Friday, 25 March 2016

Operating "holiday style" from Portugal.

Hello everyone from sunny Scotland. Well, it is now.

After a very blustery wet winter we have unusual plants flowering in the garden, and our regulars are in bloom early. It really has been miserable. Never really cold, with very little snow, but mild. The warmth has brought out the plants by keeping the frost away. But long, dark and wet. So it was time for a short break in Portugal.

I usually take the Yaesu FT-817 on a trip like this. This time I took my usual mixture of bottom-fed telescopic whip antennas, plus a magnetic loop, some co-ax and a microphone. Added to that were the power supply for the rig, data interfaces and wire for counterpoises. Quite a pile of gubbins for the airport security to rummage through, with the added joy of a PC power supply and my own medical equipment with pumps and tubes in there too. 9 Kg of shoulder bag in total - if the plane had made a heavy landing the whole lot might have come down on top of me.

I managed to get the 817 working in data modes after a short while, though I needed to do quite a bit of setting up. Here it is pictured in temporary pose, with not quite vertical antenna and just a rough arrangement to keep the antenna away from the concrete wall. Later I moved it into the open and got everything vertical.

The two boxes are the data interface and CAT control. These are not big or heavy, but the associated wiring is pretty bulky.

I do not use the 817 with the laptop very often, and one reason is the very noisy power supply which came with the computer. So last year I bought a new battery for the laptop and I tend to run it on battery. If I charge it from time to time while I am on transmit it runs for a couple of hours.

All this disuse makes for a long set-up time, matching the 817 to the laptop..

Then two issues arose. One was that after installing Windows 10 on the laptop some time ago, the time correction software was not working. This was Meinburg. It does work with Win 10 but I do find it a tricky thing to set up so I decided to ditch it and install Dimension 4. Luckily the hotel wi-fi was only €10 for a week so no problems there, and I needed the wi-fi for other things anyway.
You can get away without adding a time synchronisation program if you are careful to keep the Windows clock up to date, but I reckoned it was worth it to take one thing out of the calculation when everything goes wrong. Just as well; another amateur operating nearby was a good 20 seconds out and not being decoded by anyone (even me).

Strict timing is needed for WSPR, but many other modes are a bit more forgiving. It took me a while to set Dimension 4 up and then I had to plough through the list of clocks and remove all the ones outside Europe. You do not strictly need to do this, but the shorter the journey the impulses have to make the more accurate they will be (yeah, like the internet would let you know how direct the link you have really is!).

Timing sorted, I discovered that I had forgotten to bring a USB sound card. I thought that the interface installed a virtual one but I had packed the wrong interface. I usually carry a spare, but not this time. This should not be a big issue, as I could use the laptop's sound card and the audio jacks on the side of the computer case. Yes, this works but it is not good practice.

But it did not work. Ever since I bought this PC I have struggled to get audio out of the stereo jack without the same audio coming out of the speakers. After a while operating with high pitched tones coming through the speakers on every tx session, I decided to give the holidaymakers on the next veranda a break. It took a while, but an obscure setting on the laptop's sound card manager finally sorted that one.

The spare USB sound card was sitting here ready to be packed, when I got home.

OK, so I was running using the computer sound card. CAT running, rig output about 3 watts, SWR too low to measure on 20, 15 and 10m. Results - awful.

Now it was not a "radio holiday". Operations were confined to about 2 hours in the afternoon. Mostly I used WSPR. 20m was round Europe, 15m a bit better and 10m dead. The solar flux was 87, which accounts for most of the problem. Success on trips like this depends a lot on the time of year you can book the holiday. In this case, £250 for a week in Portugal direct from Edinburgh is the deciding factor. Yes, conditions might be better in May, but the price of the holiday is much higher then. And  the break towards the end of Winter was much needed.

Of course it was not all bad on 15 m one day ...

Or 20m another day ...

And then again, how do you measure success? Just setting up and getting going was fraught with problems, but that is part of the exercise. Amateurs have always enjoyed getting away and operating from "the field" to test their skills. Not that a sunny balcony in a pleasant Portuguese resort is really in the field, but I can kid myself that it is.

Just getting round Europe is good enough for me on these trips. However, one thing does nag me. The WSPR software treats complex callsigns in an unusual way. As there is only room for a 6 character callsign, those with "/"s in the them (such as mine CT7/G4FVM) have their transmissions divided and sent over two time segments. At the receiving end they are paired up again. So rather than the receiving station only having to get 2 minutes of transmission from me every 16 minutes or so, my callsign will not be reported as received until the dx station receives two transmissions from me, which might take 30 minutes to get as I am receiving for the rest of the time. They need to receive both halves of the message, not the same half twice. That could take an hour or more, or it could happen in 10 minutes. It all just depends on chance and conditions.

The statistics of all this means that it is a lot easier to hear stations whilst out /P or /abroad than it is to be reported as heard yourself. And so it proved. But it seems to be getting harder over the years. I fancy that some simple versions of the WSPR software or not equipped to store and put together the two halves of the transmission at all.  Also, quite a few stations only work in beacon mode and do not receive at all.

Maybe I am just imagining that. However one thing is for sure. The sunspot activity is now getting so low that many amateurs are going lower in frequency to find activity, leaving few around on the higher HF bands. And so maybe one day I will need to get better antennas for the 40m or 30m bands to take abroad. And does that mean even more tackle to bring through airport security?

I have been living through a happy period when taking a few whips abroad was enough. Up until now that worked. Now however I might need to think again. The magnetic loop was a bit of a flop too. Maybe it did transmit a bit better than the whip but on receive it was cloth-eared.

Ah well, at least the sun shone and the food was good.


GM4FVM back in Ayton


  1. Mrs FVM is very patient. I must talk to Mrs DOH about bringing the rig to Italy in July :)
    73 Richard GI4DOH

  2. Hi Richard.
    YES. I would encourage you to do that.
    "Holiday style" means just as little or as much as you like. I find there is always a time for radio amongst the normal holiday activites.
    I know I am speaking to a seasoned DX-er here, but it need not be like a big logistical effort. You only need a rig, a key and a bit of wire.
    For years I used to take a receiver until I realised I might as well take a rig. Just listening is good fun too, if there is not too much local noise.
    Have a great time in Italy when you do go.