I had no illusion about doing well. My station is incomplete, both inside and out, and I have just the one amplifier and so SO2R is handicapped. Worse, during the contest I lost one of my antennas due to a known intermittent that I did not yet find the time to repair. Nevertheless I soldiered on, operating for 42 hours out of 48.
In the first part of this article I'll run through the bands to allow focus on antenna performance. In the second part I'll cover everything else from propagation to station equipment and the lessons to be learned therefrom. No matter how long I've been a ham and a contester there is always something new to learn and, ideally, use the knowledge to do even better next time.
What I won't bother with is my claimed score and placing. That would only be of interest to me and so would bore readers, not to mention that it is not impressive. Whether or not you find these lessons useful I hope you will enjoy following along.
Lately I've taken to operating on 160 more often with the amplifier. Having a close to full size vertical makes me more competitive in the pile ups. When conditions are favourable it is not difficult to generate long QSO runs on top band almost any winter night. I expected to do well on 160 during the contest and I did. Had I been better configured for SO2R my QSO total would have been higher since it would have allowed me to do more running of US stations.
My country total of 68 is excellent despite the best stations in this part of the world exceeding that by 40% or so. Americans run 2 db more power and assisted stations benefit from spotting and skimmers. The best stations have antennas with gain, utilizing 2 or 3 elements yagis and a few have full size 4-squares. Those I'll never compete with. Unlike my first forays with my 160 meter antenna in contests I am pleased to confirm that the antenna is truly competitive.
The Beverage antenna to Europe continues to pay dividends. I did not put back up my short west Beverage and I have not yet had the time to put up other receive antennas. Perhaps this winter. Having good ears is critical to working the many stations with lesser antennas that can hear me but have difficulties putting out a powerful signal due to the inefficiency of the small antennas that are typical on top band. That conditions were excellent Saturday evening certainly helped but since it everyone has the same benefit it did nothing for my competitive placement.
To do better is difficult and expensive. While I do plan on certain improvements those are low priority and are unlikely to provide more than a few decibels of gain.
One unexpected lesson is that when running high power the 30 meter high inverted vee is useless: I do very well with the vertical yagi alone. This is despite its superiority for working nearby US stations and the comparative advantage of horizontal polarization before and just after sunset.
The inverted vee has a maximum advantage of perhaps 10 db, which is compensated for by the 10 db of the amplifier. Since these signals are already quite strong the extra 10 db isn't needed and mulling over which antenna to use is a distraction. The inverted vee remains valuable for low power and QRP contest operation and for select DX paths, just not for high power contest operation.
The 3-element vertical yagi performed very well. Although I cannot say whether my results -- 800 contacts and 76 countries -- would have been substantially lower with high power alone. With rare exceptions if I heard it I worked it. In many of the cases where I couldn't work a station neither could many of the big guns I heard calling at the same time.
A good example is the Sunday morning opening to the far east. There were many weak Japanese and a couple of RT0 stations that were being heard here yet they could hear few of us in this region. A few more decibels are needed to compensate for the difference in band noise: low here post sunrise and high there post sunset.
I will have more to say about these elusive decibels when I write my article about performance of the yagi and how it compares to alternatives. Overall it performed very well. I could easily establish long runs to Europe and its modest directivity allowed Americans to hear me when I was pointed northeast. I'm happy.
As noted above this was my disaster band. Had I been seriously competitive I might have quit or refocused on a single band effort. Since this contest was a learning experience I persevered with this severe handicap. It is not possible to do well in this contest without 40 meters. The estimated loss was at least 700 contacts and 40 multipliers.
Unfortunately I had no backup antenna. The 80/40 fan inverted vee was converted to 80 meters only when reinstalled and the new rotatable dipole for 40 meters is not complete.
This is entirely my fault. When I had the XM240 on the ground I checked the connections and all seemed good, despite knowing that the Cushcraft balun previously experienced internal loosening of connection studs. My inspection was cursory because I had discovered a faulty relay in the antenna switch in the port used for this antenna and assumed that was the problem.
