Wednesday, November 5, 2014

CW Sweepstakes Experience

This was the first time that I'd operated in a Sweepstakes contest in many years. When I was newly licensed in the 1970s and got into contesting this one was the gold standard for me and my friends. DX contests were taken less seriously since we did so poorly with our small stations (even with towers and tri-banders) nestled so closely as we were to the auroral zone (Manitoba, VE4). It was only after moving to VE3 that I switched my allegiance to DX contests.

The Sweepstakes experience is very different between here and there. Not only is a VE4 prefix attractive in this contest it is also an easy shot on the high bands from there to the main US population centres of the northeast, southeast and the midwest. In this way I made the low-power top-ten back in 1978. It is not so easy from Ottawa. ONE (Ontario East) is not a rare section and high bands propagation skips over many major population centres. I did try the contest once or twice in the 1980s with the relatively good station I had back then. My interest quickly waned when results did not follow.

So it was with some interest and modest expectations that I tackled CW Sweepstakes this past weekend in the QRP category. It was tough going. My results are not especially good even compared against other QRP entries from this part of the continent. Better low-band antennas would have helped. Despite this I did have some fun. However, as noted by many, rates dragged by the time Sunday afternoon rolled around. I frequently stepped away from the radio to relieve the tedium of hunting for contacts (S & P) and long delays between responses to my CQ. In the end my QSO count was 570 (573 with dupes), and 80 out of 83 section multipliers.

But rather than bore you with my contesting antics I will speak to a few items from this weekend's experience that may be of wider interest.

80 meters -- driving-distance DX

I made 31 QSOs on 80 meters in this contest, which is 5.4% of total QSOs. That isn't much. Partly this was due to lower activity on 80 (you don't get to work stations once per band in this contest) and the challenges of QRP and my loaded half sloper antenna. Some strong stations had difficulty copying me well through the QRN and QRM, though I suspect mostly the former. I can hear others well enough. Even FT4TA (Tromelin) is copyable here.

As I like to say, all my 80 meters contacts were with stations within one-day's driving distance. This includes all of New England, Virginia and Ohio. Clearly it will take some effort to work DX with this setup. The real test will be CQ WW CW at the end of November. It is at least encouraging that I can work stations with some reliability.

The only change to the antenna before the contest was to replace the brick anchor with a long wooden stake anchored against the retaining wall, increase wire tension and trim about 40 cm from the end to make it fit. To my surprise these changes were all it took to raise resonance from 3.45 MHz to the desired 3.55 MHz. The arithmetic doesn't directly apply since that would indicate the need to shorten the antenna by at least twice that amount. This demonstrates how sensitive the half sloper is to ground proximity and angle between wire and tower.

40 meters -- the go-to band

40 meters was my best band, with 270 QSOs, or 47% of total QSOs. That's a lot. Most others in this part of the continent who put in a serious effort appear to have had a similar experience. This is unsurprising because the large population centres cannot be reliably hit from here on the high bands. Activity on 40 continues throughout the daylight hours during Sweepstakes, though the best times are early morning, late afternoon and the evening.

My only reservation about 40 is that it can be a difficult band for QRP. I needn't have worried. The QSOs kept coming, even to the west coast. I was able to establish lengthy runs, though usually not with high rates. This helped my score since calling CQ is the only way to work casual contesters who primarily do S & P.

N1MM logging software

The exchange in Sweepstakes is lengthy and complex. That is a challenge not only for the operator but also for the logging software. I had never looked at how N1MM deals with Sweepstakes so I wisely began reading the documentation and practicing with it days before the contest. I chose to use N1MM rather than N1MM+ to lessen the learning curve and chances for problems with beta software.

N1MM uses a single entry field for the entire exchange. This includes, in sequence: serial number, precedence (entry class), call sign, check (year first licensed) and section. The call sign is optional, and need only be entered if the call entered in the call sign field is incorrect. For example, those contacting me would type the exchange as 123Q 72ONE or 123Q VE3VN 72ONE.

The grouping of serial number + precedence and check + section is necessary to avoid ambiguity. That is, the software can reliably parse the entry if done as recommended. Get it wrong and the QSO won't be correctly logged or at all.

This can be a problem since it is easy for the fingers to fumble while tabbing and typing at contest speeds. Make a mistake and the entry screen freezes, demanding that the error(s) be corrected. If you override and log it anyway the software strips away all the unrecognized text. That can make it impossible to go back later to edit the contact.

That was probably the most irritating aspect of using N1MM in Sweepstakes. On occasion I had to delay the other operator while I made corrections or needed to request repeats due to entry problems. I noticed similar behaviour by others I contacted, indicating that I was not alone with these difficulties.

It is also necessary to program the function keys so that exchange can be properly sent. As the documentation emphasizes it is not possible to send the correct exchange by just programming a function key for the standard exchange. I hope that N1MM+ is better in this regard. Upgrading is on my list of new adventures before CQ WW CW.

Age statistics

It is not news that the average age of hams in Canada and the US is quite high. Sweepstakes provides a snapshot of the demographic challenge for the following two reasons: year of first license is part of the contest exchange, and contesters are among the most active of hams.

I stripped out the 'check' data from my Sweepstakes log and turned it into a graph. I grouped the checks into 5-year bins and plotted the number of QSOs per bin. There are many reasons why this is not a reliable statistical analysis, so take it as a more qualitative indication of where our favourite hobby is at.

I grouped the checks before 1950 into one bin. These are statistical outliers since half of those QSOs are with school club stations where the check is not that of the operator. Multi-op checks are typically those of the station owner, and not the individual operators, which obscures some important data. I didn't remove dupes, which is acceptable since there were only 3 out of 573 raw QSOs.

Unsurprisingly this chart is distressing. The large bulk of the contesters are "baby boomers", or their parents. In fact the largest bin -- 1955-1959 -- is that of the boomers parents. This assumes that most hams are first licensed when they are in their teens or early twenties, which is based on my recollection of that era.

When I was first licensed (1972), as I recollect, the distribution was similar to that shown above, but horizontally flipped. There was a long tail of checks down to ~1920 (I can still remember receiving a check of '19' from one old timer). There were of course no checks beyond 1979. Now we must conclude that newer hams are not entering contests or their total number is small. The situation in other countries can be quite different, such as in Eastern Europe and former USSR republic where there appear to be a higher proportion of younger hams in contests.

This bodes only ill for the future of contests, and of amateur radio in general in developed countries. Make of that what you will. Unless something changes Sweepstakes will become extinct by 2035.

Contest plans

After two consecutive weekends of contests I have had enough for awhile. With Sweepstakes so frustrating I see little reason to do the SSB weekend, especially with QRP. I will operate CQ WW CW and then pick and choose a few smaller outings until the ARRL DX contest and, perhaps, WPX.

Unlike serious contesters I burn out easily from too much of it. I didn't feel any desire to make QSOs for a few days post-SS. I needed the break even though there are DXpeditions that are drawing my attention right now -- FT/t and VU4. These can wait until the hordes depart and QRP has a fighting chance.

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