Month: April 2017

Episode 2.1: Recapping the Florida QSO Party

Episode 2.1: Recapping the Florida QSO Party

On Saturday and Sunday, the bands were ignited by the Florida State QSO Party, or FQP. As the weekend (April 29-30) rolled along I took notes for this post-contest mini-episode 2.1.

Congratulations to the Florida Contest Group for 20 years of this great contest. It’s a fun one with lots of activity from Florida counties.

In this part of the solar cycle, during daylight the only band producing contacts was 20M, so that’s where I devoted my time and attention.

During and after a contest, I will often jot down notes about observations and things I could learn from for next time out. That’s sort of the point of this podcast about contesting. I’m making notes for myself, and I hope they’re useful to others.

I ran 100 watts, leaving the kilowatt amplifier turned off. In fact, out of the six years I’ve entered the Florida QSO Party since 2004, in only one year did I run high power – 2008, which also coincided with my second-highest ever score in this one, about 5,300 points.

It’s interesting to note that in 2011, with 100 watts I beat that score with nearly 7,600 points in the log. The solar cycle had improved that much by 2011, and over the six years since then the peak arrived in 2013 and we’ve slid down the other shoulder into the long, dry valley of solar minimum right now.

This time out, I finished with 38,500 points, 153 contacts and 63 counties in Florida. Time on the air was around 9.5 hours, spread out over many sessions

That might not sound like much, but those are all high-water marks from this station. In fact, it is a 500 percent improvement over my previous best score.

Saturday morning from British Columbia was very tough going into Florida. Stations were generally weak, and we had one-way propagation. They were pointing at the northeast and working the US northeast and Europe so stations in the W7 region got short shrift.

Makes sense to do that – I would, too, if I were in Florida. You have to go where the points are – finding the most fertile ground for your CQs.

Saturday eased a bit on 20M later in the day but it was never easy. 40M was no good from here on Saturday evening or Sunday morning.

But Sunday morning on 20M was fun for a couple of hours after local sunrise – from 6 to 8 a.m. Pacific — with signals from Florida strong for the home stations and workable rover stations moving as fast as I could keep up.

I have to thank N4EEB, who provided me with 20 counties. Other super-active rovers in my log included:

  • AD4ES – 13 counties
  • K4OJ – 12 counties
  • N4KG – 9 counties
  • K4ZGB – 9 counties
  • W4AN – 8 counties
  • NO5W – 8 counties
  • N4FP – 6 counties
  • K8MR – 6 counties
  • KN4Y – 3 counties
  • N4DAB – 2 counties

The really active rovers were spread out in a span just above 14.045 – smack-dab in the middle of the “rover window” from 14.040 to 050. I made a note of where we had worked before on 20M, using the band map built into N1MM Logger, and kept coming back to see if any of them had moved into a new county. It was a pretty good feed of new ones through the day.

If I couldn’t hear a rover on his parking frequency, I figured he was up in the phone band or on the move, and made a mental note to come back shortly to see what part of Florida he was going to activate next.

A little patience and persistence really pays off when hunting for rovers in new counties.

There were amazing stretches of rover activity when it was all I could do to keep up with them, they were all hitting new counties so quickly.

Special thanks to NO5W for the excellent rover station activity maps. They really worked well for tracking where a station was and where to expect them next.  These and other great resources are linked from the Florida QP website’s Counties info page.

I spent many sessions waiting to get through to some stations – going 15 minutes or longer between contacts as I sifted through the signals already worked. That’s called “working out the band,” but as I have mentioned, if you stay with it or come back a few minutes later there will be new stations to work.

In a lot of multi-mode contests, where you can work CW, Phone or both modes, points are weighted in favor of CW contacts. In this one, a CW contact is worth two points, while a phone contact is worth just one point. And isn’t that just as it should be (he says with a smile). So, there’s a real incentive to head lower in the band occasionally to work the CW stations.

Final analysis

This was a great running of the Florida QP. I saw a 500 percent increase over any previous best score I’ve had over the years, and with low power, on bands that were horrible between me and Florida.

I think my major score improvement this year speaks highly of the in-state participation rate and, in particular, the rover activity that activated so many counties with workable signals.

Thanks for the contacts, Florida.

Keep an ear out for four more QSO parties next weekend. They’re the subject of the next episode of Zone Zero. Subscribe if you like these brief contest podcasts, and please consider going into iTunes and leaving a review to help get the word out.

73 from British Columbia.

Thanks for checking in. Now, let’s go get ‘em.

