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Episode 13: Chasing the action

Episode 13: Chasing the action

The fall contest season has begun. We got out of the gate in a hurry with CQ Worldwide RTTY – the granddaddy of radio teletype contests – and now we start a staccato rhythm of major contest weekends.

How are you plotting your course for the upcoming months to the holiday season? I’ll walk through my plan for fall 2017 activity on the contest calendar. Here’s a hint: It’s a very busy season.

That’s the focus for Episode 13 of Zone Zero.


Welcome to Zone Zero – the ham radio contesting podcast. This is Bud, VA7ST.

I have been very ambivalent about this fall and winter — as a radio contester I look forward to it like no other time of year, and yet this year I dread the conditions.

It’s going to be a tough grind through the very bottom of the solar cycle, and if you’ve been on the radio bands at all through the summer of 2017 you already know things aren’t what they used to be.

At this time two years ago, we were still in the hey-days of great radio propagation – things were only just beginning to drop off, but on any given weekend you could still fire up the radio on 10 meters and work big swaths of the world.

Not so much any more. Here in 2017, as we enter the always highly anticipated fall contest season, most weekends we will find 15M the highest workable band and 10M is merely a happy memory.

If you aren’t familiar with the 11-year solar sunspot cycle and how it affects ham radio, I encourage you to listen to several previous episodes of Zone Zero (Episode 1.1 – When things go horribly wrong — is probably a good starting point). I talk about the solar cycle a lot – because it is the most influential factor in determining whether the high-frequency radio spectrum will be usable at any given time.

For now, let me just acknowledge that we are nearly at the bottom of Solar Cycle 24. Sunspots are very rare these days, and it will be a couple of years now before we begin to see their numbers increase as we rise up into Cycle 25 and conditions start to improve.

The lower bands are less affected by low sunspot numbers – in fact, you may find 80M and 40M less noisy and long-distance or DX contacts could even be more frequent. Particularly in the winter months, during those long hours of darkness free from summer thunderstorms and atmospheric discharge noise.

But we will definitely miss the high bands – 10M and 15M. We probably will only see very sporadic domestic openings on 10M from now on, and 15M will produce fewer and fewer contacts even just in our own continent. From North America’s west coast, openings to Europe are now almost impossible on 15M, though I understand some brief magical openings have happened in recent days.

Generally, however, contesters will tend to gravitate to 20M during the daylight, and quickly move to 40M as late afternoon and evening arrive.

Overall, contest scores will plummet – in part because we will have fewer stations to work on a weekend, but we will also have dramatically fewer multipliers to work because entire bands are now out of the running.

Take 15M, for example. When sunspots are plentiful and conditions are strong, from the Canadian west I will work 60 or 70 countries with ease. But take Europe and Africa out of the mix because the trans-Atlantic and polar paths are closed, and I’m left with a smattering of Japan, Australia and New Zealand contacts to fill up the log beyond the work-them-anytime South American and Caribbean contest stations.

Well, that’s my reality for the next few years. But I won’t let it get me down. I know most of my competitors from this side of North America suffer the same fate – though the farther south you go, to California, for example, the better angle you have to work Europe without going through the heart of the auroral oval – which is the direct bearing from where I live.

I guess if it were easy, everyone would be doing this.

I have to remind myself that, no matter how bad conditions will be, we can’t change them by griping about them. We just get on the air and make the best of a lousy situation.

And I’m happy to report that there are a LOT of opportunities to make the best of this lousy situation from now through the end of December.

Looking ahead

I said we’d take a tour through the upcoming fall contest season, and that’s what we’ll do now.

First, the 2017 contest season really opened with last weekend’s running of the CQ Worldwide Radio Teletype (RTTY) contest. I didn’t expect much. In fact, I started the contest in low-power mode because I figured I wouldn’t put in much time anyway. Well, Friday night started out pretty good and I stayed in it through to the wee hours of Saturday morning, still running 100 watts.

But after a nice sleep, on Saturday morning when I got back on, I realized 20M was open to Europe but I’d need some power to punch through over the pole.

On went  the amplifier, and starting at hour 18 – 1800Z – I began running stations. By the time I was done at 5 p.m. on Sunday – that’s the end of the contest – I had more than 700 contacts in the log, with more than 360 contacts and 44 countries on 20M, and more than 100 contacts on 15M – stunning for me at this point in the solar cycle. It showed me that there’s stll some useful life in 15M, but you have to be up there to find it.

Here’s my 3830 post-contest report

That was the CQ Worldwide RTTY. One month later, near the end of October, we’ll run the CQ Worldwide Phone contest (Oct. 27 and 28), and then a month after that, the CQ Worldwide CW contest (Nov. 25 and 26) – and that is my favorite contest of the entire year.

That one-month interval is important to note, because the very precise duration of solar rotation means conditions last weekend are an indication of what we can expect next time the same portion of the solar disc rotates into view one month later, and again the month after that. These days, the sunspots don’t change much from month to month, so the predictive nature of this phenomenon is pretty reliable. We can fairly confidently predict there won’t be many sunspots and band conditions will be soft, at best.

But with CQWW RTTY being pretty reasonable, I wold suggest things will also be pretty reasonable for the other two world-wide contests in October and November this year.

Now, CQ Worldwide contests are just three of the season’s highlights. There are a lot more.

I always enjoy the California QSO Party in October (that‘s Oct. 7 and 8). Whether you’re in North America or elsewhere, you’ll have fun chasing stations from all over the Golden State.

On October 15 and 16, there’s the JARTS RTTY – a world-wide (everyone works everyone) contest sponsored by the Japan Amateur Radio Teleprinter Society.

The ARRL Sweepstakes in November are fantastic – both the CW (Nov. 4 to 6) an Phone (Nov. 18 to 20) weekends are well worth getting on for. They offer massive participation and exceptional fun, though the long exchanges can be daunting for first-timers. Just stick iwth it, and after a few contacts, it will seem like second nature. I promise, it’s not as hard as it might look at first.

And another of my favorites on the annual calendar runs almost at the end of the year – The RAC Canada Winter contest is 24 hours of Great White noise on Dec. 30.

For those who like to get on for single-band operation, there are the ARRL 160M contest (Dec. 1 to 3) and the wonderful Stew Perry Top Band Distance Challenge closing out 2017 (Dec. 30 to 31).

That’s just a quick and incomplete sampler of what’s coming this fall and winter – and only up until the end of 2017. I didn’t even get into the Makrothen RTTY (Oct. 14 and 15),  Worked All Europe RTTY (Nov. 11 and 12), and the Japan International DX contest that same weekend.

A whole host of activities also await us in January and the spring months, too.

Check them all out on the WA7BNM 12-month contest calendar.

Don’t let the solar cycle get you down. Keep your chin – and antennas – up and get on the air. There is so much fun to be had any given weekend, and I know you won’t regret a minute of the time you spend on the air with all of us.

That’s it for Episode 13 of Zone Zero.

Let your club know about Zone Zero, or jot a note about your contest experiences and leave a comment.

Thanks’s for listening. Now, let’s go get ‚em! I’ll see you out there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Episode 12: Why we do it

Episode 12: Why we do it

Something every contest operator has thought about at one point or another is, “Why?”

Why do we put in the long hours for no tangible reward? Why do we build our stations with unstinting dedication? Why are we drawn to the sounds of a band throbbing with signals, only to eek out a tiny slot for ourselves to join the fray?

They’re good questions. And there are as many answers as there are people asking them. But the keenest response is that nobody really knows, and we all know.

That’s the focus for Episode 12 of Zone Zero.


Welcome to Zone Zero – the ham radio contesting podcast. This is Bud, VA7ST. It‘s Labor Day weekend, and I have a confession. This weekend I operated in the Russian RTTY contest, and it was the first contest I’ve been in since July.

Yes, you heard correctly. I have been taking a summer break. Despite being a seasoned contest operator, it is truly amazing how you can lose your edge after just a few weeks of lapsing into no-contest mode. It took me several minutes on Friday evening to get the radios sorted out for RTTY and get back into he groove of seamless exchanges with other competitor.

It reminds me quite clearly that practice – getting on the air – is so vitally important.

And that has me thinking this week about why we do this. What’s the attraction.

The closest I can come to an answer is that it is compelling like an adrenaline rush you seek over and over again. And it’s comforting to be part of a community of avid fellow competitors. Belonging to a group, even one as hyper-competitive as the contesting community, is just plain neat. We share in wins and losses, and it truly is more about competing than winning or losing. The journey is the destination.

Before any contest, I psych myself up far beyond any realistic expectation of results. I look at how I did in previous years, I study the current band conditions, and for major contests I study how my competition fared.

That’s a lot of pre-contest preparation, and it doesn’t include the actual station itself — just the operator. This week, I thought I’d run through my routine so others can compare it with how they get ready for a contest.

