I had modest expectations from QRP in this past weekend's CQ WW SSB contest. This is the biggest of the worldwide contests with more that 10,000 participants. The QRM is fierce, as is the competition. QRP doesn't stand a chance. Or does it?
As planned this contest was to be a shakedown of my new antenna system. I did not go in with any competitive objectives, just to do the best I could and have fun. My objective was to see how much better I could do with the new antennas than in the other SSB contest I played in earlier this year: WPX. Typically I avoid SSB and SSB contests when running QRP.
I only operated half of the 48 hours possible, both for practical and personal reasons. So I could have done better, though probably not by a lot. At night it's the low bands that rule and those are the worst with QRP due to the high atmospheric and man-made QRN; it takes power to be heard.
In this article I'll talk about my experiences and suggestions on how to do well in an SSB contest with QRP. If you want to see how I did you can look at my claimed score submission on the 3830 page for this contest.
From previous experience I made some small though important changes to my station setup. Compare this picture with the one from my previous setup, which had some problems.
The major change was to do what every contester has already discovered: slide the rig off to the side and put the computer front and centre. For too long I persisted in the belief that the rig must be the primary focus. This is simply wrong, especially during contests. Rig and rotator control is done with the left hand so I can tune and type while moving the yagi. Operating is otherwise hands-free since I'm using a headset and VOX.
Logging software is N1MM. I have the N1MM+ beta installed by I am not yet ready to make the switch. I use only a subset of the available features so this is sufficient for now. One thing I forgot to do was update the countries file, which messed up multiplier counting during the contest. I fixed that after the contest.
I spent some weeks with the current setup to accustom myself to operating the rig with my left hand (I'm right handed). The learning curve was fast. I could even type in calls while fine tuning the other station. The paddles (obviously not used in this contest) and computer mouse are within easy reach. With weeks of non-contest and QSO party practice I am now comfortable sending CW while adjusting the rig or typing on the computer. I purposely purchased an ultra-thin mouse pad so that the heavy Bencher paddles keeps the pad from sliding on the desktop without affecting paddle ergonomics. Even the sheaf of paper is partially held to the table top by the (paddle secured) mouse pad.
The antenna switch is positioned for easy access. This helps with diversity control (see below) by allowing fast switching between the yagi and inverted vee on the high bands. I replaced the round knob on the switch with the one you see. It is much easier on the hand for frequent use, as I do in contests. The benefit is more than you might guess.
The tuner off to the right side is for the 80 meters half sloper, which is cut for CW. I set it up so I could fine tune the match within the SSB segment using only the inductor. As it turns out it saw little use during the contest.
When the contest starts every call you hear is a potential new QSO since no one has worked anyone yet. This creates a feeding frenzy, where the super-stations and rare multipliers dominate the bands and the QRM is fierce. Everyone is focussed on working anything that talks, either by S & P (search and pounce) or calling CQ. In this environment might is always right; if you have power you get through, and if you don't you won't.
On Friday evening I made a total of 25 QSOs. I sensibly stepped away from the radio after a time to wait out the feeding frenzy. There is little room in that environment for QRP. You can't fight it so don't try. It will only frustrate and demoralize you.
I knew the next day would deliver improved results. I got a good night's rest and set the alarm to catch the high bands opening to Europe and beyond early the next morning.
No, not that kind of high. I mean frequency. If you looked at my detailed results (linked to above) you may have been surprised by how few contacts I made on 40 and 80, and none at all on 160. The thing is, other than working some multipliers it is perilous to spend much time on the low bands eking out contacts. Few can hear my QRP signal, even US stations, which means a very low QSO rate.
It is better to spend time at higher workable frequencies even if, it seems, the QSO totals on those bands are out of balance with the lower bands. With QRP you will generally do better the higher the frequency, if the band is open. Thus my overweight QSO count on 10 meters, and progressively fewer QSOs on each lower band.
Points are points, so unless the higher bands are closed you should avoid the low bands. I could have spent the hours between midnight and sunrise adding contacts on 40 and 80, but instead opted to sleep after working the easiest multipliers. If I were more competitive or using more power I would have spent more of the nighttime hours on the low bands.
S & P agility
Spending 95% or more of the contest doing S & P operating is fatiguing. Yet it is unavoidable for the QRP contester. Learn to enjoy it. It can be both productive and enjoyable with a little practice. This subject is worth a more detailed discussion.
