Murphy and MacGyver

My XYL and I traveled out to the Harrisburg, PA, area over the weekend to spend some time with our daughter and her family.  Yesterday, I set up my KX3 and Alexloop in the backyard to make a few SKCC Weekend Sprintathon (WES) contacts.  Ol’ Murphy was certainly with me.

First, I had a problem with my little American Morse MS2 straight key.  Well, not the key itself, but rather a bad connector or cable.  I spent some time playing around with it but I had no multimeter to  troubleshoot it and no parts to repair it.

Tuning around the bands, I couldn’t hear a lot of activity.  The SKCC stations I heard seemed pretty weak and I wasn’t having any luck making contacts.  I checked the Band Conditions website and saw that the bands were in bad shape.  At that point, I threw in the towel and chalked up a win for Murphy.

Tough going on the bands
Tough going on the bands

Today I decided to give it another shot.  The bands sounded better and I could hear some WES activity.  I remembered a trick that Burke N0HYD employed to pull off an SKCC contact with me a while back.  So, I channeled my inner MacGyver and set up the KX3 for a straight key and connected my Palm mini paddles.  I turned the paddles over on their side and used one lever as a straight key.  The straight key workaround worked surprisingly well.  The “feel” wasn’t half-bad, actually.

My sideways paddles. The top paddle was used as the straight key.
My sideways paddles. The top paddle was used as the straight key.

With the improved band conditions and the straight key workaround, I made several SKCC WES contacts, including one with Bert F6HKA.  Bert has great ears and has managed to pull my puny QRP signal out of the noise on several occasions.  I finished my session with a nice two-way QRP QSO with Mac NN4NC down in North Carolina on 40 meters.  I was only on for an hour or so but it was fun.

Despite my lack of a functioning straight key, I managed to put a few new SKCC stations in my log today.  MacGyver would have been proud.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Backyard-Portable in Central PA

My XYL and I spent the weekend with our daughter and her family near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  I spent most of my time enjoying the company of my grandson but I did manage to get on the air for a bit this afternoon.

I set up my KX3 and AlexLoop antenna out in the backyard at the picnic table.  Since the Straight Key Century Club’s Weekend Sprintathon (WES) contest was going on, I hooked up my little MS2 straight key to make a few contacts.

Operating “backyard-portable” near Harrisburg, PA (Photo by Amy Duchesne)
Operating “backyard-portable” near Harrisburg, PA (Photo by Amy Duchesne)

This was my first time using the AlexLoop with my KX3 and it worked well.  Operating “search and pounce” during a contest was tricky with the AlexLoop but not impossible.  I just tuned the KX3 about 500Hz off of the station I wanted to work, tuned the loop and then moved back to the station’s frequency.

I worked a half-dozen SKCC stations from Maine to Florida and as far west as Missouri.  The last QSO was with W3CEI.  His signal was so strong I had to turn the KX3’s preamp off and kick in the attenuator.  As it turns out, Larry was only a half mile away or so from me.  That was my big DX contact of the day!

It was a short outing but it was a beautiful day to be out playing radio under a shady tree.

72, Craig WB3GCK

A Brief Break in the Weather

I was itching to get out for some portable operating but the weather this weekend had been pretty lousy.  I checked the weather radar this morning and saw that there was some clearing coming.  I figured I had a couple of hours before the next band of rain moved in.

I threw my backpack into my truck and headed out to nearby Upper Schuylkill Valley Park.  Given the dreary weather, there was no one in the picnic area.  I headed for a picnic table that I had used once before and set up my equipment.

This was the first outing for my new KX3 and I was using a new LiFePO4 battery for the first time.  I connected a straight key with the hope of making a few Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) contacts.  I strapped my 31-foot Jackite pole to a wooden sign post and strung up a 30-foot vertical wire fed through a 9:1 unun.

My setup at Upper Schuylkill Valley Park. The food storage container is holding a 6 A-H LiFePO4 battery.
My setup at Upper Schuylkill Valley Park. The food storage container is holding a 6 A-H LiFePO4 battery.

There wasn’t a lot of activity on the bands.  I eventually had a 2-way QRP SKCC QSO on 20 meters with K4ARQ in Florida.  That turned out to be my only QSO today.  I had a couple of “almost” QSOs that were either disrupted by QSB or QRM.  In particular, NP3CW in Puerto Rico heard me calling CQ on 17 meters and gave me a call.  As soon as I answered, a station in Mexico came on frequency and started calling CQ.  A few other SKCC members attempted QSOs with me but propagation just wasn’t working in my favor today.

