More remote operating

Catherine and I went to Boston for Christmas to visit my family. Confined as I am to a very weak compromise antenna here in San Francisco, as well as being some 2,700 miles farther from Europe than I am in Boston, the temptation to bring a radio when I go there is strong. When I went in July I borrowed Rob's (AK6L) Pelican case and brought my K2, laptop, LDG autotuner, switching power supply, SignaLink USB, 25' of coax, a balun, a big spool of stranded wire, nylon line, and ceramic insulators. While essentially bringing my entire shack with me made for a versatile setup, it sure was a lot of crap to drag along. My wife was remarkably tolerant.

Since I've been working hard at Morse code practice lately, I decided this time to borrow Nick's (N1UBZ) Norcal 40a, along with a small brick-style DC transformer, and bring my manual tuner and White Rook travel key for a lightweight setup. Although I would be confined to the 40m band and CW only, the setup packed easily into my backpack and only weighed a pound or so. I measured out wire for a 40m dipole before I left, so I only had to bring that.

Once in Boston, I set up the antenna by simply attaching a ceramic insulator to the end of each wire and heaving it into a tree from the 2nd floor balcony off the living room. Then I ran the wires inside through a sliding double door and hooked them up directly to my Emtech ZM-2 manual tuner. Ladder line probably would have been better, but I needed a way to feed the antenna outside, and something I could close the sliding door on was preferable.

Signals on 40m were great with this setup, but I quickly discovered that my CW copying skills were nowhere near as good as I'd hoped they would be. I've been practicing on www.lcwo.net for several weeks, but I've been using the "Morse Machine" mode, where it plays you a character, you tap out the answer on the keyboard, and then it goes on to the next (or repeats if you get it wrong). Though I have the character speed set at 25 wpm, and I can respond almost immediately, when I tried to copy actual QSOs I was hearing I was barely able to get more than 2 letters in a row before getting lost, even at pretty slow speeds.

With this realization, I decided to just practice copying, rather than try to make any QSOs. The Norcal only puts out 1-2 watts, so it wouldn't be that easy for anyone to hear me anyway. For the next few days I spent an hour or two each night tuning around looking for slow morse, and then trying my best to copy it. It was a frustrating exercise, and I'm not sure I got much better at it over that time. My best attempt came on my last night there, when I heard a slow QSO that seemed to go on forever. I was able to get more of a rhythm going, and even copied a whole word or two. I started to wonder who could be sending such a long transmission at such slow speed. Finally at the end the call came: W1AW! I had stumbled on the ARRL's slow-speed code practice transmission. They send the same block of text at 5, 7.5, 10, 12wpm and so on. I'm guessing I was hearing 7.5wpm; I hope that's not wishful thinking.

In spite of the challenges, this was a fun exercise and I'm glad I did it. Phone mode doesn't interest me much, so that leaves me with CW and data modes, and data these days is almost all PSK31. I know there are loads of hams who only work CW, and as a weak signal mode it's arguably better than PSK31 too. Furthermore, if I learn it I'll be able to operate anywhere with my radio, sans laptop and digital interface. The idea of carrying a small QRP CW rig when I travel or go camping is appealing to me, so my resolve to add Morse to my arsenal of knowledge is still strong. I just need to keep practicing.

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