The Amateur Amateur: 2021, Moments Great and Small

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
January 2022

Computer Echolink screen
Echolink display

When I initially looked back over 2021 to see what Amateur Radio accomplishments I had achieved, it seemed like I'd done hardly anything at all. Oh, I spent a lot of time working on St. Louis Metro ARES matters, but it was practically all administrative. In particular, dealing with website and database issues consumed many hours, and killed one keyboard.

Oh, I'm not complaining. I volunteered to handle that sort of stuff. And I do get some enjoyment out of it. But at the end of the day I come away feeling more like a computer programmer than an Amateur Radio operator.

On closer inspection, though, it seems that I did accomplish some radio-related things. Some were great, some were small.

In some ways, the smallest was the most gratifying. I'm almost never on the air except for ARES-related events. But on Christmas day I drove roughly halfway across Missouri to celebrate the day with my in-laws. It's during these long-distance treks that I am most likely to hoist the VHF/UHF antenna on my Toyota RAV4 SUV. The antenna usually stays down so that the vehicle will fit into my garage, and I usually don't bother raising it for short trips.

During my trip home Christmas afternoon, I heard someone on the VHF calling frequency (146.520 MHz). I answered, and was soon having a pleasant chat with Chris, KF0GUS. It was short lived, however, as Chris was heading west on Intestate 70 and I was heading east, and we had already passed each other. Moreover, Missouri gets pretty flat the further west you go on I-70, but we were in the eastern half, where lumps and bumps abound. Our conversation only lasted a few minutes, but such contacts always leave me with good feelings that can last for hours. (Yeah, I should do it more often.) By the way, Chris later joined one of our St. Louis Metro ARES nets via Echolink.

Elements of a portable Winlink station
Elements of a portable Winlink station
DRA50 and transceiver
soundcard interface and transceiver

And this is a good place to segue into that topic.

Benton County, Missouri is way, way far from St. Louis County, Missouri, where I live. But I'd noted Benton County ARES's frequent Facebook posts and was curious about the team down there. I discovered that they had a weekly net and that it could be reached via Echolink.

So, I learned how to use Echolink. And I try to check in to the Benton County ARES net whenever I can.

I will confess at this point that I don't do so via radio. I could use a local repeater to do so, but I'd rather not tie up any local Amateur Radio resources other than my own. I connect to the repeater that Benton County ARES uses by means of my computer. (I feel only mildly guilty about that.)

Moving on from small and medium successes, I will now jump into what I consider my personal great success of the year.

I've written about WinLink before, primarily about getting Remote Mail Servers up and running (see Win-Blink, Part I and Win-Blink, Part II). A quick explanation: If you install WinLink software on your computer, then connect your computer to your transceiver (via a TNC or soundcard interface), you can send and receive email (and a lot more) over the Amateur Radio frequencies.

The key is that you have to be able to reach a WinLink Remote Mail Server (or a relay to one). The Remote Mail Server (RMS) is what listens to your WinLink transmission, grabs it, and injects it into the Internet. The RMS also performs the reverse function, taking any email waiting for you on the WinLink servers, and passing it on to you once you connect.

Setting up a simple WinLink client can be a bit of a challenge.

Setting up a RMS can be a nightmare. (See the links to the two earlier columns that I wrote.)

In any case, I had set up my own RMS (KB0H-10) and helped my friend Steve set up his own (KC0QMU-10). Neither received much traffic, though, as both Steve and I live in locations surrounded by lots of obstructions.

And then came VARA.

Mounting antenna coupler
Mounting HF antenna coupler

WinLink data had usually been sent and received by some form of packet radio. VARA is a completely new method, the technical aspects of which are way over my head. But the thing that has made VARA so popular in the WinLink community is that it works so much better than packet.

Well, I had to give it a try. I did, back in 2020 (see A VARA Difficult Problem) and had no success.

But in 2021 I succeeded! (See The Sweet Screech of Success) I get a wonderfully gratifying feeling after finally solving long term problems.

Now, I just need to help Steve get his VARA RMS going.

Now that I think about it, I suppose I actually had another great success in 2020. I got my HF antenna back up and running.

I won't go over my long history of struggling with the HF bands, my occasional successes, and my perpetual search to find an optimal HF antenna for my location. I've written numerous columns on the subject. But in 2021, with a lot of help from my friend Bob (no call sign, he's not a ham), I did get a working HF antenna up and functioning (see Up, Up, and On the Air!). I won't say that it's optimal. There is a lot that I cannot do with it. But compared to what I had before, it is a huge improvement.

So, going back to my original assessment of my 2021 Amateur Radio activities, I would have to say that I was wrong. I did do a lot of radio-related things.

And now, I need to get back to the ARES administrative-website-database stuff. (It never ends.)

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