At long last I've fulfilled my plan to host a multi-op. The occasion was CQ WW SSB, which is arguably the most popular contest of all. I was not keen to do it single op since phone contests are not my favourite, and I was so close to being ready to host a multi-op. I recruited a few friends living nearby -- Dave VE3KG, Vlad VE3TM, Greg VE3PJ -- and circled the weekend on my calendar. The deadline spurred me to deal with several critical items on my to-do list:
- New rig
- New computers
- Updates to the station automation software
- Upgrade the 160 meter antenna
- Move and raise yagis to improve effectiveness on the high bands
- Arrange the operating desk to accommodate two operating positions
- Clean the house and stock the fridge and freezer with food
My main objective for the contest was for all of us to have a good time. From my friends' feedback it seems that I exceeded that objective. Incrementally building this stations over a 7 year span I had lost sight of what it's like for those with average stations to discover that they've become a big gun and can have endless runs of DX. As one of them told me after the contest: "I had a blast!"
Although we had just 4 operators for a 48-hour contest in the M/2 category, there was never an empty seat. It was difficult to pry an operator out of the chair to give one of the others a chance. Log statistics show that I had the lowest number of contacts: 1100 out of 7000. It was my plan to be available to guide the others to familiarize them with the station and to use the antennas effectively. I can't do that while I'm operating.
Our placement among the M/2 raw scores is quite good. We'll see how we did after log checking is complete and the results announced next year. I'm hoping we didn't make too many logging errors. Typos and more are a worry when the focus is on serving the pile up and keeping the rate high.
Not all of the experience was positive. On the way to running up a pretty good score we encountered a variety of difficulties. However, none dampened our enthusiasm and the impact on our score was modest. I should be thankful that so little went awry.
|Photo credit: VA3UMM|
I suppose the most notable good thing is that nothing went terribly wrong. There was a lot that could have gone wrong that didn't. That's a success. Here's a sampling of what didn't go wrong:
- No power outages
- No equipment failures
- No empty seats due to operator fatigue, disinterest or other issues
- Propagation was excellent on the high bands and average on 80 and 160
- Very little inter-station interference
That's quite good since so much is out of our control during a contest. I have some spare equipment but there is no backup electrical generator to run two high power stations and associated devices. The utility (Hydro One) seems to have been getting better at keeping the power on in this rural area. They also respond well to reports of noise due to faulty equipment. We can hear a pin drop on the other side of the world, and that's great for pulling out the many small signals responding to our big signal.
Multi-ops require one computer per station. Since I use N1MM+ those computers are Windows PCs. Inexpensive refurbished Win10 PCs are widely available and I now have 3 of them. Since they use SSD for non-volatile storage they boot quickly and perform well. All PCs have Wi-Fi, built-in or with a USB dongle.
For the PC running the antenna selector UI (user interface), I plugged in an ancient display and mouse from a defunct XP machine. This is a workaround until I have a touchscreen for each operator. I tried it with two mice (one per operator) so shorten the reach but the PC didn't like that for some reason. You can see the full multi-op desktop in an earlier article.
Networking was a breeze. I worried about it unnecessarily before setting it up. A friend told me how easy it was with N1MM+ and so it was. It was so easy I thought I'd done something wrong. Within minutes I had the station PCs communicating with each other and synchronizing logs.
A third PC hosted my home brew antenna selector UI (user interface). I placed the (ancient) display and mouse for it between the operating positions, along with the controllers for the 5 rotators. I connected two mice to shorten the reach for the operators but the PC didn't like that. The mouse is a workaround until I have a touchscreen for each operator. I was not surprised to discover a few bugs in my software when I turned on N1MM+ networking for the first time. They were quickly resolved.
The bad (where there's room for improvement)
I can summarize the problems in a very short list:
The biggest problem with the antennas is that there are so many. I am used to them but the others were not. There are 3 antennas on the high bands, and really 4 when you split the stacks. Some are fixed and some are rotatable. Further, the two tri-band yagis must be shared and each may be unavailable when the other operator is using it. The problem was worst during times of day when we could not run Europe or the US and it was necessary to try various propagation paths in the hunt for stations and multipliers.
Surprisingly it was the fixed direction high band yagis that caused the most confusion. It was very common for an operator to turn a rotatable yagi where it was wanted rather than click to select a fixed yagi pointed to the desired direction. I didn't anticipate that. From their feedback I learned that it was easy to "forget" about an antenna when there was no associated rotator. Similarly, splitting the stacks to maximum effect or using them to "spray" in different directions was a difficult concept to quickly master.
