APRS Provides Enhanced Experience at Fireworks Endurance Ride in Santa Cruz

APRS Provides Enhanced Experience at Fireworks Endurance Ride in Santa

By Allison Hershey, KM6RMN (PIO)

The Santa Cruz County Horsemen’s Association’s annual Fireworks
Endurance Ride covers 30 to 50 miles of natural terrain in the Santa
Cruz Mountains. The remote nature of the ride made traditional
communication a challenge. So, since 2009 they have received some
assistance from members of Santa Cruz County Amateur Radio Emergency
Service (ARES) in an unofficial capacity. This year ARES members decided
to increase their involvement and also use Automatic Packet Reporting
System (APRS) as one of its communication tools. Their aim was to give
participants a better experience, let their families mark their ride
progress, and facilitate safety and logistical information flow for the
ride organizers.

Historically, the philosophy of the endurance ride event was to
duplicate conditions of the old west: minimal involvement with modern
technology and an authentic experience of problem solving and endurance.
Recent years have seen a gradual change in this view, with more interest
in applying communication tools for the safety of the riders, and a
realization of how radio can assist with the logistics of running the

Hap Bullard (KQ6YV), a long-time communications organizer for the race,
was the ARES liaison with the Horsemen’s Association. He recruited
around 35 radio operators and filed the paperwork for the expanded phone
operations. Their operations were administered well, but the focus of
our story is on the digital team. Donald Kerns (AE6RF), Sebastian
Steinhauer (KK6FBF), Roberta Roberts (AJ6KN), and Ray Rischpater
(KF6GPE) formed the core of the team.

Donald Kerns had been involved with the Fireworks ride on and off since
2009. He had also experienced the Tevis 100-mile endurance ride near
lake Tahoe, which had been using a larger pool of radio operators and
APRS regularly in recent years. He made the case to Fireworks organizers
for expanding the APRS Winlink component, so they could achieve a finer
grain of status reporting as experienced by the other event. Information
could be sent digitally with more efficiency than voice and could be
posted to a website so that everyone could see it immediately. He
received mixed acceptance, but it was enough to start planning.

While Hap was pulling together the overall operation, the digital team
started planning their part. Their goal was to establish a pipeline of
digital information between people in the field to net control, using
Winlink, with AX.25 protocol from several locations. The information
would be collected at a central location and posted online, with access
granted using QR codes.

Planning was done through emails, phone calls and a single Zoom meeting
due to continued uncertainty with the Covid-19 situation. Sebastian set
up the information hub in his home and created the information database.
Ray, Roberta, and Donald tried out the three 2m Winlink digipeaters
located in Santa Cruz and tested their equipment at several locations
near the ride route.

Some radio operators arrived at the start-finish area the night before
the August 28th all-day event, but most of the team started their
preparations around 6:30 the morning of the ride. Two routes, 30 miles
and 50 miles, wound a loop through the mountains of Santa Cruz from
Graham Hill Showgrounds near Scotts Valley to Wilder Ranch State Park in
West Santa Cruz. They were to be covered by radio operators at strategic
locations, using 70cm simplex as their primary channel, plus repeaters
on 70cm, 2m, and some testing at 6m. Most operators focused on rider
locations, reporting safety issues and injuries, directing rescue
trailers, and locating lost riders. About half a dozen operators focused
primarily on reporting logistics with packet radio, using WB6RJH-10,
K6BJ-10 repeaters, plus K6BJ-11 repeater for a brief AX.25 9600 baud

There were four main data collection stations: Start/Finish, (Ray
Rischpater KF6GPE), Graham Hill Showgrounds ARES table (Bob Fike KO6XX),
vet-check at Gray Whale (Donald Kerns K6WC), and Twin Gates near Wilder
Park (Roberta Joiner Roberts AJ6KN). They reported to the information
center (Sebastian Steinhauer KK6FBF) at his home in Boulder Creek. He
entered data in the online database, which was almost immediately
available to those with QR code access online.

Sebastian had a fully equipped radio setup, but it took a couple of
weeks before the event to optimize his operations. He created the
database on his Linux system to parse the Winlink data and report it in
different formats using MySQL output in PHP. He used his own server for
the RMS station and created a website for people to look up information.
The plan was for the Winlink operators around the course to collect
information from observers and send it on via packet transmission
similar to email over radio approximately every 20 minutes. Sebastian
entered the information into the online database which updated in real

Sebastian’s operation went very well through three quarters of the
race. Then there was a power failure affecting his whole neighborhood.
This could have brought the Winlink experiment to a halt, but Sebastian
was prepared. He converted to generator power and packed up his mobile
gear and laptop in case he had to relocate. He could operate out of his
car in a parking lot if needed. He was offline for only 10 minutes, but
the data flow continued while he packed his car, saved as email.
Fortunately, none of the data was lost, but he spent a stressful period
catching up. The power outage continued past the end of the event. The
impact on operators in the field was minimal. Ray said he didn’t even
notice. Sebastian occasionally checked back with operators to line up
the information he was sent. There was never a discrepancy. He was able
to wrap up operations at the same time as the race ended. The report of
the last horse at the finish line was the end of data.

The Twin Gates location was a combined net control, APRS, and
spotters’ station. Roberta was seated next to net control and
sometimes subbed for him during breaks. It was the highest location on
the whole course, so had best access to all station frequencies in use.
Spotters collected information as the horses passed, such as times, bib
numbers, and notes, and conveyed it to her, who then transmitted it to
Sebastian. At times it was busy.

