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March 2003 Aruba Trip Notes

Friday, March 21, 2003.  I arrived at 9 p.m. on the AA flight from Miami, after an uneventful trip (with the pleasure of a complimentary upgrade to business class on the SFO/Miami flight).  The only off note was that I had taken the South and East Bay Airport Shuttle, which picked me up at 4 a.m.  The driver had to make five more stops, however, with the result that I arrived at the terminal at 5:45 for a 6:30 a.m. flight.  That was too close for comfort.

Sandy and Holly picked me up and fed me leftovers for dinner.  They had been enjoying themselves for the past few days, exploring the island, eating out, and getting acquainted with the island and the house.  To my great relief, they seemed thoroughly enchanted with both.

Saturday, March 22, 2003.  Holly slept late, so we got a late start to tour the northern side of the island.  Drove by Jackie  Oduber’s house (P43P) to show them his antenna farm, on the windy northern side, but with a straight shot over the water to US and EU.  We drove to the Natural Bridge, where we went down to the beach and walked along the cliffs above the beach (where the bridge is actually undercut into the cliff, unlike in Santa Cruz where the cliffs have worn away, leaving the bridges out in the water).  We then drove down to Baby Beach, where we set up two plastic beach chairs we had brought from home and Holly and I went swimming in the shallow water.  After a refreshing swim, it was time to race home to shower and change our clothes for dinner with Jackie and his wife Marilyn, and Emily Thiel (P43E) at Le Dome, one of the best restaurants on the island, just north of Oranjestad.  We dined “outside”, on their enclosed patio under a roof (actually more like a gallery than a patio), and had very good food and conversation.  Jackie, Marilyn and Emily are all native Arubans, so there was much that we learned from them.

Sunday, March 23, 2003.  We had arranged to have breakfast with Jackie, Marilyn and their 16-year old daughter Stephanie at 10 a.m. at Villa Germania in the Seaport Market in Oranjestad.  They also brought a younger daughter, Francine (the third one took a rain check).  The reason for the breakfast was to talk about medical school and medicine as a career, as Stephanie has to decide what to do later this year, and is wavering between business and medicine.  Either requires a sojourn in Holland or the States.  Jackie and I mostly talked radio, and about the difficulties of keeping his antennas in operating condition.  He is exposed to a more corrosive climate than our place, by virtue of being on the windward side of the island, so, for example, he has his towers painted every six months.

We three then spent two hours or so parked in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel talking about Holly’s life and times.  After that it was back home, then to the airport for Holly’s 5 p.m. flight back to Philadelphia, where she will have to stay overnight with her friends before returning to Rochester. 

Sandy and I then went to Jean-Pierre and Chris’s house, which is only about a mile and a half or so away.  We gave them our gifts: A Richard Scarry story book for Andy (age 2 ½) and Chris, a Walt Disney book with CD for Cindy (age 10), and a Honda Racing Team Trailer and Tractor model for J-P.  These were all very well received.  We intended to have dinner at the Marina Pirata, but there was a half-hour wait, so we drove down the road to Brisas del Mar for a very pleasant dinner on the patio.  The three restaurants in that area seem to be, in order of food quality, Flying Fishbone (also quite expensive), then Marina Pirata, then Brisas del Mar.

Monday, March 24, 2003.  Sandy and I had breakfast at the French café just north of Oranjestad.  Excellent bagel and lox as a second choice after the waitress said that the “chocolate rolls” weren’t available because they hadn’t arrived yet by ship from Holland.  This was mostly a housewares and tool buying day.  We started at Aruba Fasteners (just east of the airport), which J-P had recommended as a specialist in stainless steel hardware.  I was looking for replacement 10-24 bolts for the 15-meter antenna feed point.  They only had a similar metric size, which I bought as a backup, along with a few useful tools.  We then went to several other houseware stores for house supplies.  Ended up at a general hardware store called Codemsa (turn inland at the airport light and go about a mile), which actually did have the stainless hardware I needed.  Later, looking at the antenna with binoculars, I realized that I couldn’t replace the feed screws without removing the driven element, which I don’t intend to do.  Hopefully, the threads on the existing screws will be OK to accept the new hairpin.  Sandy got paint chips at each store for the front fence. 