Episode 2: Florida QSO Party

Episode 2: Florida QSO Party

Right off the top I want to remind everyone that you can email me at bud@va7st.ca with thoughts about the podcast. In each of the shows were going to take a quick look ahead at one or two of the upcoming contests and this week, it’s the Florida State QSO Party.

Out the window I can see green grass growing like a spring weed, the creeks are rising, birds are chirping, the shrubbery is budding out, the dog — Boomer the border collie — is out there with his squeaky ball and a frisbee, and he’s having a great time because spring is back here in the southern part of British Columbia.

Now springtime weekends aren’t really big contest weekends. Other parts of the year are much more contesting-intensive, so right now is the perfect time for getting out in the yard to check out your antennas, looking for things you need to repair after a long, hard winter and just getting the property back in shape for a much-anticipated summer. And I sure hope we have a great summer because we had one heck of a tough winter.

Coming up at the end of April is the Florida QSO Party.

Organized by the Florida Contest Group, this is one of the more well-attended state contests, where everyone around the world turns their antennas toward Florida and tries to work as many stations in as many Florida counties as possible.

The QSO party has two operating periods – the first is a 10-hour stretch from 1600 UTC on Saturday, April 29, to 0159 UTC on Sunday. Then everyone gets to take a break, before getting on for the second operating period, which gets underway at 1200 UTC on April 30, and runs through to 2200 UTC – for those doing the math at home, that’s another 10 hours of operation.

You can operate the entire 20-hour contest if you wish – and many will.

The exchange, if you’re not in Florida, is a signal report and your state, province or DXCC prefix.

Keep in mind that if you’re outside Florida, you only get points for contacting stations in Florida.

It’s a contest for CW Morse code or phone operators, with activity on 40M through 10M – it’s important to note that 160M and 80M aren’t part of this one, folks.

Checking the log for past years, I see that I operated the Florida QSO Party in six previous years – most recently in 2014. My best score was 5,200 points or so, having made 64 contacts with stations in 41 Florida counties. That was in just two and a half hours of operating and I finished something like 12th in Canada that year.

One of the fun things about state QSO parties like this one are the roving stations. These are dedicated – very dedicated – hams who drive around the state activating  county after county.

That means there are often new counties to work as they day goes by. Just when you think you’ve found everyone on the air in a given hour, a rover may show up in a rare county and you’ve got another multiplier in the log!

One strategy I’ve found useful in this and other state QSO parties is to operate in shorter stints on the air, but keep coming back often.

At any given moment, there might be just 10 or 20 Florida stations active on 20M CW, and perhaps another 30 or 40 to be found up in the Phone portion of the band.

Depending on how close or how far you are from Florida you will probably be able to work most of them with relative ease. The in-state stations often call CQ, waiting for the masses of hams to find them. As you tune across the band, listen for swarms of signals on a frequency – the Florida station will likely be there underneath the callers.

After a few minutes of busy activity, you may find you’ve done something called “working out the band,” which means you’ve found all the stations active at a particular time.

But don’t be lulled into complacency.

Remember those rovers I mentioned? They’re moving – sometimes hitting a new county every hour or two.

A new county may be activated for only a few minutes if the rover is cutting though a corner of the county – you have to be on the air to hear them while they’re handing out the hot multiplier!

As always, for rules and links to the Florida QSO Party website and just about every other contest in the world, check the WA7BNM Contest Calendar.

73 from British Columbia, everyone. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you out there.


Show resources

  • WA7BNM Contest Calendar
    As always, for rules and links to just about every contest in the world, check the WA7BNM Contest Calendar. It’s about the best contest listing out there.
  • Orca DX and Contest Club website
    For other links of use to contesters, check out the Orca DX and Contest Club website — it has a short list of upcoming contests, many mentioned in the Zone Zero podcast, plus a handy propagation dashboard for at-a-glance band conditions.

Building a contest station or a special project?
Find the parts on Amazon and support the podcast, too!

Episode 1.1: When conditions go horribly bad

Episode 1.1: When conditions go horribly bad

 

This is a special post-contest update on April 23, 2017.

Oh my goodness, what a terrible weekend on the radio!

Feels like I wasted a couple of days there in the SP International DX teletype and the BARTG 75 RTTY contests.

Didn’t make many contacts in either one of them.

In the previous podcast I mentioned the importance of working all 6 continents. Well, I managed to end up with 3 continents in the log. I did get one European station — an EA station in Spain on 20M by pointing south of the aurora — but that was it from east of the Atlantic ocean.

