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Episode 23: Looking ahead to CQ Worldwide CW 2018

Episode 23: Looking ahead to CQ Worldwide CW 2018

The 2018 CQ Worldwide CW contest is coming to a radio near you on the November 24 and 25 weekend.

Over the past month I’ve made some major changes to the VA7ST setup, including updated equipment and a fairly substantial reconfiguration of the shack layout. Contest prep is done and I’m ready to roll. How about you?

Let’s get going with Episode 23 of Zone Zero – the CQ Worldwide CW preview edition.


Welcome to the big CQ Worldwide CW contest preview edition.

We don’t do this very often, but I will open with a bit of homework for you – be sure to listen to the pre-contest report from last year – Zone Zero Episode 15, which is packed with interesting information about the contest that still holds true for the 2018 running of this great big event.

Pre-reading/pre-listening: 2017 pre-contest Zone Zero

For extra credit, I invite you to also listen to the 2017 post-contest report

Okay, that’s the homework assignment.

 

Now let me tell you quickly about some of the homework I’ve been up to. Big changes are now in place at VA7ST. A new transceiver and amplifier have brought the shack up to current contesting snuff with the first major renewal of gear since I added the FT-2000 and SteppIR 3-element yagi in 2009.

I decided the investment was entirely worth it and long overdue – providing improved receive capabilities for incredibly congested bands in the bottom of the solar cycle, and more power for all bands, including 6M work.

I’d like to think that this was all in anticipation of the biggest contest on the annual calendar – CQ Worldwide CW — but the reality is I’ve been contemplating the changes for quite a while.

The new equipment includes an Acom 1000 amplifier, which has been in place for a couple of weeks now and was used in the Worked All Europe RTTY contest to great effect.

The other item is a new Icom IC-7610 transceiver. This is an amazing bit of kit – software defined radio in a real radio box with knobs.

I’m still learning how to use its capabilities, but I did manage to get it on the air in two-VFO mode in Worked All Europe RTTY earlier this month and spent hours while CQing on one receiver and searching and pouncing up and down the band on the other receiver.

The IC-7610 also did a great job in the past weekend’s Sweepstakes Phone contest – providing almost clear-channel audio on my run frequencies even when 20M was packed to the rafters with stations. It’s really quite something to experience.

Having two spectrum displays – one for each receiver – in N1MM Logger makes it dead-simple to see signals and callsign labels, so you can click and jump on any signal you haven’t worked before.

All the new gear meant a rethink of how I have the radio room laid out. Specifically, I had to rearrange the desk surfaces to put two transceivers in their optimal locations – so I can easily tune the bands, reach the knobs, adjust amplifier and antenna tuner, and still have the correct ergonomics for three computer monitors and a keyboard at hand.

So, now I have the Yaesu FT-2000 as my left-hand radio and the Icom as the right-hand radio – they’re Radio B and Radio A from left to right. Then a little further to the right side and continuing around the corner of the desk surface, I have:

  • my keyer paddles
  • the Acom amplifier
  • an AEA AT-3000 antenna tuner that serves as my main antenna switch.

After 30 years this setup is about as close to perfect as I’ve ever come. Everything within easy reach, nothing in a spot I’d rather not have it. And in my couple of days of user testing prior to the upcoming contest, I think it’s all working out even better than I had hoped.

Now, on to antennas.

Attached to the AEA tuner’s output sockets are:

  • the SteppIR yagi which covers 40M through 6M
  • a dedicated 7-element 6M yagi
  • the 80M array made up of three full-sized verticals that I can steer in three primary headings plus three other alternate opposite headings with a bit less gain.

For 160M, I manually change over to a second high-power manual tuner to run the inverted-L on Top Band.

In addition to those antennas, I also have a 40M full-size two element quad suspended between two tall pine trees, and that’s pointed directly at Europe at 30 degrees. For an HF contest, the 40M quad is connected instead of the 6M yagi.

And, if I want, I can connect a little Hy-Gain 18AVT-WB all-band vertical strapped to about 300 feet of chainlink fence around the back yard.

For the low bands, I have a short 270-foot Beverage receiving antenna as well, though I haven’t used it in about two years and am sure it needs a little love and attention after being neglected for so long. Not using it may be the reason my pursuit of 80M DXCC has stalled at 96 countries.

I’ve come to realize the value of having lots of antenna options – even if they’re not mounted up on massive skyscraper towers.

Some of the antennas require manual swapping of cables here in the shack, but those antennas are special-purpose and not used often – like the 160M inverted-L or the 40M quad. The primary go-to antennas for each band from 80M through 6M are all on a single switch – so I can hop around pretty quickly, with a quick gesture on the switch and a little retuning of the amplifier.

Blast from the past

I love to go over my previous contest scores and re-read the post-contest reports on the 3830 reflector. Doing this earlier in the week, I stumbled upon a report I posted from the 2009 CQ Worldwide CW contest – nine years ago, when bands were not particularly hot but still pretty good.

Here’s what I wrote back then:

As I usually do, I concocted many melodramas as the weekend progressed — little near-term challenges to keep me motivated. With half an hour to go, I set my sights on hitting 950,000 points… but I would need spectacular 20M mult-hunting to get there.

30 minutes left. Land 9V1 Singapore for zone and country multipliers. Then flip the beam to V31 Belize for another mult, and flip again to 9M2 West Malaysia for a welcome double-dipper. Put the antenna into bidirectional mode and work several 2- and 3-pointers (Ws and JAs) as I tune the band for elusive mults.

Find LU1 for a single mult, then stumble across E21 Thailand and put the yagi in full-forward mode aimed at Asia for a double-mult. Favorite thing in the CQWW world: green letters in the N1MM callsign box.

Just a handful more points to hit 950K but time is slipping away. Run across a string of exceptionally loud JA and BY 3-pointers. 1:40 to go. Need about 6 more QSO points — that’s a long shot in search-and-pounce mode because everybody at this end is doing the same thing and competition is fierce for the CQer jump-balls. Find a loud WA6O. Work him though I’m aimed at UA0; wonder how he heard me (I see he was at N6RO: no wonder). Need 4 more points. 60 seconds remain, tune lower and hear K6TA also off the back of the beam. Got him but I’m only at 949,500 and still need a 2-pointer (x 250 mults)… just 30 seconds left.

Tuning the low end of the band like a cruising barracuda now. Holding breath and clenching teeth, both of which are well-known receiver boosters. There’s a JA1 ending a CQ… clear channel to him. BAM. N1MM Logger score turns over to 950,250 and I pull off the headphones. I still have a whole 15 seconds left. Happy, happy. Sponge Bob-like grin in place because I’ve advanced my personal-best score by 175,000 points.

Bud’s Law: even after a 172,800-second (48-hour) contest the final 60 seconds will always be a completely heart-thumping, adrenalin-pumping panic 🙂

That, my friends, is all I need to remember to get myself charged up for another run at CQ Worldwide this weekend. That was back in 2009, and I believe 2018 conditions will be very close to where they were nine years ago.

Band planning

Remember that in this grand-daddy of all contests, you multiply your QSO points by the number of CQ Zones and DXCC countries on each band. If you miss a band that others found multipliers on, you are really going to regret it. And by “a band” I am referring to 15M this time out.

During daylight hours I will have the FT-2000 on 15M listening and feeding a spectrum display in N1MM Logger, while the main radio is on 20M with the 3-element SteppIR yagi and Acom amplifier. Keeping one radio on 15M and at least watching the spectrum display will be a key to being on the air if anyone shows up and is workable from here.

From time to time, if 15M shows any life at all, I’ll flip those around to run the amplifier and 3 element yagi on 15M. This will be the approach if there’s any sign of Europe – or more likely South America — on 15M.

Generally, I will be using the IC-7610 and the FT-2000 together in Single Operator Two Radio (SO2R) mode.

My plan is to get started with just one radio going on 20M for the first hour or so – that’s 4 p.m. here on the West Coast, so Japan may be booming in on 20M at first. But I’ll quickly want to dive down to 40M where most of the evening action will be found.

I am not good enough with two radios to operate CW efficiently if rate is too high on one radio. Rather, my preference is to run a single radio until the bands die down a bit, and then CQ on two bands, alternating between them. I can interleave QSOs quite effectively to stay comfortably busy on a pair of slower bands.

Another SO2R strategy is to call CQ on one band and search for stations on the second band. I just don’t have the mental acuity to copy two simultaneous signals in my head, so I prefer the interleaved, alternating CQ approach.

Then, as darkness falls each night, one radio will run 40M on the rotary dipole while the other runs 80M on the three-element vertical array. I have plenty of antenna separation between the 80M array and the 40M dipole so neither transceiver will hear the other.

And I better not forget about 160M. I have an inverted-L for that band, and when the time is right I will flick the switch to 160M and see what I can work. Last year, 160M produced 40 contacts in four zones and three countries (Hawaii, US and Canada).

What? No XE or KL7 on 160M? They’ll be there, and I’ll work ‘em this time.

This year, I hope to do a little better with about 400 watts more output power with the Acom and a much, much better low-band receiver.

It would be great to add a few of the Caribbean entities this weekend on 160M – at least PJ2T in Curacao, whom I’ve often heard but rarely get through to on Top Band. A few other frequent fliers from the Caribbean I’ll be seeking out on 160M are P40 in Aruba, 9Y6 in Trinidad and Tobago, CO in Cuba, C6 in the Bahamas, and a handful of other contest station regulars. They should be relatively easy multipliers if the inverted-L is working at all.

