Friday, August 27, 2010

The Icebreaker Mackinaw

As part of the QRZ Summer Tour, we were recently treated to a visit of a unique floating maritime museum, the Icebreaker Mackinaw.  Aside from its being a fascinating exhibit in its own right, it has a very active amateur radio presence.  This ship is a must-visit, must-see for all hams.

The Icebreaker Mackinaw is, as its name suggests, a US Coast Guard ice breaking ship that was built in, and assigned exclusively to the Great Lakes.  It served a distinguished, 62 year career that just ended in 2006.  As such, it contains a very interesting mix of technology spanning the entire period from dynamo motor-generators to a modern fiber optic data network.

If you've ever visited large ships like the aircraft carrier Midway or the battleship Missouri, you'll immediately notice the similarity between them and the Mackinaw.  Although only a fraction of the size of the large warships, the icebreaker nearly all the same amenities, just fewer of them.  Standing in one of her two large engine rooms, you feel dwarfed by massive, locomotive-sized engines and generators spanning multiple decks below the waterline.  Even though it is only a fraction of the size of most warship museums, it can still take hours to explore everything it has to offer.

Soon after the ship was decommissioned and replaced with a newer model, it local hams volunteered and joined the museum staff.  On our visit, we met with Chuck, N8DNX, the president of the Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Emmet Counties Public Service Communications Organization - CCECPSCO  for short, who maintain the club station W8CCE

Thanks to their diligence, CCECPSCO has established a permanent amateur radio station aboard the ship using some of the ships original HF/SSB antennas and radio gear.  They have also installed a 2 repeaters on board, one UHF and one VHF, under the club station callsign W8AGB.

RT-8000 HF transceiver
While visiting the ship, we met also met with volunteers Jim, AL7RV, and Chuck Brew, N8NXP who was also one of the ship's docents (tour guide).  Chuck gave us an excellent tour of the entire facility and answered all of our questions and more. 

Our hosts, N8NXP and N8DNX
It bears noting that when the ship was decommissioned in 2006, it was turned over to the museum board in nearly the same condition that it last sailed under.  Although some of the specialized classified equipment has been removed or disabled, everything else on the ship remained in exactly the same way it was on the day it made its final berth.  The radio technician's room, for example, still contains test equipment, spare parts, soldering irons, tools, everything that she sailed with while operational.  The same holds true for the engine rooms where huge mechanics tool boxes are still full of all tools, spare parts, etc. that were necessary for daily operation.  As a museum,the ship is truly a specimen that was frozen in time.

Radio repair room
The CCECPSCO staff are more than happy to have visiting hams sit down and operate the radio gear.  The equipment, some of which is military grade, is just sitting there, begging to be used.  If you plan on visiting the site, just walk right up to the radio deck and introduce yourself.  You'll be greeted by the other ham volunteers with welcome arms and you'll be able to operate the equipment for practically as long as you'd like.

CCECPSCO is also registered as a 501c, non-profit organization.  Donations are welcome and are tax deductible.  If you ever get a chance to visit Michigan, make sure Mackinaw City is on your itinerary and the Icebreaker Mackinaw on your must-do list.  If you're like us, you'll love it!

AA7BQ at the HF desk
Our thanks go out to N8DNX, N8NXP, and AL7RV for their outstanding hospitality and for taking time out of their day to treat us to a personalized tour of the facility.

Click here to see 40+ additional photos from inside the Mackinaw.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ham Radio and the National Weather Service

I recently had the opportunity to visit the National Weather Service (NWS) station in Marquette, Michigan where I was greeted by the station manager, Robin Turner, KC8TII. Robin is a veteran weather service employee and master meteorologist.  Bill Dowe, KC8EWD, the local SKYWARN manager and president of WX8MQT, joined Robin and me on a comprehensive tour of the facility.

Marquette, Michigan is a town that was founded in the 19th century along the southern coast of Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  Situated at roughly the midpoint along the southern coast of the lake, it has been an important location for Great Lakes shipping and commerce.  The location is also just about perfect for locating a high level weather radar that can see not only most of Michigan's upper peninsula but 90% of the lake as well.  This combination of attributes is why the National Weather Service chose the site to locate one of its powerful WSR-88D radar systems.

The NEXRAD WSR-88D is a 750 kilowatt, 10cm Doppler radar that can plot weather phenomena out to a 285 mile radius, which works out to more than a quarter million square miles of coverage.  The radar can map both wind direction and precipitation and thus is capable of identifying many types of significant weather.

