Friday, November 27, 2015

Conspiracy of Silence

This week the low bands were quite good. An extended period of quiet geomagnetic conditions lowered the noise and ionospheric attenuation. With CQ WW on the horizon many hams dispersed to various locations around the globe to have some fun as desirable contest multipliers. It is also prime DXpedition season. All of this is to say that lots of interesting, and sometimes rare DX was there for the taking on 40, 80 and 160.

When neighbourhood QRN allowed I prowled the CW segments of 40 and 80 (no 160 meter antenna, unfortunately) at sunrise and sunset, and late evening when the terminator favoured conditions to distant countries. Most of the DX was of the more ordinary variety. They were still fun to work, if only to hone my pile-up skills.

The DX spotting clusters were a beehive of activity. I was there as well, taking my cue from spots and making a few of my own. For the most part it was more fun to just tune and listen, finding the DX on my own. It's good that I enjoy this mode of operating since I must do so during contests, where I always operate in non-assisted categories. It is also mandatory when DXing with QRP: there's no point in finding a DXpedition when a pile-up has already formed, everyone having been attracted by the global spotting networks. QRP is not competitive in pile-ups.

Tuning the gaps

Band maps in popular logging software make it easy to tune from spot to spot, picking off the DX stations of interest. Motivations vary, from the rare ATNO (all time new one) to new band-countries, or the simple joy of working rare and semi-rare DX. However there is more out there than what the band map will tell you. For that you need to tune the gaps, those blank areas on the band map between spotted call signs.

Most often what you'll find is silence or stations that don't attract the attention of DXers. It isn't often someone will spot a VE3 call such as my own; few need VE3 for a DX award! However, those unspotted station may offer an opportunity to engage in a longer QSO, if that is your pleasure.

Hams whose primary interest is DXing either listen a lot or monitor the cluster spots while going about their lives or doing some off-air activity in the shack. It is fascinating to hear a seemingly dead band fill with hundreds or thousands of stations within a few minutes of a DXpedition spot relaying around the globe. Those are hams tuning the DX spotting networks, not their radios

The truth is most DXers do not bother to tune the gaps. Instead they stay silent, only activating their rigs when what they want appears. The longer they've been in the DXing game the less they find of interest to work. That's how they enjoy the hobby. For myself that seems a little sad, though there's nothing wrong with it. Out hobby has room for all types.

Now let's go back to tuning those gaps since I'm a ham who enjoys finding stations to work.

The conspiracy

While tuning 40 CW early one evening this week I came across a few US stations calling someone, and doing so at a relatively slow speed. Looking at the band map there only white space around that frequency. Whoever it was had not yet been spotted. A weak though perfectly copyable, sending slowly, came back to someone. That peaked my interest.

Flipping between my two inverted vees I found reception best on the east-west antenna. Since the only darkness to my west at that hour was within North America I reasoned that the station must be to the east. That might mean Africa. I was briefly left guessing until he signed his call two QSOs later.

When he signed on completion of the next QSO I learned it was XT2AW. He's been active lately and I had worked him on one or two of the higher HF bands. Not too rare, though a really nice catch on 40. This would be a new band-country for me (when I returned to the hobby in 2013 I restarted my DX count). I awaited my chance and listened. The band map continued to show a blank space. Then I started calling.

I worried that someone would spot him and bring in a pile-up before I could get through. An inverted vee is not a pile-up buster, nor is 100 watts. Yet no one was spotting him. For the moment I was protected from insurmountable competition. It was as if the others, like me, had stumbled across him while tuning the band and wanted to keep him to ourselves for a little while. Consider it a form of courtesy, to give you a prime opportunity as compensation for making the effort to find the DX without outside assistance.

Within a few minutes I had him logged. All this time I never heard more than 3 stations at a time calling him. As with those who came before me I declined to spot him, thus extending the courtesy to later arrivals.

The conspiracy had held. I listened for a moment longer then went DX hunting on 80 meters. When I returned 10 minutes later there was a medium sized pile-up on the XT. Glancing at the band map I saw that someone had finally spotted him.

Reality check

Was it truly a conspiracy? There's no way to know without interviewing everyone involved. It could be nothing more than a coincidence. If so it's a common coincidence since it's something I've witnessed many times and always under similar circumstances. Each time I felt no urge to spot the DX. Perhaps my sense of courtesy really is common to other DXers. That would explain the appearance of these silent conspiracies.

It doesn't really matter. Whether true or not it behaves like one so it's useful to view it that way. It's also quite a common occurrence. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, we are free to assume it's a duck.

Should I or shouldn't I?

The conspiracy won't last. It never does. The only question is how long it will last, or how long it ought to last. Someone will spot the DX. Perhaps you. How do you decide?

There's no one right answer. One thing I look for is whether the DX station "sounds" like a casual operator or someone who wants to run. In the latter case I will often send a spot quite soon after working him. Other times I'll wait until there are no callers left. Since I often don't hang around after logging a QSO I do nothing at all. So it was with XT2AW. I thus left the spotting decision to someone else.

It comes down to your own sense of what's right and appropriate. On that I can make no recommendations. I will only say that the next time you encounter a situation as I described above to stop and think, and ask yourself why you are spotting the DX. Of course it is appropriate to return the favour of spots if you benefit from the spots of others. I would never discourage that. Only sometimes it may be best to delay or forego the opportunity. It's your choice.

With that I'll leave you for a few days. It's time to torture myself for 48 hours by operating the CQ WW CW contest with QRP.

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