Radio antics on the Inner Hebrides

I have just returned from a much needed break away to the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, consisting of a week on the Isle of Skye and then a week on Islay.

It was our fourth visit to Skye but Islay was a new destination for us. While it was primarily a holiday away with the wife and dogs doing some walking, sight-seeing, visiting the numerous malt whisky distilleries (especially on Islay and Jura) I also planned to do some operating.

Last year I did operate from the same rented cottage on Skye but this year I wanted to do some portable working on both islands. With this in mind and following my disappointment last month I had taken time to properly prepare. As well as repairing the end-fed wire “magitenna” that had caused issues last time out I had constructed a linked dipole for 40m/20m for a simple inverted-vee using a fibreglass windsock pole.

I took the Yaesu FT857-D with a small SLA battery for portable work and a small power supply when in the cottages. Unfortunately things didn’t get off to a good start when I dropped the battery when unpacking. I had used a small screw-terminal chock block to connect to the power loom and the weight of the battery simply ripped both wires out of the terminal block and they touched with an almighty spark and welded themselves together. I acted quickly to remove them from the battery but it has almost certainly affected the battery. Despite this set back the battery performance proved more than sufficient for my needs.

During the first week on Skye, the South Kesteven ARS, which I am the chairman, had their monthly meeting and we planned to try and make a scheduled contact (sked) I did have a run through one evening to test the set up and antenna, drinking a beer and making contacts while sitting on a bench at the cottage watching the sunset going down over Loch Bay with the Outer Hebrides in the distance – sheer bliss!

On the night of the sked the famous Scottish midges were out in abundance and I opted to work from inside the cottage. A successful contact and conversation was made even if there were a few issues at the club that night. They were unable to get the planned antenna up due to activities in the nearby scout hut but like all good hams they improvised using an Ampro-40 magmounted vertical on top of a large saucepan until they were able to get a dipole up but by then band conditions had started deteriorating, but a contact is a contact.

Going portable I had planned to do some Worked All Britain Award activations, the W.A.B scheme uses the Ordnance Survey (OS) mapping agencies National Grid Reference (NGR) system to divide the country into 10km x 10km grid squares. The aim is for activators to operate from the squares and for other operators to “work” those squares.

In addition to activating squares, operators can also activate pillar type triangulation points (commonly known as ‘Trig Points’) which were originally used to carry out the surveying for Ordnance Survey maps but have now been abandoned and have become interesting relics and many are now sadly falling into disrepair, however many people still seek them out and a database exists at www.trigpointing.uk

I planned to try to activate some squares and trig points as the more remote locations such as the Scottish Islands are highly sort after as they don’t get activated as often.

Firstly before I describe my adventures let me be brutally honest! I am fat, in fact very fat and unfit!

I haven’t always in such poor shape, in fact I used to be a keen walker regularly going out at weekends walking miles and even completed several long distance footpaths, including The Coast to Coast Walk back in 1991. I then spent many years competing in dog agility most weekends which kept me reasonably fit but the last few years circumstances have changed and I now have a sedentary lifestyle and desk bound job. This coupled with stress, apathy and being a more than willing victim of comfort eating mean I have piled on the pounds.

Why make this confession? Simply because most trig points are on prominent hill tops and high ground throughout the country and therefore will require some physical climbing to get to them. I was under no illusion there were many on Skye and Islay that I stood no chance of reaching without some form of coronary episode! But I had identified a number of more attainable ones requiring on paper just a modest exertion.

How wrong I was.. 

On the Isle of Skye we were staying on the Waternish peninsular and I had identified two possible candidates the nearby Ben Horneval (TP1275) and Ben Geary (TP1269) while both were over 260 meters in height the maps and descriptions seemed to indicate reasonable but still strenuous approaches. However prior to us arriving the weather had been very wet and the ground was very boggy and when actually standing looking up at the hills I sensibly thought “Not a chance!”

Instead I opted to go to the coast, specifically Talisker Bay which is glorious and simply activate a WAB square NG33 while the wife and dogs occupied themselves on the beach. So off we went, drove across Skye and walked the mile or so from the parking area carrying the rucksack with radio and pole. I went of to a nice spot just up of the beach to set up to then discover I had forgotten to pack the coax… never mind had a good few hours on the beach and stopped off at the Talisker distillery on the way back.

I hadn’t given up on a Skye trig-point and I had spotted Culnaknock (TP0664) on the North East coast of Skye, which was tantalisingly described as “one your granny could do” and had the advantage of also having a Geocache for the wife to get. So we set off in the car with the dogs for a grand tour round the island and ended up there late one afternoon.

