The Amateur Amateur: They Can Hear Me in Texas

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
December 2015

MFJ-1796 antenna

My first HF antenna. It was cheap and didn't perform very well.

Bilal Isotrons

My second attempt: Weird antennas that didn't work at all.

SG-230 antenna coupler

The wire antenna worked okay. The black box on the mast is a SG-230 antenna coupler.

SG-237 antenna coupler

Trying to get another wire antenna in operation. This time the antenna coupler is staying off the mast and out of the weather.

Regular followers of this column have probably noticed that I do not often write about the HF bands. That's because I have a love/hate relationship with them: I love them and they hate me.

Okay, that's not being entirely fair. I don't actually love them... (Alright, alright, I'll get on with my story.)

Let's face it, Amateur Radio is a diverse hobby in that it encompasses a lot of specialized interests. I like to tell people that it's actually about a hundred hobbies which all share one common name. I don't feel that I'm far wrong. Think about it. Folks who mostly chat on the local repeater during drive-time barely even speak the same language as those who focus on capturing rare DX grid squares. Even among those who are technically minded, the guy who spends all of his time soldering things together may have little in common with the fellow who has connected his transceiver to a computer and is playing with digital modes.

I'm telling you, it's a lot of hobbies, each as valid as the next.

Now you are convinced that I've been building up to the point where I tell you that working the HF bands isn't the particular specialty that interests me. Wrong! Well, semi-wrong. It's not the specialty that interests me the most. In truth, I'm something of an eclectic, a Renaissance man (or as some of you might say, wishy-washy). There is very little that doesn't interest me at least to some degree. And as yet there has been virtually no aspect of Amateur Radio that I haven't found somewhat appealing. But my main passion is for emergency communications. There are quite a few contenders for second place, but I would say that HF leads the pack. And indeed, I did get a HF rig very early in the game and I can still be found on the bands from time to time.

The problem is that HF is not the plug-it-in-and-get-on-the-air sort of endeavor that VHF can be. You actually have to have some idea what you're doing. I'm not saying that HF is incredibly difficult, just that it does take a little study and effort. No big deal, but emergency communications got to me first.

And I went overboard.

That's the story of my life. I'll get involved with something that interests me. I'll go to the meetings and hear that they need someone to handle this or that. I think to myself, "I can do that... and that... and that..." And the next thing I know I'm the chairman or the commander or whatever and I've taken on the tasks of twenty people.

That's what happened with St. Louis County ARES® (now St. Louis Metro ARES®, we don't sit still). I got involved early in the game, figured I could handle some of the multitude of tasks that needed immediate attention...

And that's where I still am now, except with a few more functions added to my job description. I'm not complaining, I enjoy it, but it does consume a lot of time and effort.

Which brings me back to HF.

I frequently read articles in which some enterprising ham had mounted a salad fork on the end of a broomstick and made contact with 133 countries, or used a Popsicle stick sprinkled with glitter as a moon-bounce antenna, or made some other mind-boggling achievement along those lines. I used to believe that either they had stunning luck and that mine was perfectly rotten, or that they just "had the knack for it" and that I didn't. I now believe, however, that those articles left out a lot of critical details, for example that a lightning storm had electrified a nearby steel-frame skyscraper and it happened to be in resonance with the ham's salad fork.

Anyway, I did figure out right away that becoming an effective operator on the HF bands was going to take more time than I could devote to the pursuit, so I put it aside.

Only to return later to try again.

There was just an irresistible lure to the HF bands. Perhaps I'd see a notice about a contest or special event station or hurricane network, but whatever the reason I found myself going back over and over again.

And each time I'd have the same miserable luck as I'd had before.

I was and still am convinced that most of the trouble I have is due to ineffective antennas. I have two severe constraints on what I can put up: (1) Space, and (2) Money. So I started with a cheap multi-band vertical (virtually no contacts), switched to exotic array of very weird antennas (no contacts whatsoever), and eventually tried some ordinary wire connected to an antenna coupler. That, at least netted me some contacts. In fact, I was quite satisfied with the wire antenna and was happy to leave it alone. Mother nature, however, had other ideas.

In the spring of 2013 a severe storm brought down my main antenna mast and everything that was on it. That included one end of the wire antenna and the SG-230 antenna coupler to which it was attached. Suddenly I was back to square one.

It took a long time to get the SG-230 examined, declared unfit for duty, and eventually replaced by a new SG-237. By that time I'd had a new roof installed and rearranged everything on it. There was no longer a good path for a wire antenna. But having spent quite a bit of time and energy (to say nothing of cash) in an effort to get back on the HF bands, I wasn't about to give up. I pored over documents provided with the SG-237 looking for some sort of wire antenna configuration that would work for me.

Well, it wasn't exactly in the book, and I can think of dozens of reasons why it shouldn't work, but I laid out 80' of wire in a box shape directly on the roof. If that sounds to you like a pretty inefficient arrangement, I wouldn't entirely disagree with you.

Salad forks and Popsicle sticks indeed.

That might have put my HF efforts back on the shelf to gather dust for another few years, but oddly enough my emergency communications activities induced me to keep trying. You see, in addition to ARES® (and RACES and Skywarn®) I'm also involved with a regional group called the Hospital Amateur Radio Network. (As I said, I tend to go overboard.) Many of the local hospitals have their own Amateur Radio stations and we test them on a monthly basis. My assigned location is the St. Louis County Department of Health. In addition to its dual-band 2m/70cm rig, the Department of Health also has a HF transceiver. This is used during the statewide portion of the monthly test.

In other words, once a month I get to play with someone else's HF station, and it works quite well.

You can imagine the effect this has had on me. I've been able to improve my HF operating skills, learn how to "search for the net", and develop an ear for hearing things in the static soup. On the flip side of the coin I go home and grumble, "Why doesn't my station work like that?" Oh yeah, because I don't have an expensive HF antenna way up the top of a tall mast.

So I do what I can with what I have, try to apply what I've learned, and you know what? On a good evening I actually can hear signals coming in on my HF station. And if conditions are just right I can even get a signal out! It may not be strong or clear...

But at least they can hear me in Texas.

© 2017 Gary Ross Hoffman
E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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