Monday, November 23, 2009

SS PH - Making the Grade!

I've always come away from Sweepstakes with a vague sense of having let everyone down. Knowing that there are several thousand stations all needing that NT multiplier but only a couple of hundred in my log somehow meant I just hadn't measured up to the task at hand. This year, however, was different. Somewhere between the experience gained in the past year of contesting and expeditioning, incremental improvements to the station, and ever-so-slightly better propagation, I walked away satisfied that I'd put in a pretty good effort.

It's surprising how all the little things just keep adding up. Some might just call it experience but there's an old saying along the lines of "First, you need to know what it is you don't know." Knowing when to run, when to search and pounce, and when to grab some rest for later. Keep the rate up! If you're running then RUN! Go as fast as you can without getting a lot of requests for fills. Always come back to something as fast as you can so stations don't start calling out of turn. If you can't run then S&P as fast as you can. Know what multipliers you need and when they're likely to be around so you can assign a mental 'value' to every station you hear. If they don't come back to you after a certain number of calls then move on and try them again on the next pass up (or down) the band. If everyone is answering on the first call then you should be running. Keep track of where stations are and what they sound like so you don't have to wait around for them to ID to find out you've already worked them. If nobody is answering you at all except for the one really loud guy who needs twenty fills to complete the QSO then it's time to go take a nap! Those and hundreds of other little things that all come from study, practice and experience. Subtle little lessons from here and there that make a big difference when they're all in play at the same time!

VE8DW was going to be out of town for SS this year so I was on my own. Fortunately, we got all the hard work at the contest site done before CQWW in October so all I had to do was pull the shack trailer up there and plug it in. Even so, it took several hours of hard work at 25 below zero to get all the snow shovelled, stow all the antennas and get the trailer hitched up to the truck. I thought I had everything in place and ready to go an hour before the contest but only 10 minutes before the bell I realized that I hadn't recorded the exchanges for the voice keyer. I scrambled around for 15 minutes with sound cards, microphones, inputs and outputs before I got it all working and then dived into the contest.

With an ongoing geomagnetic disturbance I was planning for conditions to be lousy, at least on Saturday. Being exactly 28 days after CQ WW, the optimist in me was hoping for a repeat of those conditions where a solar flux in the low 80's gave enough of a boost to the bands to push the signals through the aurora. Even though the flux didn't get quite as high this time, it still made a big difference. Shortly before the start of the contest there was even a 10m opening to the west coast, literally the first contacts I've made on that band in years. After that I wasn't quite sure what to expect at the start of the contest. I decided to start on 15m and managed to average over 60/hr for the first 3 hours. I even managed to do a 105/hr between 2220z and 2320z but when that band died suddenly I had to QSY. 20m was still shaky from the aurora and for the next two hours the rate meter was stuck at 24/hr. I knew once 20m was closed it was going to be a long, difficult night. The K-index was still at 2 and between 0200z and 0700z, while all the stations down south were filling their buckets from a seemingly endless well of contacts (or so I've heard), I struggled on 40m to put a dozen contacts in the log. By 0700z I'd had enough. I set the alarm for 1200z and went to bed.

20m was already open when I got up. I heard lots of DX and a handful of east coast DXers so I grabbed a spot and started calling CQ while I drank my coffee and had some breakfast. Apparently I had set my alarm an hour earlier than everyone else because a few minutes after 1300z the rate jumped up to 75/hr and stayed there for almost 2 hours. After the morning rush was over I spent the next several hours looking for multipliers. I knew I had to find NL, MAR, and as many New England sections as I could early because they just wouldn't be workable later in the day. I did pretty good with New England and worked VY2SS and KP2M. Late in the morning I found VO1HE running stations high up on 15m. It was a bit early for 15m from here but I hung in there and kept calling. At first I thought it would be easy because I couldn't hear anyone else calling but soon realized that there were lots of stations that I just wasn't hearing. After a half hour I decided to move on. I kept coming back to his frequency every five or ten minutes but after a little while he was gone. For all the guys that spent a long time in the pileup unsuccessfully calling me this weekend: I feel your pain!