The fault was rediscovered soon after the antenna was raised to its new location. I isolated the problem to the antennas itself and knew it would have to come down. When the intermittent went away I delayed the work to focus on other projects (80 meters, new 15 and 20 meter yagis, etc.).
Now the weather has turned foul. These words are being typed just after I called my friends to cancel the repair job because of ice on the tower and a howling north wind. It will get done. After all, I originally put this antenna up in January!
20, 15 and 10 meters
At present I have two tri-band yagis for these bands: TH7 up 43 meters and a TH6 fixed approximately south up 22 meters. Unfortunately this is a poor combination for SO2R with high power and my limited filtering so I had to stick to one high band at a time. Had the 40 meter yagi worked I could have put a second radio on 40 late in the afternoon when both 20 and 40 meters were productive.
One thing I noticed is that just like on 80 meters, despite the high directivity of the yagis, with high power an enormous number of stations could be worked off the back. I could run Europe and US at the same time without having to switch antennas. When I heard a multiplier I called and worked them no matter the antenna direction.
Again, that 10 db power boost makes this possible. While any power boost is beneficial in this regard the bump up to a kilowatt is the ultimate since that is everyone's maximum power level. That is why, with a few exceptions, you can work it if you hear it.
There is really little more to say. The antennas worked well for what they are. One surprise is that the low yagi was superior on 10 meters towards the Caribbean and South America during Saturday's opening. This is unusual. Perhaps the reason is that sporadic E provided the first skip and that is typically better at higher elevation angles.
I expect improved results and operating flexibility when the new stacks are operational.
With the band by band breakdown covered I'll now move on to more general topics.
It is no surprise that with high power running is easy when propagation exists. Indeed it is mandatory. From a strategic standpoint the challenge is not so much whether to run but when to run and when to hunt for multipliers and other stations. For those in an assisted class you learn to interleave calling spotted stations into the ongoing run, or runs in the case of SO2R.
Regardless of your strategy do not be so enamoured of your audience that you forget to hunt others form time to time. You may forget due to the joy of having many new mults call you when you run with a big signal.
At this stage in my education I run only one band at a time. The second station is for S & P. So far the only exception has been Sweepstakes CW where my rate was low due to running QRP. During CQ WW I almost always abandoned the S & P station when I had multiple callers to my CQ. I need more practice and better SO2R equipment.
Running is hectic since a bigger signal draws more callers. Common difficulties includes several callers zero beating each other and those who continue to call when I respond to someone else. The bedlam is a challenge even though it isn't nearly as bad as what DXpedition operators endure. Spot clickers may not call twice in a row, opting to click another spot when they fail to work you. They come back later. I've done the same when I was in an assisted category.
Although running can be fun and productive it is also a chore. The faster you can service your "customers" the longer they'll stick around to work you and the better your rate. For example, if you copy a partial call -- multiple caller QRM or distracted by the other radio -- it is faster to respond to the partial call with a full exchange, copy it in full next over and confirm the correction in the solicitation for the next QSO. Soliciting repeats to get the full call before sending the exchange should be limited to cases when only one or two characters are heard. The solicitation also tends to incite others to try again, and you don't want that.
It is good practice to send your call at the end of every QSO: "TU VE3VN". Passersby hear it and stop. I may interrupt the message after "TU" for one two QSOs when I have a few callers in the queue to work them faster and encourage them to stick around a few more seconds. You may reduce the bedlam by not sending your call as often -- passersby pass by when they don't hear it -- at the price of missing some of the S & P crowd. Try it both ways and then use your discretion.
Power allows me to hold a frequency. Other big guns are wary of getting too close or trying to steal attractive real estate at the low end of the band. Conflicts do occur and must be dealt with. I continued to do a lot of running high in the band since many small stations like to avoid the noise and crowding.
In unassisted class spotting networks and skimmers are not allowed. Others do use them. No matter what frequency you call CQ the assisted operators will quickly find you. Don't be discouraged when starting a run attempt that little happens for a minute or two.