The first step is to look at the calendar every week, and pick a target. Most weekends offer multiple events, and it’s your choice which you will make time for. In my case, I look for the contest that will offer the biggest bang per hour — the mot contacts, or the most opportunities to work new DX entities or counties, or add to my all-time prefix total. But mostly, I go for the contest offering the most contacts pr hour — DX or domestic.

And that’s because one of the prime motivator for my contesting is year-over-year comparisons with how my station performs. I make antenna and equipment changes — hopefully most of them improvements rather than steps backward — and I can generally gauge the benefit of station improvements from one contest to the same contest the following year.

3830

I recommend all contesters consider sharing their contest stories and scores on the 3830 website. Many of the world’s most active contesters do this, and it is a lot of fun to read what others have to say after a contest and see their unofficial – or claimed – scores as they come in.

After a contest, I will write down my thoughts about what worked, what didn’t, and any notable events such as finding an opening I didn’t expect – noting what time of day and where I was pointing. I will also note any new equipment used, or particularly good DX worked.

I use my own 3830 reports as sort of a personal diary — I track just about every contest I enter, and there are more than 800 of those records on my website, sortable by date, contest or mode.

Official results

If you’re new to contesting, I recommend deep research. Immerse yourself in the experiences of long-time contesters. There are a lot of great resources out there for that – including the official results of previous contests. Top places to start are the CQ Contest, ARRL Contesting site (and the ARRL Contest Calendar), the National Contest Journal, and hundreds of contest sponsor websites.

Propagation

During low cycle years it’s just a given — bands wont be good. In high sunspot years, it matters a lot, as you need to be where the action is and cannot afford to be one band too low when the world is somewhere else, such as working a brief or a strong, deep 10M opening over the pole.

Once the contest starts, don‘t be fooled. A hot start can become a death march of a finish, and vice versa. Many times I’ve plodded through a slow Saturday only to have a blast on a Sunday roll where my score skyrocketed. And just as many times, it has gone the other way around.

You have to be in it to know which way the contest will go. No shortcuts available.

I typically have the Orca DX and Contest Club homepage —  and the Orca propagation tool – open on my computer monitor throughout a contest. I know how useful it is because I developed it myself specifically to gaher all the key bits of propagation and space weather date and present it visually in an at-a-glance dashboard I can rely on for consistent rending information about the HF bands.

Why do we do it?

Back to our opening question. Why do we do it? Well, I once thought it was amazing to receive a certificate, but I have hundreds of them now. Division and section titles for BC and Canada, and even a handful of top 10 worldwide, though not in the major contest. I still love to receive a certificate from the sponsors, bu it’s not a motivating influence for me any more.

I’m also not really into competing with other stations because I know I can’t compete hardware-wise, and operating-wise I’m good but not nearly as good as many two-radio operators with multiple towers to pick from.

I am a weekend contester and happy to be that.

I obsess about antenna projects, trying to get the best out of the limited funds, space and time I have to work at it. And I do quite well within those constraints. Ingenuity and penny-pinching go hand-in-hand very nicely.

I don’t like climbing towers, so I have a small tilt-over crank-up that does well for me. It’s safe but I’ll never win CQ WW with the antennas it will support. That’s okay by me.

Over the past week, I took some time to tilt over the tower and made improvements to the Steppir three-element yagi. More specifically, I added a 6M fixed-length reflector to the Steppir, and moved the original fixed-length director forward a few inches, which optimizes the antenna for 6M.

I also put up an 8-element cross-polarized 2M yagi at the top of the mast. Now, I am all set for contesting on 6M and 2M, when the opportunity arises.

It takes only a few seconds to describe the project, but in reality it took weeks of planning. The changes to the Steppir yagi for 6M alone took a full week of evenings using antenna modelling software to determine exactly how long to make the aluminum tube elements, and exactly where to place them on the antenna’s 16-foot boom to optimise forward gain at a good SWR.

Then there was the parts sourcing. Where can a guy get aluminum tubing locally? Turns out not many places stock good-quality tubing in 5/8“ and ½“ diameter. But DX Engineering sure does. I got eight ½” pieces and two 5/8“ pieces from DX Engineering, a length of 1.75“ and 1.5“ boom material, including the $40 FedEx cost, for a lot less than I could buy it locally – assuming anyone locally had the material, which they don’t.

DX Engineering is the place to go for antenna material.

All the effort was worth it. I have already added a few new gird squares to my 6M total – I only have a few dozen so far, but I hope to keep adding squares as I work on 6M – it’s really a blast to make contact via meteor scatter or on FT8 mode when there is e-skip or rare tropospheric ducting conditions.

And how about that 2M yagi? In our mountainous part of British Columbia, we usually can work up and down the valley for 50 miles or so. But a few times now, pointing south, I have decoded stations as far south as Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada. This weekend, I heard a station in Utah.

On 2M via ionized meteor trails.

That’s really quite amazing for a 12.5-foot-long VHF antenna sitting at about 30 feet on top of the crankup tower.

On the calendar

Next weekend, pull the microphone off the shelf and get involved in the Worked All Europe phone contest. It runs 48 hours, from 0000z Saturday (that’s Friday afternoon in the Pacific timezone) to 2359Z on Sunday.

And for VHF-enabled stations, you might weant to explore the ARRL Septembr VHF contest, starting t 1800z on Saturday. Bands from 50 Mhz through to 902 Mhz are in the rtunning, and it’s a great way to add to your locator grid square collection if you are working toward the ARRL grid square awards.

We are about to launch into he 2017 fall contest season. Get those projects done, and be ready for the action.

The solar cycle is in a low period, for sure, but there’s a lot of fun still to be had on the airwaves this fall and winter.

Keep this in mind: if you can make your station work well for you in the solar minimum years, you’ve got something that will play very competitively when sunspots return and five watts to a wet noodle will work the world.

Contesting this year and next will challenge everything you have – your station and you. Now’s the time to hone your skills, and to enjoy every opportunity to compete.

That’s it for Episode 12 of Zone Zero.

If you like these occasional ramblings of a real-world contester, join the growing number of subscribers – it costs nothing to subscribe and it helps build our listener base. If you do nothing else, let your club know about Zone Zero, or jot a note about your contest experiences and leave a comment.

Let’s go get ‚em! I’ll see you out there.

Episode 11: Gearing up for fall

Episode 11: Gearing up for fall

It’s a slow time for contesting but building your station is a great way to while away the summer. In fact, come September, October and November, you’ll be thankful for every little improvement you made over the summer months.

It’s no fun climbing a tower or working on antennas when it’s snowing and minus 20 degrees outside. So get it done now and be ready for the fall contest season.

We’ll talk about summer projects and more in episode 11 of Zone Zero…


Welcome to Zone Zero, the ham radio contesting podcast.

This is Bud, VA7ST, looking ahead to the North American QSO Party CW contest, on August 5 and 6 this year.

It’s 12 hours of intensive Morse code action on all bands from 10 through 160 meters, running a maximum of 100 watts.

For my money, the NAQP contests are about as enjoyable as it gets — casual, without a lot of over-powered signals jamming up the bands. It’s a very friendly outing with a bunch of mates — all the regulars you run into many weekends a year and lots of drop-ins and others new to contesting. In fact, the exchange between stations is your name and state or province, rather than an impersonal serial number.

You can only operate for 10 or the 12 hours, and off-times must be 30 minutes or longer. How you spread out your breaks is up to you, but remember some stations might run the first 10 hours straight and won’t be on the lower bands in the final two hours. While others will be there, and the more states and provinces you can land on 80M and 160M, the higher and more competitive your score will be.

My advice is to leave yourself time to get on for the final hour, at least, and pick up the multipliers just waiting for you to show up on 80M and 160M.

As always with the NAQP, you’ll need to decide what’s most important to you: racking up the most contacts by calling CQ and letting stations come to you, or searching for as many multipliers as you can. I usually try to strike a balance between these strategies.

I am always aware of the rarity of the VE7 or British Columbia multiplier, if few of my fellow Orca DXCC operators are on the air. If BC is rare in the NAQP, I will spend a lot more time running stations – eventually, even the rarest states will want BC in the log and chances are they will find me.

That’s my theory for NAQP, anyway. Doesn’t always work out, but that is part of the fun of contesting – you never get the same thing twice, and there’s always something new to challenge your skills and strategies.

Upgrading the station

Over the past few weeks, I have been working through a bunch of projects in preparation for the fall contest season. The key projects are:

Cabling for second radio: My old second radio is an FT-920, which I love, but it is now an older rig. I’ve put it into third-radio backup position now that I have a new the new Icom IC-7100 in the shack – it’s a cute but capable little friend for the FT-920 and my primary radio, an FT-2000.

