Friday, December 5, 2014

The Thrill of the Chase

It was the bottom of the solar cycle when I first started to get a bit more serious about DXing.  If I happened to hear about a major DXpedition somewhere I would likely try to have a listen for it.  Between the low solar flux, my modest home station, and my location under the auroral oval I usually didn't have much luck.  Some parts of the world were simply beyond my reach and propagation often didn't support communications on any band during the brief windows when a rare DX location was active.  I did manage to catch a few operations like K5D (Desecheo) and VP8ORK (Orkney Islands) but there were several once-a-decade type DXpeditions that I will be waiting a long time for a second chance at, like BS7H (Scarborough Reef) and FT5GA (Glorioso).

With the dramatic improvements over the last few years both to propagation and to my station I've come to realize that I have at least a reasonable chance of working just about anything that comes up if timing and conditions are in my favour.  I managed to work all of the major DXpeditions in 2014 (many on the first or second day) and have been successful in picking off numerous smaller operations, inching ever closer to being the first VE8 station to earn "Honor Roll" status by working (practically) all of the current DXCC entities.  Working and confirming 46 ATNOs (All Time New Ones) in the past year has been an amazing experience and, other than a handful of mostly African countries, all the rest I need end with "Island", "Reef", or "Rocks".

This DXCC timeline chart from ClubLog shows the slow march to Honor Roll.  I wasn't very active between 1996 and 2000 and off the air completely between 2001 and 2008.  Now I'm trying to make up for lost time!

I've been lucky with the propagation (from up here under the auroral oval conditions are often very poor) and my antennas aren't anything too special, just a tribander at 70 feet and an assortment of lesser wires and such.  However, my Flex-3000 software radio has an outstanding receiver which is a huge advantage as the signals reaching through the aurora here are mostly very weak and a legal limit (2.25kW PEP in Canada) amplifier sure helps in the other direction.  The real secret, though, to working DX is mostly just paying attention and making it happen.

VP8SGK is perfect example of how it works.  I've never worked South Georgia Island and it is extremely rare on the radio.  The last big DXpedition there was 2002 but every once a while a visiting ham can make a brief appearance from VP8SGK, the British Antarctic Survey base station at King Edward Point.  I had heard that Mike, GM0HCQ, was working on a ship in that area and might be able to get ashore and on the radio during his brief stop there.  I put a reminder in my calendar to check his web page again when he was closer to the island.  A week later I read that his ship was delayed and his arrival was pushed back for several days.  Then the day before he was to arrive he reported that due to the weather their docking was further delayed and he would not be able to operate from the base at all.  It was too bad but that's the way it goes.  At least I had been paying attention! 

The next day at work I just happened to think about GM0HCQ and thought I should check to see if anything had changed.  There had indeed been a change:  he was reporting that if all went well he might be able to get ashore for a couple of hours and be on the radio at 1745z!  I looked at my clock and it was already 1815z.  I checked the spotting network but no spots had been reported yet.  Since it was 11:15am local time, I decided immediately I was taking an early lunch and jumped in the truck for the 15 minute drive home.  On the way I contemplated how strange it was that here was some guy in the Arctic rushing home to attempt to contact some guy who had just arrived on an island in the Antarctic.  That right there is the magic of DXing!  I dashed through the door and into the shack, frantically pushing buttons, turning antennas, and warming up the amplifier.  As soon as the computer was up I checked the spots again and there it was: VP8SGK had just been spotted on 21.200MHz!  Within 20 minutes of receiving the news I was sitting in the shack with the radio on, the big yagi pointing to the South Atlantic, the amp all warmed up, and my ears straining to hear the signal from South Georgia Island.

This story does have a happy ending but probably not what you were expecting.  As it turned out VP8SGK only made 35 contacts and his signal was inaudible here and most everywhere else.  After about 20 minutes of listening to the static and the occasional other stations on frequency calling "in the blind" or just stating the obvious - "I can't hear him..." - I turned everything off, made myself a sandwich, and went back to work.  But I was smiling.  In this case it was all about the thrill of the chase.  Mike says he'll probably be back there again this time next year.  I'd better be paying attention!


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Sweepstakes from the Arctic

There seems to be a genuine mystique about it that is only partially deserved.  Finding the Northern Territories (NT) section in the ARRL Sweepstakes contest is a requirement to get the Clean Sweep award for working all 83 ARRL/RAC section multipliers.  It certainly is one of the rarer sections, especially on CW, but many years some other section takes the top spot on the 'missed the sweep by one' list.  Still, like anything in limited supply, the good ops know that the longer they go in the contest without an NT station in their log, the less likely their sweep becomes.  But have you ever wondered what its like from this end?  Operating in the Sweepstakes Phone contest from up here is all feast and famine...

Listen to all the terrific contest operators!  Call-Listen-Wait.  A real pleasure to hear after the recent horrific pileups for the FT4TA dxpedition to Tromelin Island...

The Pileups

There's no shortage of people in the contest who want to work NT.  Trying to maximise the number who get into my log is challenging.  As a newly minted VE8 amateur I remember the first time I tried calling CQ in Sweepstakes.  Within a few minutes I was simply overwhelmed by the huge number of callers.  Learning how to efficiently manage the demand took a lot of practise.  There's no good way to work split in a big contest like this so there has to be discipline on BOTH ends.  If the operator has it together then usually the pileup will cooperate nicely. If you keep everything moving at a steady pace you can run at some pretty good rates, too, despite the lengthy exchange!

