A Ham Shadow’s Perspective


Here is my “Rambling Ride Report” for the weekend [editor: Valero BikeMS Ride to the River on October 6-7th, 2018]. Please feel free to publish, conceal, distribute, fold, spindle, or mutilate as you see fit.






2018 MS Ride to the River: A Backseat Ham Reports.

Day 1: Saturday

At about 03:00 Saturday morning, I dragged my reluctant backside out of a nice warm bed, loaded some radio equipment, tools, and a few personal items into “Smart Car 42,” and set out for Rolling Oaks mall on the extreme Northeast side of San Antonio, Texas. If you asked me why, I’d have to say it’s complected. Sure, my company encourages me to do volunteer stuff. US Bank even matches cash donations to the organization at my hourly rate for events I participate in, but the biggest part is that my late father-in-law was a MS victim—a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair for half of his adult life—and that, and his daughter, my wife, was diagnosed with MS shortly after we were married 25 years ago. I’d like to say that those who participate in these events exemplify the indomitable spirits of my wife and her dad—accept, adapt, adjust, double-down, overcome—rinse, and repeat.

First thing Saturday, I discovered that while I know exactly where the mall is in the daytime, I have no idea where it is at 04:00 in the morning. Fortunately I was able to illustrate one of the many valid reasons for having a ham radio in your car. My dedicated GPS was not acting anything like ‘dedicated’, and it seemed like it would be more expedient to ask for directions than to fool with getting it on my phone; I posed my quandary to the good folks who happened to be monitoring the AARO repeater at that hour, and, Bob’s your uncle, I had the name and exit number about two minutes before I needed it.

Rolling Oaks was the starting point for the Multiple Sclerosis Society’s 2018 edition of its annual charity bicycling event. I’ve participated in about ten of these, starting with the first such event in its incarnation as the Valero MS 150 Bike to the Beach. Over the course, I’ve played several roles as a volunteer; in fact, just about all of them except the Bicycle Rider role, but almost all of the other ones I’ve played as some sort of radio operator. This year, I completed the ham radio operator’s checklist-of-roles by serving as a “shadow”—without a doubt, the coolest title; and to date my favorite volunteer ham gig of all. If the officials enjoyed it half as much as I did, it was a raging success.

Brief aside: due to my aforementioned ‘reluctant backside,’ I’ll probably never do the bicycle thing. Those who can and do the bicycle thing have nothing but my highest praise and admiration.

From an event management perspective, my experiences with these rides have ranged from ‘smooth as silk’ to ‘unmitigated fiasco.’ I’d evaluate this one to be somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, if not leaning a wee bit toward fiasco. Then again, to be completely fair, I think the verdict on any such event has much more to do with the unforeseeable events and circumstances that always arise than with logistics acumen, or even lack thereof.

For this one there was certainly no lack thereof. The official I was pared with demonstrated the uncommon combination of organizational skills and fluid adaptability that wins wars. Seriously, my official reminded me of a slightly taller and much more agile Napoleon. The only problem I had with her was keeping up. I’d say for my part, it was about 50% shadowing and 50% catching up with her.

For those who don’t know, shadowing is really two gigs. One mode of being a ham ‘shadow’ involves setting up your station in the back of a crew-cab pickup truck and passing traffic from one or both of the event officials in the front seat to net control and other event stations as the officials tour the route. The officials to whom I was assigned were a great combination of professional and fun and joining me in the back was the nephew of one of the officials who served as the muscle for our little adventure team. I often worry that the world is becoming too ‘serious,’ so it was refreshing to meet a young man who shares my love of western novels and affection for dark humor.

Anyway, the other ‘mode’ of shadowing is when you are outside the truck at a rest stop or some other location where you must stay close enough to be handy when needed, but not so close that you’re in the way. If you don’t have a good HT, you’ll be about 50% useless as a shadow.

As I alluded to earlier, it was not always easy to keep up with my official. I’m a crack field tracker (no really), but she was spry and fleet of foot; while me? well—not so much these days I guess.

Another thing new to me in this role was someone dictating a series of traffic items for the net. My official would invariably give me a set of four distinct items. I’m good for three items, but my mental buffer usually corrupts the first item as soon as it gets the fourth. I had to start holding up a hand after the third item, close my eyes while I translated them into ‘ham-ese”, struggle to remember it all while waiting for NC to ack me, pass the traffic, then circle back with the official for remaining items. I found this especially difficult in cases where I didn’t comprehend the nature of the original traffic (like, what the hell do they want with pickle juice?) In most cases, the remaining items were no longer relevant by the time I circled back for them.