I found a couple of South American stations and the rest were all North America. I did not hear any KH6 Hawaiian stations or any of the South Pacific ZL/VK stations in New Zealand or Australia, so I was shut out for 3 continents and had only 3 in the log.

It’s about the worst performance I’ve had in the SP DX RTTY contest in many years. That speaks to the conditions of the solar cycle.

We are definitely in the bottom of the trough of solar cycle 24, so that means the next year — perhaps two years — are going to be similar to what we saw this weekend.

There will be moments of happiness and smiles and sunshine, as conditions aren’t always this terrible, but we sure had a look at what the future holds for the next while.

Seeing the numbers

I thought I might give you some indication visually of what the conditions looked like over the weekend, so I went to the orcaDXCC.org website and took some snapshots of the propagation dashboard. By taking a look at the two screen shots from the morning and the afternoon of Saturday, April 23, you get a visual indication of how the solar and geomagnetic numbers changed across the day.

Propagation conditions about 10 hours later — at 0140Z on Sunday
Propagation conditions at 1520Z on Saturday

The dashboard, which has been in use since 2010 and compares favorably with real-world conditions, indicates in real-time what the band conditions should be, based on solar flux, sunspot levels, the A-index and K-index, as well as geomagnetic conditions.

At 1520 UTC on Saturday morning, April 22, we were enduring a geomagnetic storm at a minor storm level. The solar flux was 82, driven by 39 sunspots. However the K-index was 6.

Now, it’s nice when the K-index is at 1 or 2, because that means the A-index will be low.

The A-index is a cumulative number that’s based on the K-index over several hours. When the K-index is elevated the A-index will rise and it will rise dramatically if the K-index is elevated to a level like 6, as it was on Saturday.

So conditions really did get worse as the day went on. The aurora level was actually falling during the day, as you’ll see in the screenshots that I’ve included in the show notes for this special episode 1.1.

The aurora had fallen from 8.4 in the morning to 6.7 in the afternoon. That means it had fallen from about 55 gigawatts of power in the ionosphere to about 25 gigawatts of power in the ionosphere.

The big difference through morning to the afternoon – the obvious clue to why the bands got even worse as the day went on — was the soaring A-index.

Remember, the K-index in the morning was 6 and in the afternoon the K-index had fallen to 4.

Now, 4 or 6 are both high numbers for the K-index. And because of the number of hours that K had been elevated, the cumulative A-index went up – from 47 in the morning to 51 in the afternoon.

That really does mean that bands are completely wiped out.

You will get some reasonably useful conditions on short hops across the continent on 20 meters, for example, and that’s what I saw. I was hearing signals — they weren’t strong and there was some fading on the signals between me and Florida and the US southeast; however, on the lower bands conditions were quite bleak, especially as darkness fell here in western North America.

Now we look ahead to a series of QSO parties while we await CQ WPX CW in late May. That one will be a real trial of patience if this weekend’s conditions repeat a month from now.


If you like the Zone Zero podcast, tell your contesting friends about it. You can subscribe on iTunes, and please consider leaving a review so others know you’re listening and why.

Thanks for taking an extra few minutes this week for the Episode 1.1 post-contest update.

Episode 1: SPDX RTTY and BARTG 75 RTTY

Episode 1: SPDX RTTY and BARTG 75 RTTY

In the first full episode of Zone Zero, Bud looks at the SP DX RTTY and BARTG 75 RTTY contests.

Both events include a continent multiplier, which adds a fun extra dimension as you scour the bands trying to find all six continents – Africa, Europe, Asia, Oceania, North and South America.

If you’re new to the podcast, let me point you to our introductory episode – which I’ve called Episode Zero – as it is a bit of an introduction with info about me and why I started Zone Zero. It’s a good primer for anyone wondering what this is all about.

I want to say a few words out of the gate about location. I am on the West Coast – in the gorgeous southern interior of British Columbia.

To give you an idea of the geographic location, we’re about 60 miles north of the Washington State border. Spokane, Washington, is about 260 miles driving distance to the southeast of us. And Vancouver, BC, is about 240 miles to the west.

Our location on the west side of North America means something to fellow hams from California all the way up to Alaska, as we combat the aurora borealis and its impact on the frequency bands we know and love.

The further east you go, the less you have to rely on the polar path to reach Europe, and the aurora has less impact. From my corner of the world, at least, I have to point directly through the heart of the auroral zone if I want to hear — or be heard in — Europe.