Antenna selection was easier on 40 meters since there are only two yagis. On 80 meters we usually kept to the vertical in preference to the inverted vee since we were primarily hunting DX. I say vertical rather than vertical yagi because the yagi modes are only functional up to 3650 kHz. The array is optimized for CW. For most of the phone segment the array is only usable as a simple vertical. Yagi operation up to 3800 kHz has long been on my project list. Maybe next year.
Mastering the Beverage receive antennas on 160 took practice. It was easy to understand but not necessarily easy to remember when and how to change direction. Since the Beverages can only be used by one radio at a time, despite having a choice of 6 directions. I have begun construction of a second receive antenna and I hope to have it ready by the end of the year.
For the contest I placed a manual antenna switch on the operating desk to connect the Beverage system to one radio or the other. I programmed the Icom 7610 to always use the receive antenna port on 160 meters. On 80 meters it had to be manually selected in the Antennas menu. The FTdx5000 has a front panel switch.
The next big problem was the amplifiers. Mine are manual tune tube amps: an Acom 1500 and a vintage Drake L7. At their own stations, the other operators either use no-tune solid state amps or do not currently have amps. They all know how to operate them, in general, but none had done so recently. That became a problem.
My attempt to be helpful wasn't as helpful as I'd hoped. Before the contest I made a tuning chart for the A1500 by tuning and documenting the Tune & Load settings across the SSB segments for every antenna. It got ridiculously complicated due to the many antennas.
Although precise tuning isn't necessary it does help to keep the amps running smoothly and it also maximizes tube life. Errors were made. No, many errors were made. When you haven't used an amp for a while it can be intimidating. It is also very inconvenient when changing antennas or clicking to work a multiplier 200 kHz away, and the tuning is very wrong.
Either the power output would be painfully low or the protection circuits would place the A1500 offline. Often the operator didn't notice until I pointed it out. Setting the drive level too low or too high was another common error. I jumped in to do a quick tune whenever necessary.
Another confusion was the pair of foot switches for the FTdx5000: one for PTT and one to generate a carrier for tuning. Guess what happened more times than I care to think about!
The L7 is more forgiving since it uses 3-500Z triodes rather the tetrode in the Acom. For that reason I didn't bother with a tuning chart. However, it must still be tuned. Too often it wasn't and the power output was little better than running barefoot. Without a foot switch, the only way to generate a carrier was to use the CTRL-T function of N1MM+.
This is why many contest stations now use broadband solid state amps and broadband antennas such as OWA yagis and 4-squares. There are tube and solid state amps with built in ATUs, but those are expensive. One reason I like my amps is that they're cleaner than almost every solid state amp with regard to IMD and harmonics. I don't use BPF or stubs on the amps so that is important. We'll have to live with the hassle since I am unwilling to spend $20,000 for two new amplifiers with built in ATUs.
Which brings us to antenna control. For reading ease I've copied the original UI (user interface) from an earlier article. It's almost unchanged. You can read that article for detail on how it works.
Despite my misgivings, I didn't think it would fail as badly as it did. It was barely comprehensible to the others. I have a plan to make it much better, but I've had no time to work on it.
I was frequently guiding the operators on its use. Part of that was due to the poor design and part was their lack of familiarity with the antenna and rotation options (see above). The contest raised the redesign priority and I will get down to work this winter. In my defense, the first priority was getting the automation system working and the UI was rushed. It was never intended to be a final design.
The system itself glitched several times which it has never done before. It was always at night when we were active on the low bands, so it is likely due to RFI. Intermittent faults are difficult to track down so all I can do is add more RFI protection like toroids and bypass capacitors for every wire touching the Arduino controller and the cables to the PC. Transitioning from USB to Wi-Fi will help.
On the bright side, recovery was quick and easy. When it locks up the status bar turns yellow or red. The UI is shut down, the Arduino power cycled and the UI restarted. One time the PC required a restart to clear a COM port fault. It takes 30 seconds to restore service, or twice that when the PC must be restarted. SSD storage makes for very fast Windows restarts.