We also checked out the big supermarkets on the northern edge of Oranjestad.  Kong Hing seems to be the biggest, with an excellent assortment of goods.  There’s a new Ling and Sons supermarket nearby that features lots of ready-to-eat foods. 

Chris had contacted a gate maker, who came by to show us examples of his work and take measurements.  He is Wilson Trujillo.  Though he spoke only Spanish, we managed to get along with sign language and my rudimentary Spanish, and he gave us prices for front, rear and garage gates. 

Lunch at La Granja, a good chicken place on the main road just south of the house. Dinner at Marina Pirata, where the owner, Ricky Donker, was very apologetic for having turned us away the previous evening, and provided a free round of drinks.  The table was on the exact corner of the railing-less deck, where a stumble getting up could have dunked one of us in the water.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003.  Took Sandy to the airport, leaving the house at 8 a.m. for her 9:57 a.m. American Airlines flight to Miami.  When I came back out of the terminal, my car was within about 30 seconds of being towed away, having been taken for an illegally “parked” car.  Fortunately, the guy yielded to my entreaties and released the car, so I could go back on my way.  Having never gone running on Aruba, on the way back I decided to run along the water, starting at the Marina Pirata and running south on paved roads.  This was a good choice, apart from a few barking dogs (thankfully fenced in), and there was a natural route that took 26 minutes. 

The car key was operating erratically, and I happened to notice that it was literally bent at its thinnest part.  I called the Ford dealer, who said they can’t duplicate the keys.  He said there was a place to get that done, but he was literally unable to describe their location, even with help from another guy there.  Checking the phone book, I found Eumar Lock and Key Service, Cotiri 48, and drove there (to get there, take 4B from Santa Cruz past the Paradera roundabout.  Turn right at the Tanki Leendert roundabout, just past the BMW dealer, and they are a half mile or so on the right).  They copied the car keys, as well as front door and driveway gate keys.  This would be the place to buy new padlocks as well. 

This was a day for radio shack upgrades.  First was to put in the Astron 12 amp switching supply, hooked up to the RigRunner power distribution box on the shelf right behind it.  I put it to the left of the computer, after removing the CW Sending Machine (which was sending raspy code anyway).  Hooked up the StackMatch to the power supply, and removed the old wall wart from the SixPak to hook it up to the RigRunner also.  Finally, put in the Logic CMOS-4 keyer, which fits perfectly on the shelf under the right side of the monitor.  The Bencher paddle replaces the old Vibroplex paddle.  The StackMatch switchbox fits fine just above the old “Normal-C31” manual switch against the left table leg.  The StackMatch controller  itself can be put under the SixPak, but I found it easier to use at the left edge of the table.

Finished interfacing my Dell laptop with the radio, and tested it out with high power from the amp.  The basic interface is simple:  Using the LPT box, I have the PTT line going to the Heil mic adaptor footswitch input (the shack footswitch could also go there, but is currently connected to the PTT input on the radio back panel).  The CW keying line goes to the key jack on the front panel, using an adapter from a stereo ¼ inch plug to RCA female inputs.  The DVP line goes into the phone patch RCA jack on the radio back panel.  This is run through a Radio Shack ground loop isolation transformer. When this line ran past the amp, it induced considerable hum, which was reduced depending upon the orientation of the isolation transformer (which suggests that a transformer should be built into a shielded box).  Routing the line around the right side of the radio with the isolator facing right-left cured the hum. 

Dinner at Don Carlos Italian Restaurant in Oranjestad.  OK.

Wednesday, March 26, 2003.  Got up at 7 a.m. to wait for the bucket truck that Jean-Pierre had arranged.  He was supposed to come at 8 a.m., and Chris showed up shortly thereafter to help out.  When he still hadn’t come by 9, I reached him on his cell phone, and he explained the truck was broken.  We made a new date for Thursday at 4:30 p.m.  He is Efy de Cuba.  I gave Chris the paint selections Sandy had made, and asked that she have the front fence painted.  To paint the part  to the right of the driveway (facing the house), the agave cactus will have to be trimmed a bit.  We will not plaster over the front face of that part of the fence (the left part is plastered already).  The vertical elements, columns, and eave fascia boards on the front and side of the house will be painted a darker color.  We will not paint the inside of the walls. 

