Review – 2022 Sept ARRL VHF Contest

The Plan

Expectations were high despite the gloomy outlook with the weather reports. LOTs of rain was in the forecast, but we kept planning and gathering the tools for our first VHF contest outing (at least my first with the club).

The ARRL September VHF contest information can be found here (click). This contest requires the exchange of a 4 character grid square along with your call sign. Our location was to be in grid EM96 at the Saddle Overlook in Floyd, VA along the Blue Ridge Parkway (click for map). The original location was just over a hill at the Rocky Knob Overlook, but we felt this venue gave us a better line-of-site shot to the North East. You can see the predicted coverage area here (click).

The plan was to at least use the 2m and 70cm bands, with some hope for 6m and maybe 23cm, along with the new club Yaesu FT-991A. Christopher, K4HZ and Cam, W4XXV constructed masts to mount onto their trucks to get the antennas in the air. Christopher had a 11 element 2m yagi antenna, along with a 10 element 70cm yagi to bring in the signals. Cam was to bring his arrow antenna used for the same bands. Steve, WD4JIX was to bring his newly mobile mounted Icom 9700 with the array of antennas whipping through the landscape atop his truck.

Our planned operation time would be from the start of the contest (2pm local) until 5pm.

The Execution

Meeting around 1pm, Christopher, Cam, and Steve scoped out a spot to set up, and the rain gear was don.

It was quickly discovered that the mixture of rain and wind was going to be a problem. A canopy was set up, using our trucks to shield us from the majority of wind, but the rain was attacking from any angle but down. Misting of rain was on everything.
Ben, KK4EWT arrived with tarps that could cover the side attack from the rain, and was fastened to the canopy, only the canopy was more made for sun rather than rain, so the wind pushed the water up and through the canopy vent, giving us frequent reminders of the wet nature of our venture.

Construction of the yagis and erection of Christopher’s antenna setup commenced, and we braved the mist monster once again. Everyone wore the look of doubt as we pushed the mast into place. Fastened steady, the look of doubt was replaced with relief, and a bit of anxiety as the wind directed the position of the yagi. Now for the station.

All feedlines were mated with dielectric grease to keep out the moisture, and that seemed to work against the wet, even without using tape. Coax was ran into the shelter, and the club radio was brought out, connected, and powered on. We quickly realized that more shielding was needed against the beast as it seemed to wet everything we brought out. Scanning the 2m band, we found our first contact, AA4ZZ on SSB!. Hey, this just might work!

As we fought the beast, and wrestled the wind to get the yagis pointed, we found that the 70cm band was barely usable. Ben, KK4EWT and Mike, KE4RGY constructed an “on the spot” dipole using some speaker wire and a Budwig HQ1 (click for link). Boy those Budwigs are handy! Dipole erected under the canopy, we were able to snag two 6m contacts from beneath the monster, one being on CW (thanks K4HZ).

The club radio was the only one used during the gathering, but, with 3 hours of operating time, we managed to get 13 logged contacts and 2 soaked log sheets. The furthest contact was into Connecticut (K1TEO) at an estimated 500 mile shot on 2m. That’s well beyond line of site!

At 5pm, a planned retreat from the monsters abode was executed with haste, bringing the equipment to a wet but stowed state in about 25 minutes. Well wishes were given as we parted ways, and gave the Saddle back to drizzling demon. It will be many a day before we will be able to dry our armor for another bout with the beast.

Lessons Learned

High elevations are prone to severe weather, and the rainy forecast should have been met with less enthusiasm to conquer as an adversary. Rain and wind on top of a saddle will not be repeated by this operator. but it did give reassurance to the skillsets of the club, as members came together against a real foe in emergency operations. We really came together to exchange information with others in extremely adverse conditions. Well done everyone!

Besides the obvious wet conditions, there were a few other things to note. Without any particular order, here are a few things I think we should try to improve.

We should attempt to have better coverage of bands by using more than one station. We had the radios, but I wasn’t asking anyone to risk their rig in that wet!

I had assumed to make use of the truck tailgate as an operating position. I think tables are definitely needed as a better workstation.

Operating information printouts would be really helpful for this event. These were all new bands for me in using USB/CW, so I kept having to consult my phone for information. It would be much easier to print/laminate something to help.

We need 6 meters! A moxon antenna would have been just about perfect for this deployment. Look for me to build or request club funds to buy one.

Armstrong rotators (manually twisting the pole) are OK, but for this application, it would have been much nicer to have an antenna rotator. The mount in general could use some improvements, so I’d like to noodle on the needs a bit, and come up with a plan before the next venture.

Laptop logging was at the ready, but with the rain, we didn’t bring them out. It would have been so much easier to log the contacts directly into a system.

Calling CQ using a voice keyer or CW keyer is mandatory in situations like this. Most of the contacts were people coming back to us while calling CQ. Everyone working the rigs should be helped along in how to make use of this feature. You have to keep signals in the air or you won’t be found.

The waterfall display is great for hunting in a contest like this (see above about keeping signals in the air). In the appropriate band segments, any activity would be that of a contester. No doubt we made some of our contacts because we saw them on the scope first.

There are some really weird propagation patterns for VHF! This was evident in the SSB audio we were getting from some of the contacts, and was quite interesting.

Directional antennas are a must. You may be able to get a few contacts with a vertical, but the fun is in the gain!

For low operation time, we should really make use of battery power. A deep cycle battery was used for this outing, and it worked great. There may need to be some considerations for powering the laptops from the 12v source as well.

And finally, I had much more fun than I thought I would. I wasn’t much on the thought of VHF contesting, but it allowed for some serious learning and fun, using different techniques and skills than used at HF events. There may be a need to budget for more equipment and contests for these events in this ham’s future!

Other links for relevant information: