My First, Easiest (and Last?) SOTA

Wait, “Last”?

Mad Max "That's Bait" gif

Well the truth is, it might be my last, but definitely not because we had a bad time. I’ll come back to that in a minute, but first, if you spotted a couple of weirdos on a hilltop with a big antenna yesterday, this is what was going on.

What’s SOTA? And why?

For the uninitiated, SOTA stands for “Summits on the Air”, an activity where ham radio folk head to hills and mountains, set up their kit, and play radio from the great outdoors. For a hobby that historically involved a bunch of old men sat in their “shack” talking to each other, it’s a great way to add a bit more adventure to things.

Well, “summit” and “adventure” are strong words for where we went—Win Green up in Cranborne Chase. It is the highest point in the Chase, but at 277m above sea level (and 10m above the car park), “summit” does seem like a bit of a stretch. Regardless, it counts, so off we went.

Photo of the trees at the top of Win Green

Why we went at all was a coincidence of good timing (and our good timing would only get better, as you will see). We had some new outdoor-compatible radio kit (principally a new-to-me Yaesu FT-891) that we needed to test, not for SOTA, but for JOTA—Jamboree on the Air, which we hope to help the local Scout troop with in October. Testing this from the bench at home quickly morphed into testing it on the local heath, then into getting my daughter involved. Other commitments pushed our test date to 29th June, then OARC turned out to be having a SOTA activity day, so one thing led to another and we ended up on our first unintentional SOTA activation.

You were going to tell me why it might be your last?

The problem is as simple as “where we live”. There’s not a lot of qualifying summits nearby, certainly nothing much more adventurous than Win Green.

Map of local SOTA summits

It could be worse of course—we could be in East Anglia or the vast swathe of central France with no peaks at all. But compared to Wales, the Highlands, or of course the Alps, there’s not a lot nearby. Besides Win Green, only Nine Barrow Down is within an hour’s drive—and that has had some issues in the past between the landowner and SOTA activators who hadn’t asked permission first. Avoiding that, we’re left with Long Knoll, Lewesdon Hill and Hardown Hill (each a 1h 15min drive) or Brighstone Down (2h drive plus £100 ferry journey).

Plenty of similar outdoorsy ham radio activities exist: Parks on the Air, World Wide Flora & Fauna, Beaches, Lighthouses and even Bunkers are all things we could put “on the air” much more easily than summits. So perhaps we will take up one of those instead, and leave SOTA until some holiday in a more mountainous place in the future.

So how did it go?

We were on site from around 1100 local time, and spent the first half hour exploring. It’s not a big site, a few acres of wild grassland punctuated only by the tiny copse of trees at its cap, the trig point & marker stones, and a few desire paths trod by visiting feet.

We set up on the south side, just down from the peak, with views of home and the sea in the far distance.

View from Win Green looking south

With hindsight, this location limited our VHF capability somewhat, and the north side would probably have netted us more contacts in that band. But here our quintessential British embarassment kicked in. It was so peaceful and quiet up there, we almost didn’t want to spoil it with radios and—horror of horrors—talking, so we sought out a place as far from other people as possible.

Choosing an OARC activity day for our first SOTA was definitely a good plan. We had Discord to coordinate on as well as “spotting” on the SOTA website itself, providing a set of willing conversation partners who already knew my name, where we were, who was with me, and so on. We started out well on the handheld VHF with a contact with Seb M7PHG almost immediately, but after that we struggled. With the HT held high in the air we heard some other conversations, so we moved a bit closer to the brow of the hill, but despite calling “CQ” a few times we got no more takers on that band.

We stopped for lunch at that point, joined by the many grasshoppers, spiders and cinnabar moths who decided to investigate our picnic blanket.

What did you mean by “your timing would only get better”?

It was over lunch that we started to notice a pattern in the sounds of planes passing overhead. We’d spotted a 1940s prop plane flying low overhead when we arrived, and a few more similar-sounding aircraft over the next hour. By the time we broke out the sandwiches there had been a dozen or more historic aircraft flying over, some within a thousand feet of the ground and often instantly recognisable.

