Monday, November 25, 2013

Pursuing Rare DX During a Contest

Even the most contest-averse DXer knows that contests are an opportunity to work new countries, band-countries and band-mode-countries. This got its own chapter in the venerable book The Complete DX'er by John Locher, W9KNI.

This comes to mind now that the CQ WW CW weekend is in the books. I had originally planned to use both the above strategies to do some DXing this weekend. However I also was once a contester. As the weekend and propagation forecasts looked favourable I got more interested in actually competing. QRP contesting can be even more frustrating than QRP DXing so I did not get overly enthusiastic about entering my first contest in nearly 25 years. I may say more in future about my contest weekend. But now I want to talk about the finer points of using DX contests for DXing, rather than the strategy of avoiding contests.

Let me start with a true and entertaining story from this weekend that I will use as a launching point for this subject.

Sunday afternoon I was working my way down the 10 meters band looking for new contacts and multipliers. The DX I heard was mostly the Caribbean and South American. When I came across a PY (Brazil) station calling CQ I entered the call on the computer. It wasn't a dupe (duplicate) so I reached for the paddles. Although this took just a few seconds it was enough time for the PY to send "agn" in reply to a signal he heard. I could not hear the caller. I patiently waited on frequency and listened.

Much to the PY operator's astonishment (and mine) the caller was XZ1J, the DXpedition to Myanmar that is currently roiling the bands. I could not hear XZ1J, which is not surprising for that time of day, band and solar conditions. Stations in the tropics have more openings all the time which those of us in higher latitudes can only envy.

The PY operator lost the ability to send legible CW for at least 10 seconds. Eventually he completed the QSO, ending with profuse thanks to the XZ1J operator. I expect he'll be telling that story for years to come. As a perfect anti-climax I became the next QSO in his contest log.

While extreme versions of this story are rare they are actually not uncommon. The best in my own memory was during a multi-operator SSB contest (either CQ WW or WPX) about 30 years ago when one of the other operators was called by JY1, the late king of Jordan. His reaction was similar to that of the PY above. Less rare but truly noteworthy DX entering the logs of CQing contesters is routine, and fun.

But that's not only a fun and interesting story. There is a message that should mattes to any DXer. The question to ask is yourself is this: why is a rare DX station calling me rather than sitting on a frequency with a massive pile-up? For the answer we need to look at the contest from the other side, the perspective of the holder of that rare call sign.

Turn on your receiver during any major contest. What you will hear is a wall of noise from the bottom to the top of the mode segment of the band. At least that's what it sounds like to a non-contester. It is simply the focussed but frenetic activity of thousands of hams trying to log as many QSOs and multipliers as possible. You typically multiply them together to get the score.

Points = Multipliers * QSO-points

Contesters are competitive: they strive to win. QSOs are mostly straightforward so let's look at the multipliers term.

In CQ WW the multipliers are zones and countries. XZ1J will typically count as two multipliers for most participants, one for the zone and one for the country. However the same is true of, say, XP2I who I worked on 15 meters this weekend: Greenland and zone 40. Not very rare but rare enough that he attracts attention. The attractiveness is not just the same as XZ, it is far easier to work by being a short hope from NA and Europe.

A contester will not stick around in a pile-up for more than a few minutes to pick up needed multipliers. In that same span of time an easier multiplier or several ordinary QSOs of equivalent points can be worked. The pile-up I heard on Z81X was no deeper than the one on XP2I, or even GJ2A.

DX stations that are far outside Europe and NA (the bulk of contest participants) have trouble running stations. This is equally true of rare ones .Let's run through some of the reasons.
  • QRM is fierce! I worked 3DA0ET on two bands during the contest and each time he was calling CQ with no takers. Swaziland is far from NA and Europe and is not easily heard through the din of super-stations.
  • Interest in the rare DX is weak for the reasons I described above.
  • Multi-operator stations don't have an interest in working rare ones. You don't get DXCC credit for contacts made at another station under a call sign not your own. Although these are the stations best able to work the DX they, for the most part, merely contribute to fierce QRM for everyone else (see the first point). This makes it hard for the DXer using the contest to prowl for new countries.
  • The majority of contesters have (no surprise) directional antennas for at least the high bands. When the band is open to Europe the majority of yagi in NA are pointed northeast. The southern half of Africa and east Asia are in the deep side nulls while the Pacific Ocean is off the back. Stations such as 3DA0ET, ZD8M (which I worked on 2 bands), XZ1J and TX8B (see below) often go unheard. Even when they call other stations they can encounter difficulties.
  • There is an "unassisted" category in most major contests which precludes the use of spotting clusters and other more direct tip-offs from others. So they don't know where the rare DX is on the band unless they find them by themselves. They typically don't spot what they find.
  • Sometimes the DX wears a disguise. For example, when I ran across TX8B on 20 meters the usually reliable N1MM logging software I was using could not assign a country. I knew that his zone was 32 (South Pacific) and the prefix is allocated to France. I knew the zone because he sent it as part of the contest exchange. He had no pile-up and I worked him on one call. Later I discovered this was a small DXpedition to New Caledonia (FK8). FK is a new one for me in my 2013 QRP DX pursuit.
  • Use the "anti-contest" method of DXing I described in a recent article.
If your sole interest in contests is to work new or interesting DX you should keep those points in mind. Some strategies you should consider follow. It helps if you have a station bigger than mine but don't let yourself be intimidated by the big guns and competition. Just be sure your receiver has excellent RF filters and a bulletproof front end.
  • Use the cluster to find spots for the stations you want. If you're not competing you are under no restriction against their use.
  • The pile-ups are thin but ever-renewing. If you have a small signal you might have to wait for an opportunity to make the one call that finally gets through. The pile-up has this characteristic even although serious contesters don't stick around for long if they fail to work the DX. They are quickly replaced by others tripping across them as they meticulously scan the band for QSOs and multipliers.
  • Exploit the fact that contesters are often pointing their big yagis in directions other than towards the DX you are pursuing. Point your antenna that way as you scan the bands. For example, on 20 meters in the late afternoon this time of year from this part of NA the path to the Pacific and Southeast Asia opens up while the path to west Europe and north Africa is still hot. So point your antenna north, northwest or west and see what shows up. When you find a tasty morsel you might have it to yourself. The contest QRM will also be lessened in those (to the contester) less productive directions.
  • Call "CQ contest" even if you are not in the contest. If the rare DX is answering the CQs of others you will need to do the same. Combine this tactic with that of the preceding point for greater success. Think of it as panning for gold. You must discard a lot of silt and gravel to find the rare glittering gem. Even without finding many gems you will log lots of DX, which I assume you would enjoy. The points you provide will also make many contesters happy. So jump in. This week I got called by a P3 (Cyprus/5B) by calling CQ on 20 meters. You could easily do better, perhaps even XZ1J.
Whatever path to QRP or QRO DX happiness you take always remember to enjoy the journey.

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