Monday, February 21, 2011

2011 ARRL CW DX Contest - The Rest of the Story

ARRL CW DX Contest 2011
February has two very busy weekends for me and those are the CQ World Wide WPX RTTY contest mentioned in my previous blog entry and this past weekend, the ARRL International DX Contest. With the sun being as active as it had been in the past several days, I was not sure what to expect for this past weekend. It was obvious that the Solar Flux Index (SFI) was the highest I had seen it in months but with the solar flares, I was unsure what conditions we would have for operating here in Alaska. It was reported that we would see the effects of three separate solar wind blasts and often times when this happens, we are treated to beautiful auroras but poor band conditions. I operated three bands last year, 10, 15, and 20 meters, so I opted to take the safe way out and just do a 20 meter single band entry. This way, if the bands were poor, my efforts would be focused on my strongest band. I am still unable to run anything more than 100 watts on 15 meters, so that would also effect the outcome of any effort placed on that band.

It worked out that I was able to get started right away on Friday afternoon (Saturday) at the beginning of the contest. I had a pretty full weekend planned so I also knew I could not do a full outright effort. Another reason I wanted to only focus on 20. Several stations were on the band holding their frequencies and once the clocked ticked midnight, the race was on. I found a hole to operate in on 14.041 MHz. I would much
ARRL DX CW Run Rates
rather call CQ than to Search & Pounce (S&P) any day. As I struggle to get better at operating, I think this really pushes me to the next level as often times, I get more than one station calling and it can be very challenging to pull just one out of the mix. When I am hunting stations with S&P, sometimes I can hear them well but they can't hear me. If I am parked calling CQ, then if they are calling me, there is no doubt they can hear me.

I stuck to that same frequency from the beginning of the contest until around 0300z. I threw in the towel until later that next morning, 1700z. Again, I was unsure what the next day would bring but being an early riser, I was hoping I could catch the band as soon as it opened. I knew I would find the morning challenging as many of the lower 48 stations are pointed to Europe and often times, I can hear them well but they cannot hear me off the back or corner of their beams. One of my classic experiences with this was when I called NE0U. He was loud here but it took me a few calls for him to get who I was. He sent a few "dit dot dit dit's" as he turned his beam toward Alaska and he went from 529 to 599 plus. We easily worked and he went onto working Europe. But thankfully it was not long before the band opened up and I was calling CQ with stations answering me. In the photo above, you will see my operating times and run rates. I have been working on my CW abilities for many years but have leveled off and just can't go to that next level. My max rate was 120 per hour as seen above. That is about my max. I find that using Morse Runner is a great way to work on your CW decoding skills in a contest setting. I can't say enough about this program but even when warming up with it, I'm still not able to do much better than that. No records will be broken from this station with the exception of personal operating records.

The contest turned out being much better than I had expected as far as band conditions and contacts. The band was extremely full so you always have to deal with people jumping on your frequency without sending QRL (something I always will do) or people moving in close. I made good use of the CW filters in my Icom 756-PRO this past weekend and toward the end, my 250 Hz filter was locked in place. 20 meters always seems to get super busy right at the end as many people are cramming to make their final contacts. I have an average station (one rig, one beam at around 40 foot, and some wire antennas) so I get pushed around pretty easily. More than once, I had to vacate my operating frequency as I was pushed out. But that's all part of the contesting experience. Often times this is a blessing as I will normally S&P and I can end up with new multipliers anyhow.
Sunday Quiet
The last states I needed for my lower 48 sweep were DC and WV. My first DC station was NN3RP and was I glad to have Rafael call in. To my surprise, I also got DC contacts from W3DQ and KB8UUM. So it turned out the WV was my last state and I was on pins and needles until AA8UL saved the day and called. Same applied, I had nothing to worry about as by the end of the contest, I worked a handful of WV stations. But as with any of these contests, the lower 48 is normally not the problem, it's Canada! Once again, I was stuck at 58 multipliers and missing NF, LB, NT, YT and NU. I was hoping for YT but that never happened. Maybe doing a bit more S&P would of helped me come up with one or two? Either way, I missed those much needed multipliers.

