Stress and the ham radio operator

Stress and the ham radio operator

We get a little introspective this time, looking at what’s stressful about contest operating, and how de-stressing it really is. And we’ll talk about contests, too. That’s the direction we’re heading in Episode 22 of Zone Zero.

Welcome to Zone Zero – if you’re new to the podcast, it’s pretty much a radio contester’s diary. I’m Bud, VA7ST, and for years I’ve been keeping notes about my contest experiences and that morphed into this irregular set of audio diary entries. I know lots of fellow contesters are just like me, and I also know how useful it can be for new contesters to hear what others have experienced.

I thought this time out we’d consider some of the virtues of contesting that have little to do with competing, and everything to do with wellbeing and what our fun pastime – this avocation on the air — does for us.

If you work in a high-stress environment — or are a particularly high-strung retiree for that matter —  ham radio may be the best stress-reduction therapy there is, short of walking your dog or going fishing.

Unless you have an unwalkable border collie like ours or my luck with the fish. Then contesting is definitely time better spent.

When I have a moment of spare time, I find it quite relaxing to just sit and listen to people chat — whether that’s using Morse code or phone or even digital modes like teletype or PSK.

There’s something mesmerizing about a CW QSO under way. Like the beer ads once said, Those who like it, like it a lot.

And then I go and screw it all up by being a contester. Talk about self-inflicted stress. I will admit there are times when being in a contest makes me nervous or downright angry. When Europeans are piled up on top of me and I can’t work them fast enough for their comfort, I get anxious — imagine that happening on two bands at the same time with an SO2R setup!

And then there are those times when some lid parks on top of me and thinks he’s going to outbid me for the frequency.

That’s stressful because it wastes my time, but I also know I’ll rarely lose a frequency fight with an interloper. I don’t obsess about holding a frequency as I know most of the time interference is not intentional and many times I’m the low-power guy the other guy probably can’t hear, but I do have a secret weapon in those instances. And that is the sustained pressure of all the stations trying to work me.

The VE7 or BC multiplier is pretty valuable in most contests. People want it more than the other guy’s multiplier, and they eventually drown out and chase away persistent irritants co-located on top of me. Stress relieved.

I find the weekend flies by if I’m in a contest – I get into flow and don’t think about work for hours at a time, and certainly not nearly as often as I do without a contest to focus on.

But perhaps the greatest anxiety reducer there can be is social interaction — being with other people and, in particular, others who share your interests or a common goal. During any one contest, you might spend five seconds in contact with a fellow operator making your exchanges. But over a lifetime of contesting, you begin to feel a strong sense of kinship with your competitors.

I could offer a long list of people with whom I have never had more than a brief hello on the air, but I consider friends and would miss if they were not out there sharing the experience with me each weekend.

They don’t know it, but I smile to myself every time I work fellows like John W9ILY. We’ve worked literally hundreds of times over the years, even when he was in PJ4. John was one of the first guys I made a contest QSO with when I got back into contests in 2002, and he’s there almost every time out in the 16 years since.

I don’t know John, but I consider him much more than an acquaintance. He’s a colleague in a common pursuit.

And that is a wonderful feeling. Now multiply it by hundreds, because John is far from alone on my list of people I don’t know but with whom I share a special sense of camaraderie. Don K0FX, and John K4BAI, Tim N6GP, Aldo YV5AAX, Phil GU0SUP and so many others light up my day when we work and get to say hello one more time.

If I had not been hooked by contesting as a teenager, I wouldn’t still be at it, and I wouldn’t have those frequent moments of warmth. And I wouldn’t have the other things I have come to value in my radio life — the people who have indeed become close friends, through visits and long emails and phone calls about our antennas and kids and graduations and illness and plans for next weekend, and yes, through short, almost meaningless contest QSOs.

I do not underestimate the power of such simple interactions. We call it “contact” for a reason. And it feels very good. Stress relieved.

So, with that said, I’m really looking forward all the contacts we’ll make in the next two big contests on the event calendar — CQ Worldwide SSB and CW. Just saying those names gives me an endorphin rush. But I suspect I’ll be almost comatose by the end of both contests.

Predictions from the rear-view mirror

Now let’s look ahead — and in contesting the best way to do that is look behind us.

Combing through the archives of my CQ Worldwide reports over the years, I see that in the SSB contest I made 1,200 contacts in 2017 — despite last year being about as poor solar-cycle wise as we’re seeing right now. In the peak solar years I was running about 1,600 to 1,800 contacts in the SSB contest, so 1,200 again this year is a realistic target for me.

In terms of score, though, there’s a huge difference these days. Sure, there are still lots of contacts to be had, but multipliers will be way down from the peak years prior to 2015. My best-ever score in CQ Worldwide SSB was 1.7 million points in 2013 — five years ago — while last year I ended up with 450,000 points or less than a third of my best-ever score. That precipitous drop is mostly due to the lack of multipliers – you can’t work as many countries and zones right now as we once could because the wheels have fallen off a couple of bands – 15M and 10M. For many of us, the higher HF bands are simply out of commission.

Last year, which will be about the same as this year, I noted that 15M surely made the difference in competitive scores from out west – those who found the brief openings got a real boost. Even I got to work some Europeans in the SSB contest on 15M, but will I this year?