The very same tools that deliver QSOs to your frequency can occasionally be the cause of unwanted problems. Skimmer and human spotter are not perfect. A mistake in your call will begin a string of dupes. Eventually they'll realize the error and skip over you. Until then be prepared for those dupes. In this contest there were a few times during which every second QSO was a dupe. Just work them since it's quicker than trying to explain the problem.
Another crutch is the master database of call signs known to operate contests. These are collected from submitted contest logs and distributed to the contest community. Hence the Super Check Partial database (SCP). In the past I avoided using SCP since it felt mildly unethical to have the computer present alternatives calls in case of copying errors or to confirm the potential validity of a call.
I have been using SCP for the past year. Although a crutch it does save some effort and that can stave off fatigue. Unfortunately when there are many similar call signs SCP can be more confusing than helpful. It is better to correctly copy a call sign and not lean too much on SCP. On the plus side it can trigger me to ask the other station to confirm their call when they are not in the data base.
In one instance this weekend the received call sign had a single close match in the database. Since it differed by just one dit from what I copied through the QRM I sent back the call sign suggested by SCP. The other operator energetically corrected me. The database was wrong and I was right. Perhaps the log that contained his erroneously copied call was not filtered out when the master database was built. Learn to trust your ears.
Many use call history files to pre-fill the exchange. These files can be built from your own logs of previous contests and there are publicly available history and country files. My current opinion is that this is a crutch too far. I don't use this feature. In any case it is not very useful in CQ WW since the exchange, other than 599, is the zone number. The zone can is in most cases uniquely derived from the call sign. That is not true for the US and a few other countries and regions. Again, learn to trust your ears and rely on that rather than blindly accepting the pre-filled information.
My primitive SO2R setup is fine for getting started. That will change. It will include more equipment, station automation and practice, practice, practice. I am exploring options and expect to be in better shape by the end of the current contest season. I will continue using two keyboards.
I discovered early on that the second radio was not very useful. Since I have only one amplifier the second radio is 100 watts. That's fine if you're low power and not so fine otherwise. You cannot expect to get through on the first call or even the second or third. It gets tedious with a handicapped second station. It was also not possible to effectively operate on two high bands at the same time since with just two tri-band yagis, one of which is fixed south, with only select multipliers available on 15 and 10 meters due to propagation.
When the 40 meter yagi failed the possibility of operating on 20 and 40 meters at the same time vanished. By the time 80 meters opened there was little left to pursue on 20 meters. Operating on 80 and 160 at the same time seems attractive but not with 100 watts. Low power on the low bands results in a low rate and the high frustration. Although I love low power and QRP contesting it is a poor fit when the other radio is running a kilowatt.
When the running was fast on 20 meters I found it difficult to tune and listen to the second radio. I am not yet that skilled. In the end my SO2R operation was less than 10% of the time. It wasn't a significant score booster in this contest.
When you work an SO2R operator don't be surprised at the curious delay before their responses. The best operators run on two bands almost seamlessly except that many transmissions must be slightly delayed to prevent having two transmitters on at the same time. At first it may be mystifying since you don't hear the other QSO. Rather than fret about it be amazed that they have this advanced skill and can do it for hours on end. Although talent helps we can all do it if we have the drive and put in the work.
Operating the amplifier for 48 hours straight in a major contest was a risk. My primary concern was the T/R relay, which is original (over 40 years old), loud and aggressively repaired using sandpaper a few months ago. There was no point in putting off the inevitable so I took the risk. It performed flawlessly.
To speed band changes I put sticky notes on the load and tune controls and marked the positions for each antenna, band and select frequencies where it mattered (mostly the low bands). You'll get close but you won't hit the perfect spot doing it this way. Once settled after the band change I would often tweak the tuning to be sure the amplifier was operating at maximum efficiency.