Dark clouds starting rolling in, so I packed up and headed back to my truck.  My timing was excellent; it started raining on my drive home.

It wasn’t the greatest field trip I’ve had but it was a good practice session with the KX3.

72, Craig WB3GCK

More SKCC Fun

Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) logoThe past few weeks have been interesting for me.  Despite poor band conditions, I managed to qualify for some more Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) awards.

Two weeks ago I received my Prefix x2 (Px2) award and a 40 meter endorsement on my Px1 award.  The SKCC Prefix awards are awarded on a point system for working a unique set of prefixes and summing up the membership numbers of the stations you work.  The PX1 award requires 500,00 points and the Px2 award requires 1,000,000 points.  So, I had 1,000,000 points on all bands and more than 500,00 on 40 meters alone.  It’s a lot easier to reach these numbers than you would think.

Yesterday afternoon, I got on 40 meters for a bit to see if I could find two more Centurion or higher contacts to reach the Tribune x2 level.  After working Tom N2TRJ in New Jersey, I heard him working Conrad W3ZMN.  Conrad is about 45 miles north of me in my hometown of Bethlehem, PA.  After they finished, I gave Conrad a quick call.  We were 339 both ways but managed to complete the exchange.  My thanks to these two folks for getting me to the Tx2 level!

My SKCC Tribune x2 certificate for working 100 unique Centurion, Tribune and Senator level members. I still need about 500 more to reach the Senator level.
My SKCC Tribune x2 certificate for working 100 unique Centurion, Tribune and Senator level members. I still need about 500 more to reach the Senator level.

Today, along with my Tx2 award, I also received my 1xQRP award.  This award is a point-based award for working a sufficient number of stations while running 5 watts or less.  The points for each QSO vary according to the band used.  There is also a 2xQRP award for making 2-way contacts but that is going to be much harder to achieve.

While I was in my SKCC logging program, I noticed that I was also qualified for 40 meter endorsements on my Centurion X1 and Tribune X1 awards.  I also received those endorsements today.

The SKCC awards certainly become more challenging as you move up the ranks.  I think that one of the things I enjoy most about the SKCC is that even someone like me with a QRP rig and a crappy antenna (more on that in another post) can earn some wallpaper.  Being able to pick up an award now and then gives me a sense of accomplishment that has kept my interest peaked.  Plus, you get to interact with some really friendly hams in the process.

73/72, Craig WB3GCK

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Three Birds, One Stone

I was on a mission today and there were three things I wanted to accomplish.  With one trip to a local park, I was able to check them all off of my list.

First, I submitted a write-up on my homebrew, drive-on antenna mount for the Ideas Exchange column in the QRP Quarterly publication.  Mike WA8MCQ, the column’s editor, asked for some more pictures.  So, I needed to get out and set up somewhere to take a few shots.

Next, I wanted to field test my little American Morse MS2 straight key and the homebrew magnetic mount I built for it.  I had used it at home but I was anxious to see how it works out in a portable setting.

Finally, I wanted to get out and make some Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) QSOs using a real antenna (as opposed to using my downspout at home).  I only had an hour, so I needed to move quick.

I headed out for Black Rock Sanctuary, which is just outside Phoenixville, PA.  On arrival, I set up the drive-on mount and took some pictures before and after deploying my 31-foot Jackite pole.  I used a 29.5-foot vertical wire with one counterpoise wire fed through a 4:1 unun.  My rig today was my trusty YouKits HB-1B powered from a small gel cell battery.

Drive-on antenna support
Drive-on antenna support

I started on 40M and posted my frequency on the SKCC Sked Page.  Almost immediately, I got a call from KB1WOD in Vermont.  He gave me a decent signal report, despite some less-than-optimal band conditions.  A few minutes later, I had a 2-way QRP QSO with KD3CA here in Pennsylvania.  I finished out my brief session with a 2-way QRP QSO on 20 meters with AA4MX in Florida.

As for the MS2 straight key, I have to say it worked pretty well.  My homebrew magnetic mount held the key firmly to my clipboard.   I was pleased with that.  Using a straight key in the confines of my pickup truck’s cab was a little challenging, though.  I also found the feel of the key a little loose, so I’ll need to tighten up the spring tension a bit.

MS2 miniature straight key and magnetic mount in use.
MS2 miniature straight key and magnetic mount in use.

So, in about an hour, I accomplished my mission.  I got the pictures I needed, tested my little straight key/clipboard setup, and made a few SKCC QSOs to boot.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Good Week for SKCC Activity

Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) logoLife-in-general made this a somewhat slow ham radio week for me.  It did, however, get off to a great start for my Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) activities.