The 750 KW Power Tube

The data received by the dish is processed by an impressive array of weather modeling computers.  These systems produce three dimensional models of the weather picture and can accurately predict significant weather such as severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Despite the remarkable ability of the WSR-88D, it is no substitute for a pair of human eyes observing actual weather conditions on the ground.  It is for this reason that the most accurate and up-to-date information distributed by the NWS comes from direct observation, i.e., witnesses and observers who report what they see at the time.

One of the most valuable sources of real-time observations is the SKYWARN program, which consists of volunteers and amateur radio operators who have received basic training in weather observation.  The training is given by the NWS and takes about two hours.

There are 122 local Weather Forecast offices across the country and each one has an designated SKYWARN coordinator that interfaces with local hams.  Most of these locations also have ham radio equipment ready and standing by for immediate use.  These sites typically have both HF and VHF capabilities using commercial, off-the-shelf, amateur radio gear that is provided by the federal government.

The WX8MQT HF/2M Station
During periods of severe weather, one or two local SKYWARN volunteers will report to the local NWS site and open up a severe weather net on a local repeater.  From there, they will take reports, not only from other SKYWARN members, but from any amateur operator who checks in.

According to Bill, KC8EWD, the number one resource that SKYWARN depends on are the reports received from local hams.  Sadly, it is not uncommon for Bill to open a weather net on the local repeater to complete silence with no other stations checking in.

At the Marquette office, I saw an excellent 2 meter / HF station with both a beam antenna as well as an inverted Vee dipole in operation.  Bill informed me that SKYWARN participants were welcome to come and operate the station at any time, not only during severe weather conditions.  Such operations helps to keep the equipment and its operators ready and able to spring into SKYWARN action when the need arises.

Dipole, HF Beam, and Radar!
The NWS station itself was very modern and was staffed by eager, friendly people. They truly appreciate the SKYWARN volunteers and their support is clearly evident.

3D Weather Graphic from Radar Data
If you have an interest in joining the volunteer team, check out the SKYWARN home page at .  From there you'll find links to contact your local coordinator and don't be surprised if they ask you to come right on down and get involved today!  Not only will it be interesting and fun, but you'll be serving your local community as well.

NWS Weather Station Console
QRZ wishes to thank Robin, Bill, and the entire NWS Marquette staff for their kind hospitality and for giving us the "rock star" tour of the facility.  It was a wonderful experience that we'll not soon forget.

More photos of the site are available here...

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Montana's Glacier-Waterton Hamfest

The 2010 Glacier-Waterton Hamfest
 According to the documentation on their website, the Glacier-Waterton hamfest is the oldest continually running hamfest in the world.  This year they celebrated their 76th event which is quite an accomplishment considering that during World War II, there was essentially no amateur radio.  During those years, they held the hamfest anyway, just because the event has always had a greater purpose than simply swapping gear and going home.

The attendees include hams from Montana and quite a few from Canada.  The Canadian side of Glacier National Park is called Waterton hence the name Glacier-Waterton hamfest.  It is truly an international event with a great many friends from both sides of the border.

I must say that I've been to many hamfests and this one is by far the most unique that I've ever attended.  What sets it apart from all the others that I've known is an atmosphere of family and friends for whom the gathering itself is much more important that the swapmeet, the seminars, or the club meetings.  Many of the attendees have been attending the event for most if not all of their adult life and there were several father and son / mother and daughter pairings to meet.  The brotherhood of amateur radio is truly a family affair in Montana and these were among some of the nicest folks I've ever met. 

One of the many rows of Ham campers
I didn't get a chance to count them but there were at least 100 campers, camp trailers, motor homes and a even a few tents at the gathering.  There were kids playing in the meadows, people riding on 4-wheelers, and folks just sitting in the shade enjoying the fantastic mountain air.  The temperatures were in the mid to high 70's throughout the event, dropping down to the 50's at night.  It was so nice not to have to use air conditioning when we slept, something we hadn't experienced at all since we left Phoenix a few days earlier.  It was truly a little piece of heaven, and a wonderful place to enjoy the company of other hams.

A beautifully crafted spark gap transmitter reproduction.

I really love swap meets.  I love old and new radios, and junk of all kinds.  I will often spend hours just looking at tables and tail gates full of equipment and talking to the people that are selling their gear.  G-W, however, wasn't that kind of place.  There were a few swap tables, one or two here and there, but overall, there were far fewer than one might expect.  I'd say 50% of the attendees didn't even setup a swap table.  Nobody seemed to mind, however, and there was plenty of cheap, and even free stuff if you had to fill the urge to go home with something.  But again, this hamfest isn't about the swap meet, it's about family and friends.