I have the I C-7100 running 6M and 2M digital audio-based modes including the new and remarkable FT8 mode and meteor scatter using MSK144 mode. Now I need to get things going for CW, Phone and RTTY.

I am slowly working away at getting the CW and RTTY cabling set up between the contesting computer and radio, which meant building an FSK and CW keying circuit into a DB9 connector, and soldering up the correct connectors for the radio end of the cabling. It’s more complicated than it sounds, but one more evening ought to do it.

6M yagi upgrade: The other project is also a VHF radio improvement. I have a three-element Steppir yagi on the tower outside, and it has a fourth element – a passive, fixed aluminum director – making four elements on 6M. But, this four-element Steppir yagi on 6M is not optimal because the stock distance between the driven element and reflector is 8 feet.

With guidance from an article by GM3SEK, there is a modification to improve the Steppir’s performance on 6M.

I have been planning to add a new fixed reflector a bit closer in, which will make the yagi perform like a long-boom four element should, with about 10.4 dBi — that equates to about 8 dBd gain over a dipole. Currently, I suspect it has about 5 dBd gain, which is okay but doesn’t squeeze everything it can out of four elements.

SB-221 troubleshooting: I also have one of my Heathkit amplifiers open on the workbench. It operates just fine, with the exception of about one second upon startup, when I see slight negative grid and plate current on the meter. That shouldn’t happen, so I need to trace the cause and fix it. Fortunately, I have another SB221 amp and the new Ameritron AL-80B to keep me company while I made the repairs.

As an active contester, I find there’s always something else that needs to be done — whether it’s antenna improvements, figuring out how to make the station layout more efficient, or just making up new cables for better reliability in the connections between pieces of equipment.

Antenna selection: In my shack, one of the long-standing challenges has been antenna switching. I have single-band dedicated antennas for 160M, 80M and 40M, but I also have multi-band Steppir yagi for 40M through 6M, plus an 8-element 2M crossed yagi.

With three transceivers, and a choice of two amplifiers for the HF bands, that makes for a lot of selection options. I have made radio operation pretty simple using a DX Doubler SO2R box to run two radios from one computer – automatically switching mic, CW, RTTY and Push-to-Talk (PTT) lines.

But that doesn’t handle antenna switching, so if I want to switch from my 40M two-element quad to the 40M rotatable dipole, I need both antennas connected to my big 3000-watt tuner and use that tuner’s antenna switch – or I manually change cables at the back of the radio or amplifiers I’m using.

It is clunky and time-consuming, and wide open to operator error at three in the morning.

So what could I do to make it all a little less complicated?

I could spend a thousand dollars I don’t have to automate things with band-tracking controllers, or I could use what I have on hand or buy a few lower-cost components – four-position antenna switches. That’s what I think I’ll do.

I have a few four-position antenna switches, designed for high isolation between ports, and so I will use one to select the transceiver/amplifier combo, going into another four-position switch to select any of the antenna options.

Well, I won’t have enough switched ports for every antenna, but fortunately the IC-7100 has a dedicated jack for the 2M and 70cm bands so the 8-element yagi can stay connected right there.

Now, a back-to-back set of antenna switches will work for single-radio contesting. If I want to operate two radios at the same time, I’ll have to continue to manually connect the second radio to whichever antenna I want it to run on. But for general operating, with the switches, I’ll have a little more immediate agility to change radios and antennas without a lot of digging behind boxes to change antenna connectors.

On the horizon

Beyond the upcoming NAQP CW contest, we can look ahead to a fun but challenging contest in mid-August. The Worked All Europe CW test has a lot of action, and many operators look forward to the traffic-handling simulation it offers.

WAE contests feature QTCs, which is the Q-code for messages or “traffic” – in this case, if a station requests “QTC?” you can send them up to 10 reports of previous contacts – each line of your QTC contains the time, callsign and exchange number of a previous contact.

Each of your QTCs counts just the same as an additional contact, so use up all the opportunities you have to swap QTCs with stations – but remember, you can only exchange QTCs with a station on another continent, not on your own continent. If conditions are poor, that makes things even more challenging.

WAE CW is all bands from 160M all the way to 6M, and it runs 24 hours starting at 1200 UTC on August 12.

So that’s it for episode 11 of Zone Zero. Get on for the North American QSO Party this weekend, or the Worked All Europe CW contest mid-August and have fun.

If you don’t want to miss future shows, be sure to subscribe to Zone Zero on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or your favorite podcast platform. Tell your friends, and come back often for more.

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

Episode 10: IARU recap and 6M meteor scatter

Episode 10: IARU recap and 6M meteor scatter

Our long, hot summer rolls along with plenty to do. Thanks for listening to Episode 10 of Zone Zero. This week we’ll have a post-contest report on the IARU HF World Championships held over the past weekend, and a look ahead at the next fun contests on the summer calendar.


Welcome to Zone Zero, the ham radio contesting podcast.

This is Bud, VA7ST, just recovering from the International Amateur Radio Union’s IARU HF World Championship.

Here at the ham shack, about 711 contacts are in the log from the big worldwide event on July 8, and the bands were in remarkably good shape – far better than most of us would have predicted.

I operated in CW-only mode, with the amplifier turned on for a little help. I ended up beating my scores from three of the previous four years, which tells me there’s still life left in the ham radio bands despite nearing the bottom of the solar cycle.

In particular, 20M was pretty solid to Europe from western North America for much of Saturday, and I made as much as I could of the opportunity.

Multipliers are ITU zones and IARU headquarters stations in each country. I found a lot more of them this year than last year, and finished with 237,000 points – up from 48,000 last year and 82,000 in 2015.

15M even coughed up a few contacts (no Europe, though) when there haven’t been many on 15M in IARU over the past couple of years.

I enjoyed some great runs on 40M including a brisk 150 in a row from about 0300 to 0500z, and also a nice steady run of 74 on 80M just after 0600z.

All in all, it was a fun day and I put in about 13 hours on the air, taking some nap breaks and going to bed at 1 a.m. local on Sunday morning, only to get up for the final hour of the contest from 4 to 5 a.m. local. I managed to add another 40 contacts on 80M and 40M, including attracting some loud Japan stations on 40M before the final buzzer went off at 5 a.m.

I sure hope you got on, and that you had as much fun as I did.

Three for the heat

Now we look ahead to mid-July’s trio of contests – the Digital Modes Club (DMC) RTTY, the North American RTTY QSO Party, and the CQ World Wide VHF contest.

As I mentioned last time, I am a bit more excited than usual about the DMC RTTY and the CQ World Wide VHF contest.

Digital Modes Club (DMC) RTTY

This one is restricted to speedy 75-baud RTTY and PSK63 modes. Now that I have an Icom IC-7100 radio with built-in sound card, I look forward to taking it for a spin using PSK-63 and also seeing how it works on high-speed teletype using an FSK connection.

Multipliers in the DMC RTTY are every unique callsign prefix, but just once per prefix even if you work them again on another band. Things get underway at 1200 UTC on July 15 and go for 24 hours.

North American RTTY QSO Party

If you like a bit more rate than the DMC offers, there’s the NAQP RTTY, which runs for 12 hours on Saturday – but you have to take off at least two hours, leaving only 10 hours of operating time available.

The breaks must be 30 minutes or longer, so you can take two hours all at once, or a couple of one-hour breaks, or four half-hour breaks – lots of ways to slice and dice your off-time.

I will usually take the off-time in late afternoon and preserve as much evening time as I can for the lower bands.Multipliers in the NAQP are each state, province and North American DXCC country you work on each band. And don’t forget – this is a low-power contest to don’t use more than 100 watts.

Things get going at 1800 UTC on Saturday, July 15, and continue for 12 hours until 0600 UTC (which is 11 p.m. Saturday evening at this location).

CQ World Wide VHF contest

The VHF contest is made for 6M and 2M operation on CW, phone and digital modes.

I have an 8-element cross-polarized 2M yagi – (that’s actually 16 elements, with 8 horizontal elements for the SSB/CW end of 2M and 8 vertical elements for the FM portion of the band) — but it is not in the air yet, so I will stick to 6M this time out, using the 4-element 6M yagi that is part of my Steppir antenna on the tower.

CQ WW VHF gets started at 1800 UTC Saturday, July 15, and goes until 2100 UTC on Sunday. You’ll be looking for as many maidenhead grid locator squares as you can work.

6M meteor scatter

I am going to probably focus on 6M meteor scatter, using MSK144 mode on 50.260 Mhz as a calling frequency.

If you’ve never tried high-speed meteor scatter on 6M, give it a try. Just Google WSJT-X for the software and follow the directions for operating the MSK144 mode, most useful for high-speed meteor scatter contacts.

Listening on a calling frequency like 50.260 will allow you to hear signals pop up from nowhere as meteor trails allow signals from far over the horizon to be heard momentarily. It’s an addictive pursuit, though, so be prepared to get into it more seriously once you’ve tried it out.

