Well I did it.
Despite sharing the NorCal name, the rigs are very different from each other but both acquitted themselves very well in the contesting environment. While not covering the entire CW portion of the bands both rigs cover enough of the bands to make it easy to search and pounce.
Sure this isn’t as good as having a rig that covers the entire band but it sure beats xtal control like on my CRK-10a which is locked on 7030.
The NorCal 40 and 20 were designed differently and my subjective feel for them is I like the NorCal 40’s receiver a little bit more than the NorCal 20’s. It seems quieter but that could have been the band conditions. Having said that, if memory serves me right I think the NorCal 20’s QSK is smoother and one of my 20s has lots of mods (variable RIT, loud speaker, paddle/straight key input).
Both rigs are more than sensitive enough, able to hear just about anything my big rigs can hear and certain they can hear signals that are strong enough to hear me at QRP levels.
Both rigs are selective enough to contest. I’d love a better crystal filter in the circuit but that would add complexity and cost which isn’t actually needed. I could have added one of my digital audio filters to the headphone output but I never really needed the extra help.
The NorCal 20 has the 10-turn potentiometer mod which makes tuning much smoother and offers lots more mechanical bandwidth. It also has a CW enunciator that when pushed tells you in CW your frequency. And while both rigs have memory keyer chips, only one (the NorCal 20) has two CW memory spots.
The memory message buttons are a little tough to hit and to make fire at the right time in the heat of the contest so for both rigs I used my Idiom Press LogiKeyer which worked flawlessly.
One issue is neither rig has AGC. Both have RF control knobs so you can control the amount of RF gain but when Harry, VA3EC, fired up his 100 rig on the frequency of a guy I was trying to work it was a painful experience in the headphones. Nicely though, the NorCal 40 didn’t overload and Harry’s signal couldn’t be heard anywhere off his operating frequency. Hadn’t expected the rigs to have this much rejection.
So how did I do?
On both bands I worked around 45 Qs. While that’s not a lot, it’s pretty good for the 12 hours I was on the RAC Winter Contest doing search and pounce with a limited bandwidth at 2 and 5 watts. This suggests that a single-band operation on one of the big contests would yield a much more impressive score.
BTW the two watt rig worked as well as the five-watt setup and as well as my 100-watt rig. I can say this with some assuridy as almost all of the Qs were made without the need to repeat anything. A few that needed repeats were Qs at the prevailing noise level and while physics says the 100 rig will be several S-units stronger, the two-watt rig still got the job done.
Seriously folks I used to be a QRO contester (800 watts) and if I was running and had a station located on higher ground, up in the country, I’d be running QRO for some contests especially if they were SSB tests. Remember your basic 100-watt station is a much more lethal contester than most people realize or take advantage of especially when it comes to CW or digital contests.
Having said that consider building or buying (I paid $40 assembled for one of my NorCal 20s at the Dayton flea market) a fairly robust QRP rig and using a resonant antenna.
This is essential. Non-resonant antennas like badly cut off-frequency dipoles, 43-foot verticals feed with a autotunes at the base, or other similar contraptions can’t compete with even a simple dipole that exhibits a 1:1 SWR and is fed directly with a low-loss cable like LMR-400.
If getting a properly cut antenna up is an issue, consider the higher bands like 20, 15 or even 10 for a single-band operation. Regardless of where we are in the propagation cycle, all of these higher bands usually have some activity during the big contests. !0 and 15 often close during the night time hours so you can get a good eight hours sleep as well.
Antennas such as single-band dipoles or even commercial radial-less verticals like the Cushcraft R-5 or R-3 which can be erected just about anywhere using a single mounting pole will surprise you with how well they can radiate a few watts of signal when cut properly. (I recently worked VK and JA using a ground-mounted Butternut clone HF-6 at 5 watts just to show it can be done.)
The difference between QRO, 100-watt low power and QRP contesting isn’t as great as some fear. The basics of building a competitive contesting station apply regardless of power. In fact, QRP contesting requires a flawless installation of hardware and a similarly flawless implementation of good contesting procedures.
Regardless of the power level, anything less will lead to frustration…trust me, I know 🙂