Operating the Maine QSO Party from Romania – A Travel Log

Finally, by mid-September, our family trip to Romania, which was originally scheduled to take place in April 2020, was about to become a reality. Our tickets were purchased months prior, and everything was looking good, but just days before we were about to leave, the COVID-19 risk assessment level of the United States was moved from “High” to “Very High,” casting doubt once again on whether or not we’d be able to travel. The difference between these categories may not seem like much, but the way different countries react to these classifications are very drastic.

For us, being able to enter Romania wouldn’t change, but making a layover (for less than an hour), in Amsterdam, would become almost impossible. The Netherlands, in order to discourage travel from the United States, placed all kinds of requirements on American travelers, including paperwork to fill out, and testing within such a short window, it wouldn’t allow for the time it took to get there! My wife, Stefania, however, was determined to take the trip, and after researching every possible way to make it happen, she discovered that, because of her Romanian citizenship, we would all be able to get an electronic document called the “European COVID-19 Vaccine Passport.” This made all the difference, because, despite the fact that we were travelling on U.S. passports, we were treated like Europeans from a COVID perspective.

Despite these early challenges, the trip would go very well. The plane between Boston and Amsterdam was nearly empty (in both directions), which allowed room for our 3-year-old son, Elliot, to lay down and sleep. We arrived fresh and ready to settle in at Stefania’s childhood home, which is located along the famous “wine road,” in Valea Calugareasca, Prahova.

Elliot helps to pick corn.

The most heart-warming part was seeing Elliot meet his grandmother for the first time. They talk almost every day via Skype, but its not the same as having a real hug. Elliot loved playing in the big driveway and in the fields behind the house, and enjoyed helping out with the chores, including picking corn and putting them in bags to be stored for winter.

The family all together! Tim, Elliot, Stefania, and Gabi

The area is rural farmland, but its not far from Romania’s second most populated city, Ploiesti. Its also grown up a bit since the last time I was there, in 2015. The village center has more businesses, and the road was being reconfigured to support more traffic. The biggest difference I noticed was the fact that more people were driving, and the road infrastructure wasn’t quite up to the task. This was especially noticeable in Ploiesti, where we went to do some shopping and to renew Stefania’s Romanian passport.

What I didn’t expect, but probably should have, due to the time of year, was that late September is harvest season. My second day there, I helped cut down the vegetable plants and pick corn, that would be packed into large sacks to be stored during the winter – to feed the chickens. After this was done, I was asked to “cut down the field.” I expected to be shown a tractor or brush hog, but was instead handed a hoe with a curved blade on it. So, considering the field was close to two acres, this took nearly three days to finish.

Cutting down the corn field.

By the fourth day there, I was finally able to play some radio, using a borrowed Yaesu FT-857D and Stefania’s father’s old ham shack, complete with power supply and antennas, which included a delta loop for the low bands, and a yagi that covered 10-20 meters. The yagi tuned up pretty well on all its bands, but the loop had some sporadic SWR issues, which probably meant it had a bad feedline or some corrosion somewhere. None of this was unexpected, considering the station hadn’t been used in over six years! After a little work, we had the station running pretty well, and that first evening I was making QSOs in the middle east, and much later on, the U.S. The first station I heard from the States was the familiar voice of Rick, K1OT! It was good to hear someone from back home.

Yeasu FT-857d setup at Stefania’s family home.

It took a while to get used to the propagation in that part of the world, and also the IARU Region 1 band plan, which is much different than our own, and for the first time, I really got a feel for what it was like to be on the other side of the European DX wall. If you’ve ever chased a DXPedition from your QTH in Maine, you’ve probably experienced long hours when it seemed like the DX station would only hear Europe, despite the propagation being favorable to us. Southeastern Europe is on the other side of that “wall’, with a seemingly clear “view” of the east, so working DX in Asia and the Pacific was a lot easier.

Because of the time difference with the East Coast of the U.S. (which is seven hours), we would have to stay up quite late to talk to the U.S. Besides Rick, I was able to work quite a few others, including Eric N1RXR, via D-STAR!

After resting up from “cutting down the field” for a few days, Stefania and I helped to harvest the grapes. More than half of her mom’s back yard is a vineyard, featuring a variety of grapes that are unique to Romania, such as Feteasca Alba and Feteasca Neagra, (which are wine grapes), and some table grapes called “Hamburgs” by the locals.

The backyard vineyard.