“Logic is a little tweeting bird chirping in a meadow” – LCDR Spock

On the technical side, my radio troubles on the first day turned out to be self-inflicted. I’ll give a recapitulation in hopes that it will help others avoid a similar fate.

About a week prior to the event, I had received the frequency list and programmed it into my HT as well as my Yaesu FTM-10 dual band mobile. The Yaesu? First; I LOVE this radio. It used to be mounted on my beloved Honda Valkery (RIP), and it did hard-use duty on at least 6 charity rides when I was a motorcycle marshal. The only thing I don’t like about it is it’s a pain in the ass to program via software. It’s not easy to program manually either, but I’ve found that’s actually easier. You just need to let go of linear-thought Western ideas about how the menu should be laid out, and embrace the more Eastern programming concept of joy being when and where you happen to find it. Free your mind. It helps to sit in the lotus position while programming a Yaesu.

The symptom of my issue was that at any point we were over 5 miles from the repeater, I would lose transmit. I checked everything about ten times; transmission power, offset direction, PL tone… connections, antenna location and mount—you name it. I checked it. The ride course hugs the Guadalupe river between Canyon Lake and New Braunufels, Texas. It’s a hilly topography, so I tried to put my troubles down to spotty coverage from the repeater—still, something seemed odd. Reception was about as skippy as normal, but transmit was a hard stop. They usually fall off together.

So, to restate the problem; if we were within 5 miles of the repeater I was getting full-quieting and net control reported me as 5X5, but when we got 6 or 7 miles out, I could not open the repeater; my ears were on, but my lips were sealed.

The answer came when we had stopped at the rest-stop furthest from the repeater, and on a whim, I keyed up on my Baofeng BF-F8HP at 8 watts. I wasn’t expecting to open the repeater, but it did! I think the officials I was with had already kind of given up on me, but at this very moment, one of them asked me to (among three other things) respond to an APB request for bread and pickle juice. (No, not kidding)

Surprisingly, NC copied the traffic and relayed it to the adjacent rest-stops. Team Tour 2 wound up going on a special recon trip with the bread and pickle juice. On the way, I started comparing the setting between the functional HT and the gimpy mobile rig. Ultimately, I discovered the culprit was the PL tone. I had (somehow) set it to 136.5 instead of the 103.5 listed in the frequency document. The little potato radio had 103.5 and was hitting the repeater like it could see it from there.

The reason this had passed my (at least four) previous checks was that ‘136.5’ looked about right,and it DID WORK if I was close to the repeater.

I had always assumed PL tone activation was more of a digital proposition, it would either work or it wouldn’t. Nope! Turns out that the incorrect PL tone might ‘sorta work’—sometimes.

After setting the mobile rig’s PL to the stipulated tone, I was able to make contacts from the very same locations that I had thought were ‘dead spots.’

Unfortunately, I had had enough time to do a fair amount of thrashing between the time I started having trouble, and the time I finally defeated my own confirmation bias enough to acknowledge the actual problem. Said thrashing included begging SAG 1 and other hams for an antenna (I’d been convinced that my antenna was the problem) —asking if other hams were having issues, rebooting all the things and marking ‘dead spots’ on the map. At some point, I asked one of the ‘first-responder’ guys about coverage and ran into the eternal ham vs. commercial radio debate. To be fair, the guy understood and acknowledged all the subtleties of the age-old controversy, but I realized I wasn’t helping the ham side at all at that point so I just kind of shut up. Proverbs 17:28.

Forgive yet another digression, but I’m pretty sure it’s not just me. If we hams could be honest with ourselves, this isn’t an uncommon thing. Many of us make this sort of mistake. Many more of us show up on race day with shielding problems (I’m looking at you motor marshals), faulty equipment, and/or little if any knowledge of net discipline or protocol. I can say this as a shame filled repeat offender; on my very first ride, I reported for duty with a spark-plug pumping so much RFI that I sounded like a jackhammer every time I hit the key. One of the most important stations at this event had an equipment issue that rendered his traffic nigh on to unintelligible. If we expect to be of service during these events, it is imperative that we address these issues individually and as a group. Get your kit to together!

