[3830] ARRL Sep VHF K2DRH Single Op LP

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Tue Sep 15 03:06:55 EDT 2020

                    ARRL September VHF Contest - 2020

Call: K2DRH
Operator(s): K2DRH
Station: K2DRH

Class: Single Op LP
QTH: EN41vr IL
Operating Time (hrs): 

 Band  QSOs  Mults
    6:  145    71
    2:  111    53
  222:   24    16
  432:   39    20
  903:    9     8
  1.2:   11     8
  2.3:    2     2
  3.4:    2     2
Total:  343   180  Total Score = 82,440

Club: Society of Midwest Contesters


On Saturday this contest started out slow and tapered off from there.  Usually
there has been some SSB on the call right at the gate, this time there was
nothing!  I had to check the time three times. I had a badly compromised 2M
antenna and a lot of frustration not the least of which was with the digital
performance of my equipment (discussion at the end so you don’t have to read
about all the gorey details if you don’t wanna).  FT8 out of the gate, how
After all the work and disappointment of having the last 3 ARRL VHF tests get
blown out or broken I was really at a motivational low.  But I pressed on and
soon all the calls I was seeing were greyed out dupes with the N1MM interface. 
CQing helped some and there were a few reasonable rate flurries but it was
really painful and even when it was steady it felt really slow unless I was
putting out some fire or another with my software or SDR.  I resorted to the
cell and I’ve developed a pretty good list of stations in a 300 mile radius
that have multiple bands so I called several and got no reply from at last half
of them  Microwave conditions sucked and there seems to be less and less people
keeping them up or doing them.  The rovers were nonexistent here on Saturday and
I only worked one local rover on Sunday.  Es was mostly unworkable one and
done’s from the east coast KWs. In a word it was horrible but it matched my
Saturday night was better as we moved to MSK-144 and the rox were really fling
so I made a lot more Qs than normal.  The PJ page was really buzzing with
activity and skeds were flying by.  I stayed up way too late and got too little
sleep since I got up early to take more advantage.  Sunday seemed to be better
and I actually worked a few long distance 6M stations on Es bubbles.  SSB
signals popped up from time to time and people seemed more likely to QSY from 6
or 2M FT8 to run bands.  A few CQs on 144.200 brought some non-digital folks out
of the woodwork and yielded my only Rover K9JK who I worked on his 3 bands in
all of his grids.  Highlight was the tropo on 2M in the last couple of hours
when I was able to work well into the FN grids on 2M FT8and even a couple FM
grid over 700-800 miles.  Makes me wonder how far I could have reached out had
my 2M antennas been up to par. But it didn’t extend much more and 500 on 222
or 432 and few would QSY there (and I did see some CQs as well as got called
myself on 222 and 432!).   All in all lots of grids on both 6M and 2M due to
some enhancement but not a lot of volume like there used to be.  Many times I
would only see greyed out dupes on FT8 and my CWs went unanswered.     
Now for the broke, busted and disgusted part:
Where do I begin?  Shredded antennas? Equipment failures? Supply issues?
Uncooperative weather? Software wars? Just getting the station “ready” for
this test was insanely difficult.  After family issues knocked me out of Sept
2019, the worst ever Jan thaw and icing event blew out January and tower rotor
failure (even after corrective maintenance) crippled what could have been a 300K
effort in June I was really hoping for smooth sailing in September especially
after getting all my microwave stuff working well for the 222 and up ‘test. 
Those hope were dashed in mid-August when I learned a new word.  Derecho.  It
means big thunderstorms with huge winds.  100MPH plus sustained over a half hour
and even though defined as “straight line” they were swirling around the
compass during the event. Scariest thing I’ve seen here!   
While what I suffered was mild in comparison to some (N0NI lost 1200 feet of
tower and 30 yagis) it shredded my top 2M antenna, skewed my other VHF yagis all
around (previous wind storms well over 70MPH have never been able to that) ,
bent up some HF yagis and strew trees and debris all over my yard.  We lost
power, internet and even cell service for a while; luckily only a few days, not
weeks like some.  The week after was pretty much taken up with yard cleanup,
waiting on gas lines at the few that still had power to feed the generator,
climbing and surveying the damage to the antennas, straightening out the skewed
and bent stuff as much as possible without taking them down, ordering parts and
new antennas and such.  
I ran into COVID 19 vendor supply issues with coax and due to time and
manufacturer’s constraints had to get a M2 18XXX stock antenna rather than
parts for my heavy boom modifications to survive the “normal” Midwest winds
to support a contest in 3 weeks, which also saved the step of getting it down
for the rebuild. Robert KR7O at M2 had one in stock and it came 2M two weeks
before the ‘test. He was good to me for not much more than it would have cost
just for the parts for old one.  Then it got insufferably hot and humid with
what I call 90/90 days (90 plus degrees and 90%+ humidity) and it was a few days
before it cooled down enough that I could stand to be in the sweatbox garage to
build it. Even then it was miserable – I lost some weight!  But it was done
and ready by Labor Day weekend. 
The top 2M DE end had broken off at the mast and was hanging down by the tightly
pinched phasing harness coax and overhead truss so it was vertical to the mast
