Episode 23: Looking ahead to CQ Worldwide CW 2018

Episode 23: Looking ahead to CQ Worldwide CW 2018

The 2018 CQ Worldwide CW contest is coming to a radio near you on the November 24 and 25 weekend.

Over the past month I’ve made some major changes to the VA7ST setup, including updated equipment and a fairly substantial reconfiguration of the shack layout. Contest prep is done and I’m ready to roll. How about you?

Let’s get going with Episode 23 of Zone Zero – the CQ Worldwide CW preview edition.


Welcome to the big CQ Worldwide CW contest preview edition.

We don’t do this very often, but I will open with a bit of homework for you – be sure to listen to the pre-contest report from last year – Zone Zero Episode 15, which is packed with interesting information about the contest that still holds true for the 2018 running of this great big event.

Pre-reading/pre-listening: 2017 pre-contest Zone Zero

For extra credit, I invite you to also listen to the 2017 post-contest report

Okay, that’s the homework assignment.

 

Now let me tell you quickly about some of the homework I’ve been up to. Big changes are now in place at VA7ST. A new transceiver and amplifier have brought the shack up to current contesting snuff with the first major renewal of gear since I added the FT-2000 and SteppIR 3-element yagi in 2009.

I decided the investment was entirely worth it and long overdue – providing improved receive capabilities for incredibly congested bands in the bottom of the solar cycle, and more power for all bands, including 6M work.

I’d like to think that this was all in anticipation of the biggest contest on the annual calendar – CQ Worldwide CW — but the reality is I’ve been contemplating the changes for quite a while.

The new equipment includes an Acom 1000 amplifier, which has been in place for a couple of weeks now and was used in the Worked All Europe RTTY contest to great effect.

The other item is a new Icom IC-7610 transceiver. This is an amazing bit of kit – software defined radio in a real radio box with knobs.

I’m still learning how to use its capabilities, but I did manage to get it on the air in two-VFO mode in Worked All Europe RTTY earlier this month and spent hours while CQing on one receiver and searching and pouncing up and down the band on the other receiver.

The IC-7610 also did a great job in the past weekend’s Sweepstakes Phone contest – providing almost clear-channel audio on my run frequencies even when 20M was packed to the rafters with stations. It’s really quite something to experience.

Having two spectrum displays – one for each receiver – in N1MM Logger makes it dead-simple to see signals and callsign labels, so you can click and jump on any signal you haven’t worked before.

All the new gear meant a rethink of how I have the radio room laid out. Specifically, I had to rearrange the desk surfaces to put two transceivers in their optimal locations – so I can easily tune the bands, reach the knobs, adjust amplifier and antenna tuner, and still have the correct ergonomics for three computer monitors and a keyboard at hand.

So, now I have the Yaesu FT-2000 as my left-hand radio and the Icom as the right-hand radio – they’re Radio B and Radio A from left to right. Then a little further to the right side and continuing around the corner of the desk surface, I have:

  • my keyer paddles
  • the Acom amplifier
  • an AEA AT-3000 antenna tuner that serves as my main antenna switch.

After 30 years this setup is about as close to perfect as I’ve ever come. Everything within easy reach, nothing in a spot I’d rather not have it. And in my couple of days of user testing prior to the upcoming contest, I think it’s all working out even better than I had hoped.

Now, on to antennas.

Attached to the AEA tuner’s output sockets are:

  • the SteppIR yagi which covers 40M through 6M
  • a dedicated 7-element 6M yagi
  • the 80M array made up of three full-sized verticals that I can steer in three primary headings plus three other alternate opposite headings with a bit less gain.

For 160M, I manually change over to a second high-power manual tuner to run the inverted-L on Top Band.

In addition to those antennas, I also have a 40M full-size two element quad suspended between two tall pine trees, and that’s pointed directly at Europe at 30 degrees. For an HF contest, the 40M quad is connected instead of the 6M yagi.

And, if I want, I can connect a little Hy-Gain 18AVT-WB all-band vertical strapped to about 300 feet of chainlink fence around the back yard.

For the low bands, I have a short 270-foot Beverage receiving antenna as well, though I haven’t used it in about two years and am sure it needs a little love and attention after being neglected for so long. Not using it may be the reason my pursuit of 80M DXCC has stalled at 96 countries.

I’ve come to realize the value of having lots of antenna options – even if they’re not mounted up on massive skyscraper towers.

Some of the antennas require manual swapping of cables here in the shack, but those antennas are special-purpose and not used often – like the 160M inverted-L or the 40M quad. The primary go-to antennas for each band from 80M through 6M are all on a single switch – so I can hop around pretty quickly, with a quick gesture on the switch and a little retuning of the amplifier.

Blast from the past

I love to go over my previous contest scores and re-read the post-contest reports on the 3830 reflector. Doing this earlier in the week, I stumbled upon a report I posted from the 2009 CQ Worldwide CW contest – nine years ago, when bands were not particularly hot but still pretty good.