On the record

Here are my official predictions for this coming weekend, based on how I hope to operate and how the bands may turn out to be:

2,000 QSOs with 150 countries and 80 zones for 1 million points.

That’s a slight lift from my final claimed score from last year. This assumes I’ll end up with close to 1,000 QSOs on 20M alone, with 300 on 15M, and 300 or 350 QSOs on each of 40M and 80M. I actually think 40M may produce significantly more contacts than that, given the number of hours I’ll spend there, so here’s hoping.

To get there, I will need a couple of things to fall into place:

  • 15M must open to Europe, at least for a few minutes on one of the mornings. Without 15M opening over the pole, the reduced European country count will be very tough to overcome.In 2017, I made nearly 300 QSOs on 15M, with 27 countries and 13 zones. None were in Europe. Alas, I don’t expect anything other than perhaps an EA8 (Canary Islands) from the east or north this year on 15M.
  • I need to watch “butt in chair” time – last year I put in 37 hours, which was one hour longer than I had done in my previous high time back in 2012. This weekend, I’d like to approach 40 hours on the air. The only way to fill up all that time is to operate on 40M and 80M/160M well into the tiny hours both mornings. I can still get nearly four hours of sleep each night and still come away with 40 hours on the air.

Sleep strategy is such a big deal in these 48-hour marathon contests. I recall years when I stayed up so many hours in a row that I had very real hallucinations on the second night.

One year (I think it was 2004) in CQWW CW, my hallucinations took the form of me racing along railway tracks and CW signals in my ears were oncoming trains. To avoid head-on collisions, I had to work the callsigns so they would veer off and out of my audio passband. It was quite something to know I was hallucinating but not being able to stop it – and then just working with it to keep making contacts.

And it takes days to recover. So, plan to operate as much as you can but pay attention to fatigue. Here are a trio of tips I try to follow myself:

  • Take a nap if you feel the need, and set double alarms (on your phone, this is easy insurance). CW contesting is a brain-drain for sure. You’ll never focus as much on anything as you do when trying to pull out a single callsign from 10 calling you. It is entirely exhausting, and especially mentally fatiguing – when you feel woozy, with hallucinations or simple dullness setting in (and it will), stop and rest. Even 45 minutes of snoozing can bring things back to perspective.
  • Drink lots of water. It may mean more frequent rest breaks, but staying hydrated is important. Water also helps keep you hydrated when all the coffee you consume tries to dry you out. Let the coffee and water trips force you to take micro-breaks, as long as you’re not giving up a great run frequency. Standing up once in a while is a very good thing.
  • Watch what you eat. I tend to eat very little during a major contest – snacking on nuts, an orange or a sandwich when I get a chance. I avoid heavy meals not only because they take time to prepare and consume, but they’ll drag you down energy-wise.

Having said all that, it’s also important to eliminate self-doubts. I have to constantly remind myself that even when things seem slow and not worth the time in the chair, it’s not me or my station and it’s not personal. And if I keep at it just a little longer conditions and activity can change very quickly. Someone might spot you on the band, and suddenly a dozen new stations will work you or a new multiplier will find you. Or the band might shift and suddenly you have all of Asia open to you.

Hands up if you’ve ever thought about pulling the plug but stayed at it a few more minutes, only to be called by ZD8 on Ascencion Island (Zone 36) or TZ in Mali (Zone 35)? It happens, and often enough that it’s a real thing. So don’t quit just because rate falls off. The surprises are so worth it.

Radio contesting is a game of dogged determination, blind luck and preparation. Take any of those out of the mix, and you will miss out on a lot. With all three in play, you’ll have a lot of fun. I sure do, every time out.

Okay, so that’s it for what was supposed to be a quick Episode 23 of Zone Zero. We’ll all be packed on to 20M during daylight, and we’ll probably see a lot of compression on 40M after dark, too. Go into it with good cheer, play nicely and with passion, and have a complete blast in CQ Worldwide CW.

Listen for the QRP guys – they’ll be buried under the clicks and sparks of the big guns.

We’ll see you at the starting gun  at 0000z on November 24. Now let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there.

VA7ST CQWW CW scores since 2002

       QSOs  Ctry   Zn      Score
=================================
2017: 1,989   154   74    970,368 HP 37 hrs
2016: 1,226   122   61    478,179 HP 23 hrs
2015: 2,170   239  111  1,750,700 HP 34.5 hrs
2014: 2,372   264  113  2,099,136 HP 34 hrs
2013: 2,075   246  118  1,798,160 HP 31 hrs
2012: 2,365   249  104  1,888,550 HP 36 hrs
2011: 2,114   248  109  1,725,024 HP 32 hrs
2010: 1,721   180   92  1,033,056 HP 32 hrs
2009: 1,777   158   92    950,750 HP 31 hrs
2008: 1,580   129   71    670,600 HP 25 hrs
2007  1,470   129   69    615,582 HP 32 hrs
2006  1,476   163   78    775,297    35 hrs
2005  1,014   126   61    411,587
2004  1,421   146   79    697,500
2003    865   115   73    351,936
2002    675   147   63    313,740

Stress and the ham radio operator

Stress and the ham radio operator

We get a little introspective this time, looking at what’s stressful about contest operating, and how de-stressing it really is. And we’ll talk about contests, too. That’s the direction we’re heading in Episode 22 of Zone Zero.


Welcome to Zone Zero – if you’re new to the podcast, it’s pretty much a radio contester’s diary. I’m Bud, VA7ST, and for years I’ve been keeping notes about my contest experiences and that morphed into this irregular set of audio diary entries. I know lots of fellow contesters are just like me, and I also know how useful it can be for new contesters to hear what others have experienced.

I thought this time out we’d consider some of the virtues of contesting that have little to do with competing, and everything to do with wellbeing and what our fun pastime – this avocation on the air — does for us.

If you work in a high-stress environment — or are a particularly high-strung retiree for that matter —  ham radio may be the best stress-reduction therapy there is, short of walking your dog or going fishing.

Unless you have an unwalkable border collie like ours or my luck with the fish. Then contesting is definitely time better spent.

When I have a moment of spare time, I find it quite relaxing to just sit and listen to people chat — whether that’s using Morse code or phone or even digital modes like teletype or PSK.

There’s something mesmerizing about a CW QSO under way. Like the beer ads once said, Those who like it, like it a lot.

And then I go and screw it all up by being a contester. Talk about self-inflicted stress. I will admit there are times when being in a contest makes me nervous or downright angry. When Europeans are piled up on top of me and I can’t work them fast enough for their comfort, I get anxious — imagine that happening on two bands at the same time with an SO2R setup!

And then there are those times when some lid parks on top of me and thinks he’s going to outbid me for the frequency.

That’s stressful because it wastes my time, but I also know I’ll rarely lose a frequency fight with an interloper. I don’t obsess about holding a frequency as I know most of the time interference is not intentional and many times I’m the low-power guy the other guy probably can’t hear, but I do have a secret weapon in those instances. And that is the sustained pressure of all the stations trying to work me.

The VE7 or BC multiplier is pretty valuable in most contests. People want it more than the other guy’s multiplier, and they eventually drown out and chase away persistent irritants co-located on top of me. Stress relieved.

I find the weekend flies by if I’m in a contest – I get into flow and don’t think about work for hours at a time, and certainly not nearly as often as I do without a contest to focus on.

But perhaps the greatest anxiety reducer there can be is social interaction — being with other people and, in particular, others who share your interests or a common goal. During any one contest, you might spend five seconds in contact with a fellow operator making your exchanges. But over a lifetime of contesting, you begin to feel a strong sense of kinship with your competitors.

I could offer a long list of people with whom I have never had more than a brief hello on the air, but I consider friends and would miss if they were not out there sharing the experience with me each weekend.

They don’t know it, but I smile to myself every time I work fellows like John W9ILY. We’ve worked literally hundreds of times over the years, even when he was in PJ4. John was one of the first guys I made a contest QSO with when I got back into contests in 2002, and he’s there almost every time out in the 16 years since.

I don’t know John, but I consider him much more than an acquaintance. He’s a colleague in a common pursuit.

And that is a wonderful feeling. Now multiply it by hundreds, because John is far from alone on my list of people I don’t know but with whom I share a special sense of camaraderie. Don K0FX, and John K4BAI, Tim N6GP, Aldo YV5AAX, Phil GU0SUP and so many others light up my day when we work and get to say hello one more time.

If I had not been hooked by contesting as a teenager, I wouldn’t still be at it, and I wouldn’t have those frequent moments of warmth. And I wouldn’t have the other things I have come to value in my radio life — the people who have indeed become close friends, through visits and long emails and phone calls about our antennas and kids and graduations and illness and plans for next weekend, and yes, through short, almost meaningless contest QSOs.

I do not underestimate the power of such simple interactions. We call it “contact” for a reason. And it feels very good. Stress relieved.

So, with that said, I’m really looking forward all the contacts we’ll make in the next two big contests on the event calendar — CQ Worldwide SSB and CW. Just saying those names gives me an endorphin rush. But I suspect I’ll be almost comatose by the end of both contests.

Predictions from the rear-view mirror

Now let’s look ahead — and in contesting the best way to do that is look behind us.

Combing through the archives of my CQ Worldwide reports over the years, I see that in the SSB contest I made 1,200 contacts in 2017 — despite last year being about as poor solar-cycle wise as we’re seeing right now. In the peak solar years I was running about 1,600 to 1,800 contacts in the SSB contest, so 1,200 again this year is a realistic target for me.