Call: VE3VN Operator(s): VE3KG VE3PJ VE3TM VE3VN Station: VE3VN Class: M/2 HP QTH: Operating Time (hrs): 48 Summary: Band QSOs Zones Countries ------------------------------ 160: 116 10 14 80: 470 15 58 40: 1451 26 99 20: 1586 36 119 15: 1863 35 116 10: 1462 32 130 ------------------------------ Total: 6948 154 536 Total Score = 12,442,770
With regard to operating strategy, I believe our greatest shortcoming was multipliers. The runs were so good and the operator enthusiasm so high that it was difficult to interrupt and suggest spending more time hunting multipliers. Not all of us were experienced or comfortable with clicking those spots or using the N1MM+ AMQ window.
It takes practice and a sharp eye to click on a spot, call the station and resume running. Both radios have dual receive so it is possible to listen on two frequencies concurrently. I try do it when one or two CQs go unanswered. Timing is key. Multi-single teams have it easier since only one station can run; the other (or others) can only work multipliers on other bands. In M/2 we must carefully weigh the options.
That is not to say our multiplier count was dreadful; we did pretty well (see above). Improvement will come with time. We could afford to lose a few multipliers since they were partly compensated by the high QSO points. I was more concerned with 80 and 160 meters since the runs were relatively weak and more time could have been spent hunting multipliers overnight. The rules allow us 8 band changes per hour, yet we never came close to the limit. I suspect that part of the problem was operator avoidance of frequent amplifier tuning (see above).
We'll do this again, with the same team or with others depending on availability and contest mode (SSB vs CW). I made a list of station improvements that I'll work on over the coming months. My objectives are to rise higher in the standings and increase operator enjoyment and engagement. I have an incentive to stick with a core team who will become familiar with the antennas, equipment and station features.
I may gather a team for CQ WW CW at the end of November. If that occurs it will involve few if any improvements to the station. There have been other priorities in the waning weeks of fall while the weather is not yet very cold. The next likely opportunities are the ARRL DX contests early next year.
For the present, the operating desk has been reconfigured for SO2R, which I used for a casual effort in Sweepstakes CW. I will also need to spend time exchanging the IC7610 and FTdx5000MP so that the former becomes the primary operating rig for everyday operating.
Accommodating guests in my small house is a challenge. There is a guest bedroom and an adjoining bathroom and shower, but that's it apart from my own space and a couple of sofas. Old people tend to be finicky about these things but that didn't seem to apply to this fine group of contesters. We made do with few problems or complaints. That might not be the case with a larger team. It is something to think about for future contests.
I am not a fan of nostalgia. Tube rigs and paper and pencil logging are history and they have no place in my shack. The fondness I feel about the past involves people. So bear with me as I finish this article with an old scanned photograph and a story.
The picture was likely taken in 1982, which is 41 years ago. It would have been at the end of one of the CQ WW or CQ WPX contests. Our multi-op call sign was VE3PCA. The station was owned by Doug VE3KKB (top centre) and located at his parents' rural home near the town of Perth. Those were good times. I was a lot younger then (left), new to VE3 and without a station of my own. I had yet to trim my 1970s hair. The others are Dave VE3KG (top right), Brian VE3CRG (lower right) and John ex-VE3EL (bottom, SK).
I have always enjoyed the energy level of multi-op contesting. I hate being alone in a room for 48 hours for single op contests and I hated it more when I was young. Joining a team at the moderately large station that Doug built was a great joy. Conditions were good, the camaraderie infectious and we sumptuously hosted by Doug's parents Mary and Jim (ex-VE3KJG). Both have long since passed.
By 1984 VE3PCA was no more. I had few opportunities to do a multi-op contest since. Later that year I bought a house and built my own modest station. In 1992 I exited the hobby entirely. When I returned to amateur radio 10 years ago, it wasn't long before I resumed contesting. First casually and then with enthusiasm. With my contesting interest rekindled I developed a long term plan to build a station that could do well in contests and host a multi-op. Mission accomplished.
The 4 surviving VE3PCA members in that picture remain friends. Brian VE3CRG continues to be very active on HF though not in contests. Doug VE3KKB has downsized his station and no longer has HF capability. Dave VE3KG, like me, continues to be very active. He was on our team for CQ WW SSB (see the pic near the beginning of the article). It is almost exactly 44 years since we did our first multi-op together.
Amateur radio, and contesting in particular, breeds long lasting friendships. We may not stay in frequent contact but when we do the good times return. My longest and firmest friendships are with fellow contesters. On the air you may hear little more than "59 4" but behind that brevity lies a rich culture, full of friends, pizza and smiles. Contesting, in my experience, is an extraordinarily social endeavour.