Many times throughout the weekend, flutter and echos added a bit of difficulty in copying stations. As seen in the graph above from HAARP, there were some challenging times but we took a hit on Sunday as seen from the graph above. I remember 20 meters going short and then for about two hours, there was not much heard. The absorption went up around 1945z and did not stop until around 2115z for me. My spectrum scope went from crowded to flat! Only a few stations were heard. I took advantage of no propagation to eat lunch and catch up on a little work but thankfully the band came back for the last few hours. Lower 48 may not experience this effect as much as we do here in Alaska but when the switch gets flipped, it's amazing how fast propagation can fade away to nothing.

In looking back, I should of probably went with working three bands which would have really helped my score and helped the North Coast Contesters with the club score (I believe it counts, in some contests, I live too far away). I opted for 20 meters, which is a sure thing if we have propagation. I have not looked at my past contests but even though this is not the highest score I've accomplished in this contest, I think the QSO's for 20 meters were my best, or any single band effort for that matter. I did have more QSO's last year with a higher score due to operating 10 & 15 meters along with 20. If I had operated 15 meters, there is no doubt my highest score would of been achieve this past weekend.

When the smoke and dust cleared, I made 1164 contacts on 20 meters working 58 States and Provinces but I had a whopping 38 duplicates!! I often get confused with KL7DX, but this weekend was the worst I have experienced. I normally don't send faster than 28 Words Per Minute (WPM) on CW when I'm parked and calling CQ but I backed that down to 26 WPM. With Win-test, I can slow or speed up various parts of my report so I think I will experiment with slowing down my "8" so it's very obvious while keeping up to speed the rest of my callsign. I'm not sure what I can do different but the problem is not on my end. In looking back, I see that I was spotted only once as KL7DX but maybe that is all that it takes.  I made several keyboard mistakes so some got more than they asked for in their report or maybe got their report twice. My receive was cutting out do to a relay issue which I believe is with my AMP, so I had to ask for a few more repeats than normal. All in all, it was a blast and one of my favorite contests came through yet again. If you are an award chaser, it's easy for most anyone to get Worked All States (WAS) in this contest weekend.

With each and every contest, I learn more and better my score. I owe a large part of my success to the Alaska Contest Group lead by KL7RA and several of the other regulars you hear on from up here. I have also learned lots at Field Day, compliments of Larry, N1TX and the KL2R gang. There is an art to contest operating and I'm here to tell ya, I don't have an artistic bone in my body. But in the end, getting on and operating is the best experience of all. Take the good with the bad, and never give up. I may have reached my maximum CW operating speed (or summit as I like to refer to it since I appropriately have Denali in my backyard) but surely I haven not maxed out the fun! My stations too small to be a serious threat to anyone but I'm serious when I say, CW is the KEY to DX success!

Monday, February 14, 2011

CQ World Wide WPX RTTY Contest 2011

CQ World Wide WPX RTTY Contest
This past weekend was the annual CQ World Wide WPX RTTY Contest. I had not operated RTTY with any seriousness since last years event when I smoked a trap in my 4 element tri-band antenna by feeding it a little too much power 15 meters.


Call: KL8DX
Operator(s): KL8DX
Station: KL8DX

Class: SOSB20 HP
QTH: Alaska
Operating Time (hrs): 29.49

Band  QSOs
  20: 1059
Total: 1059  Prefixes = 537  Total Score = 1,316,187

Club: North Coast Contesters

Full Band as seen by Icom

I had decided to do a single band entry on 20 meters, my strongest band. I decided this since I did an all band effort last year (well, all band for me anyhow). I wanted to change it up a bit for 2011. My low band antennas do not do very well so I wanted to take advantage of my strongest band. I also contemplated a low power entry but decided to run with high to take advantage of as my QSO's as possible. I saw the space weather forecast and we were due to see the effects of another solar wind but that was not likely to hit until after the contest. 

I got a late start on Friday afternoon but that was only by about 40 minutes or so. As with any contest, I prefer to park and call CQ. This is where my Icom shines as I run FSK and filter down to 250 Hz. I can normally find a hole someplace and I prefer to hangout in the nosebleed section. I worked lots of lower 48 stations and also a few Japanese stations before the band closed down on Friday night. I was patiently waiting for Europe to start showing up on the waterfall which is around 9 to 10 PM local time (0600z to 0700z). 
By Friday night, European signals were pretty darn good. It was obviously one way propagation as I was hearing them good but apparently they could not hear me. I found a frequency, called CQ until I exceeded my preferred quota with no responses. I decided then to call it a night and try early in the morning on Saturday. My experience has been that my path to Europe is much better under these conditions around 1200z and later. 

