Monday, March 11, 2013

Tricks of the Trade

In an earlier post I posited:
This makes me wonder what it truly takes for a DXer in 2013 to win an advantage over the crowds...what can I do, today, to gain an advantage?
When I do get some proper antenna installed it will help but not solve the challenge. I will still be QRP. Before I get back to talking about antennas I think it is worth a few moments to discuss tactics for working DX, especially the rare ones.

Perhaps the seminal work in this area is "The Complete DX'er" by Bob Locher, W9KNI. It is now quite an old book yet still full of insights about the tricks of the trade in working DX. If you enjoy pursuing DX and you haven't read this book, make the effort to find a copy and read it. Any edition will do. Times have changed, and so have many of the tactics, but the way of thinking about the topic has not.

With my current pipsqueak station tactics are about all I have. I will quickly run down some of the ones I have been using lately. Perhaps a few others will find them of use. The list is in no particular order, and the non-appearance of others is not intended as a critique. I simply do not intend to cover everything. It is also worth mentioning that some of these points only apply to CW.

Change it up -- All too often I call a DX station and get no response despite that station having no other callers. With my puny signal this isn't surprising. However we mustn't give up so easily! Let's look at this from the DX operator's perspective. Your signal is riding the noise, there may be QRM or QRN, or they simply can't be bothered to struggle with weak callers. Be a little persistent (sometimes that works).

Sometimes it's simply because you are not transmitting in their "sweet spot". Everyone tends to tune in a CW signal that sounds good to them. That tone is rarely at their transmitter's zero-beat frequency. Further, some receivers (like the KX3) default to receiving CW on the lower sideband rather than the upper sideband. The solution is to vary your frequency on each of your calling attempts. Shift your transmitter up or down 200 or 300 Hz and call again. Many times this works to get their attention. Or maybe is just your persistence!

Come back later -- Persistence need not imply a continuous attempt to get through. If you aren't having success just stuff the frequency into a memory and spin the dial and look for other DX. Every few minutes flip back to the original frequency and toss in your call. You can catch a lull in the pile-up or perhaps the (for you, unheard) QRM they were fighting is gone. This technique often works very well, even for non-QRP,

Move fast -- Let's face it: most people are lazy. That includes hams. Many callers of the rare DX are not listening carefully, just tossing their calls into the pile-up hoping for the best. Listen to whom they are responding and shift your transmit frequency to a spot just a few hundred Hz away (usually up is best). Do this on every contact, not just once. Yes, it is more work than just pressing the memory button that sends your call, which is why it works: many don't bother.

Here's another example where speed works wonders. A couple of months back I made a few calls to a station on South Shetlands on 30 meters, not really expecting to get through the small pile-up. He was weak and I had my usual puny signal. Then in response to the growing pile-up he sent: now up 1. In under 3 seconds I had activated the XIT and spun it up to about the right spot and called. I got him. Even as I worked him it seemed that many had not (yet) noticed he was operating split and kept calling on his transmit frequency.

Second tier DX -- During the recent spate of DXpeditions (TX5K, XT2TT, etc.) there were other less rare DX stations calling lonely CQ's. Little stations don't get through the rare DX pile-ups very often, so take second best while the taking is good.

Avoid spots -- If a DX station is even moderately rare, once it's spotted on a workwide DX cluster the little stations have little chance. By that point there is at least a small pile-up and with a station like mine even one other caller can be as bad as a deep pile-up. The trick is to catch the DX before it's spotted. Plan and listen, then listen some more. Listening doesn't stop you from occasionally taking your cue from spots but you ought to focus on finding the DX yourself. Don't be lazy like everyone else. Know the propagation, the time/mode/frequency habits of the desired DX and then carefully tune the dial and listen.

Call the weak ones -- There is some justification for a small station to only call the stronger signals. The majority of stations run at least 100 watts and probably have a real antenna, so it they're weak you would expect them to not hear your far weaker signal. This is often not the case. Many times the other station has a particularly quiet spot on the band or is also QRP. Further, since most others are lazy (yes, that again) they will tend to pass right over the weak stations and only pay attention to those they can comfortably copy. So call them. To relate a recent example, a few days ago I came across a barely-copyable SU on 20 meters. After 2 or 3 calls I worked him.

Contests -- What can I say? Wall to wall DX, all operating simplex and desperate for you to call them. Pick any DX contest and run the bands from one end to the other. You are surely guaranteed to pick up new ones, maybe lots of them. You don't have to enter the contest, just make sure you know what info to exchange.

599 -- Purists may not like this one. When the going is tough (and for me that's almost all the time with my station) you have to concentrate on getting copied correctly. The critical piece of information to ensure that the DX stations copies is your call. The signal report is just a formality. They are already having difficulty copying you so don't make it any harder. Their ears are tuned to hear you send "5NN", so send it. Even if they send your report as 229 (I've gotten a few of those recently), you send 599. Make it easy for them and there's less chance that they'll get your call wrong. The longer the QSO continues the less patient they become and there's more opportunity to decide that your call is VE3UN rather than VE3VN (this has happened to me a few times).

When I first read Locher's book all those many years ago it immediately struck me that pretty much everything in there were tactics I already used. What I gained was an awareness of what I was doing, which allowed me to plan rather than react. As each new country showed up on the bands I would mentally review my plan of attack to get it in the log. It helped. It still does.

I promise to get back to antennas in my next post.

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