Category: Morse code (CW)

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 3: Four more QSO parties and ARI International DX

Episode 3: Four more QSO parties and ARI International DX

Bud takes a look at the May 6-7 weekend QSO Parties for the 7th Call Area, Indiana, Delaware and New England states, plus the ARI International DX contest.


April’s behind us and it was a big month for QSO parties, with the Michigan, North Dakota, Ontario and Florida QSO parties.

Not to be outdone, May opens up with a bunch more so if you like to hunt around for counties you’ll be fully engaged this weekend.


This weekend we have one of my favorites — the 7QP, or the 7th Call Area QSO Party — but that’s just one of four state-based events starting Saturday. We have the Indiana, Delaware and New England QSO Parties as well.

So, get out the keyers, microphones — and maps — and go county hunting everyone.

7QP (7th Call Area QSO Party) 

The 7QP will have hams out from across eight states in the 7th call area — that’s Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona. And that’s a lot of hams and a lot of activity.

It gets underway at 1300 UTC Saturday, May 6, and runs until 0700 UTC on Sunday.

I sure love the 7QP but I never do well in it, because I’m just too close to Washington, Oregon and Idaho, though on 80 meters in the evenings I’m close enough that I can work just about anyone in those states, and it’s great fun to work the counties. And there are a lot of them across the 8 participating states.

I understand that two years ago nearly 1,200 stations in the 7th call area participated. That’s a huge number of stations you can expect to find in the CW, phone and RTTY bands over the 18 hours of the contest.

The exchange in this one is a signal report plus the two-letter state abbreviation followed by the three-letter county abbreviation. So, if you’re working a station in Arizona’s Apache county, that station would send you Alfa Zulu Alfa Papa Hotel — that’s “Arizona Apache.”

I think the hot tip for this one depends on where you are. For me, being so close to the Washington border that I could throw an Okanagan red delicious apple and hit the border, I’ll only manage a few contacts on the higher bands such as 20 meters, but as the day moves into evening I’ll start to hear and be heard on 40 meters and especially on 80 meters. I like racking up multipliers in the close-in states of Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana, picking up counties I just couldn’t hear on 20 meters.

For those in states further afield the reverse might be true. You’ll get the best signals on longer hops on 20 meters and maybe have less success on the low bands. But remember 40 meters and 80 meters can be really strong across the continent in the evenings.

So make sure you get on and see what you can hear.

The same advice applies to the other three QSO parties and I’ll quickly run through them right now.

Indiana QSO Party 

The Indiana QSO Party starts at 1500 UTC on Saturday and ends at 0300 hours. The Hoosier DX and Contest Club which sponsors the contest advises that for 2017 county name abbreviations changed. So be aware of that and check the revised list on the Indiana QSO Party website.

Delaware QSO Party 

Then there’s the Delaware QSO Party organized by the First State Amateur Radio Club. This one runs from 1700 UTC on Saturday and ends at 2359 UTC on Sunday. The state abbreviations changed last year so make sure you’re logging software is up to date the exchange to watch wars a single report and county. And if you’re an out-of-state station, send a signal report and your state or province, or “DX” if you are outside the United States and Canada.

A cool feature of this one is that it applies a power multiplier to your score.

If you declare in your log that you’re running more than 150 watts, you get a 1-times multiplier. For 150 watts or less, multiply your score times two. And for QRP stations running 5 watts or less, you can claim a 3- times multiplier. So that’s pretty neat.

New England QSO Party

And then there’s the New England QSO Party. Not to be confused with the Nebraska QSO Party, the New England event is often just referred to as the NEQP. I love this one, too, because it includes stations in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

The New England stations will send a signal report and state and county abbreviations. So, a Berkshire county station in Massachusetts will send Bravo Echo Radio Mike Alfa or “Berkshire Massachusetts.” And you can look up the county abbreviations on the NEQP website.

ARI International DX Contest
Rules for: non-Italian stations, in English  | Italian stations, in Italian

And just so those that aren’t into QSO parties don’t feel left out, there’s a big international contest this weekend, as well. Sponsored by Italian hams, the ARI International DX contest is an all-mode, everyone-works-everyone event on CW, phone and RTTY.

Things get underway at 1200 UTC on Saturday, May 6, and run 24 hours. The rules are posted in English and Italian language versions on the ARI website.

The exchange for non-Italian stations as a signal report and a progressive serial number. Italians will send signal report and their Italian province’s abbreviation. I should point out that the ARI International has a short turnaround time for log submissions after the contest. They have to be submitted via a web upload — you can go to www.ari.it — and you have to do that by May 12 or your log might only be accepted as a check log.

There you have it a bunch of state QSO parties this weekend and a big ol’ international contest.

Here in southern British Columbia where I am, the lawns need mowing now that the grass is going so well, and so it’s “busy times,” but I’ll try and get on for a bit in each of these events and see what I can do at this part of the solar cycle.

You can read more about the podcast at zone.va7st.ca. Subscribe and tell your friends about the program.

73 from BC — thanks for listening and I’ll see you out there.

Additional resources

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

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

Episode 2.1: Recapping the Florida QSO Party

Episode 2.1: Recapping the Florida QSO Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final analysis

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

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

Thanks for the contacts, Florida.

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

73 from British Columbia.

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

Episode 2: Florida QSO Party

Episode 2: Florida QSO Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But don’t be lulled into complacency.

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

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

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

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


Show resources

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

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