I woke up Saturday morning and immediately started to Search & Pounce on European stations. I was glad to see that they were at least hearing me finally. It's great to work the European stations due to the fact they are 3 point contacts (on upper bands) and almost every QSO was a new multiplier with all the prefixes from the different countries. Strangely though, I could not get a run going for the life of me but I could work almost everyone I could hear. So, I tuned up and down the band working as many stations as possible in Europe and points east. 

I worked Europe until the band faded over the North Pole and I turned my antenna toward the lower 48. Once again, I found a small hole and called CQ and opted to run stations rather then exercise my VFO. Again, I prefer to stay
away from the PSK31 (14.070) and weak signal (14.076)
Run Rates for KL8DX
frequencies. I operate those modes and as with any contest, I try to respect that bandwidth to those modes. This also includes the beacon frequencies. I follow a site on Twitter that announces heard beacons and oddly enough, none were heard during the entire weekend contest. This I'm sure is due to the QRM created on or near that frequency (14.100). During CW contests, you will hear CW in the digital spectrum and it's no different with digital as it heads south into the QRP CW spectrum and lower. Working a major contest (or not) is like shopping on Black Friday! It's gonna be crowded, it's gonna try your patience, and you will find both rude and polite operators. Above is a snapshot of where I ran and the lowest I got in the 20 meter band was 14074 but I did not stay long. This was pointed toward Europe and I parked here to draw a few stations that were S&P'n just above that and were new multipliers. These stations did in fact find me and I moved onward and upward.

By the end of Saturday night I had 700 + QSO's. I re-read the rules on Saturday night (thankfully) and realized that single operators were only allowed 30 hours in this contest. I checked N1MM to see how many hours I operated and found I only had about 10.5 hours left. I saw that signals were sounding pretty good from Russia and Europe late Saturday night so I decided to do the same, wake up and get on the air around 1330z on Sunday morning. 

Sunday morning was a carbon copy of Saturday morning, great propagation abroad and more 3 pointers and multipliers were added as the morning progressed. I only experienced one LID moment and that was when EA5IY decided to call CQ and run stations on the frequency I had been on for short while (14.130). And yes, he knew I was there. 
Also, an interesting moment while doing S&P on 20 meters. I had just worked ON4TO and right behind me, I saw KL5DX call him. I immediately could tell that ON4TO was confused (see screen shot above). I suspect that he figured he "busted" my callsign as I saw him give KL5DX the same serial number he gave me. I also saw the delay when ON4TO realized that serial number that I gave him and what KL5DX gave him were very different. So unless ON4TO figured it out and shows in his log that he sent the same number to both KL5DX and myself, it appears I will have this one struck from my log. I get confused with KL7DX quit frequently but this QSO cost me 3 points and a multiplier not to mention it cost ON4TO the same since I believe I was the only "KL8" active in this contest. 

I had a similar close call experience which made me laugh out loud. I was calling CQ and I had W2YE and W2YC calling me at the same time (I did not realize it until afterward). Both were the same signal strength and I was getting parts of both. So, as I normally do, I asked for the W2 only. Both responded. I asked for the W2Y?? again and both responded. Finally, W2YE was decoded on my screen and after working him, W2YC came booming in. Both are in my log and I had to chuckle at the thought of what the chances were of both calling me at the very same time. 

From my score report at the top, you will see I worked 537 different prefixes, roughly half of my log was unique. At the top of that list was EV85DOSAAF! Not sure I would run a contest with that callsign as it's not user friendly to N1MM anyhow. Not much information on the web about this operation other than the QSL manager. 

ON Air Time for KL8DX

In the end, I could have operated a few more minutes but I did not want to push going over the 30 hour mark. The Aurora and QSB did leave a bit of gibberish on my screen a time or two so I hope I did not bust too many callsigns. I am not sure what was up with the duplicate QSO's but I had more in this contest than any other. I'm not sure if someone caught my callsign in passing and saw it as something other than KL8DX and just immediately called or what. In looking at the cluster after the contest for KL8's, I was spotted as KL8XX, so I assume that could of been part of it but that was at the very end. Most stations probably clicked and called without first verifying my callsign. My strategy when that happens is to ignore them once, call CQ again with my callsign or work another station and if they continue to call, I work work them in hopes they will move on. I won't NOT work dupes as many operators have a macro that states something like "worked before" and they continue to CQ. I can bust a callsign just like the next guy so I don't mind logging them again, respectfully.

