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Episode 5: All modes in one weekend

Episode 5: All modes in one weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His Majesty the King of Spain CW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EU PSK DX and the Aegean RTTY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UN DX (CW and Phone)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Which will you work?


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

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

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

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

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

But that’s for next week’s episode.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


100 million points in a single contest?

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

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

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

What a blast this one is, folks.

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

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

Volta RTTY points table

What countries are in which CQ zones?

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

But there’s a whole lot more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CQ-M International

CQ-M rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Episode 3.1: Recapping the 7QP, Indiana and New England QSO Parties

Episode 3.1: Recapping the 7QP, Indiana and New England QSO Parties

Welcome to another post-contest episode of Zone Zero, the podcast for casual but avid ham radio contesters.

It’s late Sunday afternoon, and I’m taking a break from NHL viewing to file my report for the weekend’s contest activity here at VA7ST.

Keep listening for a recap of the 7QP, Indiana QSO Party and New England QSPO Party – and here’s a hint… May 6 and 7 was a pretty darn good weekend to be on the air.


Welcome to episode 3.1, a recap of this weekend’s contest action. This is Bud, VA7ST.

On Saturday and Sunday, we saw three major state QSO parties on the air, offering as many as 421 counties up for grabs across New England states, Indiana, and the entire US Pacific Northwest.

I decided to run low-power this weekend, and it worked out just fine – better than I could have hoped, in fact, as conditions were surprisingly good for a domestic contest weekend.

7QP recap

The 7QP – or the 7th Call Area QSO Party — was a total hoot on Saturday. What a blast I had on all the bands from 20M down to 160M, ending at midnight my local Pacific time.

On 15M, I landed four Qs and four counties across NV, UT and WY which is four more than I figured I’d get by going up there.

I was surprised to so readily work the close-in states on 20M — most years it is tough to work WA, MT and ID until I go to 40M, but no trouble this time.

80M was pretty solid with the triangular array of verticals pointed SE or SW to cover the 7th call area pretty well. The band was strong even to New England, where I kept working stations until the New England QSO Party’s first of two sessions ended at 0500z.

Top band didn’t see much action, though I was there bleating out CQs to get whomever strayed down there in the final hour. Got 8 additional Qs by going to 160M and sure appreciated the calls.

I didn’t really miss running high power with the bands open no nicely, and assume noise wasn’t a big problem at the other end on 80M and 40M.

Managed to beat my previous best score from 2011 (31,374) by a healthy margin, finishing with 173 contacts and 81 counties in the log, for a total claimed score of 42,039 points, which should land me in the top five for out-of-state low-power CW scores.

View the 3830 Scores page for the 7QP

Love the 7QP — thanks to everyone who got on for the day!

Indiana QSO Party

Then there was the Indiana QSO Party, on Satuday as well. This one had some good activity but it wasn’t nearly the rate-fest that the 7th Call Area states mustered up.

With the distance to the midwest not an issue for most bands, the real challenge for Indiana was just being on when the active stations were on.

I ended up with 17 contacts and 10 Indiana counties – most on 20M but two were on 40M before the contest ended at 0300z on Saturday (which is technically on Sunday UTC).

Final claimed score was 340 points.

New England QSO Party

And then there was Sunday.

The New England QSO Party had good activity on the bands Saturday, but my focus on Saturday was the 7QP – you want to max ut your time in thtatone, because it ends at midnight Pacitiv Saturday night, while the New England contest continues all day Sunday, starting its second session at 1300z – or 6 a.m. where I am.

So, at around 7 a.m. I was back on he radio, hunting for New England counties. At first, it was easy to find the active stations, but after about an hour, things got real slow – as I expected.

While New England stations get on in good measure, they just aren’t there in the kinds of numbers that you’ll find in the Florida, 7th Call Area or the biggest of them all, the California QSO Party.

Still, it’s a great state event with plenty to work. At first. Then things thin out, at least on the CW end of the bands which is where I as operating this time out.

Through Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or so Pacific time – about half an hour before the end – I put in four hours and managed to add about eight New England counties and about 60 stations to the total. That’s not a great payoff for four hours of hard work sifting through the bands, but it is worth it if you’re trying for a competitive score.

Remember, no matter where they are – near New England or far from the eastern seaboard as I am —  most of the other guys are having the same rotten luck with the bands.

The problem isn’t so much the radio conditions, but the lack of activity as Sunday has church and all kinds of other callings that pull otherwise active competitors off the air.

It’s just slim pickins. The only way through it is to barge through it – stay in the chair, keep sifting through the stations already worked, keep an ear out for any mobile rovers who might possibly be activating new counties, and don’t let the Sunday doldrums get you down.

This weekend, 20M was either great to New England or really bad. Some stations just couldn’t hear me, while others got me first call. The difference? Antenna direction, mostly.

Those who wanted W7 states and VE7 in the log turned their beams away from the south and southwest — the W4 and W5 masses — once in a while, and were rewarded with multipliers frm the northwest.

Over the years, since 2006, I’ve been in the NEQP 11 times. My best score was in 2011 as solar cycle 24 was in its ascent, and I had 96 contacts in 31 counties for 5,950 points or so.

Flash forward to 2017, and this weekend. I ended up with exactly the same contact total —  96 – but six more counties – 37 – and a claimed score of 7,100 points.

Considering that 100 watts doesn’t go as far at the very bottom of the solar cycle, having a personal best in the New England QSO Party this year feels pretty good. But it was hard work. Just not as hard as digging in the garden, which was the alternative.

I didn’t get into the Delaware QSO Party, though I handed out one contact when asked, and I entirely skipped the ARI International DX contest. I heard Europeans working it on Saturday on 20M but that was during the same hours that 7th call area stations were swarming like bees all over 20M and the attraction south of me was just too strong.

So, there we have it. Three of the QSO parties this weekend in the bag.

Up next, we will look ahead at one of the great teletype contests of the year – Volta RTTY coming up next weekend. That’s in Episode 4 due out shortly.

Thanks for checking in after the contests. You can find all the episodes on our website – that’s ZONE.VA7ST.CA. Be sure to subscrbe if you don’t want to miss an episode. And please, consider adding a review of Zone Zero on iTunes to help get the word out.

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

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.


If you like the Zone Zero podcast, tell your contesting friends about it. You can subscribe on iTunes, and please consider leaving a review so others know you’re listening and why.

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