Contesting In A Time of Solar Cholera

QRP contesting is never easy but it can be amazing.

Having said that, QRP contesting really, really needs decent conditions.

This weekend is the CQ WW DX CW contest. It’s the biggest CW contest of the year. I’ve spent my entire Amateur Radio life preparing for this weekend. Okay that might be a bit much but I’ve at least worked on the station all this week getting ready.

And then on Friday we got word that two M-class solar flares were predicted to hit earth this weekend. When the earth’s ionosphere is struck by the solar energy of a flare it’s like contesting in a time of cholera (stealing a title from  Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love In A Time of Cholera). All or some of the bands go dead.

This weekend wasn’t quite that bad but it’s Sunday 5 am and I can hear North American stations and on KH7 out of Alaska on 80 and that’s it. On Friday night of the contest I heard Africa (can’t remember who now) on 80 which was a first but the rest of the bands were in very poor shape.

Saturday was up and down with it being mostly down but not as bad as I had thought. We’ll see what Sunday holds as I await 40 meters which is very wishy washy right now.

So here’s my point. When you’re contesting, you’re contesting. It’s like when you go fishing and you don’t catch any fish. You were still fishing.

And at any power level whether it be five watts, a 100 watts or a KW you’re still contesting.

For QRP contesters it’s important to remember you are always much more powerful than you think. You’re louder than you can imagine and with quiet conditions your signal is perfectly readable right into the noise level.

You can break pileups in a single call. You can leap over KW stations and transmit as fast as a speeding electron.

But remember with this great power comes great responsibility. Don’t needless tuneup thinking no one can hear your peanut whistle. I was tuning a Tuna-Tin transmitter at 300 milliwatts on 40 when out of the blue came a ?? I thought that can’t be for me. It was and I worked a guy in Illinois.

Solar flares make for very challenging but extremely interesting contesting conditions. So far this weekend I’ve worked over 150 stations doing search and pounce including several stations in Africa, Australia (long path again) and Japan. I heard Vietnam for the first time this weekend and a contest station in China knew I was there and calling but we couldn’t make the exchange.

The gods of propagation give and they taketh away. Back to the bands.

The Ham Who Invented Elmer

According to the ARRL the Canadian Ham who is credited with inventing the term “Elmer” has died.

Rod Newkirk, W9BRD/VA3ZBB, of Ottawa is credited with first using the term Elmer in his “How’s DX?” column in March 1971. Newkirk wrote the column which appeared in QST from 1947 to 1978.

Overtime an Elmer became the name given to anyone who mentored a would-be ham into the hobby. (My first Elmer was Ray Hunter, VE3UR who mentored my dad VE3FWR into becoming a ham.)

First licensed in 1937 as W9WRD at 14, Newkirk was involved with radio all his life. In 1997 Newkirk married his wife Betty, VE3ZBB and moved to Canada.

Zone 2 Contesting

Zone 2 is one of the rarest Ham Radio zones in the world and best of all it’s within driving distance (sort of) of southern Ontario. Here’s  an article and images thanks to Igor, VC2X, VE3ZF, VE2IDX  about his VC2X Zone 2 DX-pedition for the CQ WW DX SSB 2012 Contest.

VC2X Zone 2 DX-pedition

                   By Igor Slakva, VC2X / VE3ZF

One more DX-pedition to Zone 2 behind…

1700 km uphill and downhill driving through North Quebec mountains…

Thanks to my friend John, a professional motorbike racer, who gave me an excellent training in night-time mountain`s driving a while ago.

On the second day I came to a small French speaking fishing village called Riviere-Au-Tonnerre scenically situated on the Atlantic coast. I arrived a week early to prepare for the CQ WW DX Contest.

During this week I installed and tested my phasing verticals on 80
and 40 meters, Spider Beam on 14-21-28 MHz, Inverted L on 160, receiving arrays, etc….

One can’t expect a good weather in Northern Quebec at the end of October. It kept changing from strong winds to rain, and then back again.

Installation of phased verticals and a Spider Beam on a push-up tower was challenging.  I had to call all my experience in radio operating from North of Canada within 10 years to put my antennas in place by myself only.

Finally contest began… I am pleased to admit great condition during CQ WW, especially Long Path on 40 and 20 meters….QSOs on 40 with KH6MB, ZM4T, KH7CW was made after the first call. My favorite homemade phased verticals works perfectly!

I had perfect multi-hours pile-ups on 20 and 15 meters with the 3 elements Spider Beam.  I was surprised to see my speed of operation at 250-300 QSOs per hour sometimes on a computer screen indicated by N1MM software.

Unfortunately on first day of CQ WW the driven element on 10 meters was damaged by a strong gusting wind, and SWR got too high.

