Tough time in Costa Rica

Location: Gyabo, Costa Rica

Contest: ARRL DX Phone SSB Contest, 48 hours over March 2 and 3, 2019

Contest Software Used: N1MM

Portable operation: No

Radio: Elecraft KX3, PX3 Panadapter and KXPA100  amp operating at 100 watts SSB

Antenna: OCF 160-10, Buddipole 15/10 vertical, 15/40 End Fed

Bands used: 160m, 80m 40m, 20m, 15m, 10m

Hike:  None….we sat for ~40 hours (it was fun!) spread out over Saturday and Sunday

Solo operation: No with Matt K0BBC and Bill AE0EE

Recommend: Yes

Photos: Copyright Paul Gacek 2019

Screen Shot 2018-02-23 at 5.32.58 PM
Costa Rica, the best of Central America!

I’m new to this.

Not traveling as I’ve flown over two million miles in my life, not new to Costa Rica as I came to this same location last year but new to the whole suitcase DXPedition thing.

Why bundle your fragile radio paraphernalia,  laptops, bags of nuts, favorite coffee and tea, endure long security lines, late limo pickups and the joy of jet lag?

The short answer is that my pip squeak radio station will serve me better in far away locales than the confines of home in dreamy coastal Laguna Beach, California. In far away destinations I became a quarry, well that’s the theory, and can have the excitement of station after station calling me during a contest to score points. The more remote the more fun and so Costa Rica is a little bit of a compromise but nevertheless a great choice.

I’ve been upgraded to my own room in the villa with a double bed to boot. Same price and it’s really just a fluke as we have a third man whom is unknown to me and as a good friend of Mat’s, is sharing a room with him. Luxury, I say!

Rested and with dawn breaking, I’m devastated that we have no coffee grinder to grind my coals to Newcastle. Despite having great coffee in Costa Rica I’ve decided to bring a bag of Starbucks Guatemalan beans. Last year I brought my ultra light Japanese camping grinder but for some reason I didn’t this year and I’m brewing up my Twinning’s Assam tea to create something like a rocket mix to power the Millennium Falcon. Tastes great and I’m shocked into the morning light.

Wire in the air

Probably the biggest differentiator and possible game changer are the antennas. Bigger is better but here in lies the challenge for a suitcase centric operation that airlines aren’t so accommodating to haul bigger and better which leads to the inevitable smaller and worst. One of the significant upside to the Gayabo Villas is two 40ft plus towers. This year we strive to get one of our wire antennas deployed as a flat top, horizontal affair. Theory is it will catch more waves than it did last year when is way deployed as an upside down V.


The tower that collapsed
Long end of OCF hung between two towers


And the tower came tumbling down….did you get a tetanus shot?

The first tower is up and standing triumphant in the sky and as a tilt over we worried most about the journey from horizontal to vertical. Not a hitch.

Its siblings is a crank up and starts its journey as a Russian doll of vertical sections. Its return to that state took a matter of a second or two at the cable snapped. No one really knew what was happening until it was over and no-one really mentioned how hugely dangerous that had been. The snapped cable luckily was retained within the sections and otherwise could have lashed, slashed and maimed. Trying to untangle it, it  bit like a dying snake and looking at my hand I made a note to renew my tetanus shot when home.

The cable that snapped and down came the tower

Of goals and expectations

I loved my life in the tech world for many reasons not least of which was the opportunity to learn, experiment and improve. We did it with ourselves, with our products and our teams. It’s that philosophy that I bring to suitcase DXPeditions. Part of the change is driven by assessing last years performance and part of it wandering closer to some nebulous future state.

We weren’t very aware of what was happening on adjacent contest bands to the one we were active on. To that end I have brought a second KX3/PX3 combo.

We had intermittent wifi problems and to that end I’ve brought an ethernet hub and attendant cables. From significant to small, I’m keen to try out the evolved station.

With an eye to the future I built a little Arduino based gizmo to manage and blend the audio from one or both radios simultaneously ensuring better aware of adjacent band activity. While the goal is SO2R operation my two KX3/PX3 radios are deployed more as SO2V combo.

My two KX3/PX3s….listening on 160m (1.868Mhz)  while operating on 80m (3.6965Mhz)

We’ve brought a special receive only antenna (K9AY Loop) optimized for the two bands we did poorly on last year (40m and 80m). Unfortunately, lack of a support mast rendered effective setup fruitless. We also have a dedicated 15m/40m end fed which compensates for the lack of 15m in the OCF dipole.

