Category: Propagation

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 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 7: Glass half-empty in CQ WPX CW

Episode 7: Glass half-empty in CQ WPX CW

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

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

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

Welcome to episode 7 of Zone Zero.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magic of skewed paths

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

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

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

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

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

Chasing the finish line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summing up

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

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

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

Episode 6: Psyching up for CQ WPX CW

Episode 6: Psyching up for CQ WPX CW

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last year’s WPX performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2008 as our comparable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strategy and intel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 1.1: When conditions go horribly bad

Episode 1.1: When conditions go horribly bad

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That really does mean that bands are completely wiped out.

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

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


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