Auroral oval — a donut over the pole

So, imagine the aurora as a great big donut or bagel shape, suspended over the north pole. That donut gets bigger or smaller, depending on geomagnetic conditions – when the sun is storming — spewing a coronal mass ejection or high-speed solar wind at Earth — the aurora gets stronger and bigger, essentially absorbing radio signals so they simply do not pass through.

In this part of the world, if we want to reach Europe, our signals have to go through the near side of the donut, over the polar ice cap, then through the other side of the donut into Europe.

With strong auroral conditions, very little signal gets through – if any.

Now, sometimes, the donut pushes so far south that parts of Northern Europe are actually inside the oval. When that happens, we might see a curious phenomenon known as the Scandinavian Express.

If I point due north even when the aurora numbers are elevated, I can quite often work Scandinavian stations in Sweden and Norway, when I can’t hear anything else at all from Europe. That can add a few multipliers to the log when nobody else is hearing me over the pole – it’s worth a listen even on days of poor propagation.

It’s tough from the west coast, going through both sides of the auroral oval – it is a significant factor in contesting in northern latitudes, and in particular from the west coast of North America because there’s no other option for working Europe. Keep in mind that pointing long-path to Europe means going through the aurora Australis, which is usually just as strong over the south pole.

Over the past weekend, in the YU DX contest – where Yugoslavian stations were the focus from around the world – and in the Manchester Miniera CQMM DX contest sponsored by Brazilian hams – conditions were quite bleak, but we did make some contacts over the pole on 20M or 14 Mhz, and I even made two contacts in Europe on 40M, which from this part of the world can be a challenge during low-sunspot years.

So conditions were bad but not as bad as I expected.

Let’s take a look ahead at the upcoming weekend contests. There’s not a whole lot of contest activity, but there are two events I’d like to highlight.

My usual routine is to check the Orca DX and Contest Club website – that’s the club for British Columbia and Pacific Northwest – at orcadxcc.org. I’m the webmaster, and try to keep a short list of upcoming contests in the Contest Corner, and there’s also a very handy propagation dashboard I developed, which can give us an at-a-glance reading of band conditions.

In future episodes, we’ll explore the Orca propagation dashboard in some detail. For now, I see that the geomagnetic field K-index has been up and down on April 19, currently at 3. If that K index is elevated over several hours or days, the A-index will rise, and I like to keep an eye on the A-index as it can help predict how good or bad radio conditions will be.

For example, right now the A index is a whopping 17, the geomagnetic field conditions are active, and the aurora level is 7.2 and rising. Simply put, the bands are pretty much shut down right now.

But maybe things will improve by the weekend. And maybe not. That’s sort of the challenge for radio contesters — predicting what radio signal propagation will be like, because that can dictate how you will operate a particular contest. It will certainly help you decide whether to optimize your score by trying to find DX contacts or go for higher rates of lower-point but more plentiful domestic stations.

For this weekend – April 22 and 23 – we’re looking forward to the SP DX RTTY and BARTG 75 RTTY contests. Both of these are “everyone works everyone” worldwide contests using radio teletype.

Now, it’s no fun listening to someone reading details about time, date and rules for a contest, so I will encourage you to get the details online – check the show notes for this episode one at zone.va7st.ca for links to the orcadxcc.org website and the best contest calendar I know of, the WA7BNM Contest Calendar (which you can also find with a Google search for WA7BNM).

Up first this weekend is the SP DX RTTY contest, sponsored by the Polish Radiovideography Club. It starts at 1200 UTC on Saturday, April 22, and runs 24 hours.

I really enjoy radio teletype contests. The important thing in this contest is to work as many Sugar Papa or SP stations in Poland as possible.

One of the tips and tricks is to be on the air when Europe is open. These days, from North America’s east coast you may catch a morning opening on 15M, but on the west coast that’s unlikely.

20M will be the big band for Europe no matter where you are.

For me, I expect a very narrow window for working Europe on Saturday morning – possibly for only an hour and only on 20M or 14 Mhz.

The multipliers in this contest are each DXCC country and each Polish province – and they count on each band. So if you work Iceland and Hawaii on 20M, you can work them again on 40M as new multipliers on that band, too.

What I think is a fun feature of the SP DX RTTY contest is that you take all of your contacts and multiply them by the number of countries and Polish provinces you’ve worked, and then multiply that by the number of continents you worked.

One of the challenges, with conditions the way they will be, is to find Africa.

From the North American east coast and Europe, that won’t be too difficult. From the west, it can be much more difficult. But pointing antennas just south of the auroral oval, if conditions are reasonably okay, can produce contacts with North Africa and the mid-Atlantic islands, such as EA8 – the Canary Islands, which are counted as Africa.

