Month: March 2018

Episode 19: Back at it with new eyes

Episode 19: Back at it with new eyes

We’re back in the saddle and ready to look at 2018 through a whole new lens. Literally. I’m seeing like a kid and ready to hit the air again. Welcome to Episode 19 of Zone Zero.

It has been a long road, but I am back in action and possibly better than ever thanks to the wonders of modern science and medicine.

Since the end of 2017, I have been in a self-imposed exile from the podcast – spending January and part of February in the grip of near blindness caused by cataracts in both eyes.

But those days are behind me. In February my right eye received a new lens implant, which gave me 20/25 vision in that eye – I was cleared for driving the following morning. Just over a week ago, I went back to have my left eye done – and that artificial replacement lens has some reading power built into it,. I am 20/20 in both eyes now and I don’t even need reading glasses.

Well, except for reading the small print on a pill bottle or for soldering electronic parts, perhaps. But I can live with that.

All of this is to say, I have no excuses left for not putting my entire best effort into whatever I choose to pursue. And my favorite pursuit is amateur radio contesting, as you know.

A note of thanks

I want to thank everyone who sent me best wishes while I was waiting for the surgery. In particular, Brian AF7MD in Oregon – thank you so much for taking the time to write and letting me know your thoughts. I appreciate it a great deal and it helped me push through to get back at it.

Not totally off the air

Now, I am going to confide in you that while I wasn’t able to see, I was still able to dabble in the occasional contest while I was awaiting my new vision. In fact, so far in 2018 I have competed in 12 contests already, which is quite something when you consider I literally could barely see characters on a computer screen when zoomed in to 200 percent.

In those 12 contests, I have averaged 269 contacts per event. That’s lower than the average of 310 contacts across the 46 contests I participated in through all of 2017, but still pretty respectable considering my limitations.

All of this is a segue to an interesting phenomenon I have noticed in tracking my contest performance over the past 16 years – essentially across Solar Cycle 24 as we approach the beginning of Cycle 25. If you go to my contest scores web page, you’ll see the scores I have recorded in every significant contest since 2002. As of this month, I’ve entered 861 contests and there are links to my post-contest write-ups for almost every one of them.

At the bottom of the scores page is a chart showing each year’s total QSO count and the number of contests entered for that year.

Curiously, the chart reveals that the highest annual QSO totals occurred in a twin peak – in 2012 and 2014, which correlates very closely with the two peaks we saw in Solar Cycle 24’s sunspot counts.

If I was a betting fella, I could use this past performance to project future performance.

So, in 2017 I ended up making about 16,700 contacts. Looking back over the previous solar cycle, I see that the closest equivalent performance was in 2006 with 16,000 contacts.

I haven’t substantially changed my contesting habits or antenna capabilities over those years. I still have a triband yagi on a short tower, and wire antennas for the low bands.

With this historical comparison, I think I can reasonably predict that in 2018 I’ll end up with a QSO total similar to one year after 2006. That would be 2007, when I had 18,600 contacts, or a marginal improvement.

The big jump I would expect to see is next year, in 2019, when I think we will see a rise into the new solar cycle and a significant improvement in contest performance (going from 2007 to 2008, my performance rose from 18,600 Qs to 20,000 Qs).

That’s all conjecture, of course, but I like to play with the historical performance to see how well it applies to current and future conditions. We’re at the bottom of the cycle now, and should see things improving over the next couple of years.Now, all of that good news doesn’t take the sting out of current conditions. Simply put, things pretty much suck right now. Solar flux has been sitting at 68 for weeks, if not months, and there are zero sunspots. That’s as low as things can go.

Clearly, the high bands are virtually useless, and though the lower bands still kick up some dust they don’t make for riveting contest experiences the way a snappy 15M band does.

March in review

The CQ Weird Prefix SSB contest ran in early March. Conditions were about as poor as they can get, which is a familiar refrain these days.

The following weekend, March 17 to 19, we had the BARTG HF RTTY Contest. It’s a worldwide event in which everyone works everyone. I love it.

The trick is  to find as many DXCC countries on each band, plus all the call areas of Japan, the United States, Canada and Australia. This year the bottom fell out of the bands and I only managed to work five continents – and did not hear Africa all weekend.

Thinking of spring

We’re seeing daytime temperatures well above freezing and full-on spring is just around the corner.

I’ve been thinking of antenna projects for when the warm weather arrives. My first project will be to replace the floppy old Inverted-L antenna for 160M. I plan to use the drone my XYL bought me for Christmas to haul up a fishing line to drape over an 80-foot tall elm tree on one side of the back yard. I figure that will give me about 70 feet of vertical and the remainder of the 135 or 140 feet of wire will just be laying over the top of the tree and tied off at the far end with rope.

I’ll give it a try on the first calm day once the dandelions come back this spring and report back.

One thing’s for certain, Boomer the ham radio Border Collie is going to love getting back out there on the squirrel patrol. All winter long he’s been bounding around the back yard looking for them in the trees, and they’ll be back to taunt him as soon as the sun warms things.

There’s always good entertainment in that back yard. I’m looking forward to it all.

That’s it for Episode 19 of Zone Zero. Now, let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there.