Sunday, February 4, 2018

CQ 160 With the New Antenna

Last weekend I entered the CQ 160 CW contest with the objective of running up my DXCC total and working whatever else I could find when I wasn't doing that. I not only had no intention of being competitive I didn't even notice the point structure until after the contest started. It seems that this is another contest in which US and Canadian scores are not comparable due to the population asymmetry. In that it is no different from CQ WW.

By not being competitive I was free to operate when I pleased, in whatever manner I pleased, and to walk away from the rig when it stopped being enjoyable. The last occurred when the availability of stations to work dropped off. This is typical of single band contests and in contests like ARRL Sweepstakes where you can only work a station once regardless of band. For that reason I kept to regular meal times knowing that the majority of stations would be there later.

DX results

If you peruse the claimed scores on 3830 you'll notice how it played out. My country total was  relatively high compared to my peers (single op, low power) while my QSO count was low. That is as it should be. Conditions to Europe were especially good the first night (as most participants noted) and I had no trouble running Europeans as the sunrise line swept across the continent. Indeed many stations were worked well after their sunrise. Out of 666 QSOs 130 of them were 10 pointers (between continents), the large majority of which were European. That's pretty good for 150 watts.

The final tally was 51 countries worked (not including VE and K) and boosted my DXCC count to 82 on top band. It has since climbed to 85 (LoTW shows 60). My goal of reaching 100 countries by the spring is well on track.

This is further confirmation that my antenna works, and that it very competitive with other stations. There is no surprise in this since most hams have great difficulty putting up an efficient low angle radiator on 160 meters. Another way of putting it is not that my antenna is great but that others' are so poor. Imagine what 160 would sound like if everyone could put up an effective antenna!

Running up the QSO total

If you peruse the results posted to 3830 you'll notice that many report having been active for only a brief period, some no more than one or two hours. To have a chance of working those casual operators you must be active for the maximum allowed under the rules -- 30 hours in this contest for single op entries. These stations are difficult to work them they do not call CQ and only work the stations they find or want. You must run to have a chance, hoping they find and call you during the brief time they are on.

After the first night when the majority of serious competitors have been worked it can make for seriously low rates and boredom. Yet it's necessary. Operating assisted can relieve much of the boredom since you can take a break from continuously CQing to QSY, work the fresh meat and then return to running. I learned to do this pretty well while operating this contest from a multi-op station.

For unassisted stations such as myself last weekend running can be as exciting as watching paint dry. That is why I kept stepping away from the shack. New stations are always showing up and running can be resumed later with decent rates, for a little while at least. Search and pounce is largely pointless since there are so few unworked stations that are running. Some operators combine running and hunting by going SO2R or SO2V. I didn't do this despite having this capability with the two receivers in my FTdx5000. I'll consider doing so in future.

The point is that running is mandatory, no matter how boring it gets, if you hope to do well. I avoided this for the most part since I was not aiming for a winning score.

The terminator is your friend

The proximity of the terminator, whether sunrise or sunset, at both ends of the path can be critical to understanding propagation on 160 meters. This is because atmospheric noise strongly determines success.

For example, I can hear Europeans on my Beverage antenna well before my sunset even though absorption is quite high in the sunlit hemisphere since noise and signals are similarly attenuated. Unfortunately the reverse is not true in Europe where night is well advanced and they are receiving atmospheric noise from all directions. Hence they cannot copy signals from North America. Even after our sunset terminator passes the inequity of noise levels continues for at least another hour, after which copy becomes equally good (or poor).

As sunrise approaches Europe from the east their noise level drops. At this time they begin to be able to copy weaker signals from North America. This most likely explains our success with working Europe after our midnight, and even after the sunrise terminator has passed for some stations in Europe. This is where directive receive antennas show their mettle by making it possible hear the Europeans who are then better able to copy us.

With my northeast Beverage antenna many of those who replied to my CQ in the contest at that time were barely above the noise level. Without the Beverage they would not have been copied and some might not have been heard.

Many of the so-called gray line contacts on the low bands can be attributed to reduced atmospheric QRN at both ends of the path rather than propagation enhancement. However the latter remains an important factor in many if not most cases.

Future work planned

Spend any amount of time on the low bands and you'll soon learn who the alligators are. Those stations everyone can hear yet they copy only the strongest signals. Sometimes that's due to man-made or tropical/summer QRN while other times they do not have directive receive antennas, even a small one such as pennant or flag that can fit in a small space. In a few case it's because they run excessive (and illegal) power.

I am well set up to receive European signals that are close to the noise level. I now need more Beverage antennas to cover more directions. This will be especially important when I make the move back to QRO operating since a bigger signal attracts more and weaker callers and I don't want to become one of those alligators. I want to be able to work them.

I have been surveying routes for the Beverages and making a list of parts to order to construct a remote switch to select among the Beverages. The next one will be a reversible Beverage made with coaxial cable. It is more complex than a unidirectional Beverage but saves a lot of effort overall. I have several resources from which I am adapting the design. When it's done I'll write an article about it. If it works well I'll build another, otherwise I may go back to unidirectional antennas.

My next article will be about antenna design rather than operating. Those appear to be the most popular of the articles on this blog and are the ones I most enjoy writing.  Spring is coming and I want to be prepared.

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