Checking out conditions, I made a hundred or so SSB contacts on 15, 10 still being virtually dead.  Had  a long chat with Alex, 4L5A, D44TT, who will be on as D4B in the contest.  He says CN2R will be on as well, so there will be lots of serious SOAB entrants.  He has a mountaintop site on Cape Verde with high winds, but is talking about further antenna improvements.

I decided to go hiking in Arikok National Park, on the northeast side of the island.  It contains a lot of wild, desert country, accessible with dirt roads.  To get there, just turn right at Santa Cruz and follow signs.  I drove a little way up the dirt road at the end of that entrance, and then started hiking at the second parking area.  The trails are extremely well maintained, including stones along the sides, and in places steps of rock and concrete, and they are well marked with signposts.  I went to Miralarma (a view point), to Masiduri (an old house, beautifully restored), and most of the way to Cerro Jamonata (highest point on the island, at 188 meters).  The countryside was beautiful desert terrain.  Two hours of hiking in the midday heat, though with a pleasant breeze, was adequate.  A trail map would be helpful in planning future hikes.

Chris had called another gate fabricator, and he arrived at 5 p.m.  He is Alejandro Loefstop of Alnico Aluminium N.V.  He spoke good English, and we spent some time talking mostly about how the garage locks would work.  He says he will call me back tomorrow.

I had made a dinner date with Martin Rosenthal, VE3MR, P49MR.  To get there, head up to the lighthouse at the northern tip of the island.  When there is a sign for the golf course on the right (Tierra del Sol), veer left, and look for his tower.  He and his wife Truus, P49TR, have a beautiful house right on the water with their own beach, and the three of us passed a very convivial evening.  We had drinks at the house, then drove a little ways south to the Amazonas restaurant at the high-rise hotel area.  This is a spin-off from the nearby Texas de Brasil, both Brazilian churroscaria restaurants where the waiters ply you with various kinds of meat that they slice off spits at your table. 

Thursday, March 27, 2003.  Kind of a slow day.  Checked the radio a number of times and conditions seemed pretty bad generally, though when I got on at 11 p.m. or so, 20 was wide open to the US and European Russia and the noise level was down to S3 to S4 (it had been closer to S7 earlier).  Mark, KI7WX, at HC8N, said that 10 was good for them and 15 may be a 48-hour band.  Their conditions sound much better than here, but maybe things are improving.

I stopped in at the Notary office just before lunch to pick up a refund that our lawyer, Mike Hardoar, had notified me of by email a while ago – it seems they had overestimated the closing costs.  He gave me a check drawn on the Notary’s account at the RBTT bank, which is in Oranjestad just opposite the Seaport cinemas.  Mike said I’d have no trouble cashing it, but should have my passport for ID.  Naturally, I had left the passport at home, so a quick return trip was called for, prior to the 20 minute wait in line at the bank.  Lunch at a pretty good Indian restaurant (what else, the Taj Mahal) in town.

The bucket truck arrived around 4:30 in the afternoon.  There were two guys, who worked for De Cuba Electrical Contractors.  The older one drove the truck through the gate and parked it perpendicular to the house, a spot from which the younger guy and I in the bucket were raised up to replace the 15 meter hairpin, which had broken off at the mountings.  Fortunately, the stainless steel screws holding the feed point to the driven element were in good shape, albeit dirty.  I cleaned them with a wire brush we had bought on Monday, and decided to leave the original nut in place (each screw holds both the feed line pigtails and a broken off end of the hairpin).  I could have loosened the nut and removed the broken end of the hairpin, but was afraid to touch the nut.  Instead, I just mounted the new hairpin with another nut squeezing it between the two nuts.  I coated the whole place with Noalox (the stuff that goes on a Noah's bagel??) given to me by Jackie.  I wrapped tape around the middle of the hairpin then fastened it to the boom with tie-wraps and electrical tape. 

