With the year's premier event -- CQ WW CW -- rapidly approaching I thought it worthwhile to say a few brief words about ARRL Sweepstakes. I have some warm feelings about these contests because of the central role they played in my early contesting career going back 45 years ago when I was a teenager and a new ham. I don't feel so enthusiastic about it now. Times change.
Once again I entered the CW weekend in the QRP category. I do this for the experience of using skill over brawn to put contacts in the log. In contrast I will be burning up the watts in CQ WW. I resurrected the 3 db attenuator so that the FTdx5000 could be used at 5 watts. Luckily the resistor bundle was still around, having been stored for just such an eventuality. I soldered it back into the since repurposed box and it was ready to go.
Sunday can be a drag in Sweepstakes because there are a limited number of stations to work. It is less so with QRP since, due to the lower rate, there are still stations to work, mostly those that haven't yet been able to pull my tiny signal out of the noise. Chasing rare multipliers is more thrilling with a power handicap. I am one of those contesters who likes to play both ends of the power range -- QRP and QRO -- each with its unique challenges and benefits.
I operated SO2R as before to maximize the use of my many antennas. QRP is a good introduction to SO2R since the rates are lower. Stress is minimized as you learn the ropes. Despite this it does get quite boring by Sunday evening when I can be CQ'ing on two bands and the QSOs still come several minutes apart. Indeed, I quit a little early because my rate had slowed so much that I probably only sacrificed 3 or 4 contacts.
New this year was the SO2R Mini to switch rig audio. Keyboard control of receiver audio was a great convenience compared to the manual switch I used for my first foray into SO2R. The kit is inexpensive and takes care of the most important switching responsibilities, while eschewing sophisticated features you might never use. I recommend it.
Although I did 15% better this year than the last two years I was squashed by the QRP big guns. Last year it was N0NI in Iowa. Unfortunately that super-station was flattened by a major storm and was absent this year. From reports they are rebuilding and will be back in action before too long.
This year I was outgunned by W2GD and VY2ZM despite a capable station. As with real estate the secret is location, location, location; rospects in Sweepstakes are very location dependent. For example, as I type these words I am hearing W2 stations working Europeans on 10 meters that I cannot hear. Even without an ongoing geomagnetic storm, 500 km further north it is a different world with respect to propagation.
Of course W2GD is a top notch contester and, to my knowledge, has good antennas. I have no way of knowing whether the problem was me, my northerly locale or antennas. A few decibels can make a big difference at the QRP level. It just seemed there weren't any more contacts to be had. Would a different strategy have helped? I am doubtful. It is more likely that I am a victim of circumstance.
The over 1000 QSO log from VY2ZM is spectacular. Here we have a top notch station and operator in a location well placed to work the large midwest population on 20 meters, where many casual operators congregate, and from a section that, for the first time, is a new multiplier and he had little competition. Back in the beginning I had a similar advantage from VE4. However there were no assisted classes in or the supporting technology in the 70s so I still had to work hard to attract attention.
I did have technical difficulties leading up to the start of Sweepstakes. Since I hadn't done SO2R in a while I was unaware that the remove antenna switch had a problem. Relays were misbehaving on the second radio/operating position. Less than 1 hour before the contest started I discovered that the problem was earwigs building a nest inside the DB25 connectors to the switch. Moist eggs are a conductance path between the connector pins. Once they were evicted the problem was eliminated.
Earwigs have been a big problem this year in all my close to the ground electronics at the towers, antennas and control systems. It takes a very small hole to permit them entry. They, of course, love weatherproof enclosures.
Unlike the CW weekend I had no interest in the SSB version of the contest. I got on 80 meters briefly Sunday evening and made 28 contacts in 13 minutes. When stations stopped calling I quit. The motivation to continue "for fun" wasn't there. Phone contests don't attract me the way they once did unless I do it as part of a multi-op. But that's me and not the fault of the contest.
As everyone knows Sweepstakes is approaching a crisis. Participants are old and the contest risks passing as they pass. There are more new hams to be found on SSB than CW though not enough to keep the contest going for the long term. That's a shame.
Sweepstakes is not an indicator that this is the end of contesting as a global sport. Contests will be around for as long as amateur radio is around. But those contests won't be Sweepstakes.
It'll be a very different story in CQ WW CW this weekend. For this contest I will be running a kilowatt and the new 15 and 20 meter stacks are online and working. And, boy, do they work! More about that in a future article.