In terms of score, though, there’s a huge difference these days. Sure, there are still lots of contacts to be had, but multipliers will be way down from the peak years prior to 2015. My best-ever score in CQ Worldwide SSB was 1.7 million points in 2013 — five years ago — while last year I ended up with 450,000 points or less than a third of my best-ever score. That precipitous drop is mostly due to the lack of multipliers – you can’t work as many countries and zones right now as we once could because the wheels have fallen off a couple of bands – 15M and 10M. For many of us, the higher HF bands are simply out of commission.

Last year, which will be about the same as this year, I noted that 15M surely made the difference in competitive scores from out west – those who found the brief openings got a real boost. Even I got to work some Europeans in the SSB contest on 15M, but will I this year?

Those who found any openings on 10M as well did even better, but I didn’t hear a peep up there any time I listened around.

Last November, I put in my longest-ever CQWW CW session — 37 hours is one more than I managed in 2012, which was my previous iron-pants record for this contest. Thanks to some short-ish naps at just the right times — and not sleeping a lot longer than planned — I didn’t feel too beat up at the finish line. But I recall needing a LOT of coffee through the weekend.

I went into last year’s CW contest with a simple and probably too lofty goal of 1,500 Qs, 150 mults for a 500,000 score. Going unassisted, I figured a lot of mults would be left on table.

And I managed to finish with 1989 Qs, 228 mults and 970,000 points. That was way above my goal so was very happy. I didn’t expect the bands to be as strong as they turned out to be.

I’m expecting very little from any band above 20M this year, though I could be proven wrong especially in the CW contest in late November. 15M surprised me on CW last year with almost 300 contacts and quite a few European countries and more zones than 80M offered. So not too bad at all at the bottom of the solar cycle.

They keys to success are almost always the same. Be on the air, pushing hard the whole time and don’t miss short band openings.

Okay, I love this stuff. Hope it doesn’t show too much.

Going above high frequency

One of the coolest things about ham radio is the constant stimulation it provides. Just when you’ve done everything you thought you were interested in doing, you discover some new aspect to delve into. And for me over the past few years that has been VHF activity. Mostly 6M but also some 2M operation.

The reason we’ve gone two months between Zone Zero episodes is simple: I was busy with a project. A really neat one. Back in September I learned that one of the biggest 6M signals from British Columbia — John VE7DAY — was selling his 7-element 6M yagi for a quarter of what it would cost to buy a new one and ship it to Canada.

An email and phone call or two, and we had the sale done. Now, John is a long way from me — five hours of driving plus nearly two hours on a ferry, each way. So, one day after work I hopped in the SUV and set out on my little road trip. Very late that night I got to visit with my parents, who live just an hour from John’s place, and the next morning Dad and I drove the final leg to collect the antenna.

It’s a 30-foot boom, and with John’s help we disassembled the whole thing and got it all into the back of my SUV. By midnight that day I was back home and the next morning I rebuilt the antenna, put it on a pair of sawhorses in the back yard and made my first 6M contact on the new antenna.

Appropriately, it was with VE7DAY via meteor scatter. With the antenna three feet off the ground.

As of last weekend, it’s up on my tower, at the bottom of the antenna stack at about 30 feet in the air. And while conditions haven’t been much good in the time I’ve been using it, I am hearing stations I could not hear with the four-element antenna I was using until now.

Come next spring and summer, when E-skip returns and VHF contest season is upon us, I think I’ll be having a total blast on 6M. John tells me he even worked Europe on that antenna with 100 watts, so that’s something I’ll have to try from here.

You can see the new 6M antenna and check out the post on my site at va7st.ca.

FT8 and MSK144 — now for contests, too!

As a side-note, if you are into the newest digital modes keep watching for the upcoming full release of WSJT-X version 2.0. It has some great new features for FT8 and MSK144 modes, such as exchange formats supporting quite a range of HF and VHF contests. But a word of caution, some of the new features aren’t backwards compatible with earlier versions, so Joe Taylor K1JT and the amazing development team are hoping everyone will quickly migrate to the latest software to avoid confusion on the bands.

Half-Makrothen

Before we wrap up, I should mention that the always-great Makrothen RTTY was this weekend, and it was a lot of fun running low power to see how many points I could make. The exchange is your grid square and you get a point for every kilometer between you and the station you’re working.

I only put in a few casual hours (five hours total), missing the first of three eight-hour segments, but had a great time without the added stress of running an amplifier (on RTTY pushing the amplifier can be stressful). I made half a million points last year with low power, and this weekend was even worse with just 314,000 points using 100 watts. That’s a long way down from the 3.3 million points in my peak outing back in 2013, though I was using high-power that year.

I ended up with only two Europeans in the log on 20M, which is sad because they’re valuable at 8,000 points each.

As the Shirelles once told us, Mama said there’d be years like this.

Notes from listeners

I want to say special thanks to a new friend, Kiran — VU2XE in India. He wrote about listening to the podcast after discovering it while looking at some of the half-square and other vertical array antenna projects on my main website — VA7ST.CA. Kiran is an active contester, running a hexbeam, a spiderbeam and verticals. I’ve used all three of those antennas and he should be doing very well with that setup and so many great options.

In the upcoming CQ Worldwide contests, watch for Kiran using the special callsign AT3A.

Namaste, Kiran, and thank you all for checking in. If you’d like to share something about your contesting setup or experiences, or thoughts about what we’re doing here, just send me a note to bud@va7st.ca.

That’s it for this episode of Zone Zero. Now, let’s go get ’em. I’ll see you out there!

Episode 21: Summer potpourri

Episode 21: Summer potpourri

High summer in the Canadian west – or the Pacific Northwest depending on your outlook — is a glorious season. It’s a quiet time to relax in the sun, read back-issues of your ham magazines, or comb through catalogs and websites to contemplate new gear for the shack, maybe a new antenna or coax. And it‘s a chance to catch up on all the little jobs you put off last spring, in the crazy belief that you’d have all summer to get to them.

Let’s get going with Episode 21 – the summer potpourri edition of Zone Zero.


A three-month hiatus since the last episode has been pretty full around the VA7ST household. We’ve flown across the country and back, been salmon fishing out on the Pacific, enjoyed the 2018 Pacific Northwest DX Convention, and put in quite a bit of listening time on 6M while hiding from the summer heat and wildfire smoke outside.

Here in southern BC, for the second fire season in a row, we’ve had some pretty serious wildfires in the area, and the smoke is horrendous. It hangs low over the valley, marring any view, cloying at your lungs and pretty much making things dark and miserable.

Smoke obscures the view over the VA7ST back yard.

 

Outside the shack window right now, I am looking through the pine forest on our lower property and cannot see the valley beyond. Tall Ponderosa pines and Douglas fir trees a few hundred feet from us look like ghosted ship’s masts just discernable through the haze, and the sunlight filtering through it gives everything an amber tint that is actually quite pretty, as long as it is only temporary.

For the past couple of days around our part of the country, the smoke has been too thick for the sun to heat things and the daytime temperatures dropped from 100F to 68F, making for great sleeping at night when it falls to 55F.

But for several weeks those 100 degree days, along with the dense smoke, have made working outside a bit too uncomfortable, so we’ve found other things to do.

Or to think about while doing nothing. It is summer, after all.

In June, we celebrated our son Dan‘s graduation from the University of British Columbia, and the next day got on a plane and we flew to Ottawa, Ontario, where our eldest son Andrew graduated from law school. Life goes on and now that the lads are done with school for now, I feel like I’m about to have a whole bunch of spare time and a few more bucks to pretend I’m not spending on ham radio.

Field Day under the sun

For ARRL Field Day this year, I hooked up three car batteries and two 40-watt solar panels on the back lawn and operated QRP. I found an auto-wrecker that sells refurbished 12-volt car batteries for $15 each, and they are in good shape for the very intermittent use I have for them. The system charged up with the 80-watt array, and kept me going well into the evening the first night, and the next morning even early sunlight helped keep me ahead of the current draw.

For the record, the two 40-watt panels are simple Coleman brand, that came as a two-pack with 7-amp charge controllers, from one of the great sources for all sundry items – Canadian Tire. I saw their late summer flyer this afternoon and see they are selling a two-pack of 100-watt panels for $350 – which is about half the price a single 100-watt panel sells for during the rest of the year. If I was serious about building an off-grid radio station, now would be the time for adding more solar oomph.

Fishin‘ for fun

In July, I took a break to go salmon fishing with my brother Matt, who has a great salmon boat in what must be the world’s salmon fishing capital – Sooke, BC. We came back empty handed, but still ended up enjoying some incredible meals of salmon he had caught earlier that week, and fresh crab hauled up on our way back in to the harbour. What a luxury to have access to free salmon fishing. Even if it means Matt is the captain.

Matt took a group out the day after we left, and caught four 20-pounders in the first half hour, and another seven fish as the morning flowed on. Like amateur radio contesting, you just have to be at the right place at the right time, I guess.

But summer won’t last forever and in August the thoughts of any dyed-in-the-wool contester turn to September’s onset of the fall contest season.

Charging up for contest season

For me, the batteries got recharged by attending the 63rd annual Pacific Northwest DX Convention, hosted this year in New Westminster – adjacent to Vancouver, BC – by my club, the Orca DX and Contest Club.