Putting down the tower in a storm seemed impossible. I practically  lost the antenna on 10 meters, what affected my final score.  Luckily another bands were unaffected.

The last hour of CQ WW also was good – 9M8YY, BA7CK, YE2R, BD4GNV  break through North American`s  pile-up… My “CQ contest” on the very last minute gave me a new one – JW7QIA…

CQ WW SSB 2012 was over…

Next morning I was still under impression of the past CQ WW. However, I did not know that my challenges were not even remotely over. Hurricane Sandy hit Quebec on Monday…. For the entire Monday, I had no chance to put down any antennas.

Gusting wind heavily shake the cottage. I felt like I am going to fly up in the sky with the cabin.

I couldn’t expect that the second day was going to be better. But from my previous DX-peditions to Northern Canada I knew, that wind is down before sunrise for 20-30 minutes. 20 minutes were enough to put down the Spider and all verticals.

I took me a few hours to pack and load my equipment to Toyota Camry. It’s mystery even for me how this car accommodates 2 big YAESU transceivers, 1 kW PA, 1200 feet (!) of the coax, 360 feet (!) of aluminum pipes, rolls with radial, a few hundred feet of rope, and other various things such as a big hammer and  grounding rods for a receiving array..

I had wonderful vacation operating in a CQ World-Wide Contest. This make me always happy.

Now I see my weak points and ways of improvement. I’m pretty sure that I will be back to Zone 2 to CQ WW next year.

Thank you to all who called me during contest, also my big thanks to Jack VA3ATT, Max VE3CCN, Raco VA3YP, Igor VE3KAO and Serge UT5IA for their great help in the DX-pedition preparation.

I hope to come back to my favorite Rivierre-Au-Tonnere to CQ WW next year.

Igor VE3ZF, VC2X / CQ WW 2012


Okay don’t look at my score but at least I was on Team Mooseheads and contributed (not much) to the effort that gave Robert, VA3RKM; Pat, VE3EUR; Richard, VE3KI; and me a First Place World – Team Category certificate.

Okay I’ve got to do better 🙂 That’s the resolution for 2013 🙂

Having said that the results from last weekend’s ARRL Sweepstakes running QRP SSB was amazing 🙂

I could do no wrong on 40 meters late Saturday afternoon and the same thing on Sunday night on 80 meters.

I’m using an Alpha-Delta shortened 80/40 dipole at 30 feet or so and for a domestic contest like Sweepstakes with decent conditions it can really pay off. Sure the single-element extended dipole on the HY-Gain Explorer beam tends to work better but the dipole pays off somedays and last weekend was one of those days 🙂

Any got to practice my CW for this coming weekend which is the big one: CQ WW DX CW. It’s 48 hours of strategy, planning and coffee. Not necessarily in that order.

BTW for those of you with limited antennas I was working into the US mid-west and California using the Butternut vertical as I can’t swing the beam to the SW due to a tree branch that’s got to go. And this was at 5 watts of SSB! One hundred watts would make this easy.

QRP Contesting

Getting ready for the ARRL SSB Sweepstakes this weekend. I’m likely only going to be on Sunday but I’ll be firing on 5-watts.

As I posted on November 1 I’ve had some issues with the old FlexRadio 1500 and we’re slowly sorting out what’s happened and where we’re going from here but in the meantime the new 1500 is percolating away and the station never worked better 🙂

As you can see in the photo I’ve got my Drake R8 receiver (left) with the Flex 1500 sitting on top with the WM-2 QRP watt meter beside it. The output goes to either of my QRP autotuners (LDG-Pro II or Elecraft TU-1) which are situated below the antenna switch box (bottom left and rotor control) and into an antenna switch that is connected to the 6-meter squares, dummy load, 80-40 dipole or the switch on the tower which switches the Hy-Gain Explorer with 40-meter extensions, the Butternut HF-6-custom built vertical, the G5RV-JR, 160 sloper and Alpha-Delta 160/80/40/30 sloper.

To the right is the Drake 2B tube receiver with a DSP-9+ giving me some digital filtering on the audio out. In front of the 2B is a Ten Tec 40/20 QRP rig which is a great 5-watt rig.

Under the screen (which is also a high-def TV for those days when the bands are out) is an Idiom Press LogiTalker voice keyer on the left and an Idiom Press CW keyer on the right. I found a Yaseu mobile mic in a bin downstairs so I plugged it into the voice keyer and it works. Since the Flex 1500 doesn’t have VOX I appreciate the push-to-talk on the mic.

On the desktop I’ve got a FlexKnob which is an essential accessory for the 1500 and a new toy…yes…it’s true…I bought the Hercules DJ music controller and I’m now mapping all the Flex SDR controls that are on the screen and accessed from the FlexKnob to the Hercules. They both work simultaneously which is neat.

