The Amateur Amateur: The Past, the Future, and the Maybe
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
Another failed HF antenna experiment
Looking back at the year just ended
If there is one thing that I vividly remember about 2020 it's that I
spent an awful lot of time on the roof. Some of the effort was to
shuffle around my VHF/UHF antennas, some of it was to straighten an
off-kilter antenna mast, but the bulk of it was trying out different
HF band antenna systems and configurations.
To be clear, I am not into contests and I'm not trying to fill in grid
squares. Years ago I'd had a small amount of success making
long distance PSK31 and SSTV contacts,
but hadn't really gotten back into HF work after
my antenna had come down during a thunderstorm. I had replaced it
with a more modest system, but was never able to hear much of
anything after that.
But during 2020 I was determined to get back onto the HF bands. It wasn't
that I caught the bug again. It was a necessity.
You see, I'm an officer in St. Louis Metro ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency
Service). During a discussion with the
Emergency Coordinator, we determined that a lot more effort needed
to be put into the team's HF capabilities. With a certain amount of
trepidation, I agreed to head up the effort. So now I absolutely had
to get my HF antenna system to work properly.
already chronicled my various trips up onto the roof in
so I won't go over it all again here. Suffice it to say that I was up
there quite a lot.
HF antenna woes weren't the only thing that plagued me during 2020.
Hardly anything I do works the first time, and reprogramming my transceivers
last year was a prime example of this. In particular, I wanted to
load an updated list of memory channels into the Yaesu
FT-8800 that was mounted in my Toyota Corolla. This should have been
a 10 or 15 minute task, but it seemed like everything
went wrong, and it took me the better part of a day to get it done.
If you're interested, the full story can be found at
Then the Battery Died.
Last year, however, one Amateur Radio project really drove
me close to madness.
I'm stubborn. Or obsessive. Or perhaps just plain stupid. But I find it
hard to just give up on unresolved problems. They keep nagging me,
bouncing around in my head, whispering, “Did you try this?
How about if you reconfigured that?” until I give in and
make another stab at fixing the problem.
More often than not, this actually works. I will eventually stumble onto
the correct solution. But last year one problem turned out to be
This requires a bit of explaining, so please bear with me.
Straightening an antenna mast
is a system for sending email over the Amateur Radio bands. It can be
done on VHF/UHF or HF and uses a variety of transmission
modes. The trick is for the transmitting station to connect to a
receiving station that can inject the email message into the
Internet. A receiving station that can do that is called a Remote
Mail Server (RMS), or sometimes a Winlink Gateway. I have a VHF RMS
set up at my home, but it doesn't get much traffic due to the
poor location of my house.
And then along came VARA FM. This was a new transmission mode for Winlink
VHF which promised to be better, faster, shinier... and to
make connections between the transmitting and receiving stations a
Well, gosh. How could I resist that?
I couldn't. But VARA FM sure resisted me.
Oh, it pretended
to work. More specifically, it pretended to almost
work. All it needed was a bit more tweaking....
Nothing ever worked. After that brief period of almost-working, VARA
FM never again came even close to functioning.
I read the instructions over and over. I talked to operators for whom
work. I tried numerous experiments with the nearest other VARA FM
station. I uninstalled and reinstalled the software dozens of times,
paying meticulous attention to the settings.
I swapped the computer USB port I was using, sometimes connecting
via USB 2.0, and other times USB 3.0. I tried different sound card interfaces. I changed the
chips inside of them.
I tried using my transceiver's data port, and then its microphone and
speaker ports. I swapped antennas. I changed
the coaxial cables. I installed new
data cables. I used transceivers made by different manufacturers. I
even changed computers. But no matter what I did, I was never able to
reach that almost-working state again. Things only ever got worse.
And finally, I gave up. VARA FM had beaten me.
Overall, I wouldn't consider my Amateur Radio efforts during 2020 to be a
Boxed-up Signalink soundcard interfaces with various connectors
With a year like the last one, I can only hope for better luck this time
around. I mentioned
that I'd made several attempts to improve my ability to work the HF
bands. That effort will
carry on into this new year. As
mentioned in last month's column (The
Box in the Attic), I will move my SGC-237 Smartuner out of my
attic crawlspace and place it on an antenna mast. I may have to wait
until springtime, but all of the parts are ready to go.
I also want to track down a noise problem in my shack, check the SWR
readings on, well, everything, clean up and expand my shack, and take
care of a hundred or so ARES-related issues.
My biggest challenge, however will be... (are you ready?)... a rematch
with VARA FM.
Yes, it may be insane. But there is now a newer version of the software,
and I am going to install a completely different soundcard interface,
Wish me luck.
Things I'll get around to after I've died
Some people make a bucket list. I'm more realistic (or lazy). My list is
of things I've wanted to do, but know I will probably kick the bucket
before I ever get around to doing them. It includes...
Learning electronics well enough to be useful
Well.... who knows?
E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman