Tuesday, November 28, 2017

CQ WW CW: The Good and the Bad

CQ WW is arguably the biggest event on the contest calendar. My station was in poor shape for the SSB contest at the end of October and I hoped I'd have everything ready in time for the CW contest this past weekend. I didn't quite get there despite a big push in the final hours preceding the start of the contest on (our) Friday evening.

The most glaring hole in my station is that I was unable to run coax up to the yagis atop the big tower. You can see in the picture that they are up there sitting pretty, tuned and rotating, serving only to tease me. I ran out of time. At the last moment I had to choose between putting up a 40/80 inverted vee or one Heliax run. With nothing else for 80 meters I opted for the inverted vee.

In a way I'm complaining about nothing of importance. It's just that I know how much better I could have done had I completed the antenna work. As claimed score reports flood into 3830 it's clear that I did very well in comparison to others in my class and geographical region -- Single-op; All bands; Low power. Something worse happened to a local big gun who suffered a concussion that ultimately took him out of contention. I could only offer sympathy when we spoke before the contest. Health is more important than anything.

What follows is a detailed breakdown of my experience with the station as it was this weekend and what I learned. That will inform my future plans. I kept a notepad within reach with which to take notes so that I wouldn't forget. Items of significant importance I will delve into in future articles.

So sleepy

The rush of tower and antenna work left me exhausted. Climbing and working on towers is physically demanding, even more so in cold weather. When I sat down at the radio after the evening meal to configure the logging software and test the antenna switching I nearly fell asleep.

I made it through the first evening on caffeine. Since I needed sleep I missed the start of the 20 meter band opening Saturday morning. I didn't feel truly rested until Tuesday.


I put off buying a computer until the big sales immediately before the contest. The computer was already selected but deferred for the discount I was told was coming. Unfortunately it was out of stock when I did make the purchase on Thursday so I could only leave with the new display and accept delivery of the computer after the contest. However the discount was very attractive.

Instead I relied on my ancient laptop running Vista. The Wi-Fi is dead as are all but two USB ports. Since it decided to stop talking to my USB hub a few weeks ago I had to disconnect the mouse and had to deal with my palms riding the track pad while typing. That caused occasional odd behaviour in the logging software. The working USB ports were needed for the FTdx5000 and WinKeyer.

This PC is a liability since it doesn't have the RAM or processor capacity to open more than a few N1MM Logger windows, or windows that update frequently. For example, I cannot open the band map to see my self spots. Instead I relied on the rig's memories and VFOs to mark stations I wanted to work later.

Oddly enough the laptop chose the very next day to finally try to catch up with dozens of Microsoft updates that it seemed unable to process for several months. Perhaps it knew that it was about to be put out to pasture.

Inverted vee for 40 and 80 meters

Since I am behind in my project to build an 80 meter vertical array, and there is no feed line yet to the XM240 I decided to throw together a two-band inverted vee for 40 and 80 meters. It is a temporary antenna designed to get me through the winter season.

The core of the antenna is the 80 meter inverted vee I put up on the Trylon last winter. To this I added a 40 meter inverted vee I had on my tower back in Ottawa. That is, it's a fan wire antenna using PVC pipe sections to hold the wires ~18 cm (7") apart. The apex is ~32 meters on the big tower, a few meters below the Explorer 14. The ends are held down by rocks in the hay field, far enough out for the interior angle of the vee to be ~100°. If you look carefully you will see the tower mount in the picture above. The wire and spreaders are especially difficult to pick out.

There was no time to tune the antenna since it went up only hours before the start of the contest. We could do no more than put it in place, untangle the wires and connect a spare run of LMR400 to a 60 meter run of FSJ4 flexible ½" Heliax going back to the switch box.

As expected it tuned well on 80 meters but not on 40. Due to capacitive end effects between the higher band element and the longer one the 40 meter inverted vee is electrically longer and resonates below 7 MHz. In the minutes before the start of the contest I trained the rig's tuner throughout the 7.0 to 7.1 MHz band segment and did a quick comparison with the multi-band inverted vee on the Trylon.

For most DX the higher inverted vee was 1 to 2 S-units better. On US stations the lower one was equal or better on stations in the US northeast (very short path). The higher one was better on the majority of US stations. On 80 meters I had nothing to compare with other than the Beverage on receive, from which little or nothing can be concluded. I fared poorly on both 40 and 80 meters in the contest, apparently more due to propagation than my antennas since others suffered similarly.

The antenna works though obviously not so well as what I had planned for 80 meters and not what I should expect on 40 meters once the feed line is connected to the XM240. I estimate that I'll get another 2 S-units for the yagi from a combination of height and gain. The inverted vee is needed for the winter to provide an omni-directional option on 40 meters to switch to when needed. It will be interesting to compare when the 80 meter vertical comes online this winter.

Side mounted yagi to Europe

Most hams who put up a tri-bander have one similar in size to the Hy-Gain Explorer 14. The boom is short at only 14' (4.2 m), having 3 active elements on 20, 15 and 10 meters. If it's all you have it is possible to be perfectly happy with it and work the world; it performed well enough to help win two CQWW plaques for QRP contesting from Ottawa. When you have another antenna for comparison the compromises inherent in a short boom yagi become apparent.

The antenna is fixed at ~35 meters height and a heading of 45°, towards Europe. It is much higher than the only other high band antenna I had for the contest, a TH7 up 21 meters. Height helps though not as much as desired. Before the contest I rotated the upper yagis towards north to, in part, minimize any detrimental interactions between the still unusable TH6 and the Explorer 14. That both antennas use identical traps assists with a direct comparison since element loss is similar.

On 20 meters, there was little difference between the Explorer 14 and TH7 towards Europe. Although disappointing this should not come as a surprise. Yagi gain is primarily a function of boom length, not number of elements; both antennas have 3 active elements on 20 meters.

The picture changes on 15 meters. Despite the longer boom and an additional director on the TH7 the higher antenna is clearly superior by at least 1 S-unit. That was welcome since at this point in the solar cycle the European openings on 15 meters are not as strong or deep as other times. Regrettably there was no opening on 10 meter so that comparison was impossible.

F/B is poor enough on 20 and 15 meters that I could work many US and Caribbean stations while focussed on Europe. The price is increased QRM while running Europeans. On balance I can't decide whether this is a curse or a benefit.

This is a temporary antenna to get me through the winter contest season. Because my tower project lasted longer than expected I had to rely on the antennas that were close at hand. In the spring it comes down to be replaced by...something. I'll be exploring options over the winter based on my experience with a selection of yagis at different heights.

160 meters

My results on 160 meters were similar to 40 and 80 meters primarily due to poor conditions. I continued to do well in the pile-ups on DX towards the south and worked as far west as Hawaii. This was with a 3 db handicap since I had to dial back the FTdx5000 to 100 watts from 200 watts to qualify for the low power category.

What frustrated me was little success towards Europe during the contest, managing to work only a handful. Did the antenna have a serious failing despite modelling that showed only a modest impairment in that direction? I was relieved to discover after the contest that I was not alone, with everyone on this side of the Atlantic Ocean having the same experience.

The answer may be that QRM and noise levels happened to be worse than usual in Europe. After the contest those woes continued. I did manage to work 9G5W despite copying difficulty on their side of the QSO. It may be that my only permanent solution for top band success will be an amplifier.

Antenna switching

When I picked up a secondhand 2x8 antenna switch a few months ago I accelerated my plan for SO2R and remote switching. Although I fell far short of SO2R for this contest I did complete the basics for switching antennas.

All transmission lines terminate at a tower base where there is a housing for the switch. Control lines run back to the shack along with two runs of LMR400. This is mostly a temporary setup since the coax is not rated for burial.

Switching is entirely manual rather than rig or software controlled. I quickly built a control box with only one side active. The numerous "blanks" are there for future control of an 80 meter array direction and Beverage selection. Or I may go entirely software control.

I'll have more to say on antenna control and automation in future, which is a complex and important topic. For this contest I kept it simple, and it worked fine.

Empty calories

As the contest progressed and I knew that I'd fall short in my quest for multipliers I altered my strategy so that I could still turn in a competitive score. I didn't yet know that others were suffering similar propagation woes, and that the fault wasn't not entirely due to me or my half-built station.

With multipliers difficult to come by I spent many hours ignoring the chase entirely to instead park on a frequency and call CQ. My intent was to work as many US stations as possible, on every band that was open. These QSOs earn fewer points and are free of any multiplier value. For the Americans it's a win since they get an easy QSO in the log.

Since I look upon CQ WW as a primarily DX contest these QSOs feel a bit like the empty calories in our diets that frustrate nutritionists. They're filling but not optimal to our health. I appreciate every one of these QSOs yet feel that I'm missing out while I'm filling up the log. Yet it's a necessary step to a high score. Unfortunately for the US contesters it's an asymmetrical dynamic since they far outnumber Canadians. This is a contest in which scores between US and Canadian entrants are not comparable.

In between or even during runs I would check other bands for multipliers. This is how I worked a few unexpected multipliers on 10 meters, which was barely open, and then only occasionally.

Here, have a peanut

I'm the sort of person who is always snacking. Especially when the rate slows I am sorely tempted to run to the kitchen and grab something to eat. Since I've been gifted with a particular metabolism there is no threat of weight gain! However the temptation can impact results if it takes me away from the rig.

My solution is to keep a container of trail mix at hand. I use it as a reward system. If a run is going particularly well I'll grab a few seeds while the computer is sending a message. I'll eat a tastier nut when I score a multiplier.

It may seem silly but it works to keep me focussed and in the chair.


After a big contest I enter a several days long lull during which I tend to avoid getting on the air or doing anything radio related. Very soon I'll return to working on the station. It's a big, challenging project and it's clear that even with carefully thought out priorities I won't achieve all I planned in 2017.

Winter is an opportunity to relax, do a lot of operating and contesting and less challenging antenna work and improvements in the shack. I'll be busy without the same frenetic pace. At year end I'll do my usual annual review and look forward to the coming year. There's lots of hard work ahead, along with joy of learning and achieving my goals. 

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