Win Green is, as we later discovered, two miles from Compton Abbas Airfield and right under the aircraft’s final approach in our prevailing southwesterly wind. And it was a Spitfire weekend.

So if there was a lot of background noise from our side when you were calling us, sorry—I’m afraid that might have been a Spitfire or two. First World problems, huh.

How about the afternoon?

After lunch we cracked on with the original plan for the day, testing the new HF field equipment that we planned to use for JOTA. Wanting something reliable rather than the worry of hand-made equipment when trying to get a bunch of 10 to 14-year-olds on air, I had bought a Sotabeams Band Hopper II and Tactical 7000hds mast. I am especially fond of how the naff camo bag for the mast, combined with my naff camo rucksack, give off a vibe that was completely undone by our green-and-yellow polkadot picnic blanket.

I only dropped sections down inside the mast once (that thing it tells you never to allow to happen), but thankfully it was easily recovered after all.

An eBay FT-891 and an unnecessarily large battery rounded out the kit for the afternoon’s SOTA activation and equipment trial.

Picnic blanket with radio, battery, paper log and cup of tea

We decided to go for the 40m band to increase our chances of getting contacts within the UK, partly to prioritise the OARC folks and partly for an easier introduction for my logging assistant. It was a little hard to find space on the band at first, and to get over my initial nerves—don’t tell anyone, but despite having a Full licence, this was my first time operating SSB voice…

Having my daughter there and JOTA looming in the near future meant that this was my shot to get out of my comfort zone; if I hadn’t forced myself into this, I’d probably still be sat around with an embarassing lack of SSB in the log all the way to JOTA.

Hopefully I pulled it off and didn’t spend too much time mumbling, stammering, forgetting information, or lapsing back into marine VHF operating procedure!

After a slow start on 40m, the contacts started rolling in, and within an hour we had nine, of which four were summit-to-summit (i.e. calls to other SOTA folks) and two to OARC members.

Callers started to drop off after 1400, and lack of shade (and bathroom facilities) began to dwell on our minds, so we packed up at that point rather than trying our luck on the 20m band. One for next time, perhaps—nine HF contacts feels like enough for our first time trying SOTA.

Telescopic field mast supporting an inverted V dipole antenna, scenery in the background

We left the handheld on for the walk back, climbing trees and hiking down the brow of the hill, and managed to catch Steve M1SDH/P at last on 2m to round off the day’s contacts.

The Log

UTC Freq Call Rpt Sent Rpt Rcvd Name QTH Note
1054 145.400 M7PHG 53 57 Seb 10mi W of Win Green OARC
1217 7.112 G3OKA 49 49 John Wirral  
1225 7.112 G4GMN 47 55 Ray SW Essex  
1228 7.112 MMØUHR 35 58 Chris Cairnapple Hill GM/SS-254 S2S, OARC
1232 7.112 G4IZZ 45 N.R. Mike N of Cheltenham  
1234 7.112 M1SDH/P 59 59 Steve Long Knoll G/SC-007 S2S, OARC
1247 7.112 GØFEX 47 55 Ken Leicester  
1250 7.112 MØMDA 37 56 Mick Yorkshire  
1252 7.112 G3TQQ 49 57 Dave Bishop Wilton Wold G/TW-004 S2S
1254 7.112 MWØCBC 47 56 Denis Graig Syfyrddin GW/SW-020 S2S
1449 145.400 M1SDH/P 56 59+ Steve Long Knoll G/SC-007 S2S, OARC

Map of SOTA contacts

What did we achieve?

  1. Tested and proved equipment to be used for JOTA ✓
  2. Took part in an OARC activity day ✓
  3. Had a loverly time out in the sunshine (too much, probably) and proved that nerd stuff isn’t just for indoors ✓
  4. Kicked the shit out of my anxiety about operating SSB voice ✓
  5. Bonus achievement: Daughter is now talking about getting her Foundation licence this year!

So thanks to all the operators we worked, and especially to Rich M7GET and the others at OARC for setting up the activity day and giving us no excuse not to get out there!

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