Tuesday, June 2, 2020

6 Meter Blues

This is my fourth full season of 6 meter operation from my new QTH. It is also my third using FT8 for sporadic E DXing. Compared to my previous intensive 6 meter activity in the 1980s the experience is very different. With activity and propagation ramping up for this season I am doing some reflecting on where I am and where I'm going with respect to 6 meters. It's still fun although I find that my attitude is changing.

It's similar to when I was a new ham. Every DX contact was a thrill. There weren't many but each one counted. As time went on my expectations rose. No longer was I content with the same pace of DX accomplishment. I improved my skills and my station to do better, and when I plateaued I would at occasionally become frustrated.

Propagation on 6 meters this year is not out of the ordinary but my expectations have risen. So I sit here through the early part of the sporadic E season amid growing impatience. Where are the big openings? Why is my log not filling up with DX? Returning to CW and SSB from 50.313 MHz didn't help since almost all the activity is on FT8.

I'll run through a few examples of the categories of near misses I've experienced so far this season.

False dawn

A common occurrence during the summer sporadic E season is for the north Atlantic route to open in the early morning hours, from 2 to 4 hours after sunrise. The majority of these openings are unworkable from VE3 except with high power and big antennas. It's the E layer's big tease or, as I call it: false dawn.

Those to the east in Maine and VE1 fare better in these marginal openings. I can only watch as they work a few stations that barely decode here, if at all. The opening evaporates like dew as the sun rises higher in the sky.

Fortune favours...others

It is typical to hear your neighbours working DX that you cannot hear or is too weak and fleeting to be workable. Sometimes it's an adjacent province or state with the advantage and other times it's the lucky hams in the adjacent grid square. At least that's the way I always remember it. It is all too human to overlook those times when the advantage is mine.

It know my time will come, eventually. Hearing VE7/W7 have a great opening to Europe when I've worked next to nothing this year is especially aggravating. That's a remarkable and rare opening so kudos to them. I could deal with it better were we to get the correspondingly difficult opening to Japan and the Far East that is relatively easy for the west coast.

Another opening had W8/W9 working Hawaii. One more hop and we're right in there. Unfortunately "one more hop" is no easy feat. The only KH6's I've heard on 6 meters are Americans who've relocated to the mainland. My hopes are dashed when I decode the grid squares of those enticing call signs.

Same old, same old

Until yesterday (see below) I worked just 3 Europeans, all EA. Other DX, while welcome, was on well-trodden propagation paths: EA8, Caribbean, northern South America and Central America. Following the philosophy of appreciating what you have I jumped in with a modicum of enthusiasm. Many new stations were worked and a few from previous years were reworked.

There are surprises to be found on these paths. I worked 4 new countries, though none rare. These come about from increasing 6 meter activity from otherwise commonly heard countries. Same old, same old isn't necessarily bad.

Those enticing single decodes

The spotlight nature of sporadic E frequently results in fleeting openings at the highest frequencies. 6 meters, when it opens, if often riding the MUF. What might be long enough for a CW QSO on FT8 these blink-of-an-eye openings can result in a single decode and nothing more. It can be enticing.

Hearing TT8 was especially intriguing. From here the path is the same as for EA which were coming through at the time. Just one hop more is what it takes. But that one decode of TT8SN was all that I heard. A week later 6W1TA was in for a while with a weak signal. This bodes well for the coming weeks of improving propagation. The path to Africa is often open, but just as on HF there is little activity. Were Africans as common as Europeans the band would be sizzling.

Many single decodes were seen on the more common European path. The ones that catch my attention are the farthest stations and the countries I haven't yet worked. Eastern Europe and the Middle East  were the ones that kept popping up through May. This year I hope to work more of them.

Things are looking up

Had I written this article a day earlier I would have nothing more to say, and I would remain frustrated. Today we finally had a good opening into Europe and beyond. Adding 10 European QSOs in the FT8 log was very welcome. Among the enticing (and needed) countries heard were 4X, OD, LX YL, ES and more. I was called by a 4X station but we didn't complete the QSO. It was exciting nonetheless. Later in the evening several stations from TF, OX and LA were worked and I had a partial QSO with OH.

With the many projects underway my plan to upgrade the transmission line to the 6 meter yagi has been delayed. If all goes well it'll be done this month. That will give me a little more power by reducing loss. An amplifier remains in the plan but is not yet at the top of the list. A bigger signal would have netted me several new countries this season alone.

I now await improved sporadic E conditions as the peak approaches at the solstice in less than 20 days. It's a short season and that makes it intense and rewarding. If it were easy 6 meter DXing would be far less interesting.

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