Equipment and category
After months during which we haven’t been able to travel because of Covid-19, and with a load of annual leave to use up at work, I thought it would be good to get away for a bit of a break at the end of November. I booked a hotel in the main town of Funchal, on Madeira’s South coast and then, a few days after booking, realised that the dates I had chosen included CQWW CW.
Madeira itself should be a good location for the contest. Plenty of sea paths to both Europe, Africa, North and South America, and with the island counting as in Africa for DXCC purposes, most QSOs are worth 3 points. On the other hand, Funchal is clearly not a good radio location. It’s very built up and is in a bay facing south, with take-off to everywhere interesting blocked by steep hills rising to the high part of the island. If I wanted to operate, it would have to be a portable affair.
Power was clearly going to be my main limiting factor. I would have no access to make electricity and as I was arriving by plane only the day before the contest, I would have no ability to carry large batteries or obtain a generator. After some quick calculations, I realised that a lightweight 8Ah LiFePo4 battery (which usefully falls just under the 100Wh airline limit) would allow me to operate for at least 5 hours per day using my KX2 on 5W. The problem then was a laptop battery. I had only about 2.5 hours of power on my laptop’s internal battery, so I bought a spare (again having checked the plane would allow it), which would allow me to operate for 5 hours or so on that too. My plan was to return to my hotel room overnight to charge everything, giving me about 10 hours’ maximum operating time in the contest.
It was clear that this limitation meant I’d need to operate in a QRP section and single band seemed most appropriate. During the SSB contest in October, 15m had performed much better than expected and so this became the natural choice as it would mainly be open in the afternoons, matching my 5 hour operating limit well. To use the power available as best as possible, I’d need a resonant antenna, so I built a 1/4 wave vertical with elevated radials and disabled the ATU in my KX2. I chose this particular antenna design because I’d experienced great DX performance from it on previous DXpeditions. Finally, I opted to keep life as easy as possible for myself given the compromised setup, so I chose to operate in an assisted category. Because I wasn’t sure I would have a good mobile phone signal, which would form the basis of my DX Cluster access, I set a filter on my preferred DX Cluster node, so that the Cluster would only send me spots on 15m that did not contain ‘FT8’. This massively improved the throughput.
During the LZ DX Contest at the start of November, I then tested all the gear from home on battery power only to check whether it would work and was amazed to get quite a few contacts. This was a promising start.
The full equipment list:
- 1/4 wave vertical with elevated radials
- 10m fibreglass pole and guys
- RG8 mini coax
- Elecraft KX2
- LiFePo4 12V, 8Ah battery and DC lead
- Palm mini paddle
- WinKeyer USB (CW interface for the computer)
- KX2 USB control cable
- Laptop running DXLog
- Spare battery for laptop
- Mobile phone for internet access via tethering
Now that I knew which category I would enter, I needed to choose a location. Clearly Funchal itself was not suitable because of the geography, but I knew from my previous SOTA trips to the island that there’s a large, high plateau rising to around 1800m in the centre of the island, from which you can get great sea views. I chose a spot near Fanal but as the weekend of the contest approached, the weather forecast started to suggest that operating outdoors wouldn’t be possible. I therefore chose a backup location, which was the carpark from which I had previously started the ascent of Pico Ruivo do Paul. The take-off wouldn’t be so good from there but it gave me the option of operating from inside my hire car.
It was lucky I had this backup plan. As I drove to the site on the Saturday morning of the contest, the weather became steadily worse. A number of rockfalls had caused a couple of cars to get punctures, and as I climbed, the mist became thicker. By the time I reached the carpark, visibility was almost nothing, there was a strong wind with gusts rocking the car, sheets of heavy rain and the temperature was an unseasonably cold 4c. This contest was going to be quite a challenge!
Using the wooden fence in the otherwise empty carpark, I tied on the antenna pole, used a guy set and deployed some bungee cords too, and somehow that was sufficient for the pole to survive.
Operating from the car’s back seat was a little cramped, but with the laptop on my lap, and KX2 by my side, I managed to get comfortable. I was glad I was only planning to do about 4.5 hours each day, though (to give me a little spare battery power).
The contest itself went quite well. Take-off to Europe wasn’t quite as good as I had expected, but South America and North America were quite easy. By the time I was packing up at 4pm on the Saturday with little battery power left, the Americas were coming in easily, so on the Sunday I adjusted my start time to allow myself to stay a little later, though at the expense of some of the morning opening to Eastern Europe. I was particularly pleased that a lot of the Americans, even the Zone 3 ones, seemed to copy my call first time, which indicates the antenna and sea-path take-off were doing their job. However, with just one exception, my CQ calls weren’t seen by the RBN, and so all but handful of contacts were made S&P, which clearly limited my rate. Interestingly, I tried multiple different CW sending speeds and found 25wpm to be most likely to get my long callsign (CT9/M0BLF) copied accurately.