The Amateur Amateur: The Past, the Future, and the Maybe

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
January 2021

80m dipole
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.

I've already chronicled my various trips up onto the roof in earlier columns, 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 And 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 unsolvable.

This requires a bit of explaining, so please bear with me.

oil can and bolts
Straightening an antenna mast

Winlink 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 lot easier.

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 it did 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 roaring success.

Looking forward

Signalinks boxed up
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...

CW
Mobile HF
MESH/AREDN
Amateur Television
Satellites
Fox Hunting
Learning electronics well enough to be useful

Well.... who knows?



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