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


Anonymous said...

I was great to work you from Naples, FL using my Hamstick sitting in the grass. NS0I

hank said...

tnks for the contact. I didn't believe I would find a NT this year but you made my day. Only missed NNJ and NLI for sweep. Take care. Hank

Anonymous said...

As always you did a great job. I'm so glad I found your blog. Now I can follow your adventures. thanks for all the SS Tips. I still need you from one of the VE8 islands for a Canada award. Thanks for being there for us. Marsha N8FE