First off, I did not operate assisted (DX spotting networks) and I don't recommend it for QRP. If you spend your time reacting to spots of needed multipliers you will almost always do worse. After all, many will respond to the spot and you have to fight through a pile-up. It is a fight you will lose. Worse, while you are there you are not calling workable stations.
Conversely, by spending your time S & P you will often run across multipliers that have not been spotted. I worked many this way. Some of these were double multipliers (zone and country), including: JV, KH2, ZD8, A7, among others. The only frustrating aspect of this is that they might not hear you even if there are no other callers. I missed many multipliers this way. After a few calls I give it up and keep tuning. Time is precious.
Another thing to avoid is spending too much time at the low end of the SSB band segments. The super-stations often camp out there, knowing that the bulk of contesters are S & P operators and that they tend to start their search at the bottom of the band. That means lots of high-power QRM that QRP cannot cut through. Therefore the stations with the big signals often won't hear you. Move higher. On 10 meters there was activity spread over 1 MHz of spectrum. My best results were clustered around 29 MHz. Lower-power stations are found there, and they are the ones most likely to hear you; that is, if you can hear them they can hear you.
At my fastest I could S & P contacts at a rate of 3 QSOs per minute. This only happens if the each station I tune is not a dupe and I get through on the first call. This isn't typical, but when it happens it's magical. There is a need for speed in locating each signal, tuning it in properly and typing the call into the log without lag time. When done right I can initiate my call within one second after he finishes his QSO solicitation, secure in the knowledge that it is not a dupe.
After reaching the top end of the band, or the top end of the contest-active spectrum, I will often change bands and repeat the process. When I finish that band I can flip back to the first. This maximizes results by allowing time for others to change their run frequencies and bands, ensuring that a larger percentage of the stations I find the next time I scan a band are not dupes. In any case, be prepared to do a lot of typing since later in the contest many or most of the stations you encounter will be dupes.
If you do a lot of S & P you'll experience what I'm about to describe. Everyone doing S & P tends to follow a similar pattern of moving up (or down) the band from one running station to the next. It is not unusual to hear the same stations following your pattern (or, conversely, you're following their pattern). You'll hear them on most every station you call for some time.
This is not a problem, though I am amused when it does happen. Synchronicity of this type is not always amusing. There are many other contesters with similar calls, so when my S & P pattern synchronizes with another VE3 with a similar call confusion rules. This affects the calling station and my partner in synchronicity. When this occurs I break my pattern by making a big step up or down (in the same direction of the pattern) to get away from my synchronous partner. I cover the frequency gap later.
A contributing factor to the situation is the use of partial call databases. A feature of contest logging software is to match a partial or full call against a database of known contester call signs scraped from logs submitted to various contests. For those of us with weak QRP signals this sometimes results in the running station guessing at your call from what the database search window provides and asking you to confirm their guess. When used by poor operators this feature is a plague since they aren't listening to you, but rather going through a list. It can be very frustrating. There are about 4 call signs in particular that the database spits up that the poor operator on the other side keeps trying to get me to confirm. That's a clear sign of what they're doing. I don't see a solution to this problem. So be aware of it.
While going about the usual S & P method of working stations I will occasionally call CQ. I only do it at the edges of band activity where the smaller guns tend to hang out, and if I feel confident that the frequency is clear enough and the conditions good enough that I have a chance of being heard well. Usually I get nothing and move on after a minute or two.
I do this for a couple of reasons. First, most casual operators and little gun contesters only S & P. Calling CQ is the only way to work them. Although you would never guess from scouring the bands, these stations are in the majority. Second, if a run can be started the rate can far exceed the best that S & P can offer. The problem of course is that QRP makes running very difficult. If I get more than 2 or 3 responses I'm doing well.
Sunday morning of the contest 10 meters conditions were superb and over 1 MHz of the band was filled with contesting stations. The higher the frequency the less the QRM and the smaller the guns. When I reached the outer edge of activity and had a nice clear spot I called CQ. The frequency was 29.163 MHz, one that I may never forget.
After a few CQs I got an answer. Then another. Within a few minutes later I had several stations calling me at once. The pile-up never got deep but it kept going. Almost all were Europeans, and some were multipliers. When the pile-up got thicker I had to fall back into an operating mode I hadn't used in 25 years. Like riding a bicycle it seems you never forget how to do it. There are techniques to keeping the rate high and keeping the interest of those awaiting their turn. It was a lot of fun. I was smiling as I operated, thoroughly amazed that I was doing this with QRP.