There is a lot to operate this coming weekend, and I’m looking forward to finding time in each of the events we’ve looked at this week in episode 10.

If you don’t want to miss future shows, be sure to subscribe to Zone Zero on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or your favorite podcast platform. Tell your friends, and come back often for more.

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

Episode 9: High summer on the air

Episode 9: High summer on the air

A magnificent orca (killer whale) catches his breath at the surface not far from our boat — this fellow plus a mom and calf nearby are why we caught no more salmon for the rest of the morning. I bet the whale family ate well that day, though.

You are not imagining things. Conditions really are slack, and it’s not just the time of year.

Summer months are typically slower, hazier, lazier times for contesters, but now that solar cycle 24 is closing in on the bottom of the deep performance trough that arrives every 11 years, this summer and perhaps the next two years will be a little – how shall I put this? – iffy-er than the great years we’ve had.

But don’t let that get you down. If you love radio contesting – and who doesn’t? – there’s actually more to do than one person has a right to expect for the rest of June and through much of July.

We’ll take a look at a bunch of contest activity in Episode 9 of Zone Zero.

Welcome to Zone Zero, the ham radio contesting podcast.


This is Bud, VA7ST, fresh back from a salmon fishing excursion on beautiful Vancouver Island, during which I landed a 12-pound pink salmon but lost the little derby with my two boys, one of whom caught a 20-pound white Chinook salmon and the other hauled in a 15-pounder.

 

From left, sons Dan and Andrew with my brother Matt (our captain for the day) and one of the three salmon we caught on June 19 near Sooke, British Columbia.

Any way you slice it, that is plenty of fish packed home in the cooler. What we couldn’t eat fresh is now hard-frozen awaiting summer barbecues.

It is summer, so station-building continues. In our last episode, I talked about a new amplifier in the station – the AL-80B, which will give me some high power on 160M which I’ve been missing all along.

The Summer Stew

On June 18, we ran in the Stew Perry Top Band Distance Challenge – lovingly known as the “Summer Stew” – as a maiden voyage for the new amplifier on Top Band. I had grand visions of hundreds of QSOs running 500 watts to the full-sized inverted-L antenna.

But that wasn’t in the cards at all.

The Summer Stew doesn’t see a whole lot of activity – thunderstorms make for terrible noise across a lot of North America, so people go to bed rather than fight QRN all night.

And so, I only managed to make contact with a miserly 17 stations, netting a grand score of 38 points. And one of those was a 10-pointer with KH6ZM in Hawaii. But the amplifier performed like a champion, and the inverted-L offered a very low SWR, taking all that new power very nicely.

All Asia not so much

On the same weekend (June 17 and 18), we had the All Asia CW contest. That was 48 hours of very little coming out of Asia for this particular ham radio station.

Truthfully, conditions were so bad I only ended up putting in an hour and a half over the weekend working Asian stations. A measley 19 of them – 11 on 20M and 8 on 40M. It was just that bad here in British Columbia.

I invoked the familiar refrain: there’s always next year.

Ugggh. UKR-CLASSIC RTTY.

And then there was the Ukrainian Classic DX RTTY Contest – not to be confused with the Ukrainian DX Digi Contest, which ran over the June 24 weekend.

In the Classic DX RTTY, I made just three contacts – one in California, one in Hungary and one in Georgia. The state, not the country.

I’ll admit I was kind of preoccupied during that weekend plotting how I was going to catch more fish than my two boys, and even that plan didn’t pan out. In the end, I landed 39 contacts across three entire contests, and one fish on my vacation trip.

Better luck next time, I guess.

Field Day and Ukrainian DX Digi

The ARRL Field Day was this past weekend, June 24 and 25, along with the Ukrainian DX Digi contest.

I made a couple of contacts in the RTTY contest, but my focus was on Field Day. I started in the morning checking the battery packs for emergency power, and setting up a pair of 40-watt solar panels to charge batteries so I could operate my radio. I didn’t get started at at 1800 UTC Saturday – 11 a.m. here. Rather, it took me until 2030 UTC to get on the air, hitting 15M to make a pair of PSK contacts before jumping down to 20M for CW activity.

The 2017 ARRL Field Day solar power setup at VA7ST.

I alternated between two battery “boosting” packs, one about 8 ampere-hours, and the other closer to 16 aH, both with built-in inverters for 120-volt AC output. Normally, I would have run 13.8V DC directly to the radio, but I don’t have a DC cable for the rig I was using, so ran off 120V supply from the inverters in the packs.

The inverters rob you of power, naturally, and I figure they used about 30 percent of the available energy in converting to AC. Next year, I’ll have the IC-7100 as my less-hungry Field Day radio. This time out, while one pack was charging on solar, the other was running the radio gear, and I didn’t have quite enough solar power to keep things going full-time so there were lots of breaks.

And when the sun went down, all I had was what was left in the packs, so I only got a couple of hours of evening operating on 40M before I had to quit for the night and await sunrise to begin charging again.

I managed 104 contacts running about 4 watts output to the antenna. There were occasional low-voltage shut-downs as the radio I was using was pulling as much as 100 watts from the AC inverter during transmit. That will drain a modest battery storage system pretty quickly, and I made it for about three hours at a time with the solar cells topping things up in about four hours – meaning a one-hour deficit of no operation several times. The panels provided about 17 volts of charge at around 2 amps combined, so did an okay job of recharging the packs but I did fall behind.

I enjoyed running QRP with less than 5 watts, but it’s not as much fun wondering when the voltage will shut things down all of a sudden – which happened mid-contact twice over the weekend. For next year’ I’ll add some battery capacity and another solar panel or two, as they are quickly coming down in price.

Up next: Canada and Germany

Coming up for the weekend of July 1st and 2nd we have two super contests to choose from – and I would encourage everyone to set aside time for both.

The Radio Amateurs of Canada host the RAC Canada Day contest starting at 0000 UTC July 1 for 24 hours. It’s CW or Phone, all bands from 160M all the way up to 2M.

Multipliers are each Canadian province and territory, on each band.

I usually enter the CW-only category, which has no distinction between power levels – high-power or low-power, we’re all in the same category. I don’t mind, because having some power from my end makes things a lot easier for stations hoping to work VE7 for a multiplier, and I’m happy to hand out the points to anyone who calls in.

And for teletype operators, we have the DL-DX RTTY contest – one of the great RTTY events on the calendar. Sponsored by Germany’s DL-DX RTTY Contest Group – the DRCG – this one gets started at 1100 UTC Saturday and runs 24 hours.

You’ll be looking for any station anywhere, but contacts with DL stations in Germany are worth five extra points each if you’re outside Europe (and three extra points if you’re in Europe).

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

On the horizon: Summer cornucopia of contests

Just when you thought July was going to be quiet, one of the biggest contests of the year shows up. The International Amateur Radio Union’s IARU HF World Championship is June 8 and 9. It’s administered by the ARRL, and attracts the entire world in a massive event – and one I look forward to every summer.

We’ll take a look at that one next week, along with a peek ahead to mid-July’s trio of contests – the Digital Modes Club (DMC) RTTY, the North American RTTY QSO Party, and the CQ World Wide VHF contest.

You have to forgive me for being a bit more excited than usual about the DMC RTTY and the CQ World Wide VHF contest.

The DMC RTTY is restricted to speedy 75-baud RTTY and PSK63 modes, and the VHF contest is made for 6M and 2M operation on CW, phone and digital modes.

Well, this week I’m expecting the next piece of my 2017 station building efforts to arrive in the mail. I have purchased another transceiver for the radio shack – an Icom IC-7100, which has 2M and 70cm all-mode capability. Both have been missing from my contest toolkit, and I hope to have that particular operating gap filled by the end of this week.

Looking forward to a new bit of kit.

Thirteen years ago, when I purchased my US Towers tubular tower, it came with a 16-element cross-polarized 2M yagi which has been in the shed ever since. It’s going up on a pole with a little rotator soon, and I am rather keen to try my hand at VHF contests on something other than 6M – which both my FT-2000 and FT-920 already cover. I’m also interested in trying my hand at meteor scatter digital modes.

That’s the great thing about amateur radio – the list of things to try is absolutely endless. It’s a constant learning experience, as broad as your interests will allow. Who knows what you’re going to discover as your own next big thing?

That’s it for Episode 9.

If you don’t want to miss future shows, be sure to subscribe to Zone Zero on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or your favorite podcast platform. Tell your friends, and come back often for more.

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

Episode 8: Puttering about in the summer doldrums

Episode 8: Puttering about in the summer doldrums

My new Ameritron AL-80B on the left, and one of my SB-221 HF amplifiers on the right.

The prime contest seasons are behind us and ahead of us, so we’re in what I like to consider the summer doldrums.