and pointed straight up. Amazingly the SWR was still under 2:1 and it bottom one
was actually usable though severely compromised having to divide power and
signal by the useless one pointing at the moon.  I got a new power divider and
phasing harness for both antennas from M2 just in case there was damage I
couldn’t see from the top of the tower by the wind flailing the mangled broken
half against them, and they arrived just before Labor Day.  I hate terminating
LMR600 with clamp type N connectors and I don’t really do enough of it justify
buying the required expensive crimpers to make it easier, so I hire some of that
out now too.  All in all over $1K in parts.  
Joel at RF Connection made up a LMR600 jumper from the power divider mounted
mid-mast to the preamp on the tower top.  I also ordered a new length to go from
the tower top 45 feet down to the where the mid-tower rotation jumpers are since
that is now FSJ4-50B and I have had no end of problems with that aspirating
water between the outer jacket and copper spiral then dumping it in the sealed
downstream connectors.  Since I had help might as well get that done too.
Unfortunately he didn’t have enough and it was backordered from Times
Microwave, but it came right after Labor Day, the day we were going to work on
the tower.  So with much effort and really helpful vendors we were ready to go!
My 36ft boom 2M antennas are mounted on a 24ft 2in aluminum mast that sticks out
the top of the 20ft of free standing tower above the last rotating guy ring and
places them 14ft apart with the bottom one about 7ft above the tower top and the
top 11el 6M.  While I once had the upper body strength to push these antennas up
myself without help, and get them up the tower with XYL N2KMA’s help, it seems
now that we are both just shy of 70 I hire out the heavier stuff to a
professional and be his ground crew with an occasional climb for stuff that
needs more than 2 hands.  He was busy with his commercial accounts’ damage and
could not come out until after Labor Day.  Well it stated raining Labor Day
weekend and rained all week long until the Saturday of the Contest with no break
even for a few hours to maybe just get the mast and debris down without wrecking
the antennas below and the single apparently undamaged antenna connected. 
Busted 2M antennas going in.  I was pretty disheartened Friday night and on the
fence if I would even play hard being 2M is a money band. 
A few years ago I sold off all the Kenwood TS-850s that were my IF rigs and
bought a Flex-6700 that I thought would do the trick for both VHF/UHF 10M and
Microwave 2M IF transverters and that had good native 6M.  As capable as it is,
without an elaborate external switching scheme a single one really can’t
reasonably do all that alone so about a year ago I bought another 6700 and a
purpose built DEMI amp to do the 10W input 2M IF transverters (currently run
with a venerable FT-726R as 2M IF) and have something where I could
simultaneously TX on 2M and 6M at the same time on FT8.   Good thing I did.  My
original Flex went belly up about two weeks before the ‘test and I had to swap
in the other one while it was off for repair (Yikes – now I need a third one
for reliability like with the TS-850’s).  The difference was that the new one
came with Ver 3 software and the old one was still on Ver 1 since it cost extra
to upgrade to Ver 2 or 3 and most of the innovations that the Ver 2 and Ver 3
software has concern internet remote connectivity and the use of one radio by
multiple operators that as a single OP and with my slow Internet connection I
was unable to take advantage of anyway.  
This is relevant since I had one difficult time transferring the profile setups
for operating with transverters from one to the other.  Seems profiles made with
Ver 1 software may not be as compatible as claimed or that my new radio has
problems related to saving profile configurations, which seems to be a known
defect on the Flex community pages.  It seemed fine until the morning of the
test when it forgot all my transverter setups and would not import them from an
old profile save.  So already disheartened I had to take two hours re-inputting
setup and configuration info and testing the transverters.  In the process I
noticed that the 6M preamp on a RX loop out was dead (it has a slightly better
RX NF than the native 6M in the Flex, good for those dead band uber weak FT8
signals) with no hope of resurrection since Jerry at SSB is out of business now
and nobody else repairs them anymore.  Later during the test the profiles would
again get corrupted and I had to keep reloading them from backups. You almost
never knew if you changed bands if the right config would come up!  Often the
operating freq/mode/etc on the next band would not be where you left it and you
had to scramble to correct it.  The old one didn’t do this so the new Flex is
either possessed or has problems! 
Other software issues became apparent too both with Flex and N1MM interface the
N1MM interface with WSJT.  You can log directly from WSJT to N1MM but the
configuration is rigid and does not lend itself to easy switching back to CW/SSB
when needed unless you restart N1MM which is totally unacceptable in the middle
of a QSY off FT8 when you can actually get someone to QSY to “legacy modes”
for a band run!  What happens is the software forces whatever is in the WSJT DX
call and Grid windows directly into the N1MM entry windows so it stubbornly
refuses to let you type over them to log a contact on SSB/CW.  It gets really
stressful when the other station wants to move to the next band fast and you
can’t even get him logged!  It helps somewhat to collapse the WSJT decode list