I beat my all time record score and number of QSO's in any RTTY contest. The score can start to climb if you work the low bands were those QSO's are worth more points. The propagation was outstanding which allowed for so many QSO's. I'm thankful for all the small stations like mine that get out and play in this contest. From large stacked arrays to the ham who is using an indoor antenna and low power, I'm grateful for each and every contact! Contests can be intimidating but they become addicting. I have read so many threads regarding the use of macros but in the end, I don't care how you have yours set up as long as you call me. I had a few stations send their entire information first before I acknowledged them while others had several line feeds or went on to say 73 and thank me for the contact. Actually, I find these less than common macros a bit challenging or maybe a bit refreshing from the normal every QSO grind. I think it's good to change it up once in awhile but that is my opinion and many operators have heartache over something other than non-perfect, textbook macros. Don, AA5AU has a great RTTY information site that I would highly recommend to any station who is new or wants to start off experiencing this mode. Contests are about accurate, short and sweet exchanges. Remember, it is a contest so it's best just to send what is needed and nothing more, in a format that works.

I have been deeply involved with digital between JT65A and now RTTY. I think it's time I blow the dust off my key and get back to my most favorite of modes. Sadly, I have a very busy schedule over the coming weeks but I hope to be on any chance I get as I need to work on my CW speed for some up coming contests. Our temperatures dropped to -30F this past weekend but I am hoping this is the last deep freeze as the sun is returning and they days are getting longer. I'm looking forward to putting up my Hex beam and also doing some camping with a touch of remote QRP activity, both CW and digital. That's the beauty of this hobby, you can take it with you and it's always willing and ready when you return. To those I worked in the RTTY contest, thanks for calling and sorry to those I missed or could not decode.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Bittersweet & Warming Weekend

Sunshine above Mount Healy, Alaska.
Alaskan's look forward to the return of sunshine after doing without it (or seeing very little of it) for the last few months. The sun is now higher than Mount Healy which is just to my south (as seen to the left) and soon we will be able to enjoy the direct sunshine all afternoon. The sun brings hope for longer and warmer days after experiencing a dark and cold winter. Alaskan winters can be pretty harsh but the summers make up for a large part of that. The Midnight Sun is something that I will never get tired of. When the day comes that we depart this great state for our southern retirement ground, I will sure miss it. Some people have problems adjusting to 24 hours of daylight but I welcome it with open arms! I can only hope someday when my wife and I retire that we spend our summers in Alaska and winters someplace a bit more...let's say brighter and warmer.

The sun can bring warmth and enjoyment but as I have mentioned so many times, the sun can produce plenty of silence for the northern exposed ham radio operator. This was this case this past weekend. The effects of a solar wind caused a geomagnetic storm that rendered the ham bands useless for me.
HAARP showed lots of absorption and it was obvious after checking the website and listening to the bands, my hopes of operating in the MN QSO Party and a few others were shattered. Only the strongest signals were heard and on a few occasions, the signals would be there one minute and gone the next. Even as I write this, signals are extremely weak and most that I am hearing are from the far left coast.

Aurora as seen from KL8DX & KL8SU's QTH
The bittersweet part to this story is that during the winter we experience these geomagnetic storms. Often times we are treated to an auroral display that can last for hours. As we approach spring, these displays get a bit more pronounced. I was able to spend time outdoors last night capturing a few photos of the green lights of winter overhead. It is frustrating sometimes when you look forward to a weekend of radio activity and a geomagnetic storm puts a damper on your efforts, however it's always great to see the Northern Lights, too. Many have never experienced the Aurora but when the conditions are right, the Aurora can be viewed well into the lower 48 states (I have photographs I took of the Aurora when we lived in Ohio). I'm just thankful we had clear skies this weekend so we could at least enjoy the light show. What's depressing is when there is no radio activity and the clouds overhead keep you from viewing this magnificent wonder.

The sun can make the heavens shine bright even on the darkest nights. As I have written before, the summer midnight sun and the green lights of winter are my most favorite. I'm glad that during these geomagnetic storms the bands head south otherwise, I would miss events like last night. It might be cold outside but the green lights of winter warm the heart and soul. At least for me it does.