There were a number of suggested approaches, on the first we were met with fences, livestock and a sign saying private and seeing no obvious path up we investigated another through a gate on the main road. This was more straightforward however the nearest parking area was a little way down from the gate. The road was extremely busy and we weren’t comfortable trying to walk up the road with the dogs due to the traffic. I was feeling at little peeved at this point and opted to stay with the car while the wife retrieved the cache and took a photo so I know what I missed.

In the end I made no trig point activations on the Isle of Skye, but should we go back at least I am more prepared.

The second week of our holiday was on Islay. Islay is simply a fantastic place to visit, much quieter than Skye, probably due to the two hour ferry journey involved and I did manage some portable operating between visiting the eight whisky distilleries and a trip to a ninth on nearby Jura.

The cottage we were staying in overlooked Lagavulin Bay with the Lagavulin Distillery and the remains of Dunyvaig Castle, it was a two minute walk to a high point near the ruins where I set up one evening and had an hour operating in the setting sun, again band conditions were poor but I didn’t care, NR44 was activated.

There were two trig-points quite near to the cottage. Ardmore Point (TP0875), from the map this looked simple enough, however the road to Ardmore was a private road so couldn’t take the car and while walking there from the nearest parking space was simple enough time didn’t allow it.

Cnoc Rhaonastil (TP2293) was another potential trig point, locally called the Fairy Hill it promised spectacular views for short but steep walk, however again parking and access proved problematic and so was never attempted. 

The Mull of Oa (TP4976) trig-point I actually walked to being next to the American Monument which commemorates the loss of two troop ships in 1918, the Tuscania and the Otranto and the spectacular location overlooks the very spot where the Tuscania sunk. The monument built to thank the inhabitants of Islay for their help is built in the shape of a lighthouse and is visible from many areas on Islay. Despite the very wet ground conditions the walk was straightforward however the weather put paid to any attempt at activating. The wind was very very strong, as this short video demonstrates.


The attempt on An Curran (TP0839) really was a comedy of errors, being a fairly modest 49m high and close to where we were staying it should have been straightforward. To get to the summit you have to navigate a dense conifer forest and I had read the description on the trigpointing.uk website of how to ascend via a gate and distinct path.

It looked short and simple so didn’t take a map or the GPS with me. I found a gate and what seemed like a path along a wall and set off and quickly the path became indistinct and the trees were indeed very dense, so dense I was struggling to get through them. But I carried on going up gaining altitude thinking I must be nearing the top, however it got to the point I just couldn’t get through the trees anymore and there was no sign of them thinning out as they supposedly did at the summit. It started raining and was having to negotiate water filled hollows, heather and bracken hummocks and swarms of midges – this was not fun!

Eventually I did spot a clearing only to find it was where a power line ran up the hillside. I knew I was too far south and since going north through the forest was neigh on impossible I instead descended following the power line through chest high bracken back to the road, all the time worrying about “Serpents” as the locals quaintly called the adders which were prevalent this year.  When I did reach the road I had to climb a low dry stone wall and promptly slipped into a deep water filled ditch on the other side, losing a boot in the peaty mud much to the amusement of a passing group of horse riders.

I almost decided that this was enough, I was doomed not to activate a trig point however one remained on the hit list and I succeeded in activating it on the final day.

I had spotted Cnoc Lolairean (TP2283) when visiting the nearby Bruichladdich Distillery earlier in the week, only 29 meters high it was on a small ridge along the side of Loch Indaal and it involved just a short walk up a farm track and up a narrow track to the top.

The wife went of to get a coffee from the nearby mini-market and took the dogs for a walk on the nearby beach while I went to the trig point. What it lacked in height it made up for with the position with fantastic view across to Bowmore and down the Loch.

I used bungee cords to hold the pole to the pillar and soon had the inverted-vee up on 40m. I had around 40 minutes of operating, and band conditions were again poor with lots of noise but I did make a decent number of contacts running approximately 20W before the battery voltage started to drop off. I was especially pleased to work Stewart M0SDM a fellow SKARS member.

One unexpected radio highlight on Islay was capturing a SSTV image broadcast by the Russians from the International Space Station to celebrate 40 years since the Apollo-Soyuz link up. I didn’t know about the SSTV operation before we went on holiday and so hadn’t taken any VHF aerials with me so I just stuck a piece of wire into the back of the FT857-D and dangled it out the window to hopefully catch one of the passes early on the Sunday morning, I hadn’t had time to unpack properly but the captured image was actually quite good considering.

Datamode Interface built

This weekend I finally got around to sorting out my digital/data mode interface for the Yaesu FT-857D.