Here’s what I wrote back then:

As I usually do, I concocted many melodramas as the weekend progressed — little near-term challenges to keep me motivated. With half an hour to go, I set my sights on hitting 950,000 points… but I would need spectacular 20M mult-hunting to get there.

30 minutes left. Land 9V1 Singapore for zone and country multipliers. Then flip the beam to V31 Belize for another mult, and flip again to 9M2 West Malaysia for a welcome double-dipper. Put the antenna into bidirectional mode and work several 2- and 3-pointers (Ws and JAs) as I tune the band for elusive mults.

Find LU1 for a single mult, then stumble across E21 Thailand and put the yagi in full-forward mode aimed at Asia for a double-mult. Favorite thing in the CQWW world: green letters in the N1MM callsign box.

Just a handful more points to hit 950K but time is slipping away. Run across a string of exceptionally loud JA and BY 3-pointers. 1:40 to go. Need about 6 more QSO points — that’s a long shot in search-and-pounce mode because everybody at this end is doing the same thing and competition is fierce for the CQer jump-balls. Find a loud WA6O. Work him though I’m aimed at UA0; wonder how he heard me (I see he was at N6RO: no wonder). Need 4 more points. 60 seconds remain, tune lower and hear K6TA also off the back of the beam. Got him but I’m only at 949,500 and still need a 2-pointer (x 250 mults)… just 30 seconds left.

Tuning the low end of the band like a cruising barracuda now. Holding breath and clenching teeth, both of which are well-known receiver boosters. There’s a JA1 ending a CQ… clear channel to him. BAM. N1MM Logger score turns over to 950,250 and I pull off the headphones. I still have a whole 15 seconds left. Happy, happy. Sponge Bob-like grin in place because I’ve advanced my personal-best score by 175,000 points.

Bud’s Law: even after a 172,800-second (48-hour) contest the final 60 seconds will always be a completely heart-thumping, adrenalin-pumping panic 🙂

That, my friends, is all I need to remember to get myself charged up for another run at CQ Worldwide this weekend. That was back in 2009, and I believe 2018 conditions will be very close to where they were nine years ago.

Band planning

Remember that in this grand-daddy of all contests, you multiply your QSO points by the number of CQ Zones and DXCC countries on each band. If you miss a band that others found multipliers on, you are really going to regret it. And by “a band” I am referring to 15M this time out.

During daylight hours I will have the FT-2000 on 15M listening and feeding a spectrum display in N1MM Logger, while the main radio is on 20M with the 3-element SteppIR yagi and Acom amplifier. Keeping one radio on 15M and at least watching the spectrum display will be a key to being on the air if anyone shows up and is workable from here.

From time to time, if 15M shows any life at all, I’ll flip those around to run the amplifier and 3 element yagi on 15M. This will be the approach if there’s any sign of Europe – or more likely South America — on 15M.

Generally, I will be using the IC-7610 and the FT-2000 together in Single Operator Two Radio (SO2R) mode.

My plan is to get started with just one radio going on 20M for the first hour or so – that’s 4 p.m. here on the West Coast, so Japan may be booming in on 20M at first. But I’ll quickly want to dive down to 40M where most of the evening action will be found.

I am not good enough with two radios to operate CW efficiently if rate is too high on one radio. Rather, my preference is to run a single radio until the bands die down a bit, and then CQ on two bands, alternating between them. I can interleave QSOs quite effectively to stay comfortably busy on a pair of slower bands.

Another SO2R strategy is to call CQ on one band and search for stations on the second band. I just don’t have the mental acuity to copy two simultaneous signals in my head, so I prefer the interleaved, alternating CQ approach.

Then, as darkness falls each night, one radio will run 40M on the rotary dipole while the other runs 80M on the three-element vertical array. I have plenty of antenna separation between the 80M array and the 40M dipole so neither transceiver will hear the other.

And I better not forget about 160M. I have an inverted-L for that band, and when the time is right I will flick the switch to 160M and see what I can work. Last year, 160M produced 40 contacts in four zones and three countries (Hawaii, US and Canada).

What? No XE or KL7 on 160M? They’ll be there, and I’ll work ‘em this time.

This year, I hope to do a little better with about 400 watts more output power with the Acom and a much, much better low-band receiver.

It would be great to add a few of the Caribbean entities this weekend on 160M – at least PJ2T in Curacao, whom I’ve often heard but rarely get through to on Top Band. A few other frequent fliers from the Caribbean I’ll be seeking out on 160M are P40 in Aruba, 9Y6 in Trinidad and Tobago, CO in Cuba, C6 in the Bahamas, and a handful of other contest station regulars. They should be relatively easy multipliers if the inverted-L is working at all.

On the record

Here are my official predictions for this coming weekend, based on how I hope to operate and how the bands may turn out to be:

2,000 QSOs with 150 countries and 80 zones for 1 million points.