The Twin Gates location was out of reach of internet or cell service
other than texting, so Roberta had no access to the online database. She
had a Kantronics Packet Communicator 3 Plus TNC, Yaesu FT 220 2m radio,
and an Ed Fong Roll up J-pole on a 32-foot mast. Working with 1200 baud
AX.25, she was able to keep up with the information but the radio
connection to the internet was slow and made it hard for her to receive
aggregated data back from Sebastian. It was good practice for a
communications emergency but meant that she was working with little

At vet-check, horse arrivals and physical conditions were noted and
reported by Donald. Horse welfare was a high priority, and if a horse
showed signs of overheating or overexertion, it was pulled. Because the
weather was in the high 90s, a number of horses had to drop out. Having
the Winlink database information on horse status was a real boon in this

Donald’s Winlink configuration was a standard 1200 baud AX.25 using a
Windows laptop, TinyTrak4 KISS TNC, Kenwood TM-281A 2m radio and Ed Fong
J-pole, powered by a battery/solar array. One of Donald’s interests
was optimizing his equipment for quick set-up during deployment, and he
was able to get his Winlink operation going in 10 minutes.  

As lead operator at vet-check, the Winlink operation was not Donald’s
only concern. He tried several other experiments while he was working.
He conducted 6m and solar power tests and made a brief attempt to
operate Winlink at 9600 baud. The higher speed was not successful, but
he will try it again next year with an antenna upgrade.

At the Start/Finish station, Ray reported finish line times. He switched
from radio to Telnet to avoid early-on interference he had experienced
using voice simplex. His 5W antenna setup worked well when he tested it,
but voice communications nearby were affected. Though cell reception was
not the best, the telnet connection is very low bandwidth, and works
even when cell phone coverage is poor. He had a 400 W system to keep his
laptop charged. Telnet transmission was fast and clear, in contrast with
Roberta’s experience transmitting by radio.

Bob had set up the ARES information center on the Graham Hill
Showgrounds next to his movable ham shack, a recreational vehicle
nicknamed Sophie. He set up his Winlink APRS station with an eye towards
providing database information to the ride organizers and participants
on demand. He ran a 1200 baud AX.25 setup with a Signalink interface, a
50W Yaesu radio and Diamond X-50 antenna. He displayed information on an
outward facing monitor as well as his laptop to inform the public of
ride progress. He answered curious passerby questions, helped locate
particular horses on the course, and recruited a few inactive hams back
into the fold and possibly into ARES.

There were other stations scattered around the course to monitor race
conditions. They usually operated VHF phone transmission, tested 6m
operation, and transmitted some data via Winlink.  Dan Selling (N6RJX)
reported that the remote locations made internet and cell service almost
nonexistent, so they could not check the database for feedback. But they
were able to get useful information out.

Ride results were impressive. There were around 110 entries. Thirty-two
had to drop out because of the extreme heat, almost 30%. This high
percentage had also happened at the Tevis race, and part of the problem
may have been less than normal pre-ride conditioning due to Covid
restrictions over the last year. There were also a couple of bolted
horses, and several riders got lost and had to be tracked down. Radio
communications were crucial in these situations. The Winlink experiment
netted 168 Winlink messages with 863 horse times. There were 230
different Winlink messages. 10 to 50 data points were communicated per

In the subsequent evaluation, all radio operators looked for
shortcomings, and they did find some room for improvement. Initial
planning was scattered, which made the operation a little disjointed. It
was suggested that all operators, voice and digital, be given the
digital plan, and more training in setting up APRS. Some were not
comfortable with the one-way digital communication in remote spots.
There were also conflicting requests for fewer data points for simpler
reporting and retrieval, and more data points for a better picture,
especially to explain reasons for a horse being pulled. There was
considerable redundancy in status reports. There was a consensus that
communications between ride organizers and radio operators could be
improved. Options were discussed regarding rider changes and update
notifications, making printouts available to volunteers, and keeping
track of first and last horses for logistics. And considering the power
failure and one-way Winlink communications, Sebastian said he would set
up his operation closer to net control. Roberta suggested net control be
in a quieter location away from noise, dust, and visitors.

But overall, the experiment was a remarkable success. Ray said that
Winlink equipment operation worked much better than expected. Sebastian
said they were able to digitize a lot of information and display it on
the website, available for organizers back at showgrounds. This gave
them a good picture of rider progress. As with most ride events, there
were lost riders and pulled horses, but they were able to account for
every entry by the end of the race. Roberta said this information saved
the ride organizers hours of accounting for every horse and making sure
all were safe at the end. Sebastian said he will document what was
learned and apply it to later events. He was already coming up with ways
APRS would be useful in a disaster for tracking supplies and logistics.

APRS was an excellent tool for an event of this size and scope. Santa
Cruz ARES AEC Karen Corscadden (KM6SV) summed up the exercise this way:

“The effort was a sterling example of the ability of ARES operators to
improvise and make things work under a variety of situations. That’s
one of our prime strengths and part of the value we bring to our served
agencies. I hope that moving forward we not only work to refine this
“packet radio situation tracking” capability that we have added but
that we continue to challenge ourselves to add and develop new