It took 4 people, including Stefania and myself, plus her cousin and a friend of hers, to cut enough grapes to fill three different orders. The first two buyers needed 500 kilograms each, plus another wanted a lesser amount. After cutting and bagging up all those grapes, there were still some on the vines, which would be picked after we left. One of those orders was packed into a taxi cab and hauled off in several trips.

Feteasca Alba wine grapes.

During the last week of our stay, we went on a picnic with Stefania’s childhood friends, to a place called Valea Doftanei, which was about 45 minutes North of Valea Calugareasca. The picnic spot was on a sloping valley hill, surrounded by mountains and alongside a lake. It was a very picturesque fall day, and friendly cows roamed about the hillside as well, which made the experience a unique one.

Valea Doftanei

The highlight of the trip, at least as far as radio goes, was being able to participate in the Maine QSO Party from a very nicely equipped contest station in Baicoi, which is located just outside of Ploiesti.

A look at some of the antennas, including the Optibeam, at Baicoi.

The station is on the property of a business called MAZAROM, which is the Romanian distributer of Mazak CNC machines. The proprietor, and owner of the station, is Stefania’s former boss, Adrian Tutu, YO3HOT, a former president of the Federaţia Română de Radioamatorism (FRR). He’s a huge promoter of ham radio in the country, and also an accomplished DXer and Contester. While there, we were hosted by Mihai Malanca YO9BPX, who is active with youth groups, that encourage the study of CW. His teams have competed successfully in national and European CW competitions, and he’s also involved with the World Wide Floral and Fauna program, which encourages operating ham radio portable, while outside.

Stefania K1GJY (and YO9GJY), operating from Baicoi during the MEQP.

The primary HF station at Baicoi features a Kenwood TS-990, Expert 2K-FA amplifier, and a variety of antennas, including a multiband Optibeam on a 100+ ft tower, and a 4-square for 160m. The entire station can be controlled through a single PC, with software tied to the N1MM logging program, including rig, rotor, amp, and tuning control. Once you figure it out, it’s quite a pleasure to operate. The station is designed to host contesters, equipped with a bedroom, kitchen and cafeteria, as well.

Tim KB1HNZ, operating as YO/KB1HNZ, from Baicoi.

Stefania and I entered as a Multi-Op team, using call sign YO/KB1HNZ. Being only a day before we had to travel back home, we had to end a few hours early to get COVID tests, so it probably wasn’t a winning effort, but it was a lot of fun, and we’re grateful to have had the opportunity to work the contest from such an incredible station.

WS1SM Team Activates Mt. Agamenticus for Summits on the Air (SOTA)

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by Tim Watson, KB1HNZ

YORK, ME – The WS1SM team ventured to the summit of Mt. Agamenticus on May 19th, meeting for breakfast at Maine Diner, in Wells, before making their way up the mountain. Among those who participated were Greg Dean K1ME, CJ Carlsson W1CJC, Brad Brown KC1JMH, Eric Emery KC1HJK, and myself. It was my second activation from the summit, having been part of the 2013 team, but for the others, it was their first SOTA activation from Mt. Agamenticus (W1/AM-381).

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Greg Dean K1ME (left) operates 20m CW, while Eric Emery KC1HJK (foreground), makes his first HF contact, on 20m SSB

Being a former ski area “The Big A,” Mt. Aggie is more developed than most of the mountains we hike to. There is a summit house, that was once a ski lodge, well groomed hiking trails, a parking area, and remnants of an old T-bar chair lift, among other relics. We set up our stations on a picnic table on the northern side of the clearing at the top.

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CJ Carlsson W1CJC, operates 40m SSB

Among the equipment used were my Yaesu Ft-857d and BuddiPole rotatable dipole, which I used on 14 and 21 MHz, CJ’s Icom IC706, which was paired with a 40m dipole strung in the trees, and various VHF radios. Greg brought a yagi for 144, which made for some interesting contacts, and we also used a TYT TH-9000D and J Pole for 220 MHz. Brad KC1JMH also took the opportunity to try his partially finished QRP kit on the air for the first time.

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A friend stops by

The weather was cloudy and windy at times, but otherwise pretty nice compared to the several days of rain that preceded the expedition. The only rain we experienced was a little bit on the drive toward the mountain, and some during setup, but it didn’t last. Conditions on the HF bands were much worse, however, and contacts were slow going with only a handful on SSB and CW. We made the majority of our QSOs on VHF, making one summit-to-summit contact, and one as far away as Boxboro, MA on 2 meter FM Simplex.

Photos courtesy of Eric Emery (copyright mark), and Brad Brown

For more information about WSSM SOTA expeditions, click here.