A quick trip to the shack showed that the antenna seemed to load up just fine all across the band (as, in truth, it also had done with the broken hairpin).  I then rotated the antenna 180 degrees to see if the 10m hairpin was OK.  Although it looked solid, actually one of the ends had broken, and a mild tug pulled the other one off also – so the process was repeated with the new 10 meter hairpin.  I had brought a 20 meter hairpin also, but decided not to move the truck to check that antenna.  The whole process took about an hour.  I gave the two guys 25 florins as a tip, and presumably Jean-Pierre will have to pay the hourly rate of 65 florins for the truck later.

A little after 7 p.m., I drove over to see  Jean-Pierre and Chris.  We chatted until 10:30 or so, and went over finances  with Chris. 

Friday, March 28, 2003.  Went running at the beach again, then drove to the French Café for breakfast and to do some supermarket shopping.  As I was set to get out of the car at the café, I suddenly noticed I had forgotten to bring my wallet.  I thought of just bagging the whole thing, but I did want to visit the better supermarkets in that area, and since traffic is much lighter early in the morning, I drove back home to retrieve the errant purse.  There is a very nice supermarket just south of the café, in a hokey-looking mall.  It’s probably distinguished most by an enormous frozen foods section.  There is certainly no shortage of food on Aruba.  In the afternoon, 10 meters was nicely open to EU (alas, not for the next two days when I really could have used such an opening).  Did a final plant watering, and even hosed the dust off the outside of the house. 

I rerecorded several of the voice messages for use in the contest because I found  that guys were having a bit of confusion with the call as “Papa Forty Yankee.”  The new ones add “Papa Four Zero Yankee”, which seemed to work a little better.  Interestingly, at the post-contest dinner, Jackie said that Carl always used P40V on phone instead of P49V because it was less misunderstood.  Jackie said P41P was OK, although it has an extra syllable as compared to P40P, while he never uses P43P in a contest due to the confusion it engenders. 

The WPX SSB Contest, March 29-30, 2003.  I was always planning to go in the big dog category of single operator, all band, high power.  I called Jackie before the contest to touch base, and he said that John Crovelli, W2GD, wasn’t coming down to do a multi with him as they had planned, so Jackie was going to go head to head with me in the same category as P41P.  John, KK9A, was planning to go low power as P40A. 

Near the start of the contest (8 p.m. local time), there is still the depressingly high S6-7 noise level on 15, and 10 seemed to be barely there. So I decide to start on 20.  John later said that he had spent an hour or so on 15 and had a rate over 200.  I stay on the same frequency, 14284 kHz, with minor adjustments to avoid the heavy QRM for six hours (0205 local, 1057 x 400, 1.255M points).  I  run into a whole bunch of EU Russians that are hard to understand due to polar flutter, and decide to switch to 40.  189 contacts and 36 mults later, I move to 80 briefly.  Because the antenna isn’t resonant on the phone band, I’m using the radio barefoot.  Everyone I call hears me, but CQs aren’t answered.  After 17 contacts, I decide to go back to 20 around EU sunrise to look for EUs.  A large part of the strategy this weekend is going to be to try to find EUs, because that’s where most of the available multipliers are.  I’ll have to find as many as possible on 20 and 40, since I can’t rely on the high bands as I did last year at ZF2AF.  Twenty meters is open to EU, and I stay on it until heading for bed at 0505 local time (1355 x 492, 2.256M points). 

There were problems with the amp at night.  Twice on 20 it hard faulted (i.e., it turned itself off).  The code shown on the blinking LEDs when turned back on was explained in the book as being a soft fault 13 (i.e., the amp should just put itself in standby mode) for excessive drive.  It’s hard to see how there could have been excessive drive, though, as I wasn’t running more than 1200-1300 watts out.  The book cautions to keep not only the RF power control low, but also the drive control. There were also a few soft faults, which aren’t a big deal.  I had the main bedroom wall mirror set up on its side on the little card table to the left of the operating table, because I put the laptop right in front of the amp, so I can only watch the displays if I lower the screen or glance into the mirror.  Last contact at 0904Z (0504 local) was UV8M on 20 meters. 