Those who found any openings on 10M as well did even better, but I didn’t hear a peep up there any time I listened around.

Last November, I put in my longest-ever CQWW CW session — 37 hours is one more than I managed in 2012, which was my previous iron-pants record for this contest. Thanks to some short-ish naps at just the right times — and not sleeping a lot longer than planned — I didn’t feel too beat up at the finish line. But I recall needing a LOT of coffee through the weekend.

I went into last year’s CW contest with a simple and probably too lofty goal of 1,500 Qs, 150 mults for a 500,000 score. Going unassisted, I figured a lot of mults would be left on table.

And I managed to finish with 1989 Qs, 228 mults and 970,000 points. That was way above my goal so was very happy. I didn’t expect the bands to be as strong as they turned out to be.

I’m expecting very little from any band above 20M this year, though I could be proven wrong especially in the CW contest in late November. 15M surprised me on CW last year with almost 300 contacts and quite a few European countries and more zones than 80M offered. So not too bad at all at the bottom of the solar cycle.

They keys to success are almost always the same. Be on the air, pushing hard the whole time and don’t miss short band openings.

Okay, I love this stuff. Hope it doesn’t show too much.

Going above high frequency

One of the coolest things about ham radio is the constant stimulation it provides. Just when you’ve done everything you thought you were interested in doing, you discover some new aspect to delve into. And for me over the past few years that has been VHF activity. Mostly 6M but also some 2M operation.

The reason we’ve gone two months between Zone Zero episodes is simple: I was busy with a project. A really neat one. Back in September I learned that one of the biggest 6M signals from British Columbia — John VE7DAY — was selling his 7-element 6M yagi for a quarter of what it would cost to buy a new one and ship it to Canada.

An email and phone call or two, and we had the sale done. Now, John is a long way from me — five hours of driving plus nearly two hours on a ferry, each way. So, one day after work I hopped in the SUV and set out on my little road trip. Very late that night I got to visit with my parents, who live just an hour from John’s place, and the next morning Dad and I drove the final leg to collect the antenna.

It’s a 30-foot boom, and with John’s help we disassembled the whole thing and got it all into the back of my SUV. By midnight that day I was back home and the next morning I rebuilt the antenna, put it on a pair of sawhorses in the back yard and made my first 6M contact on the new antenna.

Appropriately, it was with VE7DAY via meteor scatter. With the antenna three feet off the ground.

As of last weekend, it’s up on my tower, at the bottom of the antenna stack at about 30 feet in the air. And while conditions haven’t been much good in the time I’ve been using it, I am hearing stations I could not hear with the four-element antenna I was using until now.

Come next spring and summer, when E-skip returns and VHF contest season is upon us, I think I’ll be having a total blast on 6M. John tells me he even worked Europe on that antenna with 100 watts, so that’s something I’ll have to try from here.

You can see the new 6M antenna and check out the post on my site at

FT8 and MSK144 — now for contests, too!

As a side-note, if you are into the newest digital modes keep watching for the upcoming full release of WSJT-X version 2.0. It has some great new features for FT8 and MSK144 modes, such as exchange formats supporting quite a range of HF and VHF contests. But a word of caution, some of the new features aren’t backwards compatible with earlier versions, so Joe Taylor K1JT and the amazing development team are hoping everyone will quickly migrate to the latest software to avoid confusion on the bands.


Before we wrap up, I should mention that the always-great Makrothen RTTY was this weekend, and it was a lot of fun running low power to see how many points I could make. The exchange is your grid square and you get a point for every kilometer between you and the station you’re working.

I only put in a few casual hours (five hours total), missing the first of three eight-hour segments, but had a great time without the added stress of running an amplifier (on RTTY pushing the amplifier can be stressful). I made half a million points last year with low power, and this weekend was even worse with just 314,000 points using 100 watts. That’s a long way down from the 3.3 million points in my peak outing back in 2013, though I was using high-power that year.

I ended up with only two Europeans in the log on 20M, which is sad because they’re valuable at 8,000 points each.

As the Shirelles once told us, Mama said there’d be years like this.

Notes from listeners

I want to say special thanks to a new friend, Kiran — VU2XE in India. He wrote about listening to the podcast after discovering it while looking at some of the half-square and other vertical array antenna projects on my main website — VA7ST.CA. Kiran is an active contester, running a hexbeam, a spiderbeam and verticals. I’ve used all three of those antennas and he should be doing very well with that setup and so many great options.

In the upcoming CQ Worldwide contests, watch for Kiran using the special callsign AT3A.

Namaste, Kiran, and thank you all for checking in. If you’d like to share something about your contesting setup or experiences, or thoughts about what we’re doing here, just send me a note to [email protected].

That’s it for this episode of Zone Zero. Now, let’s go get ’em. I’ll see you out there!

2 Replies to “Stress and the ham radio operator”

  1. Thanks Bud for a mention here. Hope to work you and many listener contesters in upcoming CQWW if propagation allows :).
    AT3A VU2XE Kiran

  2. All so true, and very interesting to read!
    I especially liked the comment about getting pushed off your run freq.
    [The connection between VE7 being rare-ish and being able to hold that freq. hadn’t dawned on me. Duh!]

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