To transmit and receive digital/data modes you need to connect the radio audio in/out to the computers sound card in/out, the computer then runs the necessary software to encode/decode the signals. I want to try out WSPR, PSK, JT65 and some SSTV for starters I have spent too long just receiving and decoding…

There are a number of inexpensive commercial interfaces available, but many of them use the same basic design originally intended for eQSO/Echolink operation. I nearly succumbed but I had built an eQSO interface many years ago when using PMR446 and had most of the parts to build another.

I nearly took the easy route and got a commercial one since connecting up some home built circuitry to a £20 hand held is slightly less daunting than plugging it into an expensive rig!  My original interface has been modified and reused over the years and was a bit of a mess, but being brave I decided I could tidy it up and I couldn’t really damage anything if I took my time… actually the truth was I discovered I didn’t have the necessary optocoupler IC so couldn’t build a new one just yet…

A simple internet search for digital/data mode interfaces will bring up a great deal of information, schematics and ideas for home brew solutions. The basics can be found here for example.

The simplest form of interface is just a simple direct lead with the transmitter operating in VOX mode. However levels can be a problem as the line/speaker output from a computer can be too high for a transmitters microphone input. Also connecting a radio to a computer directly can lead to problems with ground loops and interference.

The computer can be made to control the Push-To-Talk (PTT) on the transmitter using a serial port with the software controlling one of the handshake lines (RTS/DTR) Some data mode software support CAT to allow control of the PTT as well as tuning the transmitter, but the serial port method is more universal.

The preferred interface, and the one I had built isolates the computer from the radio by using two audio transformers and an optocoupler. There is no direct connection between the two devices so keeps interference to a minimum.

I could have used the microphone and speaker output on the radio, but the FT-857D has a convenient data connector on the back. This is a 6-pin DIN socket as used by older (PS/2) computer keyboards/mice. Note the diagram shown in the FT-857D manual (as below) is the view as you look at the socket.

FT-857D Data connector as in the manual

The connector has two “data” outputs but they are simply fixed level audio outputs from the receiver. The one of interest for most modes is the 1200 baud output (the 9600 baud output is more akin to a discriminator tap and is only of use for FM packet) There is a data-in (TX-audio) and a PTT control line.

Like many people I initially thought I could cut a lead off a mouse/keyboard and repurpose it, however I discovered most only use four wires and they don’t use the necessary pins! You might be lucky especially with older keyboards or alternatively if you have an old keyboard extender cable they usually have all six wires present. Alternatively the plugs are readily available from the likes of CPC/Farnell.

I had a hunt around in a junk box and located a suitable keyboard extender cable. I chopped off the useless end and metered out the pins to identify the appropriate wires. Remember when looking at the plug the pins are swapped left-to-right compared to the diagram which is the socket view.

Well here is the insides of the interface.. and as you can see I completely failed to tidy it up! Not my best work, but I did put it in a new box and I did tape up all those unused wires!

The messy internals of the interface

One annoying issue I had was the audio from the computer wasn’t getting to the radio, it worked and scoped out okay when out the box, but in the box it stopped working. I suspected a bad solder joint and redid them all, but still showing the same intermittent issue. I did notice flexing the board slightly out the box cause the fault and soon located a track on the vero-board which appeared to have a hairline crack, I couldn’t see anything obvious but a wire soldered along it cured the issue.

It looks better with the lid on..

I soon had it connected up and fired up WSPR

Computer, radio and interface

It was straight forward setting up WSPR to use a combination of CAT for tuning and the RTS PTT control and soon had some encouraging results, in fact these are some of the spots of my 5W signal on 10m/20m and 30m, I was grinning from ear to ear!

10M Spots

20M Spots

30M Spots

I had simply set up the FT-857D for basic USB transmission, however it does have a dedicated DIG mode, the manual refers to setting it up for RTTY/PSK, I very briefly had a go with PSK31 and Digipan and was successfully decoding signals and put out a few CQ calls (again on 5w) but got no immediate response. However checking PSK Reporter later it seems I had been heard by VC3S, OH1FOG and ES1JA maximum distance was around 3260 miles

Looking forward to spending some more time experimenting with the data modes.

My first contest

Last night I attempted my first contest, the RSGB 50MHz UKAC

I am a complete novice at using HF, in fact I am a complete novice at transmitting anything!

My Chinese Baofeng handhelds have pretty much collected dust since getting my licence. However with the purchase of the FT-857D I must, despite my trepidation, step up to the microphone.

I had hit a snag when testing out the new radio, my antenna was showing high VSWR on 6m, even with the ATU I was struggling to get it to 2:1, therefore I decided to construct a simple dipole and sling it up with an ugly choke ‘balun’ I had constructed.

Due to some unexpected delays I was running out of time but eventually did manage to get something up, it was only around 2 meters off the ground and the VSWR still wasn’t ideal, but I was ready.