On the positive side, and to showcase a point I’ll make in the ‘unsolicited advice’ list below, we wrapped up day one with what I think is a great ‘ham story.’ One of the riders had lost a ‘bike bag’ with his wallet in it. He didn’t know what SAG he had been on, and at first, none of the SAGs could confirm leaving the fairgrounds in the time-frame the rider was dropped. After a few minutes passed, SAG #5 reported that they had just left and would conduct a thorough search the van. When the report came back negative, we put out a general BOLO type announcement for it.

About an hour later, SAG 5 reported that a subsequent search had turned up the bag! I —(completely coincidentally)— found the owner at the beer tent —(completely coincidentally)—, where, without his ID, he was at that time being denied the privilege of beer. I radioed into NC for permission to contact SAG5 for an ETA, and when granted, I also informed SAG5 that the owner was unable to obtain beer without his ID and therefore at substantial risk of malnutrition. After what I’m sure seemed like an eternity to the poor deprived owner, I was finally able to conduct him to a rendezvous point and facilitate the happy reunion. Sure, it seems trivial in the larger scope of curing multiple sclerosis, but this is just one of the hundreds of little stories that make it all seem worthwhile to me.

Day 2: Sunday

In order to avoid driving back and forth between New Braunfels and Grey Forest, I had thought about camping out at the overnight location with the bicycle riders, but then I remembered that I’m old. These days, my idea of camping is staying in a hotel without a concierge.

On Saturday, I’d left my car at the starting line, and hitched a ride back with a ham that was headed that direction—thereby demonstrating yet another reason to never be without a ham radio.

Sunday, I drove out to the Comal county fairgrounds, aka, starting-point, aka, finish-line. I intended to meet my official at 05:00, but since I’d started out at 04:00 and had not consumed enough coffee, I had to bumble around a bit in New Braunfels before I got there at ~05:30. It turned out that we weren’t leaving the fairgrounds until the last rider was out so I just hung out and drank (oddly bitter) Starbucks coffee and crashed the MS official’s morning meeting. They were getting conflicting forecast from NWS, and I was getting yet another conflicting report from NOAA. I didn’t volunteer mine because from the combined reports, it seemed like the weather was going to be anywhere from ‘mild to partly cloudy’ and ‘biblical flood.’ It turned out to be somewhere between those, but close enough to the flood side of the spectrum to eventually warrant calling the event. More on that later.

At some point early on, one of my officials commented on the sparse radio traffic. While I’d confirmed that setting the right PL tone had resolved 100% of my radio problems, I think she still lacked confidence. The primary official said she was grateful for it being slow, but correctly premonished that things could change.

And change they did. At what I’d estimate to be a little more than the half-way point of the event – a line of thunderstorms started to train up exactly over River Road—the main path the riders were on. After visiting all the rest stops and relocating some more bread and pickle juice, the Tour 2 team had returned to the fairgrounds. I should have recorded times better; I didn’t, but I ‘feel like’ this was around 11:00 ish. Things started happening pretty fast. By this time, all the forecasts had reached consensus; heavy rain. Yet they still all seemed to draw up short of the wind and driving rain that had suddenly pinned us down and sent us scurrying for shelter.

I had stayed under the large pavilion while my official had walked a short distance to get some lunch. After the sudden surprise super soaker, she looked a lot like a nearly drowned kid I once fished out of a bar-ditch after a tornado—but unlike that kid, she was kind of grinning—a weird unsettling grin—like the one hockey players get after they are punched in the face a few times. Truth told—I was a little worried—but to no cause. I think she was just enjoying the kind of positive activation that only rare people like her get in challenging situations like the one we found ourselves in.

Having mistakenly had the impression that the worst was over, none of the rest of us had a poncho and we had also got a pretty good drenching before we could get back under cover. As we met up under the big pavilion roof, a sudden gust of wind blew over some tables and caused about 75 people to simultaneously utter that involuntary “wohhh” sound that nobody wants to hear at a group charity event. Just then, NWS reported lightning strikes within five miles of one of the rest stops, and quick as a whip, my official made the decision to call the event.

I asked net to issue ‘QST’ (general call to all stations) informing them of the decision and instructing all rest-stops to hold their riders for pick up. My official sent a school bus out to the furthest rest-stop, and had the SAG vans and trucks start looping the course to collect riders.

About an hour later we had all riders off the course. It may sound kind of hectic, but it was really impressive. All hands accounted for in under two hours? Pffft! I’m hard pressed to pull that off during a routine family trip to an amusement park.

Meanwhile, back at the fairgrounds, I’d made my way back to the truck to get the rain poncho I should never have left in the truck in the first place—at almost the exact time that the rain really stopped and I no longer needed it. I caught up with my official who had somehow wound up trapped between two small rivers of run-off holding a tandem bike for someone. I took temporary custody of the thing so she could attend to what were ostensibly more important duties.

