SKCC Weekend Sprintathon

If the ARRL International DX Contest (phone) isn’t your cup of tea, you may want to test the waters in the Straight Key Century Club Weekend Sprintathon. This once a month activity cranks up a lot of manually generated Morse code on the bands — easily identified by the ‘CQ WES’ rhapsody that will be tapped out over and over.

Each WES has a theme and for March, it’s QRP. Bonus points, Texas Tea.

Catch up on all the details here.

SKCC members now number over 13,600 worldwide and more are added each week. It’s vibrant group with enough activities to consume all your spare time, if you let it. Membership is free. You join and they give you a number, for life. You then exchange that number with others using a straight key or other MANUAL sending device and earn credit towards awards, fortune, and glory.

Well, maybe not so much fortune…

Every now and again the group publishes a newsletter (get the latest one here) and just like last year, the SKCC will be in Dayton for the big May event at Hara Arena.

Active members tend to hangout on the K3UK sked page where you’re likely to find me most weekends. If you see me there, ping me and then let’s exchange numbers on the air — mine is 3383T.

N3ZN - ZNHK

Rapid Radio Deployment

Somewhere on the drive between Cincinnati and my home I was listening to Episode 30 of the QSO Today podcast, an interview with Greg Lane, N4KGL. Lane is active in a particular facet of the hobby that was completely foreign to me — RaDAR, rapid deployment amateur radio.

I probably shouldn’t even be writing about this given my total lack of knowledge on the subject material, but I found it interesting enough that I wanted to share what I was able to glean about it from the podcast interview and a subsequent Web search.

The notion of taking ham radio to the field is certainly nothing new. But like so many of our activities, it seems possible to put a twist on everything we do in an effort to make it a bit more interesting. Making a game out of any routine task has the effect of adding variety — the spice of life!

In the case of rapid deployment of radio, enthusiasts take their gear to the field, make five contacts, then must walk a minimum of one kilometer, equipment in tow, where they can attempt five more contacts. Though it wasn’t clear, I suppose this continues until exhausted or a predetermined period of time has passed and then results are compiled and compared with others online.

It sounds simple enough but the practice doubtless drives out inefficiencies in portable design. Given that the operator has to manually lug radio, batteries and antenna to each new location, there’s a heightened emphasis on ultra lightweight and clever design. I’m guessing that consideration is also given to minimal creature comforts, like carrying along a chair, logbook and perhaps even something to improvise into an operating “desk”.

Transceiver, antenna tuner, ear-buds, batteries, Morse key, feed line, and an antenna seem like the minimum criteria, along with logbook, writing utensil, and some method to determine GPS coordinates. Elecraft’s KX3 with built-in antenna tuner, batteries, and CW paddles seems to be a popular choice, though many operators are using even smaller trail-friendly gear. And using resonant antennas eliminates the need for an antenna tuner.

Continuous improvement and clever creativity seem to be key elements of success for this particular facet of amateur radio.

If the challenges seem endless, consider the rewards. The operator can choose where to operate from and it’s safe to assume that would be removed from man-made noise. Hanging out in the woods, on the beach, at a local park — these all seem like better places to spend you spare time than inside a radio “shack”.

Having the sun on your shoulders and your toes in the sand while working some distant station is the ultimate dream of every intrepid radio amateur.

And who hasn’t taken a good look at the burgeoning size of the average ham lumbering the hamfest aisles?

I think it safe to say that every one of us could benefit from getting OUT OF THE CHAIR and moving. How clever that this practice integrates ham radio and taking long walks in the great outdoors.

[This article first appeared in CALLING CQ – Number 46. You can subscribe to this weekly letter about amateur radio, without cost, by following this link].

February HF Wrap Up

February was a low-energy month for me on the HF bands. Despite spending a little time in the SKCC WES and the ARRL International DX (CW) contest, I added just 106 total contacts to the log during the month. 103 of them were via CW. The two digital contacts (PSK31) were made the same afternoon I received the 712 USB interface for my Eagle — I haven’t used it since.

Propagation was reasonable, for this point in a dismal solar cycle, but much of my free time was spent digging out from first one snowstorm and then another.

The highlight of the month was working K1N Navassa Island on 40 CW. An all time new one.

Total Contacts: 106
CW: 103
Phone: 1
Digital: 2
DX: 50

Missing in Action

My recent assertion that you can get a feel for how many US licensees are “active” radio operators by looking at the number of ARRL members went completely unchallenged, and now I’d like to pick at that scab a little more.

This derived from some notion that with over 700,000 amateur radio licenses currently in the FCC database, and ARRL membership being just 154,000, we should conclude that Newington is somehow doing it all wrong.

Malarkey!

I’m claiming the number of active radio amateurs in these United States is about 150,000 — based on data collected during the Centennial QSO Party last year.

After extracting from my log those high point value contacts that I doubtless chased, I’m left with over 500 contacts that were purely random. Seldom does ARRL membership come up during the course of a typical QSO, but because of the centennial event, we had a chance to upload our logs for credit. And as it turned out, an extraordinary number of those random contacts were with other ARRL members.

In case you’re wondering, it was over ninety percent in my log.

The point here being that if I turn on my radio this morning and called CQ, I’m fully persuaded that nine out of ten replies from stations in the United States will be with other ARRL members. That informs me that the number of “active” radio amateurs in the US is roughly equal to the number of ARRL members, about 150,000, or just one in five licensees. There, I said it again.

That begs the question, where are the other half million (and change) licensees and why aren’t they active too?

There are many answers to that question, one of which is the criteria used to determine “active” when it comes to a hobby. I recently read the results from over 40 local radio clubs who asked their members to define an “active” radio amateur and the results were even less encouraging. When you apply the filter of ‘at least one hour on the air per week’, the number replying in the affirmative falls to just one in six.

Numbers and statistics like these can be fun to sift, sort and pivot in endless ways, and can be used to make almost any point. What I choose to take from it is that we have become fairly proficient at attracting attention to our avocation. The licensing process has become much more streamlined and convenient, we’ve implemented processes that can successfully crank out new licensees in single day sessions.

We’ve gotten pretty good at all that. What eludes us, in scary large numbers, is the ability to retain that attention post-licensing. An awful lot of energy is being expended to get them in the front door, but they’re climbing out the windows at nearly an equal rate. It’s a big problem, and we need to address it with the same vigor that we now put into filling the FCC database with future MIA’s.

How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm? I don’t have a simple answer but I’m certain of this, if you look at the current number of ham radio licensees and are impressed by how large a number it has become, you aren’t paying attention.

Getting them licensed is only step one. Getting them to regularly practice the radio art, however you choose to define it, is an area that needs a whole lot of attention.