I gave my presentation on The History of QRZ to a packed audience.  Everybody wanted to hear about QRZ and it was a great pleasure to meet and talk to the them .  In years past, several commercial vendors, some from as far away as Portland, Oregon, would attend.  This year, however, QRZ was the only commercial entity that showed up we were enthusiastically received and treated like royalty.  We were taken aback by their warm and generous hospitality.

Saturday night was host to two big events, a pot luck dinner followed by a live band that played into the night.  There were substantial libations and Robin and I were treated to generous portions, so much so that finding our motor home in the dark became somewhat challenging.  All turned out well, however, and we slept well, awaking to a wonderful breakfast gathering with hot egg burritos that were delicious.

If you have a camper or even a tent, and you ever get the chance, the G-W hamfest should be on your must-attend list of great summer gatherings for amateur radio.  For more information, see their website,

We hope to attend again next year.  Thanks to all our hosts for the wonderful experience.

The QRZ Summer Tour - Day 1

One of the nice things about being self employed is that you decide your own timetable.  In our case this has been a lifesaver since our schedule was wrecked within 2 hours of leaving the house.

Before I write anything else, I'll take this opportunity to introduce Robin Lloyd, my wife and traveling companion in life.  Since I normally work from home, Robin and I typically spend a lot of time together and are seldom apart.  This has made it easier to spend even more time together within the confines of the motor home.  So, when I refer to we in this context, I'm talking about me and Robin and/or QRZ, which for all intents and purposes, are the same thing.

The Zed in Road Configuration, towing our  Jeep Wrangler

Our first stop was to be Chevalis, in Washington State, which seemed like a good shakedown destination for a first trip in an unfamiliar vehicle and home.  The route was to take us north, to Flagstaff, Arizona, and then if time permitted, northwest to Chevalis.   Well, as it turns out, time did not permit it because by the time we reached Flagstaff, the coach has lost both its fifth and sixth gears.  No mater what I did, the transmission would not shift beyond 4th gear.  We spent the night in Flagstaff to regroup by Sunday had decided to drive the bus to Las Vegas where we would have it looked at. 

Our Detroit Diesel Series 60 engine.  12.7 liters, 470 hp.
To make a long story short, the transmission received a clean bill of health from the Detroit/Allison repair shop.  It was OK.  The problem was caused by my faulty driving technique when I let the gearbox temperatures get too hot.   Lesson learned.  The transmission temperature gauge on the dash has a purpose and it's my job as the driver to monitor it when using the transmission brake so that it doesn't overheat.  $700 later and 3 days behind schedule, I was again on the road but now this time to Glacier National Park in Montana to attend the 76th annual Glacier-Waterton hamfest.

QRZ's new 22 Ton Mascot - The Zed

Since QRZ was first founded, back in 1993, it's nearly always been a virtual entity.  Aside from a few servers in a rack in downtown Phoenix, Arizona, QRZ has no physical presence and certainly none that it's thousands of fans ever see.  This year, however, that has all changed with the acquisition of a rolling office and headquarters that we've affectionately named The Zed.

The Zed is a 1997 Liberty motor coach that was built on a Prevost bus frame.  It's new to us but it certainly isn't new.  Previously known as The Mother Ship by its former owner, The Zed now has over 104,000 miles under its belt.  It has a 470 hp diesel engine that gets 7+ miles per gallon, which is quite remarkable for a 43,000 pound vehicle.  Just think, it weighs as much as 10 passenger cars which would each have to get 70 miles per gallon to equal the economy of The Zed.

One of the most interesting things about owning a Prevost (pronounced pree-voh), is that as soon as you're seen in one, people think you're either a millionaire or a rock star.  I'm neither but its nice to be mistaken for one.  Right now I'm parked in a Michigan camp ground, surrounded by Holiday Ramblers, Allegro's, Monaco's and all sorts of diesel pusher motor homes.  Almost every single one of them cost its owner more than what I paid for this 13 year old Prevost, and yet their jaws collectively drop whenever they see me pull alongside them in a park.  Fuel mileage is about the same, too, plus or minus a mile or so per gallon.  I'm loving it.

So, if you're a ham, you're probably wondering what all of this has to do with QRZ and ham radio.  Well, nothing as far as the bus goes, aside from the fact that it makes quite an impression at hamfests.  The reason I bought the rig was so that I could take QRZ on the road and meet our fans and users face to face, giving, at long last, a physical presence and live face for QRZ. 

Today, we're parked in Mackinaw City, Michigan after traveling some 4000+ miles from Phoenix.  We've already been to some interesting hamfests which I'm going to talk about in my next few posts.