I hadn’t seen the gang in person since the last convention in Vancouver, back in 2014. It was a great meet-up, and if I can swing it next August, I plan to get down to Everett, WA, for the 2019 convention hosted by the Western Washington DX Club.

Congrats to the Willamette Valley DX Club on winning the Pacific Northwest Cup. This the second straight year the Willamette club has won the “travelling” trophy, which goes to the club with the highest combined score over 10 major contests each year:

  • CQ WW DX RTTY — Sept
  • CQ WW DX SSB — Oct
  • CQ WW DX CW — Nov
  • ARRL RTTY Roundup — Jan
  • CQ WPX RTTY — Feb
  • ARRL DX CW — Feb
  • ARRL DX SSB — March
  • CQ WPX SSB — March
  • CQ WPX CW — May
  • IARU World HF Championship — July

They have a tremendously active contest community. President Mike W7VO tells me they emphasize getting on the air and having fun, and getting new contesters keen on radiosport. Their results show the wisdom of that approach, finishing the year in July with 74.8 million points – ahead of Western Washington with 46.9 million and Orca DX and Contest Club with 27.9 million points. (See all 2017-2018 club scores)

For several years, the trophy was claimed by the Orca DX and Contest Club here in BC, but things have changed with some of our largest and most active stations falling into abeyance due to people moving away and other factors. I love to contribute my scores, and we do have some long-time contesters returning to the sport this year so watch out Willamette Valley – we may be nipping at your heels again next year.

It was great to see Ward N0AX, and hear his presentation on Ham Radio 2.0 – it’s all about embracing change, welcoming the technological advances, and innovating in our avocation.

In fact, I had a super two days seeing guys I’ve been working in the contests for years but had never met. I sure appreciate those close-in 80M and 160M contacts from the stations down in Washington and Oregon, and now I have a better appreciation of who I am running across at 3 a.m. making contacts on cold winter mornings.

Exploring “if-only…” radios

I also had a chance to play around with some of the newer transceivers. The Icom IC 7610 looks like a real winner, as does the SunSDR MB1 – a new software defined radio that I thought was a supped-up Flex 6400 radio with a Maestro front-end, but turned out to be a new HF plus 6M and 2M SDR transceiver by Expert Electronics, a Russian manufacturer, and sold in North America by NSI Communications.

If you have somewhere between $3,000 and $6,000 to spend on a radio, you have more choices than ever for contest-grade equipment to fill the operating bench. I have fallen in love with SDR technology, especially radios with the SDR horsepower but with real knobs and buttons – the Flex 6400M, the IC-7610, the new MB1, are all on my “if only…” wish list to upgrade the contest capabilities here.

But for now new radios are out of reach for me, so I’ll keep wishing and continue to get by with the venerable Yaesu FT-2000 and the little IC-7100. But one day… one day.

Looking ahead

At this time of year, contest weekends are pretty slim. There are a few smaller events – such as the Russian Worldwide RTTY contest on September 1, and the always fun Washington State Salmon Run September 15 and 16, and the BARTG 75-baud Sprint September 16.

The main event on the horizon is CQ Worldwide RTTY, September 29 and 30. It’s the kick-off to the fall contest season for many, and this year will be a real challenge for everyone.

As I sit here on August 17, solar flux is 68 and there are no sunspots at all. The high bands – 20M and up – are soft, but I expect we will still see plenty of intercontinental contacts on 20M at the end of September, and cross-continent action on 15M. But don’t expect much more than some sporadic spotlight propagation on 10M at this point in the solar cycle.

For those of us who run a little bit of power in the teletype contests, now is the time to give the amplifier a once-over. I’ve said it before, but the best way to smoke-test an amplifier is to run it in a RTTY contest. For the annual contest season burn-in, I use the Russian RTTY contest at the beginning of September.

But I already know that my main amp needs work – one of the 3-500Z tubes is dark, and I suspect the tube socket needs a bit of attention. And my back-up amplifier has suddenly shown problems with no power output on 80M. There, I suspect the input tuning network has blown a 500pF capacitor, which apparently isn’t all that uncommon for SB-220 amplifiers.

So, those are my top-priority bench projects between now and contest season.

On the immediate horizon

Just for fun, I plan on entering the coming weekend’s SARTG Worldwide RTTY contest – that’s sponsored by the Scandinavia Amateur Radio Teleprinter Group, and runs in three eight-hour segments starting at 0000z tonight (Friday afternoon here in BC), with eight-hour breaks between each segment.

The SARTG RTTY exchange is RST and serial number. Contacts with your own country are worth five points, and contacts with other countries in your own continent are worth 10 points. You get 15 points for intercontinental contacts. So, knowing the majority of my QSOs will be with US stations, I guess Canadians have an advantage in North America.

Multipliers are each DXCC country on each band, along with each call area in the US, Canada, Japan and Australia.

Those call area multipliers are valuable on each band, so the key will be to operate at strategic times to maximize access to various parts of the world across the bands. Fortunately, the eight-hour segments cover the full 24-hour clock over two days, so all bands and all parts of the world should be accessible at one point or another. If propagation permits, of course, and that’s not likely anywhere above 20M.

Looking at the past 16 years of this contest, I’m expecting to make about 160 contacts – mostly in North America, but also into Japan on 20M.

My best score was in 2011, when I managed 379 contacts and 134 multipliers. I ran high-power back then. I sat out last year’s 2017 event, but in 2016 running 100 watts, I had just 153 contacts and 68 multipliers. That’s about where I expect to land this weekend, running low-power until I have a chance to get into those amplifiers.

The following weekend – Aug. 25 and 26 – you’ll find the Slovenia Contest Club’s SCC RTTY Championship, too. It’s a 24-hour event, and notably your entry logs need to be submitted within 48 hours of the contest end at 1200Z on Sunday, Aug. 26. I usually end up with 150 or so contacts in this one, as well. Participation can be a bit thin on the lower bands, but at this point in the solar cycle 20M should still produce plenty of action as the summer begins to wind down.

Going up in frequency

A little further out on the calendar, I am looking forward to putting the 6M and 2M yagis to the test in the ARRL September VHF contest, September 8 to 10. I’ll enter the Single Operator Low Power category, as the IC-7100 radio I use for VHF only puts out 100 watts on 6M and 50 watts on 2M.

I have never made more than a handful of contacts in the VHF contests, but new modes – specifically FT8 – have re-energized all the bands and I predict 6M will be alive with FT8 stations to work in the September VHF contest. 50.313 Mhz is pretty busy these days, when the band is open to anywhere from here.

The exchange is your grid square, and it’s a great way to boost your grid totals if you are chasing grid-based awards such as the ARRL Fred Fish Memorial Award.

If you think 6M is a wasteland, think again. Even when there’s no E-skip propagation, you can go to Ping Jockey to see of anyone with 900 miles or so is running meteor scatter. This uses MSK144 mode – typically with 15-second transmit/receive cycles, much like FT8. I use WSJT-X as my software for meteor scatter.

Just set your transceiver to the meteor scatter calling frequency of 50.260 Mhz and listen. I’ve made contacts out to nearly 900 miles this summer, with three meteor scatter QSOs during the Perseid meteor shower earlier this week.

The Stanford University radio club’s (W6YX) August meeting concluded with a meteor scatter demo, taking advantage of the trailing edge of the Perseid meteor shower which had ended the previous day. I managed to work the W6YX team in Palo Alto at around 11 p.m., pointing due south at them on 6M.

It works on 2M as well, by tuning to 144.150 Mhz. My little 8-element 2M yagi has heard stations as far south of BC as Las Vegas.

Give it a try. You never know who you might work. And it is such a blast to hear stations pinging off ionized meteor trails overhead.

That’s it for Episode 21 of Zone Zero.

Now, let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there.

Episode 20: Who’s on first? Real-time score reporting

Episode 20: Who’s on first? Real-time score reporting

Spring has hit us with full force in southern British Columbia. This is Bud VA7ST, and I’m sitting here with a bit of a sunburn from my first couple of days of full warm sunshine and looking forward to the next six months of outdoor activity.

Operating in a contest often means giving up big chunks of a sunny weekend in favor of fun on the radio. It’s quite an investment of time, and if there’s anything we can do to make that time  even more enjoyable and less isolating, it’s worth doing.

We toil away with purpose during a long contest weekend but – at least for single-operator unassisted  categories – we intentionally avoid sharing details about where we are making contacts or whom we have found on the air. But that doesn’t mean we have to be isolated from our competitors.

I thought it might be interesting to begin this episode by looking at a few outstanding contesting community resources that can help add to the enjoyment we get from our investment in time and station-building.

Live, online score reporting

In recent years, thanks to the availability of Internet access from just about anywhere, a growing community of contesters are posting their live contest scores in real time to online score reporting services.

These are quite sophisticated online pages that gather up-to-the-minute contest scores from around the world and publish them live. Anyone can go online and watch the competition unfold, with stations jockeying for position in the various categories.

Over the years, I have found this to be one heck of a motivator to try harder, to keep my butt in the chair and keep turning the dial or turning the antenna looking for that next valuable multiplier or contact.

There are two primary online score reporting sites – I like them both.

Contest Online Scoreboard

This site works with all the popular contest logging programs, including N1MM Logger, WriteLog, DXlog, Win-Test and several others. The development team includes Victor VA2WA, Alex K2BB, and Randy K5ZD, and they’ve done a masterful job of building a site that is easy to use and reliable.