The new StackMatch was very helpful on 20.  It’s set up so Antenna 3 is actually the SixPak, with the monobanders for 40-10 and dipoles for 80 and 160, while Antenna 2 is the C31XR tribander.  I pointed the C31 at about 40 degrees for EU, and the monobander at about 330 degrees for the US.  Switching between them was very helpful, particularly in digging out Europeans.  At other times during the contest, when EU was closed, I would point the C31 at 350 or so for the East Coast and the monobanders at 310 for the West Coast.  Sometimes the noise level would also be different on the two.

On 40, I camped out on a transmitting frequency of 7059, using the Split function on the radio to listen on 7200 and later on 7198.  Transmitting on the sub radio allows all the receiver controls to be used for the main receiver for the listening frequency.  I couldn’t listen effectively on both frequencies, because there was too much noise.  To listen on the transmit frequency, one just has to cancel Split and hit the A<>B button to put the transmitting frequency on the main radio.  It was difficult to work EUs due to weak signals and high noise.  I resolve to go to 40 Saturday night much earlier in the evening to pick up East Coasters and also possibly better EU.

I decide to take 4 ½ hours of off time of the 12 required, so I go right to bed and sleep for about four hours.  After a quick breakfast and a cuppa joe, the first contact is at 1336Z (0936 local).  I start on 21293, though 15 isn’t very open to EU.  After two contacts the amp again hard faults, and I’m afraid it may be a long day – though actually it would then run for many hours without problems.  At about 1530Z (1130 local) I go to 10 for the first time and get a gratifying “fresh meat” pileup going.  Unfortunately, it’s exclusively W/VE, so the multipliers  come slowly.  For example,  with 131 Qs in the first 33 minutes there are only 10 new mults.  After an hour and 224 contacts I have  only 20 new mults.

Even though 10 is still playing well, I feel the need to chase Europeans, so I QSY to 15 at 1819Z.  I only stay on 15 for about 15 minutes.  I work P41P and am about 70 QSOs ahead of  Jackie.  Depressingly, tuning on the second receiver I came across P40A, who is almost 200 QSOs ahead of me, and this on low power!  A brief biology break at 1629 local with 834 10 meter contacts in the log.  I’m now at 2536 by 641 for 5.2M points.  John came by and bemoaned the lack of EUs, so I’m hoping to stay ahead of him on EU mults and also on low-band double point contacts.  Presumably as a low power entrant with only a dipole on 40 he will avoid that band and concentrate on high band rate. 

After my brief break, I hang out on 14128 to work Europeans below the American phone band.  I notice Jackie doing the same thing, and it is encouraging to have that strategy validated by a local.  This is a very productive hour and 50 minutes, during which I add 140 prefixes or so.  There’s just no way to get the bulk of EU multipliers except by running them, for many are low power stations that don’t call CQ themselves.  Though conditions are still good, I take an hour break for dinner due to brain fade.  In retrospect, a better strategy probably would be never to abandon a European run when overall conditions are this marginal.  It’s 2241Z (1841 local), and I am at 2820 by 763 for 6.8M points.

True to my resolution, I go to 40 at about 2200 local time to try to get an earlier start on that band than last night.  It’s now 2336 local after a fairly productive time on 40, and I have bounced back to 20.  It was very difficult to work EU on my own frequency of 7035.  Going split by listening on 7243 or so worked fine, and there were more US stations available at that hour, but the EUs would come up on the split frequency (illegally) and yell at me to listen on my transmit frequency, so every so often I would do so.  I did get a number of new mults that way, but the signals were weak, the noise was high, there was CW in the pass band, and just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, someone started intentionally jamming me with solid tones and CW signals.  I worked a few JAs on 20 and K6III said there were a lot of them calling me, but I could only hear the strongest ones due to the S4 noise level.  Back to 40 again for some more of the same.   The amp faulted with 24:03 hours of elapsed time on the clock, so I took it as a sign from above that it was time to call it quits for  the night at 0536Z (0136 local).  I’m at 3488 by 849 for 9.9M points.

I still have 6 ½ hours of mandatory off time, so I decide to take 5 ½ hours now and save one hour of off time for the afternoon to allow me to stay on at the end of the contest.  Not sure if that is the best strategy, as it forces a start at 1100Z, or 0700 local, which is generally too early to get anything going from there.  I think there might be some interesting propagation at that time, however, so I decide to try it in the hope of finding some mults. 