Not a lot of really big contests to jump into, but plenty of interesting events if you’re looking for some ham radio action on a late spring and early summer weekend.

Let’s go take a look in Episode 8 of Zone Zero.


Welcome to Zone Zero, the ham radio contesting podcast. This is Bud, VA7ST, your faithful contesting observer, reporting in after a couple of weeks of downtime following the big WPX RTTY contest at the end of May.

Since then, I’ve been in station-building mode. Nothing major, I guess, but it sure has been an interesting couple of weeks as I have been addressing the shortage of HF amplifiers.

The little side-trip into technical country began the night after WPX CW. With nothing to work on, I decided to fix up a failing SB-221 amplifier, which had a tube go dark on me a couple of months ago. After checking things out I narrowed the problem to the now-dark Eimac 3-500Z tube itself.

That old tube has been in service since the day the amp was built in 1978, that’s 39 years of faithful high power for me and the unknown number of hams who owned it before me so that tube owes me nothing but happy memories. But I couldn’t give up on it without a fight.

Taking a tip from one of the online reflector groups, I re-soldered the filament pins – actually doing all five pins while I was at it — and the tube came back to life just fine.

But that got me going down a rabbit hole of changes to the amplifier. I spent an evening re-wiring for 240-volt service, as I now have a 240-volt circuit in the radio room. But when that didn’t appear to work, I returned the amp to 120-volt configuration.

After three more nights I finally traced the problem back to the breaker box. In the load-center, someone had put the double-pole breaker on a single pole of the mains power. I moved that double breaker one position over, and solved the problem – nice and stiff 240-volt service in the shack.

I spent an additional hour reconfiguring one of my SB-221 amplifiers for 240 volts, and haven’t looked back.

But that tube I mentioned? It bothered me that I don’t have a backup tube in case one fails in either of my Heathkit amplifiers. So I went online looking for a spare.

DX EngineeringAmeritron and RF Parts all sell 3-500ZG tubes for about the same price — US$220.

RF Parts won’t ship tubes outside the US. But DX Engineering and Ameritron will ship 3-500 tubes, and get my endorsement.

However, the currency conversion from US to Canadian dollars makes the price from any retailer a bit high — US$220  right now is $296 Canadian, plus shipping. So I looked around on Canadian swap and shops for a used 3-500Z tube.

And amazingly, I found one!

Well, it took a few days of hunting as these aren’t the most common spare part around. But Rick VA7EM, about half an hour’s drive from where I live, was selling an Ameritron AL-80BX amplifier with a spare 3-500Z as part of the package.

My ham-guy brain was ticking over pretty fast as I realized an AL-80B is a fine modern amplifier with a single 3-500Z tube providing about 600 watts out on 160M CW, plus it does the WARC bands for a bit of DXing firepower. My trusty SB-221 amplifiers have dual 3-500Z tubes and are bulletproof contest units putting out a kilowatt all day long if I wish, but they don’t do 160M or the WARC bands.

So, I got permission from the station manager – my lovely wife Kim – to make a call and see if I could acquire the amplifier and spare tube. The whole package cost me $1,000 – which is more than I went into this expecting to shell out for a spare tube, but I got a very solid, almost-new amplifier in the bargain.

I like that the AL-80B is still manufactured and sold in stores – which means parts and advice should be readily available if ever needed.

The retail price in Canada, by the way, is $2,300 – so I saved $1,000 plus another $300 in federal and provincial taxes and shipping charges buy buying slightly used and not having to ship anything.

So what does that all have to do with contesting?

Simple. Station-building – getting the gear – is a big part of the ham radio hobby and especially competitive contesting. Better, higher antennas, radios and other equipment that makes operating easier and quicker, even things as basic as more or better antenna switches, all improve your game.

The RTTY contest amplifier heat treatment

Over the past weekend, the AL-980B had its maiden voyage here.

I ran the first leg of the DRCG Worldwide RTTY contest on the AL-80B, and had a great time. I didn’t notice a performance difference with 500 watts on RTTY using the Ameritron versus more like 700 watts with the SB-221 amplifier.

I didn’t expect to work more or fewer stations with either amplifier. Rather, I wanted to compare them running teletype, which is a 100 per cent duty cycle that pushes amplifiers to their limits.

Unless you have one of the big amplifiers costing 10 times the price of an SB-220 today, RTTY is not a mode to transmit continuously for more than a few seconds at a time,. If you keep things short and provide cooling pauses of a few seconds between transmissions (a technique which is perfectly aligned with the pace of RTTY contest CQing cycles), your amplifier should run a RTTY contest all weekend long without any issues at all.

The difference I saw was quite clear: the SB-221 ran a lot cooler – the plates of the single tube in the Ameritron glowed dull red and then orange after a few transmissions, while the SB-221 tubes never even began to turn color, and remained a lovely dull carbon gray.

The SB-221 amp won the heat shootout, but it doesn’t do 160M or WARC, and the Ameritron wins for pure flexibility and I also like that it has a reasonably accurate SWR and power meter in it.

So, now I have a few high-power options and the redundancy I want for operating in the big contests that really matter this fall.

And now, about those contests…

That’s Amp Talk for this week. Now let’s take a look at actual contests.

CQ WPX CW is now a couple of weeks in the past, and the next worldwide contest is the IARU World HF Championships in July.

For me, that will be preceded by what I hope everyone will play in – the Radio Amateurs of Canada RAC Canada Day Contest, which is actually on Canada Day, July 1. I’ll provide more detain abut these two contests as their dates get closer.

I mentioned the past weekend’s DRCG Worldwide RTTY contest. Well, I don’t know how well I did but I put in nearly 11 hours – considerably more than the six or seven hours I normally allocate for this one – and managed 251 contacts in 30 or so countries.

The DRCG RTTY gives you more points for contacts in zones further away from you, so being in British Columbia can be a real advantage. A contact between me and W6 in California might be worth 2 points on 20Ms, but a contact with Yugoslavia is worth 32 points.

Normally, all those European QSOs rack up massive umbers, but 20M wasn’t super strong to Europe over the pole – workable but only passable not great. So I didn’t gorge on EU points.

What does promise some advantage is my easy shot to Japan, here sometimes thousands of hams get on for a contest. But not in this one. I managed a handful of JA contacts on 20M, worth 24 points apiece on 20M and double that – 48 points – on 40M. The activity just wasn’t there to make a feast of Asian DX points.

Maybe next year.

I also listened around on six meters in the ARRL: June VHF contest, but other than one CW signal heard on a meteor scatter event for less than a second, nothing heard here in British Columbia.

Up next

Coming up on the calendar next weekend – that’s June 17 and 18, 2017 – you’ll find the All Asian DX CW contest. That’s 24 hours of Asian-focused activity, starting 0000 UTC on Saturday.

For teletype fans, also get into the Ukrainian Classic DX RTTY contest, which starts at 1200 UTC Saturday for 24 hours. The multipliers are Ukraine oblasts or provinces, plus all the DXCC countries worked on each band.

And for Top Banders who like 160M like I do, the Stew Perry Top Band Distance Challenge runs his weekend for 24 hours starting 1500 UTC Saturday – in my part of the world, because 1500 UTC is actually 8 a.m. Pacific time on Saturday morning, the Stew Perry is really a Saturday night contest. I’ll get in on it with the new amplifier and try to make my first-ever QRO contact on 160M.

I’ll be limited in time, though, as Sunday I am taking my two grown boys on a salmon fishing expedition on Vancouver Island for all the fish we can eat and all the crab we can catch over a couple of days next week.

I will be back in plenty of time for the following weekend’s contests, which include the Ukrainian DX Digital contest and the ARRL’s June Field Day.

But that’s all in the future. Hope you can get on for some or all of the fun to be had on the air.

Subscribe to Zone Zero on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or your favorite podcast platform. Tell your friends, and come back often for more.

Until then, let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there!

Episode 7: Glass half-empty in CQ WPX CW

Episode 7: Glass half-empty in CQ WPX CW

After putting 1,264 contacts in the log, the bands are pretty much silent. Around the world the keyers are at rest, and thousands of us are in recovery mode after a hectic weekend of action on the air.

If you’re like me, your ears are still hearing ghosts of high-speed Morse code from CQ Magazine’s WPX – or Weird Prefix – CW contest.

There’s plenty to talk about – from conditions to the competition itself.

Welcome to episode 7 of Zone Zero.


This is Bud, VA7ST, on a Sunday evening and the CQ WPX CW contest ended a few  hours ago.

I decided to run high-power this weekend and I’m glad I did.

I have a single three-element yagi and some wires for 40M and 80M. With that antenna setup, for much of the weekend the bands were not strong enough to make a lot of contacts across North America and especially into Europe without pushing some power through the ether.

The first night and early Saturday morning were great fun. Sunday was painful and no fun at all.