You can view a station’s total score up to the minute, along with the number of contacts they have, and a band-by-band breakdown, as well as their multiplier totals.

CQcontest.net’s scoreboard

Also compatible with all the major contest logging programs, CQcontest.net is a powerful score reporting site. Developed by the R4W team in Russia, it’s very popular with the global contest community.

It, too, offers a variety of ways to view the live scores – you can dive down into the details of a station’s activity, view statistics and even view hourly rate graphs for any station, all in real time.

One-stop score reporting

The good news is you don’t have to choose which online scoreboard to which you want to submit your score. There’s a very handy single address that you can plug into your contest logging software that will take your score report and automatically forward it on to both sites.

In your logging program, just point the score reporting to this address:

http://www.b41h.net/scoredistributor.php

This is a score distributor that will forward your reports to both Contest Online Scoreboard and CQcontest.net.

And don’t worry about breaking any rules by posting your score to an online score reporting site. These resources are used by many of the world’s preeminent contesters and have been designed by outstanding and scrupulous contest operators. I am not aware of any contest rules that prohibit real-time score reporting – your online score doesn’t tell anyone what frequency you are working, or who you have worked in the contest. At most, another station might be able to figure out what band you are on but not where on the band they would find you.

So give it a try. Both sites provide good guidance for setting up your particular logging software to automatically report your score in real-time.

Official score submission

One final note about score reporting. After the contest, remember to submit your official entry log to the contest sponsors. Many contests these days have short submission deadlines – some as short as a few days after a contest. Every contest will list the “log deadline” in its rules. If you miss the deadline, your log might end up being considered a “check log,” which means it wouldn’t be eligible for the competition but is still highly valuable to the log-checkers as your log can help validate the log entries of other stations.

3830scores.com score summaries

And, if you want a little more fun, consider posting your claimed score to the 3830Scores.com website. The site has custom forms to post your claimed score for just about any major contest and many smaller regional contests.

A lot of contributors like to include a brief write-up of their experiences in the contests, and these make for interesting reading in the hours and days after a contest is over. It also makes a great archive from year to year, which can be a valuable source of expert knowledge as you prepare for the next contest.

I like to use the score comparison tool to see exactly how my totals on each band matched up against similarly equipped stations in my category. It’s amazing to see how one station in my region can do well on 80M while I suffered, or vice versa. It’s useful intel to help assess your station’s weak points and strengths.

And that is how a station-building to-do list keeps getting longer.

Recapping April conditions

Our last episode was at the end of March, and at the time we were looking forward to a handful of contests in April. Looking back over the past four weeks, conditions were a real mish-mash.

The EA RTTY contest on April 7 and 8 produced surprisingly good results for us here on the North American West Coast. 20M was open to Europe from VE7 for hours both mornings, and strong enough to work down into the second tier of stations. The European country multipliers and the Spanish multipliers added up quickly, and  I ended up with my sixth best score in the 14 years I’ve been recording my entries. That’s not too bad considering we’re in the trough at the bottom of solar cycle 24.

The following weekend brought the Japan International DX CW contest on April 14 and 15. While we on the west coast usually enjoy and advantage when working Japan, in this contest the bands were truly awful. I ended up with just 12 contacts with Japanese stations, in only 10 prefectures – that’s just 10 multipliers out of a possible 50. Conditions were so poor I only entered as a 20M single band operation, and only put in about an hour as there just weren’t enough workable stations from here to justify more time.

On April 22 and 23, our Brazilian friends sponsored the Manchester Mineira or CQMM contest. I spent about five hours in that one and managed just 61 contacts and eight South American contacts. To my surprise, I had more contacts on 40M (including more South American QSOs) than I did on 20M.  That tells us something about the strength of 20M that weekend, which is kind of typical of high band conditions at solar minimum.

On the final weekend of April, we had the British Amateur Radio Teleprinter Group (BARTG) 75-baud RTTY Sprint, and the SP DX RTTY contest.

In the Polish-sponsored SP DX RTTY, conditions were rather flat but not as bad as they had been on the previous two weekends. Running low power this time out, on 20M I was able to work a few Europeans, including a handful of Polish stations for multipliers. Participation seemed down a bit from recent years, which is to be expected as the bands aren’t in good shape, but as solar cycle 25 revs up to speed in coming years we should se a resurgence in weekend contest participation rates.

Before the BARTG 75-baud RTTY Spring, I checked the rules and was reminded to check the list of “Expert” stations before the contest began. In BARTG-sponsored contests, anyone with a top-10 finish over the past year is required to enter the Single Operator Expert category in the subsequent two years. About 40 stations each year make the list and remain there for two years. To my surprise, I made the Experts list in 2017, so I now must compete with the other “Expert” stations through 2019. That made my day – I had no idea I’d been in the top 10 last year.

The 75-baud Sprint is interesting for three reasons:

  1. It’s only four hours long – starting at 10 a.m. Pacific time (1700z) on Sunday, and ending at 2 p.m. So, it’s an action-packed sprint indeed.
  2. Continents are multipliers – so you multiply your contact points times the number of DXCC countries and W/VE/JA and VK call areas worked, times the number of continents worked.
  3. The sprint is operated using higher-speed radio-teletype. Normal RTTY is 45-baud, and while you wouldn’t think 75-baud is that much faster, it really is. Calling CQ takes a second or so, and an ideally brief two-way exchange takes perhaps six seconds. That makes for very quick QSOs, and at times the contacts-per-minute rate can be very high.

With the bands in sorry shape, the sprint was definitely a daylight-only 20M single-band contest. In BARTG contests, there is no differentiation between low- or high-power entries – you compete against everyone, regardless of power level. So, I ran the amplifier, putting about 500 watts into the three-element yagi. I tried like crazy to work as many continents as I could find. For me, North America is automatic, and it would take quite a disaster to prevent me from making at least one European contact in broad daylight in the morning hours.

I pointed the antenna in all the best directions, calling CQ and combing through 20M over and over hoping to run across an African station – perhaps the Azores or Canary Islands, or Morocco, which are the most likely African stations to work from here in most big contests. It was futile. When the four-hour clock ran out, I had just North America and Europe in the log, and nothing for Asia, Oceania, South America or Africa. It was very disappointing, but that’s life in the trough.

Volta RTTY

May is a bit thin on big contests, but there is a great RTTY contest on May 11 and 12 – the Italian-sponsored Volta RTTY – it’s incredibly fun because scores soar quickly into the millions, and some really successful stations will have scores in the billions of points before the weekend is done.

Each contact is scored according to a points table, based on the distance between you and the station you’re working. Then for multipliers, you multiply the QSO points by the number of DXCC countries and call areas of the US, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. It makes for great fun, so if you are able to get on the air for some teletype contesting, I’d highly recommend this one.

CQ WPX CW

Then we have one of the year’s biggest contest – the CQ Worldwide WPX CW contest on May 26 and 27. WPX is short-hand for “Weird Prefix” because the multipliers in this contest are each unique callsign prefix. That means working stations with the callsign prefixes of W6, WA6, N6, NN6 and NK6, for example, would give you five multipliers! Scores rise quickly and it’s a complete blast.

CQ WPX CW is a two-day event, but single operators can only work 36 hours of the 48-hour contest so picking your 12 hours of off-times is an important part of a winning strategy.

I don’t have the stamina I had a decade or two ago, when I’d put in the full 36 hours, so I usually max out at about 28 or 30 hours of operating time. I’ll get on from the start – which is 0000 UTC on May 26 – and keep going for about the first 10 hours. That takes me to about 3 a.m. local time on Saturday morning, when I’ll try to get five hours of sleep before getting back on for the usual 20M morning opening to Europe.

Typically, I’ll take a two-hour nap on Saturday afternoon as 20M goes soft but be back on as 40M begins to open across North America in the late afternoon, and I’ll work 40M and 80M through the night – again, until about 3 a.m. or so. Then repeat that cycle through Sunday.

Who knows what the propagation gods will deliver for us. I do know that we’ll all be in the same boat, no matter the conditions, and it will be extraordinary fun to make rapid contacts on packed bands.

If you’ve never competed in the WPX contests, you should give it a try. The exchange is super easy to copy in Morse code, because it’s just a signal report – almost always you’ll receive a 599 report – plus a progressive serial number. And that’s usually fairly easy to copy. Stations should have the courtesy to slow down for you, if you’re sending at a slower speed. I sure do, because I remember what it’s like to copy code on paper before it became second nature.

To give you an idea of how much fun you can have in this one, I looked over the past 10 years of my entries, going back to 2008. In every year except 2011 and 2013 when I was part-time, I made more than 1,000 contacts in this contest. And usually I end up with about 1,200 contacts – the pace is frantic at times and for a lot of contesters, that’s what we crave.

You can do well in WPX CW even with a modest set-up. For those who don’t know, I have a three-element yagi for the high bands, and it’s on a little crank-up tower that puts that antenna at a modest 47 feet in the air when fully extended. But I usually compete with the tower nested so the yagi is only 27 feet in the air. And I do just fine with plenty in the fun-factor department.

It doesn’t matter what gear you have. Just put it on the air and jump in – you’ll enjoy it a lot.

And if you’d like to add an extra element of fun, please do consider posting your scores either in real time during the contest (via Contest Online Scoreboard or CQcontest.net’s scoreboard) or after the contest on the 3830 Score Reporting site, so we can see how you did.