After missing out on NL, I knew a sweep was unlikely so I decided to just concentrate on rate for the rest of the day. The aurora was still flaring up occasionally but by 1800z I was hitting 15m hard and just stayed there for the rest of the afternoon. Every time I got knocked off my run frequency I'd S&P the band until I found a new spot and started running again. After an hour or so I had a stroke of luck. I had just worked one of the east coast big guns down at the bottom of the band and had left the radio on his frequency while grabbing another cup of coffee. He wasn't getting very many takers and then he disappeared! After a minute of silence I practically dove for the F1 key and a few minutes after that the run started. I knew the aurora must have let up because I got lots of comments that I was loud and no one crowded me off frequency. For the next five hours I kept the average rate steady above 60/hr even during a QSY from 15m down to 20m at an opportune moment when 15m started going out.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Just like clockwork at around 0100z the 20m propagation followed the grey line off the west coast and out to sea. With KH7XS and a few JA's the only ones left on the band I knew it was time to head back to 40m. Conditions were better than the previous night but only the big stations were audible and almost all of them were already in the log. I did get spotted by a KL7 station which resulted in a little mini-run of eight stations but after that I was back to kilowatt QRP again. In the next half hour I worked two stations and both of those required lots of calling and fills. Even though it was only 0130z I knew that it was over for me. I saw the QSO count was at 749 so I thought I would try to get one more to make it an even 750. After about 5 minutes of searching I found W0CN and after 5 more minutes of calling and fills he was in the log and I was done.

As always, lots of highlights:

  • Working former co-worker and local operator VE8GER for the first time. I was very happy to hear him on the air doing his first SS!

  • The long Sunday afternoon run that seemed like it would never end.

  • Working 16 QRP stations. I love it when a QRP op cracks a big pileup of high powered stations!

  • Hearing the whoops and hollers in the background at multi-op stations when I work them.

The only lowlight was missing the sweep. In addition to NL I also needed ND but I'm sure if I hadn't missed on VO1HE I would have put a bit more effort into finding someone from North Dakota.

That's all from here for this year. I was going to run SO2C (single-op, 2 contest) during the ARRL 160 and the ARRL EME contest but it would have been only one night due to a prior commitment. Now that the geomagnetic forecast is calling for disturbed conditions during the contest weekend (again!) I'm not going to bother. I leave right after that for J6 and hopefully I'll be on from the island during the RAC Winter contest as J68/VE8EV.

73 from the frozen Arctic
John - VE8EV


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

Class: Single Op HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 22

Band QSOs
40: 23
20: 338
15: 387
Total: 748 Sections = 78 Total Score = 116,688



This year's SS was a personal best for me and I'm finally starting to feel like I know what I'm doing. I was expecting the auroral activity on Saturday to keep me out of the game until Sunday but the high (not zero!) sunspot number compensated somewhat, at least on the higher bands. I managed to get over 200 into the log before before 15m and 20m closed up. I wasn't expecting much on the low bands Saturday night and I sure wasn't disappointed. Between 0200 and 0700 my score increased by only 24 points! Sunday morning the rate waxed and waned with the aurora as I alternated between running and hunting for mults. I knew the sweep was lost after spending a half-hour calling VO1HE without success. Things finally picked up mid-afternoon and I even managed back-to-back runs on 15m and then 20m until it closed up around 0100. 40m was slightly better than the night before but practically everyone I could hear was already in log so I pulled the plug and went home.

I'll post the usual in-depth write-up to later on today.

John - VE8EV

Monday, November 9, 2009

SS CW - Like Tornados and Trailer Parks...

I don't know what it is about ARRL Sweepstakes but for some reason it always seems to cause spectacular displays of aurora borealis. With everyone looking for that elusive 'Clean Sweep' of all 80 ARRL and RAC Sections this is the one contest where everyone wants to work a station in the far North but it always seems to be the one contest where we struggle the most with active geomagnetic conditions. This year's CW version of the event was no exception.

My rudimentary CW skills just aren't (yet) up to running with the lengthly SS exchange and after last year's somewhat meager results from my searching and pouncing, this year I invited CQ Contest Hall of Famer N6TR, Tree, to guest-op via a remote internet connection. Although we had planned to work the August NAQP contest as a test-run of the remote control set-up, various scheduling conflicts conspired to reducing us to a few quick connectivity tests in the weeks right before Sweepstakes. Of course there were a few minor glitches in the hour before the contest that raised our pulse rates a bit but in the end we had it all ready to go in time for the opening bell.

The remote control system was genius in it's simplicity. My Kenwood TS-2000 has a built-in software keyer. Send the radio plain text through the serial port and it will happily convert it to morse code and send it over the air. Various other commands sent through the serial port will do everything that can be done directly by pushing buttons or turning knobs on the front panel. By using the remote serial port software included with Ham Radio Deluxe
, Tree's computer in Boring, Oregon had no idea that the serial port it was sending data to was on the back of my computer 1,600 miles away. SM5VXC's simple IPSound software routed the receiver audio and CW sidetone from my radio back to Tree's headphones. Other than the custom version of TRLog contest software that Tree whipped up to handle the logging and radio control, it really was almost as simple as it sounds. The rest of the station, however, was sorely lacking in electronic automation. It was my job to switch antennas, run the amp and the tuner, and (mostly for my own amusement) keep an eye on who we were working and what multipliers we needed.

