Tuesday, March 27, 2018

CQ WPX SSB: The Human Comedy

Those who operated CQ WPX SSB this weekend don't need to hear that conditions were not great, 20 meters was an impenetrable wall of QRM and every other QSO inflicted pain. WPX is commonly understood to be a runners delight where big power and antennas rule and everyone else scrounges for scraps. It really doesn't matter who you work so point the antennas where propagation is best and work what you can.

So rather than dwell on all of that I decided to do something different for this article. Phone contests bring out our personalities in ways that are not seen with other modes. Talking is the most natural thing for humans and phone contests provide a grand stage for the display of emotion, camaraderie, and human idiosyncrasies. Perhaps more than other modes it shows us at our best and our worst.

No contest is so busy that we can't indulge in a little people watching. Therefore with a wink of the eye let's delve into the humour of ham culture, contesting and the clash between contesters and everyone else. To protect the innocent and the guilty I will obscure identifying information.

We've worked before

I continue to be amazed at how many contesters are adamantly opposed to logging duplicate contacts. I heard several instances this weekend of the running station telling the caller that they've worked before, the caller insisting that they aren't in their log, and the runner still refuses to work them again.

This is foolhardy for the runner since it almost guarantees a NIL (not in log) penalty and wastes time arguing instead of conceding the insurance contact and moving on. I cannot imagine what these people are thinking. How can they not understand how this hurts their results?

When I informed one big gun that we've worked before and he said I wasn't in his log I made a didn't hesitate to make another contact. The dupes don't incur penalties and is the fastest way to dispose of the issue. If I truly wasn't in their log the dupe avoid a NIL penalty. On CW where the interruption cost more time I make the duplicate contact without raising the issue.


Speaking of incomprehensible behaviour, I heard one operator brusquely and repeatedly critique callers who did not use the minimum number of words to identify or complete the exchange. For example, "please copy" seemed to especially infuriate him and he'd make rude comments about their use of these superfluous words. I listened to a few minutes of this for my own amusement when my QSO rate was dreadful and I had time on my hands.

Of course "please copy" is unnecessary, but it is used by many casual operators since it seems a polite way to ask the other person to prepare to log what they're about to send. It's very natural and I hear it a lot during phone contests. Rather than complain I am thankful for the casual contesters and non-contesters who call me and add points to my log.

The last thing I want to do is scare them away. We need to encourage the casual operators for contesting to remain healthy. Even if they never develop a serious interest in contests these hams are eager to help us out and we should do all we can to help them along, including explaining the exchange and encouraging them to go forth and work others as well.

Schoolmarmish behaviour can scare them off and, worse, turning them against contests and contesters. What are these curmudgeons thinking?


With increasing contest activity from South America I have gradually become aware that exchanging information with many of these operators on phone can be difficult. Many do not speak English and have only a thin veneer of ham English. Some English numerals are difficult for them. Eight seems to be the worst: I say 'eight' and they typically hear 'two', 'four' or 'six'.

I don't have this problem with Spanish stations (EA) so it may be due to the different accents in South American countries. It is perhaps comparable to the diversity of accents across English speaking countries, and French between Quebec and France. Decades later I still remember how the Chinese exchange students in my university classes had good comprehension of English except in one class taught by an Australian.

On Sunday as I approached 800 QSOs in my log and 15 meters was opening to South America I decided to do something about it. My inspiration was the Americans speaking Spanish to overcome the difficulty, a country where Spanish is close to becoming their second language.

I already knew to use 'ocho' for 8, but mixing this with English numerals was caused confusion. I typed 'count in Spanish' into my browser's search box and studied the list of numerals from 0 to 9. This took all of two minutes.

With some trepidation I tried out my new knowledge on the unsuspecting South Americans (but not Brazilians, for the obvious reason). To my surprise it went very well. Some were surprised by my use of Spanish for the serial number and there were nearly zero requests for repeats. No one sounded offended by what must be my atrocious pronunciation.

Because of the prevalent use of English on phone by hams across the world native English speakers often fail to appreciate the effort that others are taking to communicate with us. Learning a few words in the other ham's language isn't difficult and can make a good impression. It also increases QSO rate which any contester ought to appreciate.

The non-contesters in our midst

Tune the bands any day of the week and there is a lot of activity by many hams around the world. Those people don't vanish during major contests. Some will switch modes, others will stay off the air and a few will casually partake in the contest. Many others will continue to do what they do. Conflict is inevitable, and that conflict can bring out the worst and sometimes the best in us, contesters and non-contesters alike.

Twice when I found a clear frequency and got no response to "is this frequency in use?" and proceeded to call CQ I was soon interrupted by callers requesting that I move. In one case I was on a (normally quiet) net frequency and in the other I was near but not quite on top of an active net. Both times the callers identified and briefly explained the difficulty, with some evident exasperation since I'm sure this happens a lot during a major contest.

Without hesitation I agreed to move. They sounded surprised and thanked me for my consideration. Unfortunately there are contesters that I know who balk at the request. While no frequency is sacrosanct it is possible for contesters to exist alongside non-contest activity. I was in part motivated by their politeness and that they identified themselves. It behooves us as contesters to be considerate despite being in the vast majority during major contest. Flexing our muscle -- sheer numbers and size of towers, antennas and amplifiers -- can be tempting. Avoid the temptation.