window in N1MM but you also have to delete the call and grid in the WSJT windows
as well as type USB or CW into the N1MM entry window before you type in the call
to have it log the correct mode (not that it matters for the log since mode is
not a factor in log checking).  Way too much trouble!!!  But if you want an
accurate count of FT8 v/s SSB etc. it will just log everything as FT8 once it
starts talking to WSJT unless you take a lot of time to make it right as you QSY
to a different mode.  Sometimes it freaks out and logs it as RTTY for no
apparent reason. 
I solved that problem by logging only FT8 in the N1MM computer that has the WSJT
running and USB/SSB on another networked N1MM computer with parallel but
independent CAT control of the Flex and no digital interaction.  I run SO2R with
1 Flex slice/N1MM entry window on 6M and the other on 2 through 432 switched by
the Flex (when the transverter setup is working right).  This way in dual band
RX unit duplex mode I can listen to the 2M or 6M calling frequency (not that
there was much action there) while working FT8 or MSK.  Logging the microwaves
with this setup is impossible when it’s on another radio and those bands are
not accessible on CAT.  So I had a third computer that did NOT link to N1MM to
CAT so I could log those manually and still have them integrated into the
networked overall log.  Configurations keep evolving. This s#iT is just getting
too damn complicated! 
But wait!  There’s more!  The new Ver 3 DAX (digital audio exchange) and CAT
are pretty cool in that they can independently address any Flex radio by
direction (Ve1 one was on a first come 1st served basis and you had to boot up
the radios in sequence.  So now you can easily interface to any radio with the
other programs like N1MM or WSJT on any networked computer.  Problem is for some
reason if the radio crashes (something it does often in WIFI even 3 feet from
the router) and has to be reconnected it seems to scramble DAX’s brains and
the audio levels to WSJT go all out of whack.  I run  at least two instances of
WSJT (one for the native 6M and the other for the 2M-432 transverter stack) and
that level problem can be solved by closing and reopening DAX, but even more
weirdly by manipulating the DAX audio level sliders.  You don’t have to change
the actual setting, just move it one notch either way and it seems to reset back
– then you can put it back to the original setting if you like!  Even stranger
whenever you change bands with the transverters regardless of mode the same
thing happens, but only for the one instance of WSJT!  Same fix.  No clue what
interaction is going on there yet! 
And WSJT-X still has some quirky behavior that keeps you from taking your eye
off it all the time during a contest. Like if you are sending RR73 and the other
station didn’t get it the first time due to whatever reason (QRM, meteor ping,
multipath etc.) it just shuts down and logs it anyway (see the discussion and
recommendations in NCJ for reducing the spike in NIL with the advent of FT8),
even though the next sequence it decodes a repeat of TX3.  So how can you know
if the other guy got it or you have to repeat it?  You can’t unless you are
right there ready to force a repeat of TX4 by mouse clicking or using the
alternate F1-F6 Key Bindings and hitting the F4 key fast enough that the RR73
sequence gets retransmitted after you see the repeat of TX3.  The new faster
decode helps sometimes but not if you take your attention away for more than 5
seconds and don’t see it in time (or anticipate it).  No way to stop it from
shutting down (the check box in settings is useless) so the easy solution is to
use the slower RRR that will repeat until it gets a 73.  But a better solution
would be for the program to recognize when TX3 is being decoded again just like
with RRR and repeat RR73 also until it gets a 73.  Another other one that makes
me crazy is if you are still sending RRR a couple times with no reply while you
wait out a fade or other upset for 2 or 3 sequences and somebody gives up on
you.  If the next thing you see is them calling another station WSJT it suddenly
reverts back to TX3, which makes no blasted sense at all. That really needs to
be fixed!  Also when you have a sked and put in the call manually then generate
standard messages it should immediately go to TX1 or 2 as appropriate, not stay
put on 73 or CQ.  It used to do that in previous versions so something broke
along the way. 
And OH did I mention my Frontier DSL ISP kept going down losing Internet and
scrambling the network connections, then resetting and coming back a minute or
two later?  Tough to deal with on the fast moving PJ page with PJClient and fast
moving lines showing when stations are free to run MSK 144 skeds.  It just stops
printing and you can miss something like Joel W5ZN saying he was finished and is
running with you now but it doesn’t come up until the internet ISP reset. 
Pretty embarrassing that he was running for several minutes on 6M and wondering
what was going on while you were off taking an urgent bathroom break and
blissfully unaware of the hang-up, then trying to explain it after you completed
1-2-3 in successive sequences.  Seems to do that every contest so it must happen
a lot when I’m not in front of the computer all the time too.  One laptop
computer with no direct wired Ethernet connection is particularly susceptible
and it often locks up the WIFI adapter and has to be manually reset.  All these
issues add up to a lot of digital frustration and delay that is no fault of the
operator but can cause a lot of problems and missteps to occur that make you
look like an inept LID .   
73 de Bob2

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