The contest started with a bang Saturday afternoon. Conditions were great and Tree kept the rate at 80/hr for the first few hours. When darkness came, though, things started to slow down. Not so much because of band conditions, either. Tradition dictates that once it gets dark everyone QSY's to the low bands and spends the night working all their neighbors with low dipole antennas. Not so great for us guys on the edge of the world but we hung in there. My new, residential-area friendly (read: small) vertical antenna did a passable job on 40m given the distances involved. Our QSO total for both days on 40m was 45 contacts, which isn't bad considering that a) the antenna is only a 23ft whip, b) almost all of the contacts were 2000 miles+ and, c) conditions definitely were not the greatest. Our best DX on 40m was KP2M right around local midnight but it was also around then that the rate meter started sticking to the bottom peg so with almost 300 in the log we called it a night.

I knew 20m would be open for East coast sunrise so we were up 'n at 'em at 1130z the next morning. Sweepstakes Sunday is always a big deal from VE8 and I didn't see any reason why we shouldn't be able to put over 1000 in the log between now and the end of the contest. At least I didn't see any reason until I looked at the space weather. The K-index was at 4 and the NOAA auroral activity map showed a big, fat, red, angry-looking auroral oval on top of the world and it was right over our heads, stretching for hundreds of miles in every direction. The very few signals that could be heard were all weak and watery but in the true VE8 spirit Tree forged ahead and started scraping up whatever could be found. We could count all our contacts that morning on our fingers until 20m finally started to open a little bit around 14z and then the rate slowly crawled up into the double-digits.

Tree had done an excellent job collecting multipliers the previous night so despite the dismal conditions on Sunday we were only needing a handful of sections for the sweep. Slowly over the course of the morning the remaining mults trickled in with the last two (RI and UT) calling within a few minutes of each other late in the morning. With a sweep in hand I had even less to do except watch the meters bouncing and commiserate over the chat link with Tree about the painfully lousy conditions.

I had hoped the electric overcast would settle down later in the afternoon but it was unrelenting. The last few hours of Sweepstakes is always painful but by 0145z the rate was down to 2 or 3 per hour and we decided it was over. By sheer force of will Tree had managed to put 200 Q's in the log over the past 15 hours through an Arctic geomagnetic storm that would have had most hams looking for a new hobby (or at least watching TV all afternoon).

This 3-day geomagnetic activity chart for November 7-8-9 is pretty
self-explanatory. The first 27 hours on the chart was Sweepstakes CW.
We live on the northern boundary of the 'AURORAL' area.
Most of Canada
and the USA is in the 'SUBAURORAL' area.

I dream of a someday having a Sweepstakes weekend with double-digit sunspots and K=0 but I've never seen one yet. Maybe one of these years it will happen. Oh, and in case you were wondering, here's the geomagnetic activity forecast for the rest of the month. Sweepstakes Phone is on November 21st ...


Call: VE8EV
Operator(s): VE8EV N6TR
Station: VE8EV
Class: Multi-Op HP
QTH: Inuvik, NT
Operating Time (hrs): 24
Band QSOs
160: 0
80: 0
40: 45
20: 411
15: 21
10: 0
Total: 477 Sections = 80
Total Score = 75,520
Many thanks to John, VE8EV, for letting me operate the SS CW from VE8. It has always been a fantasy of mine to do this. Thanks to the internet and HRD software, and a little software of my own, I was able to operate the contest while sitting in Boring, Oregon. HRD provided a serial link to John's TS2000 and some enhancements to TR Log let me use the keyer in the TS2000 to send CW with. IPSound took care of getting the receiver audio back down to me. The delay from pressing F1 to hearing my CQ start in the sidetone was about 300 milliseconds - not bad at all. Sometimes the internet sound would hiccup which would do strange things to exchanges. I bet my error rate is a bit higher than normal as a result. Conditions at the start of the contest were FANTASTIC. First three hours were 85, 83 and 50. Around that time, things started happening with the aurora and the best hour I ever had afterward was 35. There were times the band had a funny "breathing sound" and most of the signals were all gone. Was very happy to get a clean sweep. Thanks to Eric, VY1EI for calling in for my only NT QSO. Was lots of fun giving some of the big guns their clean sweep!! Even more fun when they no idea who was behind the "key". 73 Tree N6TR