Category: General contesting

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 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 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.

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 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!