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

Summary:
Band QSOs
------------
160:
80:
40:      23
20:     160
15:     814
10:       7
------------
Total: 1004 Sections = 83 Total Score = 166,664

Comments:

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.

73
John VE8EV

Sunday, November 2, 2014

SS CW VE8EV Single Op HP

                   ARRL Sweepstakes Contest, CW

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

Class: Single Op HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 3

Summary:
Band  QSOs
------------
  160:    
   80:    
   40:   26
   20:   39
   15:   40
   10:    5
------------
Total:  110  Sections = 45  Total Score = 9,900

Comments:

Just a quick spin through the bands to hand out the mult and see if I can actually copy more than just my call and 5NN on cw.  Apparently I can but calling CQ on SS Sunday had predictable results so I stuck with S&P. Bands were in pretty good shape, hope they hold up for SS Phone.

73
John VE8EV