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 ...

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