The Hercules with the software from DH1TW (it just dumps into the Flex software folder) worked perfectly first time. Amazing.

Anyway the voice keyer is loaded. The new Flex 1500 is working. Putting a new battery into the Bose XYL-quieting headphones and I’m ready to go.

BTW the bands sound very quiet for this domestic contest. Could be a heck of a day on Sunday.

How To Lead

I’m posting this information on all my blog sites and my Facebook page.

It’s Simon Sinek’s talk on How Great Leaders Inspire Action which is part of the TED talks.

In brief Sinek says great leaders don’t sell us on their 10-point master plans but they share with us what they believe.

Most organizations start by talking about what they do and then they get all excited about how well they do it.

Few of them talk about why they do the things they do and in depriving us of understanding why what they’re doing is important to them we don’t support them.

Martin Luther King didn’t have a plan that he shared with over 200,000 in Washington D.C. He had a belief and we all, black and while, American and non-American, believed in it too.

Some of the master planners who read this blog should watch this video and contemplate the errors of their ways.

Taking Control of the FlexRadio 1500

You all know how much I love the FlexRadio 1500. For $600 there’s not a better radio out there at just about any price.

Having said that the FlexRadio 1500 isn’t the perfect contest radio.

Why? First it’s not your big box radio with tons of switches, buttons and dials. It doesn’t look like a traditional radio and it doesn’t operate like a traditional radio.

Second, it’s a five-watt powerhouse and you have to be a pretty good operator to get the most out of a QRP rig during a contest or pileup.

(The pileup last night on 40 meters for what I am guessing was the PT0S DXpedition to St. Peter & St. Paul Rocks stretch over a great portion of the band and was no place for somebody running less than a KW.)

Also as it comes out of the box you need to use your mouse to control it. That’s a challenge for some of us 🙂 Also, if you’re running a separate piece of software at the same time such as a logging program or a contest logger there is the possibility of the mouse being active in the wrong program.

What happens, especially when contesting late at night, is as you’re typing with your head down over the keyboard you miss the fact that the mouse is actually activated over the SDR window and not the logging program and the typing causes the SDR to do something very odd (changing bands is one of the symptoms).

Now you can get Windows to lock the mouse to whatever program it is hovering over but that still can create the same issue if you’re not careful. 

The first solution is to buy a FlexKnob.

At over $100 for the knob there were a lot of comments about it being too expensive but the FlexKnob is more than a knob, it’s actually a multi-controller with three buttons and dial (which can be pushed) activating a whole bunch of commands and functions.

Best of all the FlexKnob locks onto the SDR window.

Overall I’d say it’s an essential purchase.

Having said that I bought another controller. I was talking on the Oakville 440 machine VE3OAK to Harry, VA3EC, as he was going into Canadian Computers in Mississauga to buy a Hercules DJ box which I commented upon in an earlier post.

I was holding up pretty well until he told me they only had two left in stock….so now I’m the proud owner of the Hercules ($89 in Canada) which can be setup to control the SDR window and all its functions.

Worse comes to worse I can use it on the MacBook Pro to DJ a couple of weddings 🙂

-.-. –.-

So you want to learn CW?

Here’s a start. This is a PDF downloadable book about how to get going by Carlo Consoli, IK0YGJ called Zen and The Art of Radiotelegraphy. At 108 pages it’s a good read.

Then there’s The Art and Skill of Radiotelegraphy by William Pierpont, N0HFF that is download.

If you’ve got a receiver capable of receiving CW then there’s W1AW’s CW training that is broadcast (by special agreement with the FCC).

Lots of people find CW a challenge but as many if not more find it relatively easy to get to 10 words per minute which is an average speed for casual conversations. Getting to 18 to 20 words per minute, which is the lower end of contesting speed, just takes practice.

Don’t forget to practice sending and until you’re up to 10 wpm or so keep to a straight key. A bug (which is way harder to control) and an electronic keyer with squeeze paddles are great fun but learn the basics first.

CQ Santa

My buddy Mike, VA3MW has brought the Hercules DJ Control MP3 e2 to my attention.

Add PowerSDR-UI software by OH1TW to the Hercules and your software defined radio suddenly has knobs…lots of them.

This is the answer (sort of) to the guys who complain that there aren’t enough knobs on software defined radios. Here’s a video using the Hercules with Flexradio’s Power SDR.

The PowerSDR-UI software interfaces the Hercules to radios such as the FlexRadio group (Flex 1500, 3000 and 5000).

Oh and you can mix music with it at your next part. Get down !

Anyone can do it. This is very handy if the bands go dead.