Stations with all the attendant bits and pieces (such as my SO2R controller) can be quite boutique in nature and have an associated learning curve. Bill and Mat opt for the familiar and choose to use Bill’s K3 pretty much exclusively leaving me to imagine feedback and experience my own creation first hand. We haven’t quite nailed the discipline of band pass filters and catch ourselves occasionally, avoiding an expensive fried rig.

Under starters orders…..


Best bands for the hour

Propagation is fickle but a little planning of best bands per hour can help

Contesting alone?

The challenge with a pip squeak station is not being heard. We seem to have long periods where we would call and have only a handful on stations respond sometimes in the single digits per hour.

  • 6 hours         0-9 contacts per hour
  • 11 hours   10-25 contacts per hour
  • 11 hours   25-50 contacts per hour
  • 7 hours    50-100 contacts per hour
  • 1 hour        > 100 (110 to be precise) contacts per hour
  • 8 hours off and asleep


Island Advantage

We’ve pick Costa Rica to give us an advantage over other foreign stations attempting to contact the USA and Canada (the goal of this contest). Truth is that anywhere in the Caribbean and Central America have a similar advantage but the hard truth is that closer is better. A more traditional Caribbean island such as St Kits, Monserrat etc have the advantage in being less distance to the target than Costa Rica. Input for next time.

On a break…a new team member


Lets change stations

For better or worst we used two separate stations (mine and Bill’s) that dictated an antenna coax change coincident with operator shift changes while inevitably was messy and something that hadn’t plagued us in the prior year. Where’s that foot, where’s that gun?

Bill, W6QU, a far away voice….

I chuckled when I saw Bill’s “spot” broadcast over the internet. I hear well apparently and definitely a hall mark of Elecraft radios and the ham radio world even has a saying “if you can’t hear ’em, you can’t work ’em”, too true.

What delighted me about the faint but very clear contact with Bill is the fact he was operating at extremely low power. Very optimistic considering the sun cycle but it worked and his 5 watts through an Elecraft K2 is proof that its more about the antenna as his QRZ pages showed and very nice collection of effective metal in the sky. Well done Bill, W6QU!


Impressive, 5 watts SSB,  San Diego to Costa Rica.


Final score…well not that great!!

This year we netted 1,256 contacts versus last years 1,660. Roughly 25% down but our score was almost 50% down; 640K versus ~1.1m. Bummer!

Screen Shot 2019-03-08 at 6.36.26 AM20m a bust

Last year’s 20m experimental Buddipole Yagi was clearly a huge help, we heard better and it concentrated our our pip squeak 100 watt transmits signal and made us louder. Easier to retain a frequency in a crowded band and generally just better. My sense is that the multi-band OCF being 160-10m is not very optimized for 20m and has many lobes pushing power peaks into all the wrong placed not  where we wanted.

Sadly a dangerous storm rolled through the southern states which most likely had antenna’s detached from radios and people turning to safer pursuits. All of these most likely significantly depressed our 20m contacts.

A deadly storm roles through our “bread and butter” zone

40m a modest improvement and 80m a winner

40m was a modest improvement but that might be attributed to better low band propagation and 80m a big improvement possibly propagation and having the OCF dipole longest arm in a horizontal deployment between the two towers.

10m MIA

10m opening never happened but that was same for many stations.

We spotted what we could hear from South America on 10m but it didn’t seem to entice stations to work us.

10m traffic skipped right over Costa Rica


Paul (W6PNG), Matt (K0BBC) and Bill (AE0EE)

One cycle, eleven years, what are you going to do?

Our ancestors have been staring at the sun for a long time. Two hundred and fifty years ago their began to count sunspots and over time realized the number peaked and troughed over an eleven year period. The sun is hugely influential on us long distance radio guys ability to communicate far and wide. At the peak of the cycle it’s considered easy to chit chat far and wide and during the low tougher. We are in a low now and at the end of Cycle 24 about to start Cycle 25.

A faint and distant voice from that long past Silicon Valley VP is calling to itself and suggesting a little long term planning.

Live every day, enjoy life and don’t look back as a “shoulda, coulda, woulda” person.











One comment

  1. Is that experimental 20m yagi posted on your site? That sounds quite interesting. Nice report Paul and I enjoyed your podcast appearance.


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