At the appointed time, well nearly an hour late I started turning the dial and was met with a load of static, wasn’t hearing anything! This continued for a quite a time then suddenly I started hearing “CQ Contest  CQ Contest” I listened in for a while to try to get the gist of the exchanges, wandering up and down the band.

Then I decided to have a go at a QSO, giving my callsign out, I waited nothing! “QRZ CQ Contest CQ Contest” another go.. still nothing.. and so on..

Changed frequency to another stations, tried again and I was heard, but they couldn’t make out my call sign despite several attempts.. another change of frequency and the same results.

Now I know I had only got it set a 5W, the lowest I can till I get some confidence in my set up and am not going to damage anything! But I was a little disappointed, but I persevered until suddenly I was in the middle of my first contest QSO and my brain turned to jelly..

Thanks to M0MDY and his patience and prompting I successfully completed the QSO, details suitably written down. I carried on with no luck and called it a night just after 10pm, and went back in the house and manually entered the details of my solitary contact on the RSGB Contest website www.rsgbcc.org

Checking this morning and there I am at the bottom of the list, but not the very bottom, with a whopping 48 points.

http://www.rsgbcc.org/cgi-bin/claim.pl?Contest=50MHz%20UKAC&year=2014

Roll on next week, it is the 144MHz UKAC and I have a proper 2m YAGI… just got to work out how to mount it up on the poll and how to rotate it..

73s

All systems go…

Excellent service from Waters and Stanton, Radiozing and M0CVO Antennas meant my FT-857D, PSU and HF antenna arrived the day after I ordered them. They have however sat in the boxes while I have struggled to reorganise my workshop/shack after the Christmas chaos.

I have disposed of a lot of junk being quite ruthless to reduce the clutter and have completely changed the layout, increasing the size of the desk and putting it on the other side of the room next to the workbench, which is much more logical.

The new look operation centre

I have finally summoned up the courage to drill a large hole in the wall to allow the antenna coax to enter properly, previously it has been done by squeezing it around the door!

Unfortunately the weather this weekend has been horrendous, yesterday I planned to erect the antenna but gave up following the intense squall which hit in the afternoon with thunder, lightning and hail! Today hasn’t been much better with heavy rain for most of the day, the rain did finally eased off so I managed to erect a temporary mast with the 144/430MHz collinear on the top and the HF antenna underneath.  I know this isn’t ideal as the mast is metal and may affect the HF, but seems okay. The forecast for the next few days is also a bit worrying but the mast is guyed at two heights so should be secure.

The antennas, with the stormy sky behind

I have literally just turned on the FT-857D and had a quick listen on the bands, it is very daunting for this first timer! The first thing I have worked out is how to drop the power output, current set a 5W for HF and VHF/UHF
 

I have a power/swr meter suitable for HF/VHF and UHF I purchased at last years Hamfest and I have it connected in the setup, and was trying to check the SWR but it wasn’t registering anything when I pressed the PTT then I realised that with SSB enabled it wouldn’t!! Switching to FM and I was able to check that everything was okay… Beginners mistake I know!

Now off to read the manual..

Got a proper radio, well it’s on order!

Well I’ve finally done it..

I have ordered my first proper ‘rig’ It is a Yaesu FT-857D a nice small, portable/mobile unit that will give me access to the HF and 6m/2m/70cm bands in all-modes. It has took a while since I first identified it as potential purchase but thanks to some generous Christmas presents I now have the sufficient funds and following several recommendations have decided to take the plunge and ordered it from Waters and Stanton

She is a beauty!

I have a decent 7A PSU, purchased last year which I am sure would have sufficed for 10W maximum operation however I decided to also purchase a MAAS SPS-30-II 30A(35A peak) PSU. It was a good price from Radiozing and offers plenty of power for anything I am likely to run in the foreseeable future, and from the pictures and reviews seems to be built like the proverbial brick out-house. As well as the main connectors on the back it has spring clip terminals on the front as well as a cigar lighter type connector. Dual meters showing V/A and can be used in variable mode from 9-15V or fixed at 13.8V 

This is the beast!

I have also ordered one of M0CVO Antennas highly rated HW-20HP off centre fed dipoles as a starting point for HF. The antenna works in 6 bands (20, 17, 15, 12, 10 & 6m) without needing an Antenna Tuning Unit (ATU) which is one thing I haven’t purchased, however Nigel(M0CVO) Chairman of SKARS (South Kestevan Amateur Radio Society) and owner of M0CVO Antennas has kindly offered to loan me an ATU in the short term.

Delivery should be later this week and I suspect I have a large learning curve ahead of me as I hit the airwaves! If you should hear me please be gentle..