Monday, March 8, 2010

ARRL DX - Life is Like a Box of Chocolates...

Now that we have a grand total of 3 (three!) active amateurs here and (theoretically) some half decent propagation I was kind of planning on this to be our first true multi-multi operation. Unfortunately, VE8DW had to go out of town and VE8GER decided he wasn't quite ready for that yet so it ended up being another single-op effort by yours truly. I didn't have the slightest idea about what to expect going in. The dramatic increase in solar activity has also been stirring up the aurora a lot more and lately I've been starting to get the feeling that overall band conditions are actually slightly worse than they were at this time last year. The forecast was also calling for active geomagnetic conditions this weekend and, with that in mind, my plan was to be ready for anything. If conditions were really lousy I'd go single-band-20m and just take whatever I could get. I also decided to stay off the spotting network for the first day in case I wanted to go unassisted.

I took Friday off from work and spent the morning getting the shack trailer all squared away for moving. The truck and the trailer hadn't moved since Sweepstakes so there was a lot of shovelling to do and I had to buy two new batteries for the truck (grrr!). Fortunately, the weather was unseasonably mild and I spent the day working in bright sunshine and wearing a light jacket. By mid-afternoon I was all set up at the contest site and plugged into the big TH6DXX tribander at 100ft and the 33ft top-loaded low-band vertical. In between trips to the store for supplies I tuned the bands a bit to see how things were shaping up. I was surprised to find that I was hearing stations from any direction I pointed the antenna. Europe and Asia were both booming in on 20m and several JA's and KH6's were loud on 15m. Even 40m already had several Europeans making it over the pole. This was my first hint that this contest would definitely NOT be business as usual!

After the opening bell I spent the first couple of hours bouncing back and forth between 15m and 20m and alternating between S&P and trying to get a run started. Conditions seemed to be pretty good out to Asia and the Pacific. A couple of rare mults (VU and E51) called in and quite a few low-power JA's and VK's but no decent rates ever developed. With just over a hundred in the log at 0400z and the jury still out on whether conditions were good or bad I popped down to have a go at 40m. Surprisingly, I was able to work almost everyone I could hear and in a half hour I picked up a dozen new mults from Europe, Asia and the Caribbean. Things were starting to look up but it was soon time for the real test. European sunrise was coming up and if the 40m conditions were any indication we were going to get a huge opening on 20m. I pointed the beam north, found a frequency and did a 100/hour run of Europeans. I should have just stayed at it but the opening was so good that the DXer in me took over and I spent the next few hours hunting multipliers on the low-bands. 40m was still cooking and I even spent a bit of time on 80m. No mainland Europe was heard on that band but I did manage to work G, GM, EI, KH6 and KL7. Because of the auroral forecast I hadn't bothered to install the 160m coil on the vertical. As a result, my only 160m contact was KL7RA. I heard KH7XS both times we tried on 160m but couldn't make the contact. If that was the only mult I missed on 160m then it was probably worth it to not having had to wade through the waist-deep snow and monkey around in the cold for an hour. Eventually I decided to try to get my head back in the game and went back up to 20m to work more Europeans. After doing another 100/hour run to Europe I just couldn't help myself and had to go up and see if anything was happening on 15m. I love sneaking over the pole in the middle of the night on 15m and sure enough I worked a few Eastern European and Middle Eastern mults. After that it was back down to the low-bands for a bit more DXing. Several more mults went into the log on 40m (including JT1CO) and I even worked JA, UA0 and LU on 80m before turning in for a much needed 3-hour nap. I set the alarm (and the timer on the coffee pot!) for 5:30am and sacked out with a smile on my face and 400 Q's in the log. Even if the bands tanked over the next two days I already had enough points for a respectable showing so anything from this point on was just gravy. Little did I know that for the rest of the weekend the gravy would be flowing like Niagara Falls!

The bands were still kicking when I got up the next morning so first thing on the agenda was another run of Europeans. For the next three hours I kept the rate meter at 100/hr until the aurora flared up a bit and the run came to a screeching halt. While I was waiting for the aurora to subside I S&P'd a bit, had a nap and ran home to grab a shower. Around 2000z guys finally started answering me on the first call so I went down to my usual watering hole at the bottom of the band. I did another 100/hour to Europe and then after that took a quick spin around the globe and Worked-All-Continents. I left the beam pointed out west for Asian sunrise and did a 100/hour of JA's and Pacific stations. Band conditions were great and only getting better. By midnight zulu the DXer in me was screaming to be let off the chain so I made the call to go single-op-unlimited and pulled up the cluster on the internet. A flurry of Caribbean and South American mults followed and I even made a successful pass from 15m to 10m with LT1F for my only 10m contact. For two solid hours virtually every needed spot on 15 and 20m made it into the log and I even worked a handful of Europeans on 40m (early!). It was a very strange situation but by that point I didn't know what to do with myself anymore. In all my previous contesting experience I had always reacted to conditions. If conditions were good, I'd run. When they weren't then I'd search and pounce. When they got really bad, I'd take a nap. Having outstanding propagation, for so long, on so many different bands was a situation that I just wasn't prepared for. I sat back and was listening to a very loud JT1CO running stateside stations on 20m while I ate my supper and after some thought I decided not to worry about strategy and just enjoy it while it lasted. I always knew that if the sunspots and the aurora ever cooperated our unique geographic location could be huge advantage instead of a disadvantage. It seemed like this was that weekend and being a rare multiplier in the contest was just icing on the cake! By 0600z the greyline had finished tracking across Asia and now the Europeans were again booming in on 20m. I worked TL0A in Central Africa and then did yet another 100/hour running Europeans. Once the run slowed on 20m I spent the next couple of hours DXing on the low-bands. After that, even with all the excitement, I was getting pretty tired. With almost 1000 contacts in the log and closing in on 'weekend-DXCC' I decided to turn in and grab a few hours of sleep.