After some shut-eye and a quick breakfast, I’m on 20 now with about an S5 noise level, but I do work a few new VK prefixes and one JA.  At contact 3510, I pass a milestone of 10 million points.  I debate with myself  after a slow first hour whether a better plan would have been to stay up an extra hour on 20 or 40 last night.  But I do get about 12 new mults by searching and pouncing in the slow times, so it’s not clear that it was a mistake.

After about an hour, it’s to 15, where the first contact is with an S9 Italian, so things may be better here.  I’m thinking that a second radio just set up for listening to band conditions would be very helpful.  When running seriously, great vigilance and a constant presence are required to preserve the run frequency, making it difficult to scope out other bands without a second radio.  I’m now working lots of EUs on 15, with only about an S2 noise level with the C31 pointed northeast (though an S6 noise level with the monobander pointed northwest  -- I notice as the contest goes on that sometimes the relative noise levels are reversed).  I pass 11 million points at 1321Z (0921 local, 3703 by 897).  At about 1430Z, the amp has a hard fault 16, which the book says is due to excessive instantaneous plate current, usually indicating an HV fault or tube arc.  This doesn’t sound good. 

At about 1400 local on Sunday afternoon, at one point in the great Aruba shootout, I was looking for a frequency on 10, when I came across John and Jackie close to each other.  In rough numbers, Jackie was giving out contact number 4150, and John 4350, while I was at 4250.  Talk about close!  When I called my first CQ, a guy started laughing on the frequency, and said, “Say, how many of you guys are there on Aruba today, anyway?”  I reach my last year’s claimed score of 13.4M at 4340 by 949 at 1844Z (1444 local).  At about 2000Z I turn the C31 south.  The noise level shoots up to S7 or so, but I do get a few new South American multipliers.  I then go to 15 and run into John, who is still about 100 ahead, but has 10 fewer mults.  I’m working some EU on 15, but decide to take my last hour off at about 1700 local, with 33:56 hours elapsed contest time.  The idea is to come back on for a good final two hours.  This worked great last year, but not so well this time.  It’s very frustrating with a high noise level, particularly trying to work the JAs that are calling.  I do get a few, with some new prefixes, but doing so requires many repeats and fills.  I think I’m going to lose some in the log checking for sure. 

It became obvious on Saturday that we were playing for third or fourth place or so, when I worked D4B in the Cape Verde Islands.  I gave him a number in the 2800s, while he replied with a number over 4000! On Sunday afternoon I work D44TD, who is over 5000 Qs, but says he is behind D4B and a C5 in the Gambia.

The final tally is 4833 contacts, 988 multipliers and 15,442,440 points.  As compared to last year at ZF2AF, contacts were down by almost 300, multipliers down by 80, and score up by two million points.  The score is higher because of the advantage of a South  American QTH, and also because I spent much more time on 40 and 80 to try to maximize points.  Thus, at ZF2AF average points per QSO were 2.46, while at P40Y they were 3.23.  The lower totals are accounted for by two factors:  (a) High power line and/or atmospheric noise levels this year, often S6-7 on 15, for example, and (b) much worse propagation to Europe.  Last year 35% of my contacts were with EU, but only 16% were this year.  This led to reduced mults, and also to lower rates, as I spent several hours trying specifically to work EU on 15 and  20 even when higher rates were available on 10 working NA.  I suspect that the score will also be reduced by a greater percentage in the log checking this year, as many of the EU and even the few JA QSOs were made under difficult conditions that undoubtedly contributed to more errors.

After the contest mercifully draws to a close I end up chatting on 15 with some guys calling in, including NM5M at HC8N, who claims to have broken the world M/M record with some 63M points, and Rick, N6XI, who was  M/S as NZ6Q.  Then it’s off to the traditional post-contest dinner at Brisas del Mar with Jackie, John and his wife, Leslie.  Jackie and John are somewhat reticent about their scores, but I gather that I have won the great Aruba shootout, though John gets the moral victory for his great low power effort, and Jackie had the disadvantage of having to work all week right up to the start of the contest, unlike the two vacationing Americans.