That’s it for Episode 20 of Zone Zero. Now, let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Episode 19: Back at it with new eyes

Episode 19: Back at it with new eyes

We’re back in the saddle and ready to look at 2018 through a whole new lens. Literally. I’m seeing like a kid and ready to hit the air again. Welcome to Episode 19 of Zone Zero.


It has been a long road, but I am back in action and possibly better than ever thanks to the wonders of modern science and medicine.

Since the end of 2017, I have been in a self-imposed exile from the podcast – spending January and part of February in the grip of near blindness caused by cataracts in both eyes.

But those days are behind me. In February my right eye received a new lens implant, which gave me 20/25 vision in that eye – I was cleared for driving the following morning. Just over a week ago, I went back to have my left eye done – and that artificial replacement lens has some reading power built into it,. I am 20/20 in both eyes now and I don’t even need reading glasses.

Well, except for reading the small print on a pill bottle or for soldering electronic parts, perhaps. But I can live with that.

All of this is to say, I have no excuses left for not putting my entire best effort into whatever I choose to pursue. And my favorite pursuit is amateur radio contesting, as you know.

A note of thanks

I want to thank everyone who sent me best wishes while I was waiting for the surgery. In particular, Brian AF7MD in Oregon – thank you so much for taking the time to write and letting me know your thoughts. I appreciate it a great deal and it helped me push through to get back at it.

Not totally off the air

Now, I am going to confide in you that while I wasn’t able to see, I was still able to dabble in the occasional contest while I was awaiting my new vision. In fact, so far in 2018 I have competed in 12 contests already, which is quite something when you consider I literally could barely see characters on a computer screen when zoomed in to 200 percent.

In those 12 contests, I have averaged 269 contacts per event. That’s lower than the average of 310 contacts across the 46 contests I participated in through all of 2017, but still pretty respectable considering my limitations.

All of this is a segue to an interesting phenomenon I have noticed in tracking my contest performance over the past 16 years – essentially across Solar Cycle 24 as we approach the beginning of Cycle 25. If you go to my contest scores web page, you’ll see the scores I have recorded in every significant contest since 2002. As of this month, I’ve entered 861 contests and there are links to my post-contest write-ups for almost every one of them.

At the bottom of the scores page is a chart showing each year’s total QSO count and the number of contests entered for that year.

Curiously, the chart reveals that the highest annual QSO totals occurred in a twin peak – in 2012 and 2014, which correlates very closely with the two peaks we saw in Solar Cycle 24’s sunspot counts.

If I was a betting fella, I could use this past performance to project future performance.

So, in 2017 I ended up making about 16,700 contacts. Looking back over the previous solar cycle, I see that the closest equivalent performance was in 2006 with 16,000 contacts.

I haven’t substantially changed my contesting habits or antenna capabilities over those years. I still have a triband yagi on a short tower, and wire antennas for the low bands.

With this historical comparison, I think I can reasonably predict that in 2018 I’ll end up with a QSO total similar to one year after 2006. That would be 2007, when I had 18,600 contacts, or a marginal improvement.

The big jump I would expect to see is next year, in 2019, when I think we will see a rise into the new solar cycle and a significant improvement in contest performance (going from 2007 to 2008, my performance rose from 18,600 Qs to 20,000 Qs).

That’s all conjecture, of course, but I like to play with the historical performance to see how well it applies to current and future conditions. We’re at the bottom of the cycle now, and should see things improving over the next couple of years.Now, all of that good news doesn’t take the sting out of current conditions. Simply put, things pretty much suck right now. Solar flux has been sitting at 68 for weeks, if not months, and there are zero sunspots. That’s as low as things can go.

Clearly, the high bands are virtually useless, and though the lower bands still kick up some dust they don’t make for riveting contest experiences the way a snappy 15M band does.

March in review

The CQ Weird Prefix SSB contest ran in early March. Conditions were about as poor as they can get, which is a familiar refrain these days.

The following weekend, March 17 to 19, we had the BARTG HF RTTY Contest. It’s a worldwide event in which everyone works everyone. I love it.

The trick is  to find as many DXCC countries on each band, plus all the call areas of Japan, the United States, Canada and Australia. This year the bottom fell out of the bands and I only managed to work five continents – and did not hear Africa all weekend.

Thinking of spring

We’re seeing daytime temperatures well above freezing and full-on spring is just around the corner.

I’ve been thinking of antenna projects for when the warm weather arrives. My first project will be to replace the floppy old Inverted-L antenna for 160M. I plan to use the drone my XYL bought me for Christmas to haul up a fishing line to drape over an 80-foot tall elm tree on one side of the back yard. I figure that will give me about 70 feet of vertical and the remainder of the 135 or 140 feet of wire will just be laying over the top of the tree and tied off at the far end with rope.

I’ll give it a try on the first calm day once the dandelions come back this spring and report back.

One thing’s for certain, Boomer the ham radio Border Collie is going to love getting back out there on the squirrel patrol. All winter long he’s been bounding around the back yard looking for them in the trees, and they’ll be back to taunt him as soon as the sun warms things.

There’s always good entertainment in that back yard. I’m looking forward to it all.

That’s it for Episode 19 of Zone Zero. Now, let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there.

Episode 18 — 73 and QRT for now

Episode 18 — 73 and QRT for now

After eight months, this is the final episode of the Zone Zero podcast.

It’s the last day of 2017, and we’ve had a pretty good contest season this year, considering how poor the radio conditions have been down in the bottom of Solar Cycle 24. We have another couple of years of these slack bands before things will perk up – and I would expect Solar Cycle 25 to be a lot better than we have experienced over the past decade or so.

If you look at historical records of previous sunspot cycles, it appears Cycle 24 was an anomalous one – with an unusually low peak sunspot count. Let’s hope it was just a one-off, and that by 2019 or 2020 the rise toward the next sunspot peak will be a lot stronger than it was last time around.

Here on the final weekend of 2017, we had two important contests to close out the year.

Participation was pretty good in the Radio Amateurs of Canada RAC Winter contest which began on Friday afternoon and ran through Saturday. I had a really good time making more than 600 contacts with so many friends across Canada and the United States. Multipliers in this contest are the Canadian provinces and territories, and over the course of the 24 hours I managed to make contact with all except Nunavut and Northwest Territories.

The other major contest this weekend was the Stew Perry Top Band Distance Challenge. During the solar minimum years we’re now enduring, we would expect the lower bands to be quite good.  160M was very good for me over the weekend with noise levels very low, though I have to admit signal levels were also low — but at least they were standing out against the background.

This was the first time I’ve used an amplifier in the Stew Perry, and while I expected to see a dramatically improved score, my score was actually only the sixth best in all years I’ve operated in this contest.

That is a great reminder that watts in the coax don’t mean much if they don’t get out.

With 700W this time, I earned fewer points than I’ve earned in five previous years running just 100W. The difference? My 160M antenna used to be a lot better, but over the past few years the horizontal portion of that Inverted-L has sagged, and the elevated radial wires I use have been pulled down from their elevated positions. And I’ve been too lazy for the past three summers to get out there and fix things.

That will change this summer – Santa brought me a drone, which I’ll be able to use to put new lines over the very tall Ponderosa pine trees on our property, so the Inverted-L can get back in top form for Top Band.

Which is probably a good transition point to talk about my eyes. You have to see well to work on antennas, and certainly for flying a drone over tall trees. Right now, I’d be lucky to be able to read the flying instructions, let alone actually flying a drone.

I have really enjoyed putting together these occasional reports, many of them following important contests on the annual calendar. What you may not have known is that I’m fighting a serious eye condition which means that I am gradually – and, in recent months, more rapidly — losing my vision.

So far I’m struggling to read emails and web pages, but I can still see well enough to drive. At some point in the next few weeks I will be unable to read or drive – and at that point I will be unable to go to work or do anything at work even if I did get to the office. Of course, that also means producing a podcast even occasionally will no longer be an option.

The underlying condition was a retinal failure two years ago – and while treatment for that has brought my retinas back to almost full health, the drugs that cured my retinas involved steroid implants that are known to cause rapidly developing cataracts in my lenses. Sure enough, a year after the steroids began, the cataracts began forming this summer.

So, since August I have gone from 20/20 vision to barely being able to read an e-mail message, and the cataracts are getting worse by the day. The side effect of the eye condition is that I will no longer be able to play in the contests, and that’s going to be quite difficult for someone like me who loves to contest and really enjoys the camaraderie of our contesting community.

So, I needed to prepare this final episode of Zone Zero while I still can. Let me tell you, putting this one together has been a hundred times more difficult than it was even just a couple of months ago. Things have deteriorated that quickly.

The great news is my eyes are going to come back!

Through the wonders of modern science, new multifocal lenses will fully restore my vision back to how it was when I was 20 years old. In fact, my vision will be better than when I was 20, because I will no longer need glasses for anything — from reading to seeing the far horizon.

For now, I will suspend the Blubrry podcast hosting service I have been using. Instead, the full archive of Zone Zero episodes will be available on the website at ZONE.VA7ST.CA. If new episodes resume in the future, they’ll simply be posted to that website but won’t be provided as a podcast feed.

I’m too young to be held back by cataracts and I am looking forward to being productive and active again as soon as possible.

You may hear me in the ARRL RTTY Roundup next weekend, and perhaps other activities in January, but if you don’t hear VA7ST you’ll know why.

73 and thanks for listening.

Now, let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there. Sometime soon.