Having reached the Centurion level (100 SKCC member QSOs) back in mid-March, I set my sights on reaching the Tribune level (50 QSOs with Centurion or higher members).  Thanks to the many SKCC members who were eager to add me to their logs with my new “C” designation, I made great progress over the following 2 weeks.

So, by last Monday (March 28th), I needed just 3 more QSOs to reach the Tribune level.  Despite some rough band conditions, it only took about 30 minutes to reach my goal.  The QSO that put me over the top was a nice chat on 20 meters with Pablo KP4SJ in Puerto Rico.  Pablo’s QSO helped me reach Tribune on the 2-month anniversary of my SKCC membership.  It was especially gratifying doing it with 5 watts into my rainspout antenna.  SKCC members, apparently, have very good ears!

Now begins the long climb towards the Senator level.  That entails 350 more contacts with Centurion or higher members and 200 more contacts with Tribune or Senator level members.  That, for sure, is going to take quite a while.

I made a number of 2-way QRP SKCC QSOs during the week, as well.  I worked K8FAC in Ohio, NC4RT in North Carolina, N0HYD (portable) in Kansas, AH6AX in Maryland, and NF1U in Connecticut.

I’m hoping that “Life-in-General” settles down a bit next week and lets me get out for some portable operating.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Rediscovering the Straight Key

Back in January, I decided I wanted to add a new facet to this hobby that I’ve enjoyed for more than 42 years now.  I have always heard a lot of Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) activity on the bands and it sounded like fun.  So, I signed up for an SKCC number, dusted off my trusty J-38 key and jumped into the fray.

More than 20 years had passed since I made the switch to paddles and Iambic Mode B keying.  Needless to say, my straight key fist was very rusty.  After some off-air practice, I heard NN9K near Chicago calling, “CQ SKCC,” on 30 meters one day.  I grabbed the J-38 and a few minutes later, Peter had given me my first official SKCC contact.

I bought this J-38 from a military surplus store around 1975. Nothing special but I love the feel of it. It reminds me of my Navy days, I guess.
I bought this J-38 from a military surplus store around 1975. Nothing special but I love the feel of it. It reminds me of my Navy days, I guess.

A few days later, it was time for the February SKCC Weekend Sprintathon (WES).  The monthly, weekend-long WES contests are like most other CW contests except they are friendlier and run at a slower pace.  After a fun weekend operating on and off, I ended up with 38 more SKCC contacts in the log.  One particular highlight was working Bert F6HKA on two bands with my meager 5 watts and rainspout antenna.  (Full disclosure:  Bert’s awesome station gets most of the credit for these contacts.  He was louder than most stateside stations.) After my first WES, I was hooked.

Even though SKCC promotes the use of manual keying methods, i.e., straight key, bug, cootie key; they have some pretty sophisticated, computer-based tools that can help you reach the various award levels.  There are a few SKCC-specific logging programs.  I use AC2C’s SKCC Logger for logging during WES contests and keeping track of all of my SKCC contacts.   The K3UK SKCC Sked Page is an online gathering place for members looking for contacts.  Another slick tool is the SKCC Skimmer.  This software tells me who is online on the Sked Page and which SKCC members have been spotted on the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN).  Most importantly, it lets me know if they have SKCC numbers I need for award levels I’m pursuing.

The thing I like most about SKCC is the friendly attitude of the members.  They are particularly helpful to newbies and will always slow down to match the sending speeds of slower operators.  Many times, operators would recognize my new SKCC number and take the time to welcome me to the club — even during contest exchanges.

This is my first key as a ham. I bought this at a Radio Shack store in 1974. It still sees occasional use.
This is my first key as a ham. I bought this at a Radio Shack store in 1974. It still sees occasional use.

After a month and a half of general operating and two WES contests, I found myself with 99 SKCC contacts.  I needed just one more to reach the SKCC Centurion level.  With some sort of geomagnetic disturbance going on, I resorted to the SKCC Sked Page for help.  Within minutes, there were several stations trying to work me to put me over the top.  Werner, N8BB in Michigan, was finally able to get me there.  I applied for my Centurion award and received it later that day.  I’m now in the process of trying to work 50 Centurion, Tribune, or Senator level members for the Tribune level.

I’m pleased to report that my old straight key fist is back in shape and I have rediscovered the elegant simplicity of the straight key.  Many thanks for the good folks who run the SKCC organization.  It’s easy to see why the SKCC is one of the fastest growing clubs in ham radio.

72, Craig WB3GCK