The bottom dropped out of the bands mid-day Saturday and never recovered. Some pretty ugly aurora and soaring A-index ruined WPX CW this time out.

I was glad for the nice conditions in the first 12 hours prior to the hammering as Earth swept through the path of a coronal mass ejection or CME from earlier in the week. That path was a river of high-speed solar wind hitting us, buckling the magnetosphere, and decimating the ionosphere that carries our radio signals.

Within a few minutes mid-morning Saturday, the HF bands went from working nicely to totally broken – and the aurora went from not being a factor to controlling the rest of the contest.

Here’s a glimpse at how conditions changed during the contest:

Anyone who was in this contest for just day two must have felt cheated. Between 0220z and 1255z on Sunday, the A-index rose from 16 to 52. The aurora hit a high power level of 9.1 or 78 gigawatts of power before slowing declining to level 4.3 or 8 gigawatts by the end of the contest.

Sadly, the bands really didn’t respond – they usually take more time to improve as the geomagnetic conditions ease up.

I ended up beating last year’s score and outperforming my goal of 1.1 million points – finishing with 1.86 million. That’s my fourth-best ever in WPX CW, which is quite a surprise.

I had to take two multi-hour breaks on Saturday morning and afternoon so lost out on any European multipliers that might have added to the total — again, I never recovered from missing those crucial points and prefixes from Europe.

Having said that, I suspect there wasn’t much worked over the pole from here after 1700z Saturday, when we encountered that high-speed solar wind stream.

As 15M was not a factor in this contest – being totally dead much of the time, and even when it was carrying signals well, hardly anyone was up there to make use of the conditions.

The magic of skewed paths

In a previous episode, I mentioned the Scandinavian Express. That phenomenon occurs sometimes even when the aurora is extremely strong. Point north over the pole and you might still be able to work loud Scandinavian stations from Norway, Sweden and Finland because they’re so far north that they are actually inside the auroral oval.

Well, one of those miraculous Express contacts happened for me on Saturday afternoon on 15M. I was not working anybody at all, and figured why not check to see if Japan is hearing me. So I flipped the SteppIr yagi to Japan, about 45 degrees south from the normal bearing for Scandinavia.

I called CQ three or four times, and then — as if by magic — a loud signal filled the headphones. OH3Z. I touched the rotator controller and turned a few degrees further northward,and he got a bit stronger, but not a lot — he was working me on a skewed path while I was beaming Japan.

It is magical. But you won’t work many stations on magic alone. Generally, 15M and 10M were just not open or nobody was there if they were.

That meant during both days the entire contest population on the west side of the Atlantic was packed into 20M. From my perspective, it sure is a drag to spend all the daylight hours on a single band — 20M was worked out almost completely by the final hours, with very few callers answering endless CQ calls pointed at the mainland United States.

Chasing the finish line

I made four Qs in the entire last 15 minutes, hoping to catch up to K3WJV, whom I had been chasing on the online scoreboard all day on Sunday. He was usually 20,000 or 30,000 points ahead of me. I’d catch up to within 10,000 points and he’d make a bundle of new contacts and skip ahead again.

With 15 minutes to go, he was up by 14,000 points. I called CQ to the US and made a few more contacts, including a couple of new prefixes worth about 4,500 points apiece. I figured three more prefixes would do it, and got pretty close.

Alas, I couldn’t make up the ground. I finished with 1.865 million points, 14,000 points behind K3WJV.

In part, that’s because I lost the final couple of minutes to a mystery operator sending ‘something slash six’ on a bug. I just couldn’t decipher what he was sending, and ran out of time so he never did get in my log.

If you use a compatible logging program like N1MM Logger, you might consider having it post your score in real time so we can enjoy watching your progress.

Seeing how you’re doing up to the moment against competitors adds a great dimension of fun to any contest, and it sure gave me something to watch while I was bleating out CQ on slow bands over the weekend.

My main competition this time out was Todd VE5MX, who was also posting to the online scoreboard. I bolted out ahead of him on Friday night, and he went to bed a few hours before I did so I was up by 200,000 points or so when I shut down for the first night. When I got back on for real around 12 noon local time on Saturday, Todd had been operating all morning in Saskatchewan and was now ahead by a bit.

I stayed relatively close for a couple of hours until Saturday evening, when he rocketed ahead of me, finding multipliers and contacts I just couldn’t attract.

All day Sunday, Todd pulled away, ultimately finishing with 550,000 points more than me – with 174 more contacts and 112 more prefixes in his log. I know how hard those contacts were to make under an aurora that was about as strong as it can get in our part of the world. VE5MX did a stellar job in very tough conditions.

I had hoped for 100 Qs on 15M but it was a struggle just getting the 77 I did manage to find.

As well, 80M was disappointing – it sure is a huge lost opportunity for all of us. If only people would stay up later and move down to make 80M more active. I know that’s easy to say from the west coast where 80M is most useful during hours we are normally still awake, but those four-pointers are like gold.

Summing up

All right. That’s WPX CW for 2017. I’m fatigued after 29 hours operating, but reasonably happy with the score from this station. It could have been better, and it could have been worse. So I guess that’s about even.

Subscribe to Zone Zero on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or your favorite podcast platform. Tell your friends, and come back often for more.

Until then, let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there!

Episode 6: Psyching up for CQ WPX CW

Episode 6: Psyching up for CQ WPX CW

On May 27 and 28, the world will be alive with CW operators vying in CQ Magazine’s WPX – or Weird Prefix – CW contest. It’s one of the biggest radio events of the year, with many thousands of hams competing from hundreds of DXCC entities.

(See some of the DX that will be active this weekend).

That’s the focus of this week’s Zone Zero ham radio contesting podcast.

This is Bud, VA7ST, and I’ll gearing up for my 14th consecutive entry in WPX CW starting at 0000 UTC May 27th – that 5 p.m. Pacific time this Friday. I can hardly wait, no matter what is in store for us.

So let’s dive right in with Episode 6 of Zone Zero.


When NASA trains astronauts, they fly them in big planes along a parabolic trajectory. As they fly up they’re under about 1.8 times normal gravity, but near the peak of that parabola, they are at zero gravity for about 40 seconds before returning to 1.8 times the Earths gravity as the plane descends.

That parabolic path is what our propagation is like over the course of an 11-year solar cycle. And we had a pretty good time of things when we were up near the top – goofing about as we played in weightlessness, the bands wide open around the world at all hours of the day.

But now we pay the price. You have to come back down some time, and boy, are we ever coming down to Earth as 2017 rolls along.

Over the past weekend, for the King of Spain CW contest, conditions were about as bad as they can get.

Not from solar flares or big geomagnetic storms, mind you. Rather, we just lack oomph in the ionosphere. Sure, we saw active geomagnetic conditions, a pretty strong aurora absorbing signals over the pole, and an A-index that hit 21 instead of a nice low 2, which is what it was during CQ WPX CW last year.

But the poor conditions we’re seeing now have less to do with momentary space weather events, and more to do with the natural long-term rhythm of the 11-year solar sunspot cycle.

The sunspots are all but gone, so solar flux is in the 72 range now and it doesn’t go much lower than that in the bottom of a solar sunspot cycle. When flux is low, so are our spirits because the bands just don’t carry our signals like they do in the years of peak sunspot activity.

While 20M is often abuzz with activity on any given Saturday, over the past weekend I didn’t hear much at all. In fact, in the King of Spain contest, during my hours of operation Saturday I managed to make just 22 contact through the day. One was with the King of Spain station, EF0F. And two other European stations made it into the log, but they were the only non-North American signals heard all day. 20M was plain dead – and I’m sure people stayed off the air in droves as a result.

We can be sure they’ll be on the air this coming weekend, though, because CQ WPX CW can pull contesters out of the woodwork like few other events on the calendar.

Still, don’t expect too much from the bands this coming weekend.

Last year’s WPX performance

The solar cycle has diminished so quickly over the past year that we can’t put too much stock in looking at 2016’s results as an indicator of what to expect on the final weekend in May this year.

With that caveat, let’s quickly look at last year, as a recent benchmark.

Checking the official results for 2016, I had just shy of 1.8 million points – with 1,164 contacts and 555 multipliers. The bands were not particularly good, but 15M was still useful. I don’t expect much out of 15M this time out.

My 2016 score was good enough for second place in my ARRL section – which is British Columbia – and there’s nothing wrong with being second to a firecracker of an operator like Lee Sawkins, VE7CC at the VE7SV mountain-top station. Lee beat me by 600 contacts, 142 prefixes, and two million points, so I’d really have some work to do to keep up with him in WPX CW.

Activity last year was strong with more than 4,200 logs submitted, and new world records were set for multi-two and the low power all-band and single-band categories. So despite the fact that conditions were in decline last year, things were actually still crackling hot for WPX CW in 2016.