This rate chart in QSO's/hr clearly shows the 'Saturday Night Doldrums' and this year's 'Sunday Morning Blues'

The Antenna Challenge

One of the biggest problems with being an NT station in this contest is that nobody points their antennas at me.  Oh sure, if its getting kind of late on Sunday afternoon some ops will beam our way hoping an NT station will drop by.  That usually does the trick, but for most of the contest guys will beam West if they're in the East and East if they're in the West.  That means its hard for them to hear me off the side of their antenna!  This causes two problems.  First off, its very difficult for NT stations running low-power (or running high-power and having it all absorbed by the aurora!) to make contacts.  The second problem is trying to run.  First I have to find a clear frequency.  Of course 'clear' is a somewhat relative term in a contest but even if I can get a run going there's nothing to stop someone with their antenna pointed away from me plunking themselves down right on top of me and just CQing until I go away (if they even know I'm there in the first place).

The Spots

It doesn't seem right in some way but, like an expedition to a semi-rare DX location, we're almost completely at the mercy of the DX spotting networks.  This is how it works: I find a 'clear' frequency (see above) and start calling CQ.  If I'm lucky, someone tuning by happens to hear me and gives me a call.  Sooner or later, if I don't get run off the frequency (again, see above), eventually one of those callers will spot me on the spotting network.  At that point, all the guys that are watching the spots and want to work NT jump to my frequency and call me resulting in an instant pileup.  The ball is now in my court to work as many of the callers as possible before its ends.  When it does end I start over.  If it ended because someone ran me off the frequency then I have to start over at the very beginning again.  If I'm lucky, though, I keep getting spotted often enough to sustain the run for a while.  Even better, now the guys with their antennas pointed away from me can at least hear the stations calling me (which slightly reduces the probability I'll get run off the frequency) and stations that aren't using the spotting networks hear all the commotion and turn their antennas to find out who everyone is hollering at...

The sky over VE8EV early Sunday morning during Sweepstakes.

The Aurora

I don't whine about the aurora.  Well, not too much anyways.  It is what it is.  From the far North it is almost always there to some degree or another.  Like a variable attenuator in the sky, on some days it only absorbs up to 3dB or so.  Other days it soaks up much, much more.  And that is always on top of whatever else might be attenuating signals at the time, like an elevated x-ray flux or a solar radiation storm.  I was extremely fortunate in 2011 and 2013 that there was very little aurora during SS Phone and I managed to post some great scores.  This year, however, the contest coincided with disturbed geomagnetic conditions.  The aurora was out in full force and the NT and KL7 operators paid dearly for it.  The bands were pretty much dead here for hours on end.  I knew that bands were open 'down South' as I could see the steady stream of spots coming in but up here there was little to be heard.  The few weak and watery sounding stations that were getting through couldn't hear me at all even with the big TH6DXX at 70 feet and both kilowatts.  Sunday morning between 1200z and 1900z, despite my best efforts, I could only get two dozen stations in the log. For you rate junkies, that's about 3.5 per HOUR!  Eventually, though, the aurora let up, I got spotted a couple of times, and away we went.

The Goal

It might sound ambitious but I know that someday I could actually win this thing from up here.  It will take exceptional band conditions (no aurora or anything else bad and decent flux levels), enough aluminum to put a big signal on 40m (in addition to 10-15-20), and not much competition from other NT stations. My rate would have to average 100 per hour for the entire 24 hours which is difficult but not impossible.  I almost had the 'perfect storm' in 2011 but on 40m all I had was a 1/4 wave vertical and I just couldn't get enough rate there to make it happen (although I did do well enough to make the top 20 in the B-class 'big dawgs' category).  My 40m yagi will be going up next fall come hell or high water and I just hope I'm around long enough to get another crack at the brass ring!  In the meantime, I'll keep doing the best I can to make sure no one misses the sweep because they couldn't work the Northern Territories...

Monday, November 17, 2014

SS SSB VE8EV SO Unlimited HP

ARRL Sweepstakes Contest, SSB

Call: VE8EV
Operator(s): VE8EV
Station: VE8EV

Class: SO Unlimited HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 24

Band QSOs
40:      23
20:     160
15:     814
10:       7
Total: 1004 Sections = 83 Total Score = 166,664


My notes from SS last year said "try harder" so I resolved to keep my butt in the chair and work the radio hard. I got off to a good start on the high bands and then suffered through the usual Saturday night 10-per-hour doldrums (no, I still haven't got the 40m yagi up yet...) Six hours of sleep and then back in the chair at 1200z expecting to make some hay on 20m but thanks to the ongoing geomagnetic disturbance things didn't go as planned.
Forty-five minutes of CQing to put the first Q in the log, W1WMU, who sounded like someone with their head inside of a full fishbowl. The second Q didn't come for another 45 minutes and that pretty much set the tone for rest of the morning. At times there was nothing at all on any of the bands and when signals did peak out of the noise it was hard to get heard even with power and the big yagi. It reminded me of the "bad old days" a few years ago at the bottom of the cycle! Mercifully the electric overcast finally relented around 1900z and I pushed hard to at least make the sweep and get some Q's in the log.

Nice to see all the activity from NT, I think there were almost ten of us battling to get out from under the aurora this year.

John VE8EV