Eventually the QSOs trailed off and I moved onward. Checking my log after the contest I found my run was 113 QSOs in 52 minutes, for an average rate of 130/hour. That's nothing for a station with power and bigger antennas, but it is phenomenal for my station. I'd never guess it was even possible.
The day after the contest I searched the logs of the global spotting networks and found that I'd been spotted 4 times during that run. That likely helped. Many contesters in "assisted" class use software that allows them to identify spots of stations they haven't worked and with one click can QSY and auto-fill the log. After they work me they move on to the next spot.
Apart from 40 meters capability the multi-band inverted vee was intended for diversity in contests. By this I mean the ability to work stations off the main beam of the tri-band yagi without having to waste time turning the yagi. Unless it's a needed and workable multiplier it is often not worth the time.
Based on testing prior to the contest I had doubts about my strategy since the yagi works so much better than the inverted vee, sometimes even off the back. With the experience of CQ WW SSB I concluded that the value of the strategy is mixed. Sometimes it works and other times not so much.
When it didn't work to my advantage I would make a note of the unworked stations in a particular area of the world (e.g. the Caribbean). When I had a few of them I would turn the yagi and worked them all in sequence. If conditions in that direction were good I would keep the yagi in that direction for a while longer before turning it back to where it was. The usual direction for the yagi most of the day was towards Europe.
The smaller the station the more aggressive the operator must be to be successful. Does that sound odd? If it does, think about it. With a big signal you can call a station and know that you will get through, most likely on the very first call. If you call CQ you will start a run, even if there's adjacent QRM. There is little need for an aggressive stance, other than muscling others aside to hold a run frequency. But if you are a little gun some aggressiveness in your contest operating pays dividends.
I should explain what I mean by aggressiveness. I don't mean rude or obstructive tactics, distorting your signal, or other types of poor behaviour. What I do mean is the drive, even the hunger to put QSOs in the log and to not take 'no' for an answer. Like a short child in a crowd of tall adults you need to assert yourself to be noticed. Too many operators of small stations are timid; they are tentative in calling, slow at completing a QSO and moving on to the next, and have low expectations.
Moving quickly and pushing your call through the QRM and pile-ups is not a crime. Sure, you have to be realistic at times and move on without scoring that rare multiplier. But make that a temporary setback. Note the frequency, note the propagation pattern and make a plan to come back and finally log it, perhaps at your or their sunrise or sunset. Even on the more typical QSOs send your call again, again, and then again.
Most stations call once and wait, so you should call again if there's any delay in the called station's response. Be quick about it. On your second call the other stations will mostly be silent, so you can be heard. Put some urgency into your voice to get their attention. Make them want to work you.
Even if no one else is calling and the CQ machine starts up again after your call you should not give up. Try again. Then again. They probably do hear you but are reluctant to make the effort to pull you out of the mud. Don't let go, but don't waste time either. Make them feel guilty about ignoring you. This isn't being rude or inconveniencing them. They probably need the points more than you do since the larger stations are usually more competitive.
Vary your frequency a bit to attract attention. Speak (or send) more slowly or change up your phonetics. Show them you really want the contact and that you're willing to put in the effort to make their job of copying you easier.
Aggressiveness works. Not always, but it does work. Although you are a little pistol you can and should hold your head high and strive to be noticed. Your score will reflect your confidence. This is true even if you're not in it to win, but just for the DXing or other award opportunities.
The experience of CQ WW SSB tells me that the yagi is working as well as I expected. Even without the intention of winning my category (SOAB QRP) and operating only half the available hours I appear to have put in a competitive score. I will be very interested to see how I place after the log checking is done and the official results are published next year.
My November contest plans are CW Sweepstakes this coming weekend and then CQ WW CW. I will likely skip SSB Sweepstakes. I will be QRP in both, also with the intention of doing well and not so much focussed on winning. For the present I contest for fun, not to win. That is enough to motivate me. My inclination is to only be competitive in a multi-op effort from a large station, something I haven't done for many years. There will be time for that if I choose to do so.
Before CQ WW CW I hope to build and test a sloper for 40 meters with the intention of achieving the modelled low-angle gain. If it works out I will consider the 2-element version. However that will run into some issues with backyard geometry if I point it to Europe, the most productive direction for DX.
Apart from contests I will continue DXing. The large number of DXpeditions in October have kept me hopping. My overall and per-band DXCC QRP totals are growing apace. After this past weekend even my SSB DXCC count has breezed well past the 100 mark.