Episode 17: Top Band in top form for ARRL 160M

Episode 17: Top Band in top form for ARRL 160M

A shorter episode this week to briefly recap the ARRL 160M contest, Dec. 1 to 3, 2017. Of the 42 hours available in this one, I put in 16.5 hours — more than I usually do, but running high power helped provide more fun and higher rates through many of those hours.

In this show, I mention the CQcontest.net online live contest score reporting website — using your contest logging software, such as N1MM Logger, you can post your real-time scores and see how you’re doing against other stations reporting live.

Episode 16: Recapping CQWW CW 2017

Episode 16: Recapping CQWW CW 2017

The contest ended on Sunday afternoon. I am ready to share my thoughts about CQ Worldwide CW for 2017. It’s a short episode recapping the biggest contest of the year.


The radio room is still a little unkempt after a solid weekend of amateur radio contesting over the November 25 and 26 weekend. If participation went according to recent trends, we had more than 8,000 contestants from around the world in the CQ Worldwide DX CW contest – it was a Morse code feeding frenzy for many of us, and I enjoyed every single second on the air.

Here in the radio room I still have a few coax jumper cables laying about, and my ears are still decoding Morse code in anything resembling a pattern of noise. It’s all over but for the ringing in my ears and some should’ve-would’ve thoughts.

First things first. How did I do, compared to my goals? The short version is I did a lot better than I ever thought I would.

I went in with a simple and — at the time last week when I divulged my predictions — lofty goal of 1,500 Qs, 150 multipliers – that’s the total number of CQ Zones and DXCC countries worked on each band — for a 500,000-point score.

I managed to finish with 1,989 contacts, 228 multipliers and 970,000 points. So I’m happy. I don’t think many people expected the bands to be as strong as they turned out to be. I sure didn’t.

It was so much fun I ended up putting in my longest-ever CQWW CW session — 37 hours is one more hour than I managed in 2012, which was my previous iron-pants record for this contest.

Thanks to some short-ish naps at just the right times — but not sleeping a lot longer than planned — I don’t feel too beat up at the finish line. Sure needed a LOT of coffee through the weekend.

Working the world

I think the best surprise was a ZS station from South Africa calling me on 15M during a US run Sunday mid-morning. the band shouldn’t have supported that path but the signal was loud and probably on a skew.

Going into the contest I was curious to see how the HQ9X lads would make out from Roatan, a Caribbean island off the Honduras mainland. They were booming in here every time I worked them (80M through 15M). If I ever get to retire, that’s the place for me. Verticals on the beach, and nothing but blue water to the horizon. Dream on, I guess. The XYL says I can go any time I want. And take the dog with me.

By the end I had netted 75 countries, so not even DXCC from here, but it was fun hunting for countries anyway. It would have been better if Saturday had not been so rough. I really missed Europe on 15M – all I was able to get on 15M across the Atlantic was a single Zone 33 in north Africa. Oh, and that lovely South African surprise.

I loved some of the runs on 15M and 20M. On Sunday afternoon I worked 418 stations in one session — peaking with a 60-minute rate of 185 per hour — before moving to 40M for the final hour or so.

The AL-80B amplifier here ran like a champ, but the sturdy old SB-221 was great until I needed to go to the AL-80B for 160M. Then I just left the 40-year-old Heathkit resting for the remainder of the contest.

Sidetracks

About two of my 11 off-hours were spent on gear. When I wanted to run the second radio (on 40M) while running on 80M, I couldn’t get it configured for about an hour. CAT wasn’t working properly, until I realized the radio was in memory mode not VFO mode. Duh. Fixed, and had a great time with dueling CQs on 40 and 80 for about three hours from midnight to 3 a.m. when it was slow enough to stay on top of things.

I would have made a lot more Qs on a single radio without the down-time getting the SO2R figured out, but it was a good investment in time as I haven’t really done much two-radio in CW tests. The radios and antennas worked just fine with minimal interaction even with high power, at least on 40M and 80M. Will do more of that in future. Maybe in RAC Winter at the end of December.

I also spent the better part of an hour on Saturday afternoon getting the MFJ-1026 noise cancelling box working and hooked up (haven’t used it since the July 2016 shack rebuild, but 20M was so noisy to the east all weekend I needed to defeat the power line hash). Worked like a charm with the 40M quad as the reference sensing antenna.

I must have been an earless gator on Saturday pointing southeast. I could tell there were lots of low-power stations in the noise but couldn’t work ’em until the box was set up, and then my rate shot up.

Okay. That’s one more behind us on the slow crawl across the bottom of the cycle. Pretty good fun considering where we are, and where I am in VE7-land with modest antennas.

On to Top Band and 10M RTTY next

I sure appreciate everyone who called in. This weekend we move on to the ARRL 160M contest, and I’ll be running the AL-80B as a high-power entry for the first time ever. I am really looking forward to seeing how much difference a few dB in signal strength can make.

In this contest, the world is trying to work American and Canadian stations, and for me that’s a perfect situation. I don’t expect to work very much DX off the continent, but I should be able to play well across North America and hopefully into the Caribbean. Even on that short hop I have lots of unworked countries to add to my DXCC total on 160M.

The top band antenna – an Inverted-L with three elevated radials, all connected to a folded-counterpoise isolator or FCP box – hasn’t been touched since last year, so all things are equal except the power output this year.

If you’re into banging your head against a wall, and I know many of you are, there is also the 10M RTTY contest this weekend (Dec. 3, 2017). The band won’t be open much, if at all, but you could find some spotlight propagation and rest assured there will be stations out there listening or calling CQ no matter how dead the band might seem. This is a fun teletype contest that offers some daylight distraction in the hours when 160M isn’t workable.

Thanks for listening. Let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there.

Episode 15: Bring on the world for CQWW CW

Episode 15: Bring on the world for CQWW CW

For my money, the CQ Worldwide DX CW contest is the biggest, best and most fun contest of the year. I look forward to this one like no other, and it’s this coming weekend. If you operate Morse code and want to work a ton of DX in a single weekend, get on the air and join the fun.

CQ Worldwide CW is the subject for Episode 15 of Zone Zero. Let’s dive in!


If you were wondering where Zone Zero has been for the past month, worry not. No self-respecting contest podcast would dare miss the opportunity to preview one of the biggest contests on the annual calendar.

CQ Worldwide CW is a mammoth contest, with more than 8,000 competitors expected to jump in this weekend.

(See the year-over-year entry statistics).

If you think Morse code is on the way out, think again. Last year the CQ Worldwide CW contest had 8,341 logs submitted. The Phone contest a month earlier had just 7,576 entries.

Think about that. There were 765 more entries in the Morse code version than the SSB or Phone version of this contest in 2016. I don’t think most people would have ever expected that, but it is borne out by the CQ Worldwide entry statistics.

Generally, over the past 20 years we’ve seen a steady — and in some years very healthy — increase in the number of entries in this contest near the end of November. To give you an idea of the popularity growth, let’s take a look at 1996 versus 2016.

Two decades ago, 2,885 logs were submitted, and in 2016 a grand total of 8,341 logs came in. That’s 5,456 more competitors. Remarkable.

Curiously, in the CQ WW Phone contest the highest number of entries ever was in 2013, at the peak of Cycle 24, when nearly 8,500 logs were sent in for scoring. But the CW contest had its peak last year – three years after the Phone peak, and well into the decline of the current Solar Cycle. I don’t now why they aren’t in sync, but it is a curious phenomenon.

Why the growth in Morse code contest participation? Well, I think it’s a combination of technology and demographics. Contesting with automated systems – in particular the maturity of logging software like N1MM Logger that works seamlessly with transceivers to make operating so simple even I can do it – is a huge factor. The barrier to entering a high-speed Morse code contest today is far lower than it was two decades ago.

And the other factor, I believe, is demographics. We’re a lot older, and that means more of us are retired or at least able to devote the time it takes to seriously compete. Families are grown, our careers are either well in hand or behind us. And because we’ve been at this for decades, more of us have stations that are more than a radio on a side table. The kids are grown, and more of us have earned the time we spend in leisure.

We may be getting up there in years, but I firmly believe this is a golden age for ham radio contesting. Alas, the bulge of retired hams who enjoy competing will not last forever, and while there are a lot of younger hams getting into contesting, they will never match the numbers of those licensed in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

I am determined to enjoy this while it lasts. I dread the days when I am ready to retire in a decade or so (I’m only 52 now and need to keep working forever, it seems). We’re losing so many wonderful hams every year, and it leaves me a bit sad after a contest like the ARRL Sweepstakes earlier this month that reveals how old we’re getting.

But for now, in CQ Worldwide CW, we have more to celebrate than ever before. You’ll make more contacts per hour across the entire 48-hour weekend than at any time in the long history of amateur radio. So let’s get on the air and make hay while the sun shines.

The rules

Depending on where you are in the world, you’ll get one point for contacts with other countries on your continent (the exception is North America, where you get two points for contacts in other North American countries).

If you work a station on another continent, you get three points.

Now, multiply those contact points by the number of CQ Zones and DXCC countries worked on each band.

It’s all pretty simple, and your logging software should be able to keep track of everything for you. I use N1MM Logger. It’s free and I believe the most comprehensive contest software available for CW, Phone and Radio Teletype contesters.

My setup

For this contest, I think I’ll run in the high-power unassisted category. I’ve gone high-power every year since 2007 – because I got my first amplifier in December of 2006.

Because I have been very busy competing in contests each weekend since the last episode (hence the scarcity of episodes this month), I have a good idea of how the bands will be from this corner of the world.

