a line 20m up a handy fir tree near the shack, and another half hour to lash up an inverted-vee dipole with a homebrew balun box marked “Dodgy” and a very sad-looking mangled chunk of RG58 coax.  The high SWR was a little clue that something was seriously wrong but by then it was dark.  Right on cue, K5P appeared on 1921.5.  I made several calls, gingerly running a few hundred watts in the hope that my ATU wouldn’t release the smoke, until, finally, bingo!  Thanks K5P and lash-up antenna, job done.  The knackered feeder will shortly be consigned to the waste bin and I really must check out that balun.  It’s about time I put up a proper, permanent topband antenna.

Compared to K5P, VP8STI on South Sandwich was a tough one, although I was lucky enough to nab them on 17/CW via the S Pole at 17:50z shortly after ZL dawn on their first day, and shortly after on 15/CW also.  I hope they don’t mind that I called them when they put (some of) the EU mob on hold to call Asia. That's DXCC #327/325 in the bag.  Catching them on 40/CW was a bonus.  An auroral alert 12 hours earlier implied poor HF conditions and I wondered if LF conditions would be good.  Sure enough, VP8STI was  cracking along on 40m towards our sunset and dinner time ... so it was chicken salad al desko for me, headphones on.  I may have made the memory buttons greasy but it was well worth it!  A few more ZL DXers made it though after me, thanks largely to a good path and the excellent ops at both ends.

2016 is a good year for DX already, and it’s still only January with Heard and Europa still to come!

December 2015

P5/3Z9DX in North Korea is in the log!  I can hardly believe it ... but ... this afternoon while working in the office/shack, Logger32’s jingle bells alerted me to a new one on DXcluster.  Dom P5/3Z9DX had been spotted on 21222 kHz by a kind Chinese ham (what a star!).   It took but a moment to click the colour-coded spot on the band map (thereby QSYing the K3 to the frequency, switching the radio to USB, and tuning the amp to its nearest preset giving about 800 watts out), grab my headphones and fist mike, and turn the rusty old tribander in the general direction of Korea (320 degrees from here).  As the beam swang inexorably around from South to East and on through North, I heard a man’s voice come out of the murk, calling weakly “See queue see queue - papa five stroke three zulu nine david x-ray - papa five stroke three zulu nine david x-ray”.  Wow!  Could it be true?  

Dom was due in Pyongyang this week.  He (and many others) had been trying for ages to gain permission for an amateur operation from the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, working patiently to convince the North Korean authorities that this operation would be good for international relations.  He announced in October that he had permission for a limited operation in January/February 2016, running 100 watts to a vertical, SSB only, on 3 HF bands.  We were told that, prior to the main trip, he had to take his radio over for an official government inspection, leaving it behind until Jan/Feb.  I guessed that ‘inspection’ might involve operating the radio briefly to demonstrate its function, sometime before christmas, and said exactly that to my friend Holger ZL3IO last night at a family meal out in town.

Naturally I started calling him, giving my callsign once phonetically then listening for a response.  Almost immediately a familiar VK voice popped up on frequency to ask “Do you think it’s real?”.  To be honest I wasn’t sure but rather than respond or get wound up by the intrusion, I simply continued calling on the tried and trusted WFWL principle - Work First Worry Later.  A moment later, I heard Dom say “zulu lima zulu lima” so I called him again, twice.  He came back with “zulu lima two?”, at which point I could feel my heart pumping fast with a massive adrenaline rush.  I called again maybe three or four times in succession with short listening breaks: Dom was listening patiently for me but just couldn’t catch my suffix, then I heard him say “zulu lima two - sorry, you’re too weak, try again in a few minutes” so I duly shut up to give others their chance.  His signal was coming and going in QSB, peaking about S3 but only for a few brief seconds at a time. 

The little voice in my head told me “Breathe deeply, Gary.  Calm down.  Hold your nerve.  QRX ... and listen harder.”

Timing my next call carefully, I waited for his CQ to coincide with a strengthening signal about two minutes later and called again. This time he got “zulu lima two victor foxtrot”, then “zulu lima two victor foxtrot bravo five nine”.  By now in a bit of a flap, I sensed this one almost slipping out my grasp so I tried “zulu lima two it-ah-lee - italy - italy - foxtrot bravo - three by three - three by three - zulu lima two it-a-ly foxtrot bravo” ... and joy-oh-joy he came right back, surfing a handy wave of QSB with “roger - zulu lima two india foxtrot bravo five nine - congratulations on the first QSO”.  And that was that.

A little involuntary yelp of joy escaped my lips as I hit the enter button to log it.

Within about 20 minutes of first hearing him, his signal submerged completely beneath the noise here.  I belatedly started the audio recorder and heard a couple of ZLs, VKs, JAs, BAs, YBs and at least one (presumably left coast) W getting through but I was straining to hear Dom rather than monitoring his pileup.  

As far as I could hear, the pileup was remarkably restrained and well-behaved given the extreme rarity of P5 (top of the most-wanted lists).  After he went split listening up 5, on his frequency I heard a couple of tuner-uppers, the odd wrong-VFO caller followed by a succinct admonition from a kop, oh and an unidentified VK saying “More power VK, more power - 5 kilowatts!” then chatting to a mate, telling him that there were lots of callers (!), but mostly it was just white noise with the odd partial syllable from Dom.  It was certainly not the sheer bedlam that we had been expecting, presumably because of the early activation, weak signals and 15m propagation at that time of day being limited to the Pacific region, but possibly because all the usual culprits were in the pileup, desperately calling for their new one.

As I compose these words five hours later, I’m still grinning like a Cheshire cat. Thanks Dom for the most wonderful christmas present.  Within a few days I hope to see the QSO listed on Club Log, and I’ll definitely be sending a few $ through OQRS as a grateful contribution towards Dom’s costs, and hoping for a rapid confirmation.  I may well join the pileups in Jan/Feb too but not on 15m, and not if I hear the deserving patiently (or desperately!) seeking their first ever P5 QSOs, which seems likely.

UPDATE: looks like it’s for real alright. According to DX World, Dom has been operating from a temporary setup with  a vertical lashed to a fence post among the government buildings in the capital city Pyongyang.  He came on air at 00:03z so this would have been one of his very first QSOs. He has high local noise, even higher on the other bands hence why he turned up on 15m.

FURTHER UPDATE: somehow Dom managed to compose a computer log under the watchful eyes of the DPRK armed guards and has uploaded it to Club Log already.