Before the contest I ran through the bands to make the labels. You must do this at full power or the power you intend to operate since amplifier tuning is power sensitive. I fixed the transmitter power to 65 watts since coarse tuning at low power was never necessary and the fixed input power ensured that the markings could be relied upon. It is a good idea to remove the sticky notes after the contest so that the glue doesn't mar the front panel due to heating of the glue by the amplifier.
Fixed input power is helpful for rigs that do not have a front panel power control. Going into a menu to repeatedly change the power for amplifier tuning is a tremendous inconvenience. The FTdx5000 has a power control while the FT950, my second radio, does not. The lack of a power control is not unique to Yaesu. Consider that when shopping for a rig if you have an amplifier.
Another inconvenient fact about the FTdx5000 and many other radios is that there is no front panel control to transmit a carrier. I rigged a foot switch to a rear panel plug so that I could tune the amplifier. There is a keyboard feature in N1MM Logger that will do this if you have no hardware mechanism to generate a carrier.
No matter how good your antennas there will always be stations you cannot work or that are the limit of intelligibility. However the better your antennas more stations are workable and fewer are unworkable. The weak ones will still tease you, but without better propagation there may be no hope. The only cure is to get on a plane and operate from the tropics.
This contest is no different. Many stations I am familiar with, including low power ones, could either put hundreds more European QSOs in their 20 meter logs or work many more zone and country multipliers. The difference is reduced when the sunspot count climbs and we are more competitive. This is with some decent antennas and heights. Some VE3 stations with better antenna farms do better than me but still not as well as their better located peers.
Skew propagation is well known on the low bands although I noticed little of it during the contest. Instead there was skew path on the high bands. This may be less well known yet it is common during marginal conditions. Europeans on 20 meters in our afternoon were peaking towards the east. This is usually ionospheric scatter from areas with a high enough MUF and not a true skew. A similar phenomenon occurs at sunrise when the rule is to "shoot the sun" on the high bands since that's where ionization is densest. There is also back scatter to nearby stations when we all beam to Europe, North America or elsewhere. This may be the only way to work them on the high bands when skip is long.
Unfortunately back and forward scatter is attenuated relative to a direct path. You need high power to have good results and even then you will likely only work the biggest stations. But it's better than not working them at all. Auroral zone scatter is also common on arctic paths. This was responsible for the strong Scandinavian signals and a BY in zone 23 that I worked on 20 meters deep in their night times.
Those with knowledge of these probable though not certain propagation phenomena can boost to their multiplier count. You can do it too by paying attention during your everyday DXing and using that experience during the contest.
Taking breaks and comfort
With high power there's always something to work no matter the band or time even when propagation is poor. If you can operate for the full 48 hours your score will show it. In the extreme some forgo food and drink to avoid the inevitable. For the humans among us it is necessary to take an occasional break. To keep your butt in the chair (BIC) you need every comfort you can manage. I am not that fanatical although I do pay attention to aids that keeps me in the chair.
One recent change was a new headset. After some consultation I purchased the Yamaha CM500. Although I was most interested in a robust cord I found them so comfortable that I could keep them on my head for long periods. This was not true of my previous headset the Koss 45 which would make my head ache after a few hours from the pressure against my glasses and skull.
I need a new operating chair. The old wooden office chair I've used for many years was comfortable when I was younger but no more. I need one with better ergonomics. Speaking of ergonomics I suggest paying close attention to the desktop. You need the table top (or your chair) to be at the optimum height to avoid fatigue from typing, sending CW and operating the rig. The less you have to swivel your head or chair to reach something the longer you can remain comfortable.
When you really need a break take it. Do not torture yourself. A few minutes walking around the house and talking to family members will refresh you. There is no need to take an official 30 minute break; just accept that you'll miss a few QSOs. Pour yourself a glass of water and head back to the shack.
I am fortunate that I can get by with little sleep. Each nights I only slept 2 hours, approximately from 4 to 6 AM (09Z to 11Z) when there is little to work after the low bands close to Europe and before the morning grey line opening. Speaking of sleep be sure you have an alarm clock that reliably wakes you up. Contests have been lost this way.