The popular entry categories last year were, as usual, single operator high power (about 2,200 entries)  followed by single op low power (about 1,300) plus 302 QRP stations. While participation from high power and QRP operators was down a bit from the previous year, the low-power category saw a jump – and that’s a great sign as it hints that more casual operators are getting on the air to try it out.

No two solar cycles are the same. What happened during this point in the last cycle won’t be mimicked this time, but trends are bankable.

2008 as our comparable

We can look at the last time solar and geomagnetic conditions were in the same ballpark we are now in. And that would be 2008.

Fortunately, I kept pretty good records from that year – and most years – so I can look back and get a sense of where to be and what to expect on each band.

What I’m looking at will apply to my own situation – running high-power, which is about 600 or 700 watts, into a modest three-element yagi for the high bands, and wire antennas on the lower bands.

So what can we predict for the WPX CW this weekend? It looks like we’ll have solar flux of about 75 and few, if any, sunspots.

Looking back nine years to 2008, we had flux of 68 – which compares nicely with what we have this spring.

That year I finished with 1.7 million points, 492 multipliers, and 1,171 contacts. Actually, that’s not far off my 2016 numbers.

Generally, in the low-sunspot years from 2007 to 2010, I was in the 400 to 500 prefix range, and that’s what I’ll expect this time out.

So, in setting my expectations based on these data points, I think I can get 1.5 million points, 1,100 contacts and about 400 prefixes in the log.

In practical terms, the level of productivity means I will need to average 37 contacts per hour for 30 hours. I know some hours will produce 100 or more contacts, and in the wee hours of the morning I might only make 20 an hour. But it should be entirely possible to average 37 per hour over the span of the weekend.

Strategy and intel

Earlier in May, during the Volta RTTY two weekends ago, I put in more hours on 20M during the night than I usually do – it was a research investment in the upcoming WPX CW. There are lots of things contesters should do ahead of a contest, and high on that list is to simply get on the radio and listen.

I remember as a new contester decades ago contesting all night working tons of 20M DX in the wee hours, and not finding much to work in daylight. But those years are long behind us.

For the past decade 20M has been a daylight band mostly, at least here in the North American west. But that’s not a truism to live by. During the Volta RTTY earlier this month, I worked European stations in the morning, through the afternoon and evening, and some of the clearest signals from Eastern Europe were worked after my midnight, or 0700Z.

I wouldn’t have that intel if I hadn’t got on the air at various times over the past weeks, and made notes about what was workable.

I have been fretting because this year, during WPX CW, I have to take a four-hour break to go into the nearby city and pull a city bus In a United Way fund-raiser. I’ll be off the air during what I know is primetime for Europe from here – about 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

For a competitive score, that’s an almost fatal blow – but now that I know Europe may still be workable later in the day and through the evening, I’ll still have a shot at all those European prefix multipliers. What I will miss is the highest rate of the valuable DX points Europe offers during primetime here. But again, I’ll do what I can to make up the losses later in the day.

To hit my goals this year, a few things will have to happen:

15M will need to cough up 100 or so contacts, and 20M will need to provide some European access from the West Coast of North America.

I haven’t had much luck on 15M for a few months, but a CQ Worldwide contest has a way of breathing life into an otherwise dead band, and WPX will almost certainly light up 15M for domestic contacts.

From here, those contacts will be in Florida and the other southeastern states. If they’re not pointed away from us up here near Washington State.

There will also be some South American action on 15M – there almost always is in this contest.

But I think one of the keys for me will be to max out performance on 40M and 80M. Seeing as I will be away for part of the 20M daylight situation, I’ll have to be up much of both nights hammering 40M and 80M for as long as there are stations to call.

For the past two years straight, I’ve had 240 or so contacts on 40M – which tells me it’s definitely worthwhile pouring time into 40M activity.

In 2016, I had 80 QSOs on 80M, and the year before just 22 QSOs. What that tells me is 80M simply isn’t popular for a lot of casual CQ WPX contesters. I will be there, but I have a feeling I will be bouncing back and forth between 40M and 80M, or running duelling-CQ with a radio on each band once the runs get a little slower late in the night.

It’s a complete blast running stations on 80M with the big steerable array of three full-sized verticals tucked into the Ponderosa pine forest here.

Remember, it’s important to work as many unique prefixes as you can, but you really need as many QSO points as you can get. For those of us in North America, each contact on 40, 80 and 160M is worth four points, but only two points on 20M and up.

Remember that I got beaten handily by VE7CC last year? The biggest difference in our scores was on 40M and 80M – on 40M Lee had 238 more contacts than me, and on 80M he had 118 more than I did. At four points per contact, those extra QSOs on the low bands add up quickly – and with Lee’s additional 140 prefixes, it’s no wonder VE7SV finished with two million more points by the end of the weekend.

Translation: it’s worth making as many low-band contacts as you can but those bands typically won’t produce at the rate you’ll get on 20M.

If you’re a single operator, you can only work 36 hours over the weekend, with off-times of at least one hour.

Picking when your 36 hours will be is a really important strategic decision. I suspect most semi-serious operators look for six hours of sleep both nights – say from local midnight to 6 a.m. – giving them the 12 hours of off-time they have to take.

For me, because I will have to take four hours off on Saturday for the fund-raiser, I’ll trim my sleep time to four hours each night, which is enough to wake up relatively okay to begin another long day at the radio.

Instead of packing it in at midnight local, I’ll stay on 80M and 40M until about 2 a.m. both nights – or mornings, as the case may be.

This all assumes I am going to be pushing for a full 36-hour effort, which I probably won’t.

Over the past few years, 30 hours has been about my max – and more often than not I end up with 25 or 26 hours of air time.

WPX CW – it’s fast, fun and fantastic. Whether you are gunning for the Top Ten box, or are comfortable being in there with the rest of us, get on the air and join the action.

As I often say, there are a lot of stations far bigger than mine, and many operators much better than I am, but nobody has more fun in this contest than I do. I’ll happily hand out the Victor Alpha Seven multiplier for as long as people want it this weekend.

Be sure to come back next week for a full post-contest report.

Subscribe to Zone Zero on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or your favorite podcast platform. Tell your friends, and come back often for more.

Until then, let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there!

Episode 5: All modes in one weekend

Episode 5: All modes in one weekend

On the horizon we have a royal weekend, with His Majesty the King of Spain CW contest, and something for fans of every other major contesting mode.

Let’s get to it – a look ahead at the May 20th and 21st weekend.

Thanks for joining us for Episode 5 of the Zone Zero podcast. This is Bud, VA7ST, fresh off the Volta RTTY DX contest over the past weekend.

Last week, I said 20 million points would be possible in the Volta without even trying very hard. Well, I spent nine hours and finished with a claimed score of 60 million points. That’s triple what I thought I would end up with, and four times my 2016 score. And that’s despite taking off four hours in mid-morning to grocery shopping with my wife. Missed what is often a big part of the day on 20M.

Maybe the bands aren’t as flat as I thought.

The big help this year was a path to Europe on 20M. It wasn’t super strong but it was open, and it stayed open almost the full 24 hours. I made contacts with European stations — at 26 to 29 points per contact — all morning, in the afternoon and well after midnight.

Volta RTTY gives you big scores in a hurry, and even with conditions half-baked as they were this weekend, the Italian-sponsored Volta RTTY did not disappoint.

Coming up on May 20, we have a veritable bounty of smaller but very enjoyable contests to consider – whether you like Phone, CW, RTTY or PSK modes. There’s something for all of us this time out.

His Majesty the King of Spain CW

So much depends on the radio conditions at this part of the solar cycle – we’re often on the knife-edge between not having any useful DX propagation on the higher bands or having workable signals where we need them.

On Saturday, starting at 1200 UTC, we will see the 24-hour Spanish contest – His Majesty the King of Spain CW test – which will be a fun even for most of North America and certainly Europe, as it doesn’t require a totally polar path to work the most valuable multipliers – which are EA stations in Spain.

Having said that, I can report that last year from the North American west coast, I only managed to work 38 stations in 11 Spanish provinces.

You don’t have to restrict yourself to working EA stations, though. You’ll get one point for statins outside Spain, but three points for Spanish stations – and that includes EA6 in the Balearic Islands, and EA8 in the Canary Islands.

Just 38 QSOs more me last year, but the year before it was 216 Qs, which is more like it. There’s a fair amount of activity and lots of stations to work for CW operators.

One of the cool features of this contest is the possibility of working the special station of His Majesty the King of Spain, which will use the callsign EA0.

I worked the royal station last year, and no matter how laid back you think you are, it will give you a real kick to know you’ve made contact with the King of Spain station. I think I bragged about it to my wife for about a week after the contest.

You can check out the rules on the URE website – there’s a link in the show notes for Episode 5 at ZONE.VA7ST.CA.

