Monday, March 9, 2009

ARRL DX: You Can't Run and You Can't Hide!

Another interesting 'Field Day' style contest experience from the high arctic. We spent Wednesday and Thursday evenings before the contest getting the 40m HGEB array strung up at the contest site. This gigantic antenna consists of three 5/8 wave elements driven in series in front of three 1/2 wave reflector elements, essentially a trio of 2-element yagis side by side. It models at 13dBi in free space but we're probably lucky to be getting 6 or 7 dBi with it only up 1/4 wavelength high. I had hoped we could get it all done in one night but after slogging through the bush and waist deep snow getting the reflector half up it was too dark and we were too tired to keep going. The next night was exactly the same story hanging the driven elements. I had Friday off from work and spent the morning getting the new TH3JRS baby yagi put together and the rest of the afternoon getting the shack trailer and all the equipment up to the contest site. We had the mobile tower and the TH6DXX up just in time for Wally to get on 20m at the starting bell while I ran around finishing up the low band antennas and running feedlines.

VE8EV and VE8DW putting the TH6 together.
"Quit taking pictures and come help me!"

After a two hour 'run' of forty JA's and UA0's the amp blew up (filament to grid short in a brand new tube!) so we had to spend an hour fixing that and then another hour out in the wind, cold and dark tuning the big low band vertical. Finally got going on 40m around 0400z and over the next couple of hours I worked the two dozen Eu stations I was hearing. The 40m wire array beaming over the pole seemed to play well and most answered on the first or second call but every time I tried running I had no takers. Wally waited patiently for an Eu sunrise opening on 20m but only got a single caller. Went to 80m at 0700z and worked everyone I could hear there including KH7X who was hearing us well enough to QSY to 160m and then back up to 40m for the triple mult. After that I managed another two dozen Q's on 40m before a much needed 90 minute nap.

VE8DW running on 20m the first night.
"What the heck is a Four Bravo Two ...?"

We got off to a slow start at 1030z but after getting a pileup of Europeans going on 20m around I handed it over to Wally so he could get some more practice running. I felt like a proud father watching him work the opening with the rate meter over 100 the entire time. I poked around on 40m and 80m but didn't find anyone that wasn't already in the log. The Eu run fizzled at 1700z and we went back to S&P. The afternoon didn't produce any rates but we traded back and forth between 15m and 20m and put a bunch of Caribbean and South American mults in the log. I just barely heard KL7RA on 10m but by the time I spun the beam around to see which end he was strongest on he was gone. At least we got them on all the other bands. I was envious as I ran across them all weekend long running stateside stations like crazy. We had excellent propagation to the rest of Canada and the lower 48. So much so that it was impossible to try and run inside the US phone segment because we kept getting called by Americans. I tried to run on 15m but had to give up. Even calling "CQ DX contest, CQ DX South America" I was getting a pileup of US stations trying to call me. I couldn't figure out what to do because whether I was working them or not I doubt any DX stations would stick around in a pileup of USA stations. Even outside the phone segments I still had US stations calling. A polite "Ur out of band, OM" sent most of them on their way. For the few VE stations that called I just gave them a quick five-nine and they moved on. One US station even called me on CW for a cross-mode contact. Him I logged, you just have to admire the combination of determination and ingenuity.

Late Saturday afternoon we took an hour off to put up the baby yagi. It was originally planned to go on the tower on top of the big water tank that shadows our Eu path from the mobile tower. Unfortunately it was 33 below and the wind was howling so we opted to put it on a 12 foot step ladder on a small platform over a nearby fuel tank. It was only up about 20 feet but at least it had a clear shot to Europe and JA. As it was we froze our butts off and we were only outside for about 15 minutes at a time.

VE8EV putting up the baby yagi on Saturday afternoon.
"Boy, I'm sure glad we didn't try to put this on the big tower today!"

The late afternoon opening to Asia was almost non-existant on Saturday as the aurora was starting to come up. Wally CQ'd away on 20m but only had a trickle of JA's and UA's call in. We slogged it out until the wee hours but between 0000z and 0600z we could only manage 40 contacts, half on 20m and half on 40m. I gave up and crashed until 0800z, got up and worked a VK, a ZL and OX on forty and went back to bed for another 3 hours.

On Sunday we got up bright and early at 1200z (remembering to deal with any time change issues) and got back to work. The high latitude geomagnetic field was at active levels but the six hour forecast was calling for quiet so we hoped for the best. Amazingly, we were still able to make a few scattered contacts. Wally stayed on 20m and I waited in case 15m opened again. All morning and afternoon I checked every 15m spot to no avail while Wally poked away on 20m. By late afternoon we were getting nowhere. Propagation to the US was coming up nicely but not much DX to be heard. The K index was headed in the right direction (down) so we decided to just CQ on 20 meters and hope for the best.

