Thursday, January 4, 2018

DX Year in Review

Every year I like to write a little post about the previous year's DXing.  It's taken me a while to get around to writing this because, frankly, 2017 was a pretty slow year for DX.  There were only two DXpeditions scheduled that would be new ones for me and most of my focus last year was on getting the station ready for the coming solar minimum. 

I was relieved that I didn't miss anything important during my lengthy period off-air at the beginning of the year while I worked on getting the new tower set up.  The first expedition on the schedule was in March to the central African country of Niger.  A team of operators from Spain put together a great station and the propagation cooperated for me to get them into the log on both SSB and CW.

Mauritania was one of only a handful of African countries I still needed.  Being in the Northwest corner of that continent, it wasn't especially difficult from a propagation point of view but there were only two active stations there.  One was a beginner ham who ran low power into a small antenna and his signal was never audible up here.  The other was a somewhat cranky old-timer who only worked CW, only with a hand key, and made it very clear that he was not interested in exchanging quick "5NN" reports with anyone.  He wanted a full conversation with names, locations, and signal reports.  Given the generally poor signals and my rudimentary CW skills this was a pretty tall order for me.  Fortunately, I read that in April he and a visiting ham from Brazil would be participating in an obscure CW contest and the PY would also be operating SSB outside of the contest.  I never managed to catch their signals on SSB but on the scheduled day I looked up the exchange for the contest, pointed the big antenna over the pole, and worked him in CW for the ATNO.  As a sad footnote, the OT became a "silent key" just a few weeks after our contact.

The other scheduled expedition of the year was to Burundi in November when a group of guys from Italy activated this tiny, land-locked country in southern Africa.  Burundi was kind of a "do-over" for me.  I had confirmed and received DXCC credit for a couple of contacts with F5FHI during his travels to Burundi back in the 90's.  Unfortunately, sometime around the turn of the century, there was a problem realized with his documentation and the DXCC credit was withdrawn for everyone who had worked him.  Now, 20+ years later, I finally had another opportunity to get Burundi into the log.  When the expedition started conditions were lousy.  The SSN was sitting at zero and strong solar winds from recurrent corona holes were whipping up the aurora.  This wasn't the first time I had encountered lousy conditions during an expedition.  I knew the drill: pay attention and be listening during the predicted openings on the right bands and eventually it will come together and they'll go into the log.  Many times before I had managed to squeak out a single contact with an expedition during difficult conditions.  Not this time.  Despite all my best efforts (and the Italian's too, I suppose) their signals were never heard here strong enough to work.  It was truly a shock and disappointment to miss them and it was the first time in many years that I had set my sights on working a DXpedition and come up empty handed.  The radio propagation in the Arctic can be a cruel mistress and when the signals here get so weak at the bottom of the cycle sometimes some places are just not workable.

Despite the crushing Burundi miss in November, there was something else going on in my little DX world that soon returned a smile to my face.  For many years I had thought that getting my "5-Band DXCC" award (working 100 countries each on the 10,15,20,40, and 80 meter bands) just might be possible in my lifetime.  During the peak solar cycle years around 2013/2014 I had made sure to top up my 10m country count whenever I could so all that remained was to work 100 countries at the other extreme, 80m.  That, however, was a very tall order.  Between the high absorption up here on the lower bands and my modest efforts and antennas, I was usually only able to get one or two new ones a year on that band.  My calculations suggested that at that rate I would likely become a "silent key" myself before ever crossing that magical 100 country threshold.  This year I came to realize that things have changed.  The new digital FT8 radio mode (and all the activity it is generating) combined with my new low-band antenna setup has allowed a steady trickle of new countries on 80m to slowly start filling my log book.  I began 2017 with only 35 countries confirmed on 80m from my 20-plus years of being on the air.  By the end of December I was up to 50 confirmed and they just keep on coming.  With a bit of luck I hope to make it to 100 over the next few years before the solar cycle starts ramping up again in the early twenties.  Time will tell...

2018 should be a great year.  Some big ticket Dxpeditions are scheduled to a couple of top-10 most wanted entities (Bouvet and Baker Island), hopefully a few smaller operations will come up to some of the two dozen left until I've "worked 'em all", and the continued drip-drip of new ones on 80m. Bring on the solar minimum, I'm ready!