I predict that I’ll have very brief morning openings to Europe on 15M, but should be able to work Europe most of the daylight hours on 20M with the best conditions around 1600z to 1800z. So, I know what bands to be on during the daylight.

The contest begins at 4 p.m. Friday here. From previous years, I know I should start on 15M pointing at Japan. But after 45 minutes, I will want to skip directly to 40M, as most of North America will have gone there from the very beginning.

By 0045z each day, I will want to head to 40M to gather all the Caribbean and South American multipliers I can. 40M has been very long in recent weeks, with the US East Coast very loud from out here near the West Coast. But Europe hasn’t been all that strong. I know I will need every European country I can get into the log on 40M to be competitive.

For antennas on 40M I have a rotary dipole that will work nicely for most of North America, and a 2-element wire quad that points at Europe. It’s very low, with the bottom corner of the diamond-shaped elements just five feet off the ground. But it’s still a few dB better than the low rotary dipole, and when conditions favor it, the quad will be heard in Europe.

After a few hours on 40M, I’ll have to go down to 80M. There, I have just one antenna, but it is a doozy – an array of three full-sized ¼-wave verticals in a triangle pattern that allows me to fire my signal in any of six directions. It’s not perfect, being entirely homebrewed and of my own design, but it does work. Especially across North America and into the Caribbean and South America. Again, I’ll have to rake in every available multiplier on 80M to be competitive.

This year, for the first time, I expect to make more than a handful of contacts on 160M. That’s because I will be using the new AL-80B amplifier making about 500 watts more than the 100 watts I’ve been able to muster before now.

The Top Band antenna is an inverted-L using a folded counterpoise. It’s not the best configuration (it needs to be re-hung next spring) but I expect to add a hundred more US and Canadian contacts on 160M than ever before, and perhaps add to my 160M DXCC total, which sits at just 19 right now.

Because the low bands are the only place to be for about half of the contest weekend, you have to dredge all you can from those bands.

Secrets from the past

If you’ve listened to previous episodes, you know I make a big deal out of my contest notes. I keep a diary of my contest experiences, for future reference. And it could pay off this weekend.

In the2015 running of this contest, I discovered an unexpected 20M opening to Europe in the hour after my local midnight (beginning around 0830z). That opening produced steady runs — from Israel to Ireland — all the way to 1000z.

Will the solar cycle’s decline since 2015 still support that midnight opening to Europe on 20M? I don’t know. If it happens I can’t expect it to be a massive opening, but you can bet an Easter donkey that I’ll be there watching for it.

Trying new things

There was a time, a few years ago, when I could enter a contest and try hard and I’d earn a certificate for my section. I have quite a stack of those, but running a single radio is no longer competitive. Many of the stations I want to compete with now operate SO2R – that’s single-operator two-radio. I just don’t have the mental horsepower to do that very well, but the station is equipped to run two bands at the same time.

So, this year I will give it a serious try. SO2R on CW will take some practice. My intention is to give it a try on 40M and 80M, running the amp on 80M and 100W on 40M with the rotary dipole to keep working domestic stations.

I’ll do this because my 80M array and the 40M dipole are physically about 150 feet apart, providing a bit more separation to keep the receivers happy. I can put a 40M bandpass filter on the low-power radio to help, too. Sadly, I burned out my 80M bandpass filter a few years go by mistake, and haven’t tried SO2R much since then.

I figure if I can make 20 extra contacts per hour on the second radio, through the wee hours of the night I can boost my score quire handily. The simple exchange in CQWW – 599 and a zone – won’t overly tax my brain. Famous last words, right?

Okay. I am totally psyched for this weekend’s contest. I’ve booked off work a couple of hours early Friday afternoon, and if that pans out I will have some daylight before the start to do a quick antenna walkaround.

As I’m preparing this episode, on November 21, there are no sunspots, 10.7-cm solar flux is at a miserly 74, the A-index is at a whopping 19, and the aurora is crackling overhead at 8.1 or 48 gigawatts of power in the ionosphere. That doesn’t look good for the coming weekend, but things can change in the space of a few days. Fingers are crossed.

That’s it for this episode of Zone Zero. Check back next week and I’ll have a post-contest report. I predict I’ll end up with about 1,400 contacts and 150 multipliers for a score of about 500,000 points. That’s a lot less than the 1.75 million points I had in 2015, but about as good as I can hope for with conditions in the shape I am expecting for CQ Worldwide CW 2017.

Sunspots or not, I can hardly wait.

Thanks for listening. Let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there.

Episode 14: Fall 2017 contest season

Episode 14: Fall 2017 contest season

We’re into contest season, with some major events coming up in late October and November. What can we learn from recent conditions to help earn better scores?

That’s our subject for Episode 14 of Zone Zero. Let’s get started.


Thanks for joining in for Episode 14. Time sure does fly. When we started Zone Zero, spring hadn’t even arrived properly, and now here we are staring winter in the face. Boomer, the VA7ST Border Collie is still out there going crazy for his Frisbee but it won’t be long before Boomer is stepping through snow instead of green grass.

Over the summer I added a new radio to the shack – one that provides 2M all-mode capability – and a new amplifier, which adds high-power on 160M, which I’ve never had before. I did some antenna work, spray-painting the Steppir 3-element yagi with hunter green Krylon paint, and putting up an 8-element cross-polarized yagi for 2M.

I got hooked on meteor scatter modes on 6M, and I spent a lot of time poking around inside an old but wonderful amplifier looking for trouble I never did quite track down. But now the tools are put away, the lawns are being prepped for winter, and we put behind us those bright warm days that seemed to stretch out ahead of us forever just a few months ago.

Weekend contesting is back on the front burner here, and even with depressed radio conditions I’m still having a lot of fun making contacts in as many events as I can manage.

Over the past weekend, October 14 and 15, we had the international teletype contest known as the Makrothen – it’s a favorite of mine, because you get one point for every kilometer between you and the other stations you contact.

Scores go up quickly, especially if you can work DX stations.

But if you can only work domestic stations in your own continent – for me, that would be North America – the Makrothen can be a long slog, with low points per contact. I mention this because this time out, that’s precisely what we saw with conditions from the West Coast.

I could hear stations from the East Coast working European stations at will on Sunday morning, when I could barely hear the Midwest well enough to work them. That’s really frustrating – I knew my paltry score of 500,000 points wouldn’t be even close to competitive this year.

I’ve finished in the Top 20 worldwide in previous years, so the station itself isn’t the problem. It’s the HF bands themselves. They favor anyone who doesn’t rely on a path over the North Pole to reach Europe, and that’s going to dictate performance in the major contests coming up over the next few weeks.

The CQ Worldwide Phone contest is Oct. 27 and 28, and then a month after that is the CQ Worldwide CW contest on Nov. 25 and 26.

If you’re in the West, being competitive will require two things: wringing everything you can out of 15 meters if it opens at all, and working Asia across the Pacific to help make up for what you will miss looking a Europe.

It would be so rose-colored-glasses of me to say access to Japan and the rest of Asia without a polar path makes up in any way for being able to work Europe cleanly, but it doesn’t even come close. The fact is, Europeans won’t likely hit California and vice versa unless there’s a little flurry of sunspot activity in the days before the big contests.

I mentioned 15M because at this point in the solar cycle that band is just about dead most of the time. But through late September and the first half of October this year, there has been some life on 21 Mhz. Not a lot of life, but I expect that in the CQ Worldwide contests – Phone later in October and CW in late November – we will at least have openings across North America.

This will be important to watch for, because 20M is going to be the money band where you’ll work the most stations, but you’ll want to work as many of those stations again on 15M while that band is open.

Getting your QSO count as high as possible is a good strategy in years when the number of multipliers will be depressed due to missing bands like 10M.

If multipliers are scarce, at least go for the highest rate you can find.

Experienced contesters will know this intuitively, but if you’re just starting out or haven’t been through a solar cycle minimum before, this information could be useful as we head into the big worldwide contests.

As always, geography is a major factor in contest performance. If the polar path is closed, it’s closed and nothing can make up for that. All you can do is maximize local or domestic contacts in places you can reach. For me, that will be the US, Caribbean and South American countries.

Years ago, I would have also added Japan to that list, but the number of active contesters in Japan has plummeted over the past decade. These wonderful operators have diminished to the point where the once-powerful Japan advantage for North American West Coast operators like me just isn’t there. We can never compete with the East Coast and Midwest access to Europe.

Tough beans, I guess.

The polar path doesn’t handcuff everyone, of course. On the West Coast, the further south you go, the less of an impediment it becomes – to Europe and to Asia. This weekend, I read the following report from Mark, K6UFO operating at NN7SS in Washington State not far south of me.

Mark noted he had some remote station trouble in the Makrothen, but “When it was working, there were some good QSOs, lots of JAs, South Americans and plenty of USA.”

I can concur with the US and South American propagation, but Mark’s remote station is located on Vashon Island near Seattle. That’s a couple of hundred miles south of me, and way out on the Pacific coast – obviously a great salt-water shot to Japan. I don’t have that, and Japan was all but invisible to me during the past weekend’s conditions.

For a bit more about what we can expect in CQ Worldwide contests, listen to Episode 13 – Chasing the action. We looked at the solar conditions during the September running of the CQ Worldwide RTTY contest as a predictor of conditions in late October and again in late November.

That’s it for Zone Zero. Thanks for listening. Let’s go get ‘em in the contests. I’ll see you out there.