Those will be like gold this weekend. All the other continents should be relatively easy to find. The ZL stations in New Zealand and VKs in Australia have been relatively active in recent months, and KH6s in Hawaii should be a slam-dunk from all of North America, so the Oceania continent will be pretty straightforward.

That’s a quick look at the SP DX RTTY contest.

The other contest is the BARTG 75 baud RTTY contest. And it’s a short one!

It’s a four-hour contest, starting at 1700 UTC on Sunday. Its uniqu e feature is operating with 75-baud RTTY. Now, most RTTY contests are 45 baud. But at 75-baud, you can call CQ in a second and a half, so the cycles of CQing and listening are quite rapid and you can reach high rates, particularly for a RTTY contest.

The multipliers are all the DXCC countries as well as the call areas of the US, Canada, Japan and Australia.

And you also get to multiply your score by the number of continents you work. I like that feature. Continent multipliers can boost your score quickly – but the challenge is you have to find all six continents to really be competitive. The big gun stations will find them almost certainly.

If conditions are bleak, though, even Europe could be tough to land for some of us – and I would encourage you to get those continents in the bag as quickly as possible. Remember, you only have four hours to find them all.

Looking at previous years, I usually have found six continents – Oceania, Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America, but not always. This weekend, if the Canary Islands or our friends in Morocco like CN8KD are active, I might get Africa, but that’s not a sure thing. There have been other, longer contests that took me 12 hours or more to get them all – often Africa is toughest, but even South America can be challenging if there aren’t many operators on the air.

In this one, I think six is doable.

Okay, I think that’s wrap for the first show. You can read more about the show and find episodes at ZONE.VA7ST.CA, our home site.

Subscribe and tell your contesting friends about the program.

You can email me at bud@va7st.ca with thoughts about the podcast.

73 from British Columbia, everyone. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you out there.


Show resources

  • WA7BNM Contest Calendar
    As always, for rules and links to just about every contest in the world, check the WA7BNM Contest Calendar. It’s about the best contest listing out there.
  • Orca DX and Contest Club website
    For other links of use to contesters, check out the Orca DX and Contest Club website — it has a short list of upcoming contests, many mentioned in the Zone Zero podcast, plus a handy propagation dashboard for at-a-glance band conditions.

Building a contest station or a special project?
Find the parts on Amazon and support the podcast, too!

Episode 0: An introduction to Zone Zero

Episode 0: An introduction to Zone Zero

This is the opening episode of Zone Zero — a podcast dedicated to ham or amateur radio contests. These are on-the-air radio events in which thousands of hams around the world try to make contact with one another over a weekend, or in a few hours, using their high frequency radio stations.

Along the way they earn points for each contact – and tally up the countries, or states, or continents to see how big their score can get.

Some call it radiosport, others just call it contesting. I’m an avid radio contester, and I assume you are, too. But maybe not – yet.

For those who are curious, stay tuned and we’ll get you hooked on one of the most interesting, engaging and flat-out fun aspects of amateur radio.

You may be wondering why we’ve started a podcast about radio contesting. Well, ham radio has been around for more than 100 years but there’s never really been a show dedicated to the incredibly complex but also unbelievably fun competitive side of our hobby.

It’s about time, don’t you think?

Show resources

  • WA7BNM Contest Calendar
    As always, for rules and links to just about every contest in the world, check the WA7BNM Contest Calendar. It’s about the best contest listing out there.
  • Orca DX and Contest Club website
    For other links of use to contesters, check out the Orca DX and Contest Club website — it has a short list of upcoming contests, many mentioned in the Zone Zero podcast, plus a handy propagation dashboard for at-a-glance band conditions.

Building a contest station or a special project?
Find the parts on Amazon and support the podcast, too!

Zone Zero podcast goes live (soon)

Zone Zero podcast goes live (soon)

We’ve been working on an audio podcast called Zone Zero — that imaginary place where contest plans are made and aspirations are high.

The objective is simple: to look ahead at upcoming contests, providing advance knowledge of what to expect, where to look for contacts, and when to be on the air for the best results.

Why the name Zone Zero?

For the purposes of amateur radio, the world is divided into 40 CQ Zones, or 77 ITU zones. (Get a CQ zone map by UT0UM).

There is no physical location known as “Zone zero” — instead, it is where we go to prepare for the contests. We get into “the zone,” and from there we reach out to the entire world.

From Zone Zero, you can work anyone, any where.