That’s a slight lift from my final claimed score from last year. This assumes I’ll end up with close to 1,000 QSOs on 20M alone, with 300 on 15M, and 300 or 350 QSOs on each of 40M and 80M. I actually think 40M may produce significantly more contacts than that, given the number of hours I’ll spend there, so here’s hoping.

To get there, I will need a couple of things to fall into place:

  • 15M must open to Europe, at least for a few minutes on one of the mornings. Without 15M opening over the pole, the reduced European country count will be very tough to overcome.In 2017, I made nearly 300 QSOs on 15M, with 27 countries and 13 zones. None were in Europe. Alas, I don’t expect anything other than perhaps an EA8 (Canary Islands) from the east or north this year on 15M.
  • I need to watch “butt in chair” time – last year I put in 37 hours, which was one hour longer than I had done in my previous high time back in 2012. This weekend, I’d like to approach 40 hours on the air. The only way to fill up all that time is to operate on 40M and 80M/160M well into the tiny hours both mornings. I can still get nearly four hours of sleep each night and still come away with 40 hours on the air.

Sleep strategy is such a big deal in these 48-hour marathon contests. I recall years when I stayed up so many hours in a row that I had very real hallucinations on the second night.

One year (I think it was 2004) in CQWW CW, my hallucinations took the form of me racing along railway tracks and CW signals in my ears were oncoming trains. To avoid head-on collisions, I had to work the callsigns so they would veer off and out of my audio passband. It was quite something to know I was hallucinating but not being able to stop it – and then just working with it to keep making contacts.

And it takes days to recover. So, plan to operate as much as you can but pay attention to fatigue. Here are a trio of tips I try to follow myself:

  • Take a nap if you feel the need, and set double alarms (on your phone, this is easy insurance). CW contesting is a brain-drain for sure. You’ll never focus as much on anything as you do when trying to pull out a single callsign from 10 calling you. It is entirely exhausting, and especially mentally fatiguing – when you feel woozy, with hallucinations or simple dullness setting in (and it will), stop and rest. Even 45 minutes of snoozing can bring things back to perspective.
  • Drink lots of water. It may mean more frequent rest breaks, but staying hydrated is important. Water also helps keep you hydrated when all the coffee you consume tries to dry you out. Let the coffee and water trips force you to take micro-breaks, as long as you’re not giving up a great run frequency. Standing up once in a while is a very good thing.
  • Watch what you eat. I tend to eat very little during a major contest – snacking on nuts, an orange or a sandwich when I get a chance. I avoid heavy meals not only because they take time to prepare and consume, but they’ll drag you down energy-wise.

Having said all that, it’s also important to eliminate self-doubts. I have to constantly remind myself that even when things seem slow and not worth the time in the chair, it’s not me or my station and it’s not personal. And if I keep at it just a little longer conditions and activity can change very quickly. Someone might spot you on the band, and suddenly a dozen new stations will work you or a new multiplier will find you. Or the band might shift and suddenly you have all of Asia open to you.

Hands up if you’ve ever thought about pulling the plug but stayed at it a few more minutes, only to be called by ZD8 on Ascencion Island (Zone 36) or TZ in Mali (Zone 35)? It happens, and often enough that it’s a real thing. So don’t quit just because rate falls off. The surprises are so worth it.

Radio contesting is a game of dogged determination, blind luck and preparation. Take any of those out of the mix, and you will miss out on a lot. With all three in play, you’ll have a lot of fun. I sure do, every time out.

Okay, so that’s it for what was supposed to be a quick Episode 23 of Zone Zero. We’ll all be packed on to 20M during daylight, and we’ll probably see a lot of compression on 40M after dark, too. Go into it with good cheer, play nicely and with passion, and have a complete blast in CQ Worldwide CW.

Listen for the QRP guys – they’ll be buried under the clicks and sparks of the big guns.

We’ll see you at the starting gun  at 0000z on November 24. Now let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there.

VA7ST CQWW CW scores since 2002

       QSOs  Ctry   Zn      Score
=================================
2017: 1,989   154   74    970,368 HP 37 hrs
2016: 1,226   122   61    478,179 HP 23 hrs
2015: 2,170   239  111  1,750,700 HP 34.5 hrs
2014: 2,372   264  113  2,099,136 HP 34 hrs
2013: 2,075   246  118  1,798,160 HP 31 hrs
2012: 2,365   249  104  1,888,550 HP 36 hrs
2011: 2,114   248  109  1,725,024 HP 32 hrs
2010: 1,721   180   92  1,033,056 HP 32 hrs
2009: 1,777   158   92    950,750 HP 31 hrs
2008: 1,580   129   71    670,600 HP 25 hrs
2007  1,470   129   69    615,582 HP 32 hrs
2006  1,476   163   78    775,297    35 hrs
2005  1,014   126   61    411,587
2004  1,421   146   79    697,500
2003    865   115   73    351,936
2002    675   147   63    313,740

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