As I stood in the light drizzle reflecting on all that had transpired during the event while holding a tandem bicycle for reasons I didn’t quite understand the whole thing took on a kind of surrealistic aspect. I considered what I might like to remember, and what I might like to share in this write-up. I kind of panicked for a moment when I realized I had always been a little off the beam on this one. I hadn’t really made an effort to record or remember anything. I had only taken about ten pics, and those were of the Tour 2 Adventure Team sweeping gravel out of an intersection; none of them are share-worthy. I pulled out my notepad and made the one single journalistic entry for this event.

“Do better next time.”

Sadly, all official celebratory events were cancelled, but after I packed up my gear and took a final lap around the fairgrounds I noticed a few dozen riders busy proving that you can’t really ‘cancel’ the spontaneous celebration that arise after something like this.

Yay team!

N.B.: I’m writing this while back home in Grey Forest, Texas—looking out the window as the rain and drizzle go on— writing primarily to pass the time on a dreary Columbus day, but also on the outside chance that my experiences might benefit some other ham in some small way at some point in the future

Yours and 73,

Andy Jackson

KE5PWX (aka Tour 2, 2018 MS Ride to the River)

Supplemental List Section

A few suggestions (aka. Unsolicited advice)

· Everyham: Check and recheck frequency, PL tone and offset.

· Check for ground faults and interference from you RUNNING vehicle or motorcycle.

· Have New Braunfels repeater offset changed to + (plus). On two of my Yaesu rigs, I must override an obscure menu setting that causes this to automatically map 147.000 to plus offset.

o Since chances are good this won’t change, figure out how to override the PL default mapping if your fancy schmancy radio does that so it will let you map 147.000 to a minus offset.

· Wisdom: Two radios is one radio; one radio is no radios. Having a second rig is great for backup, but it can also help you diagnose problems with the first one.

o I can highly recommend the affordable Baofeng BF-F8HP. I have a whip antenna that cost almost as much as the radio, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. The included rubber duck seems pretty good.

· Think. Think. Think. Speak. Especially when things get busy and it seems like an urgent response is needed. Taking a moment to mentally compose your traffic before you key the mic is much faster than having to clear up misunderstandings.

· Net control: Hold a dailycheck-in and brief net users on basic net discipline and protocol.

· SAG1: Ask people begging for antennae if they’ve checked their PL tone setting.

· SAGS: Record your riders bib numbers, and when you drop them off, tell your riders something like, “Thank you for flying Sag #5.” They usually have other things on their minds and probably don’t know or wont remember what number SAG they were on.

A Few Personal Notes

· Keep your rain poncho with you at all times.

· The wrong PL tone might work, but the right one will work better.

· I’m now needlessly addicted to pickle juice.

· Cooler heads will prevail

· The Comal County Fairgrounds are hard to find in the dark.

· Waving a HT radio at a ham causes them to move in your direction while waving one at a non-ham causes them to move away.

· These things would be more fun if I had a camper or RV.

· Tools and supplies I actually used versus ones I didn’t

o Lineman’s Pliers: yup

o Small shirtpocket screwdriver kit: yup

o Duct Tape: yup

o Electrical tape: nope

o Wire nuts: yup

o Bolt cutters: nope

o Hammer: nope

o Shovel: nope

o Gloves: yup (barbed wire mess)

o Latex gloves: yup (road kill mess)

o Binoculars: nope

o Folding knife: yup

o Paracord: yup

o Zip ties: yup

· Equipment

o Yaesu FTM-10

o Tram 1185 Amateur Dual-Band Magnet Antenna

o BaoFeng BF-F8HP

o Nagoya NA-771 15.6-Inch Whip VHF/UHF (144/430Mhz) Antenna SMA-Female for BTECH and BaoFeng Radios

o Bushnell flip clip hat lamp

o Cigarette lighter diapole connector+ 6’ of fused power wire.

o Two Ferrite chokes.

o Yeti Coffee mug.


· Bonus Recipe: “Ham Shadow Sandwich”

§ Two Pieces of bread

§ Mustard

§ One thick slice of ham

§ Sunny spot

1. Spread mustard on both slices of bread

2. Lay bread and mustard out in direct sunlight

3. Pass ham slice between sun and bread

4. Return ham to refrigerator for next sandwich

5. Enjoy.



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