Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Luck and the Pile-up

While I was making a ¼-wave transformer out of RG-62/U last evening I had the rig on. Band conditions were very good and there was some good DX on tap. In addition to working TT8 and 3B8 among other less-rare stations I was attracted to the pile-up on HV0A. All of this was on 20 meters CW.

Late last week I spent a few minutes trying to work this station, though without success. QRP (10 watts) plus dipole versus the maddening hordes is not a recipe for easy success. Back in town after the weekend I tried again. This time I got through, and rather quickly. The pile-up seemed thinner than last week but was still plenty big -- wide and loud.

Was I just lucky?

HV0A was planted on 14.027 MHz for hours, working stations at a good clip. Evening here is middle of the night in Europe, so it is unsurprising that, despite any propagation-related reasons, most of the callers were in North America. Aside from the usual nonsense on his transmit frequency the pile-up ranged from 14.029 up as high as 14.037 MHz.

If you think about it for a moment this makes no sense. The DX station is only listening on one frequency at a time. This can usually be discovered within a QSO or two (or three). HV0A was not randomly flipping his receiver around between contacts so why were stations calling all over the place? Were they hoping he'd eventually stumble across them? Was this a secondary activity while they read a long novel, stopping only to press a memory key every 20 seconds or so? Or were they just lazy? Inquiring minds want to know.

My objective was to either work him or determine in short order that my quest was futile. I've got other things to do. It was therefore in my interest to figure out how to work him quickly. I followed a time-honoured procedure that was so well described by W9KNI many, many years ago in his book "The Complete DX'er".

I did not make my first call until after the first minute or two of listening. It was more important to find who he was working -- and therefore where he was listening -- and determining his pattern over the course of a few contacts. He didn't change listening frequency much between contacts, usually shifting up or down less than a kHz between contacts.

With the pattern established I cranked up all 10 of my watts and entered the fray.

QSK ensured I did not waste precious opportunities to listen when he transmitted. I stopped and used the RIT to find who he was working instead. If his listening frequency had moved up I quickly jumped higher again by a similar amount. This was usually no more than 500 Hz. I did the same in the reverse direction if he chose to listen down in frequency. This is more work than calling blind and hoping for the best. Hope, however, is not a strategy in DXing. It's easy but not terribly effective.

Speed is of the essence. It takes little time for the lucky DXer to send "R 599 TU" at 20 or 25 words-per-minute. In those 2 seconds you need to find that station, calculate the frequency offset, predict where the DX will listen next, then adjust the VFO in preparation to call and flip back to the DX to time your call. The operator at HV0A was good, so it was easy to settle into a rhythm of listen, shift frequency and call.

I didn't count exactly how many times I called. My transmit frequency was different each time, per the above procedure. But it was only 6 or 8 QSOs later that my little signal scored the contact, putting HV into the log.

I was not the only one following this procedure of hunting, VFO-setting and calling. It is just that we seemed to be a minority. What was everyone else thinking?

Early on in this blog I speculated as to what -- after having been QRT for 20 years -- in this new era with new and powerful tools at everyone's disposal would give the modern DXer a competitive edge. Maybe it's nothing more than what has always worked: being smart and working hard. Then getting lucky.
I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.
-- Coleman Cox (1922)

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