EU PSK DX and the Aegean RTTY

If you’re not a Morse code operator, you have other options, starting at 1200 UCT Saturday. Both are 24-hour contests as well.

The EU PSK DX contest is for PSK operators – phase-shift keying is a digital mode that many find exciting because it uses such a narrow bandwidth. You will find literally dozens of PSK signals within a couple of kilohertz on 20M for example. Just tune your receiver to 14.070 and watch for the narrow-band signals in your waterfall display.

I won’t go into too much detail right now on how to operate PSK, but a quick pointer to some software is in order.

I use  a few different software packages for PSK operation – MMTTY can handle it, and I like that because MTTY interfaces with my contest logging program, N1MM Logger.

Another option that integrates with N1MM Logger is FLDigi, which is great for AFSK teletype or PSK modes.

For a good tutorial on operating PSK or RTTY, check out the Milton Keynes Amateur Radio Society’s Getting Started page — again, there’s a link to that great resource in the show notes for this episode.

Most PSK rag-chewing and a lot of contest activity is done using PSK-31 – which is a 31-bits-per-second mode and admittedly kind of pokey in terms of data speed.

But the EU PSK DX Contest is run using PSK-63 – twice the speed of “normal” PSK operation.

You’ll make exchanges a lot faster, which means more QSOs per minute, and more points in the log for a given number of hours operating.

Check it out and see if PSK contests are for you.

While you’re at it, take a look around the bands for the Aegean RTTY contest – also starting at 1200 UTC Saturday.

This is the eighth year for the Aegean RTTY contest, sponsored by the Aegean Radioamateurs Association. You’ll be looking for any station anywhere – on 20M through 10M, each is worth one point on your own continent, or two points outside your own continent. On 40M and 80M you’ll triple those contact points.

Again, if you aren’t a CW hound like I am, the EU PSK or the Aegean RTTY will give you hours of fun on a spring weekend. IU might even get on myself for a little digital mode action – I really do enjoy the gentler pace, and being able to check Sports Central or watch an NHL playoff game on TV while I’m in the contest.

But hey, Bud, you said all the contest modes were on this weekend. What about Phone or Single Sideband?

And right you are. There is one of those, too.

UN DX (CW and Phone)

Our friends in Kazakhstan offer the annual UN DX contest for CW and phone operators.

It actually gets going before the contests I’ve already mentioned – starting at 0600 UTC on Saturday and continuing until 2100 UTC.

You can work anyone no matter where they are, for two points in your own country, three points in a different country, and five points if they’re on a different continent. But if you work a station in Kazakhstan you get 10 points.

The multipliers are Kazakhstan districts plus the number of DXCC countries worked on each band.

I have a little secret at my station. Due to a convenient situation when I am beaming due north, where the distant horizon is at zero degrees elevation, I often have a pipeline into Kazakhstan from British Columbia.

I can’t say it gives me great scores in the UN DX – I usually manage to make 50 or so contacts each year – but those UN stations are usually the loudest signals coming over the pole into my antenna.


There – as promised: CW with the King of Spain, RTTY with the Aegean hams in Greece, PSK with the European PSK Club, and CW or phone with Kazakhstan. All the major modes in one weekend.

Which will you work?


Before we go, I’ll give you a preview of next week’s podcast – we’re going to take a look at the CQ WPX CW contest, coming up May 27 and 28.

This is one of the biggest Morse code contests on the calendar, and thousands of us look forward to it every May.

Over 48 hours, we’re going to be hunting for “weird prefixes” – that’s what WPX stands for– trying to land as many different callsign prefixes as we can put in the log. But we’ll be doing that in a contest where sustained rate – making as many contacts as you possibly can every minute – is the most important factor.

Some will go after the multipliers, which are all the prefixes you work, while others will simply run as fast as they can and let all those multipliers come to them.

It’s a strategy game unlike most other contests, and it’s a frantic, fantastic time on the air.

But that’s for next week’s episode.

Thanks for listening – I’d sure appreciate a review on iTunes to help get the word out. Tell your friends if you like what we’re doing here.

You can also email me at bud@va7st.ca — tell me a bit about contesting from your corner of the world.

Let’s go get ‘em… I’ll see you out there!

Episode 4: Volta RTTY DX and the CQ-M International

Episode 4: Volta RTTY DX and the CQ-M International

This week, we’ll take a peek at one of the great RTTY events on the annual calendar – the Volta RTTY DX contest coming up this weekend. If you want to score 100 million points in a weekend, then this one is for you.

We’ll also look at the CQ-M International DX contest for CW and phone operators. So let’s get started….


100 million points in a single contest?

That’s entirely achievable in the Volta RTTY test, sponsored by the  SSB and RTTY Club of COMO and A.R.I. (Associazione Radioamatori Italiani).

This year it’s the 51st running of the Volta RTTY, honoring the Italian discoverer of electricity, Alessandro Volta.

I’ve been in this one every year since 2003. Now, that year I earned 81,000 points and finished 144th overall. Over the years, I have managed to reach the top 25 pack a couple of times, and in 2013 when conditions were at their peak for solar cycle 24, the score I submitted was 299 million.

What a blast this one is, folks.

How do scores get so high? It’s simple. Every contact you make earns points based on a table that gives you more points for contacts in zones farther away from you.

So, if I am in California (in CQ Zone 3) and I work a station in Germany (in Zone 14) we both get 26 points for the contact.

Volta RTTY points table

What countries are in which CQ zones?

That alone can make the contest a whole lot of fun, and encourages the effort it takes to make those DX or long-distance QSOs.

But there’s a whole lot more.

Now, you get to multiply all those contact points times the number of DXCC countries and call areas in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the USA. Now, that makes your score rocket up the charts. But then it gets really interesting.

In Volta RTTY, you then multiply that calculation times the number of contacts you have made. Boom – into the stratosphere.

Last year, even with conditions that were mediocre at best, I managed 155 contacts in 55 countries and call areas – a pitiful performance really – and my claimed score was 16 million points. I put in six hours, which works out to 2.7 million points per hour.

The year before, when propagation was still pretty good, I had 261 contacts and 106 multipliers, and finished with almost 153 million points in 8 hours. That’s more than 19 million points per hour.

It’s pretty neat to see a seven-digit score.

If you go by recent conditions, I think we’re currently experiencing propagation similar to what we saw back in 2008.

That year for Volta RTTY, the solar flux was 67 – lower than it is right now – but the A-index was just 3 with quiet geomagnetic conditions. We might get a bit lucky and have a more flux than that to keep the bands open longer this weekend.

Anyway, in our comparator year of 2008 I landed 16 million points with 180 contacts and 48 countries and call areas – a rather piddly amount, and over the nine years since then participation in RTTY contests has increased dramatically.

Keep in mind that if you work all 10 call areas in the US, Canada and Japan, that’s 30 multipliers – on just one band. You can work ‘em all on each band, too.

If there’s any opening to Europe from where you are (or to North America if you’re in Europe), this weekend could produce 20 million points or more in just a few hours, without even trying too hard.

A quick tip for North American stations – let’s get on 80M during the evening. In most years, there are very few stations running Volta RTTY on 80M and that’s a huge lost opportunity.

It’s entirely possible to work all 10 US call areas there, and another half-dozen Canadian call areas. But only if we get on to hand out those multipliers. Help one another out and go to 80 – and watch your scores leap.

Volta RTTY takes to the air at 1200 UTC this Saturday, May 13, and goes 24 hours. It’s a straight-up 45-baud RTTY contest, so get out there and give it a try. I’ll be listening for you.

CQ-M International

CQ-M rules

The P-150-C country list (multipliers in CQ-M)

Now, I know teletype isn’t everybody’s cup of bourbon, but this weekend has something for everyone.

The CQ-M contest is an international event sponsored by Russian hams in the name of peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding.

It’s been going for 61 years now, and provides an outlet for either r CW or Phone contesting starting at 1200 UTC on Saturday, May 13 and going for 24 hours.

You’ll be looking for contacts with anyone, anywhere, with contact points varying depending on where the other station is located.

Multipliers are the P-150 country list, and there are links to that list in the show notes for Episode 4.

I’m going to be honest, every year this weekend I enter the Volta RTTY, and stick with that one pretty intensely. So, I’ve never entered the CQ-M contest – but if I wasn’t such a RTTY hound, I would and I’d encourage you to give CQ-M a whirl if you’re not doing the teletype thing this weekend. I have listened around in previous years, and there’s activity to be had.

Or maybe you can do both – interleaving your time between the two events.

Peaceful coexistence. After all, that’s kind of the message, right?


That’s it for Episode 4. Thanks for listening – I’d sure appreciate a review on iTunes to help get the word out. Tell your friends if you like what we’re doing here.

You can email me at bud@va7st.ca  — tell me a bit about contesting from your corner of the world.

Let’s go get ‘em… I’ll see you out there!