Trying to run stations up here is always hard. First, the signals are weak in both directions. We're doing everything we can (within reason) at our end without resorting to 150 foot towers and stacked monobanders. The far end stations have a hard time hearing you over all the QRM and QRN. At our end it usually works out like this: First, you find a clear spot and start calling CQ. If anyone answers you they're usually weak but readable. If you're lucky, they'll spot you on packet. When that happens its an instant pileup and you run them as fast as possible. Spotted or not, you carry on until a much stronger (like S-7 or better) station fires up close to you. You're weak down there so you aren't bothering him at all and his QRM wouldn't be a problem except now you can't copy all the weak guys calling you. Since usually they're all weak, you're done. Close down and move on. It's a fundamental fact that there just aren't a lot of strong signals that are heard here during a contest. If your station is big enough to be loud up here then you'll probably already be calling CQ and working nearer stations that are loud enough to be heard over the QRM. The other thing that happens a lot is you'll be happily CQing away in a nice clear spot with few or no takers. Then all of a sudden the aurora quits, the band comes to life, and you're right between two stronger stations and sometimes a third station is already right on top of you. Its frustrating at times and for me, figuring out how to effectively run in a contest is right up there with understanding propagation.

VE8EV trying to run on 14.148
"You're out of band, old man!"

For a while I was thinking that maybe the answer was just sticktoiteveness. Just keep calling CQ and you'll work more stations than you would by search and pounce. And while this might be statistically true, like all stats it breaks down at small sample rates. If your rate is going to be 4 or 5 Q's per HOUR calling CQ vs. 3 or 4 per HOUR of S&P then all else being equal I'll have way more fun (and get way more multipliers) by spinning the dial. So the last couple of hours we decided to call CQ on 20m just outside the US phone band with the beam to the west for the rest of the contest and hope for the best. CQ CQ CQ for 20 minutes. A weak JA finally calls. CQ CQ CQ for another 10 minutes. Nothing. Turn the beam south east. CQ CQ CQ. An XE1 calls. CQ CQ CQ for 10 minutes. Then the W/VE's start calling. CQ CQ CQ for 10 minutes. A PY calls. CQ CQ CQ for 10 minutes. An EA8 calls (mult!). CQ CQ CQ. While this is going on, Wally is on 40m shouting at a few Europeans who are S-7 but can't hear him. After an hour of this and with only 20 minutes left in the contest I decide to take one last spin up the band. What I heard on 20m in the last 20 minutes of the contest was just unbelievable. The band was open to all of the Americas. Wide open. Not only that, the dynamic range was like nothing I had ever heard before. What I mean by that is usually during a contest 20m has strongish signals every 3 or 4 kHz and everything in between is a muddy, swishy sounding mix of QRM, QRN and signals that are just under the noise floor. This time I could hear thousands of stations. I bet if I had a wideband SDR radio that could record an entire band at once I would be able to go back and pick out a thousand call signs. Strong signals on top of weak signals on top of stronger signals. Huge pileups of guys working Caribbean and South American stations. W/VE's calling CQ. DX stations calling CQ. I swear I could hear every single station clear as a bell. It was amazing. And they were hearing me just as well. In just over 15 minutes I S&P'd my way up the band and worked six stations. They all had pileups of one size or another and I cracked each one in less than 3 calls. I did pass on one Caribbean mult I still needed as his pileup was absolutely enormous and way out of control but the others went into the log one after the other. As I worked my way up to the top of the band I got KP2M for a mult with 2 minutes to go. Right at the top end was XE1L and I worked him with only seconds to spare right at the bitter end. Behind me on 40m, Wally had two Europeans in the bag and on the hook with one more who was trying to fish him out of the noise but didn't quite get it before the bell rang.

Overall we had fun and that last 20 minutes on 20m made up for a lot of hours spent without logging anything. I've never listened on HF from outside of the auroral zone so I can't help but wonder if maybe that's what it always sounds like down in the real world...

Contest Summary:

Band QSO Mults
160 2 2
80 6 5
40 60 31
20 280 73
15 13 7
10 0 0
TOTAL 361 x 118 = 127792 points


Anonymous said...

Excellent write OM, can't wait for the next one.



Anonymous said...

I was realy surprised when I heard your replay on my CQ in ARRL SSB. You had very nice signal.



Miha S51FB at S53m

Anonymous said...

It was on 40m.

Miha S51FB

Anonymous said...

Very nice writeup! I'm a very small station
and only single banded it - but 20m was amazing. I missed the last hour- might have been my only chance for a QSO with Ya!


Anonymous said...

Great that I could work you with 10W only. I had to "shout" several times, but had QSO after all. Thanks for the effort!
Wim - ON4BHQ