Sometimes it does not go well. Once when I was about to call a DX station on one of the low bands someone who was in a ragchew nearby began shouting insults at anyone and everyone calling the DX station. He did not identify. The DX station obviously couldn't hear this person. Out of curiosity I checked and found that the separation between the contesters and the other QSO was just shy of 3 kHz. I suspect this behaviour was more one of animosity than QRM. The callers kept calling regardless and the hurler of insults accomplished little more than raise his own blood pressure.

There is also the conflict that doesn't happen. It is interesting to come across an ordinary QSO among the massive QRM that was 20 meters phone in this contest. The QRM raged at the edges of the pass band while the QSO went unmolested. Most people are good and respectful of others, so it is no surprise that these non-events occur. It is far too easy to focus on the conflicts that do occur. There is something within many of us that wants to reach out and latch onto every perceived injustice just so that we have an excuse to be angry and complain. That is another temptation to avoid. Some are unable to do so.

Then there are the DQRMers. It happened to me a few times this weekend and I heard it many times on other contesters. It is best to ignore it and carry on. Frankly it has little effect during a major contest when the prevailing QRM is worse than the deliberate kind. I just kept working stations and in a minute the interference disappeared. DQRMers are a small minority and can have no effect on the countless thousands active in a major contest. I feel no anger, only pity for these benighted individuals.

How's my signal?

Among all the splatter, over-compression and poorly injected digital voice messages you hear there are the many with good and even great signals. Adjusting for the operator, microphone, digitally composed and stored messages, compression and amplifier drive level in a contest environment is not rocket science but it takes time and attention to detail. The truly great sounding signals are not accidental. Someone took the time to get it right.

When it is done right the talk power is high, the intelligibility is great and the signal fits within its spectral limits. The ones who get it wrong -- whether it is by error, laziness or in an effort to be loud at any price -- hurt their rate and results due to requests for repeats of unintelligible call signs and exchanges.

A few stations this weekend after completing the contest exchange asked me for an honest report of their signal strength, audio quality and whether their frequency is reasonably clear of QRM at my end. One operator of a well-known, high-scoring multi-multi station in particular comes to mind.

After telling him that his audio was perfectly intelligible though perhaps a little over-compressed with audible popping sounds he told me he was concerned because he was being asked for repeats more than was normal. He requested that I stay with him for a few moments while he adjusted the rig. After doing so the popping was gone and the audio quality was obviously improved without noticably reducing talk power. He was clearly pleased and thanked me for my help as we went our separate ways.

While we tend to remember the bad actors more than the good when it comes to signal quality we should appreciate those who make the effort to put high-quality signals on the bands we all share. The best contesters know that their results and their reputations depend on it. I appreciate the opportunity to help others improve their signals.

Who are you?

CQ WPX is a contest where many of your friends wear a disguise. That disguise is a special call sign of some sort. A few times this weekend I was greeted with "Hi, Ron!" by someone sporting a call I didn't recognize. My response would be friendly but necessarily vague since I didn't know who I was talking to.

One old friend did identify himself and another I figured out after the contest. As for the rest, I still don't know who they were. Perhaps they enjoy confusing their friends or have forgotten in the heat of the contest that they're wearing a disguise. Do they wonder why those they greet seem a little cool in their responses?

My audience

The readers of this blog are not terribly numerous but there are substantially more than a few. Mostly I know about this by the emails I receive and web statistics. Phone contests are another opportunity for me to learn who you are.

Twice this weekend the ham at the other end of the QSO told me that they read my blog and that they actually enjoy it. Although I don't aim for a huge audience it's nice to know there are indeed real people following the blog where I tell my story and pass along my experiences in the hobby. Thank you for taking the time to let me know who you are!

Race to the finish

The start of a major contest can be daunting. Ahead of you is 48 hours of hard work, risk of the unknown, angst, regrets, hastily eaten food and disrupted sleep cycles. It's hard on our bodies and our minds.

As the finish line approaches on Sunday there is anticipation of the coming release from the effort and an urgency to squeeze in a few last contacts and multipliers. There is a palpable adrenaline rush.

I closed the contest by running on 80 meters to top up the log with nearby American stations and perhaps a little DX. My rate was steady but not fast. Then in the final 10 minutes my rate shot upward. I could hear the enthusiasm and urgency in callers' voices as they strove to pack in as many contacts as possible before the bell rang.

It was brief but exhilarating. A few last Europeans also made it into my log. Then it was over. The mountain range on the band scope instantly turned into an featureless prairie as transmitters around the world went silent at the same moment. I got up to stretch with a grin on my face. I almost regretted not putting more effort into the contest.

Wrapping up

Early reports look good for me in this contest, which is quite a surprise since I made no attempt to turn in a competitive entry. When the going got too slow I stepped away the radio, had regular mealtimes and got a full night's rest. Conditions were not great and even with a big tower the QRM was too much for 100 watts to be heard well. That made this weekend an opportune time for people watching.

If anyone reading this sees themselves reflected in an unflattering light, I apologize. No offense is intended. Occasional bouts of humourous self reflection is beneficial to our continued sanity. I make enough mistakes on my own even when I try to get it right. We're all human. It's cathartic to laugh at ourselves from time to time and, respectfully, others as well.

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