In the week leading up to a contest I always plan to get plenty of rest. I know that if I'm well rested I can do a 24-hour contest non-stop and a 48-hour contest on 3 hours sleep each night. Unfortunately, life always seems to conspire to prevent me from getting the rest I need before the contest and this time was no exception. Several busy days in a row at work (including a 12-hour day on Thursday) and several late nights meant I was running on empty even before the contest started. When I woke up Sunday morning at 1300z the bands seemed only marginal (aka: normal) so I decided to go back to sleep and try again in a half-hour. Two hours later when I finally got going, the bands had bounced back and I jumped right onto 20m and started running Europe. It's easy to calculate how many Q's I missed by sleeping in because my operating pattern was pretty much the same all day long: run for an hour then play DXer for an hour. 15m never really opened to anywhere except Japan (around their sunrise) but there was just enough weak African and South American stations to keep my attention on that band in between runs of Europeans on 20m. D4C (Cape Verde) was audible on 15m all afternoon and every so often someone else would pop up out of the noise. Despite all the time and knob spinning the end result of my Sunday afternoon efforts on 15m were less than a dozen multipliers. I was also religiously checking 10m every half-hour or so but never heard anything.

The last few hours of the contest were the most fun of all. After the final 100/hour run of Europeans on 20m I was up on 15m digging out a few more South American multipliers when I kept hearing (and easily working) loud JA's off the back of the beam. I decided a good strategy might be to try to run JA's on 15m with the beam on South America. I did that for a little while but with no takers from South America I eventually just turned the beam to Japan. In a half-hour I worked about 50 very loud JA's, most reporting power of 50 watts or lower, many with 10 watts and even a few QRP stations! With the time running out I turned the beam back to the southeast and spent the last 30 minutes picking up the remaining Caribbean and Central American multipliers on 20m. The band was wide open and everyone was incredibly loud. Every continent except Africa and Australia was booming in, even with the attenuator on and the gain turned down. Most of the stations had huge pileups going but one way or another I managed to get through to most of the ones I needed. The last one went into the log at 2358z and then it was all over.

As one might expect, there were LOTS of high points on this outing:
  • Setting up Friday afternoon in the unusually warm early spring sunshine.
  • Working a handful of stations on four bands. The exclusive club: D4C JA1ELY JA1YPA JA3YBK KH7X KL7RA RT0C
  • Working DXCC in a single weekend. Back in the day it took me three years to work 100 countries!
  • Working several all-time-new-ones for DXCC: New Caledonia (FK8IL), Central Africa (TL0A), India (VU3DJQ), Cambodia (XU7ACY).
  • Making the 10m contact with LT1F.
  • Eating supper on Saturday night while listening to JT1CO run a huge pileup of stateside stations on 20m when suddenly he announces that he's going to 15m and gives the QRG. I hit the bandswitch and was the first to work him for a new mult on 15m (I had worked him the night before on 20m and 40m).
  • Working Antarctica (again!). I caught VP8DMH Saturday night on 20m. I get a big kick out of making 'inter-polar' contacts and I've only ever done it twice before.
  • Having almost all the bands open to somewhere at the same time. In the middle of the night, during the 0800z hour on Saturday, my log has four contacts in a row that go 15m-20m-40m-80m (Africa, Europe, Hawaii, Japan)
  • Spending five futile minutes near the end of the contest shouting into a humongous pileup on YN2EA when a W2(?) gets through and after his contact tells the guy to 'listen up for the VE8 calling you'. I was so surprised I didn't have a chance to remember who it was but thanks for the multiplier!
  • Having the presence of mind right after the contest to take advantage of the excellent conditions and the big antenna to work Maine and Rhode Island on digital for my Triple Play Award. I still need 2 more on CW and 3 more on digital but propagation-wise they're all easy ones (ND, SD and NE).

The only low-points:

  • Spending almost an hour on Sunday morning calling V51YJ on 15m for an all-time-new-one. He never did hear me. Once again, that's for all the guys that spent time in the pileups unsuccessfully calling me this weekend. It usually goes both ways...
  • Demobilizing the station during a surprise blizzard on Sunday night.

From up here you never know what you're gonna get...

This will likely be the last 'serious' contest effort from here until Field Day and Canada Day this summer but we should be able to dabble in a few events between now and then. Also, listen for me in April as CK8G from NA-182.

John - VE8EV

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