Single band contests like the CQ 160 Meter contest have a unique character. This goes beyond their particular appeal to aficionados of those bands. Once you've worked a station, that's it; you don't get to work them again. There are exceptions, such as the ARRL 10 Meter contest where you can work stations on CW and SSB if you enter the mixed mode category.
As the contest progresses there are fewer stations to work and the rate drops. The decline can happen quickly. In last week's CQ 160 contest, my first hour rate was over 130. By the time I quite on Saturday evening the hourly rate was between 30 and 40. Stations that put in a full time effort saw their rates plummet further. If rate is what draws you to contests, these are rarely where you want to be after the first few hours. I took several breaks on the first evening at my convenience and I doubt that my score was impacted despite the high rate that I interrupted -- the stations were almost all there to be worked later.
Most contesters drawn to single band contests will only stick with it if there are other things that appeal to them. For example, I operated QRP in the ARRL 10 Meter contest. QRP introduced a self-imposed handicap that made every QSO more challenging, especially DX and DX multipliers. Since a high rate was unlikely, the rate (such as it was) didn't decline as much as it did for higher power stations. I've done this as well in ARRL Sweepstakes for the same reason since despite being a multi-band contest, you can only work a station once.
For me, the appeal of the 160 meter contests is DX. That is never easy on top band. Outside of contests, CW activity is very low. While it is nice to see the same DX stations every night, there is little novelty. Watching the ebb and flow of top band propagation is interesting but not enough to keep me there. I am always eager for top band DX since I am relatively new to having an effective station.
Contest weekends significantly raise the activity level, and the CQ 160 Meter contest does it best. The activity level on 160 during CQ WW CW is high but not as high. The difference is that in CQ WW many stations activate rare countries and zones. The potential country haul during CQ 160 is lower but it is interesting to see more activity from home stations.
With limited DX opportunities and little rate beyond the first hours I chose a non-serious entry in this year's CQ 160 Meter CW contest. I took maximum advantage of the opportunity by operating high power and assisted. I quit the contest when the rate was painfully slow and there was little prospect for improving DX propagation.
If you want to read more on my thoughts about single band contests like this one, you can find them in several past articles. For example, this one about the CQ 160 Meter contest.
I can't win. This is not a defeatist attitude. I am realistic about the competition in this contest. 160 meters is a tough band to successfully work DX and every decibel counts, and so does geography. Ultimately this contest is one of attrition since there is little difference of contacts and multipliers between similarly equipped top-ranked stations in the same area and entry category.
The winners have antennas with gain. A typical 4-square or K3LR parasitic array has 3 to 4 db advantage over my single vertical. Power is another area where I fall short. I stay pretty close to the Canadian legal limit. That's a 2 db disadvantage to the US legal limit. Many stations don't respect their countries' power limits. There is little risk of enforcement in either country for stations in rural locales where EMI is low risk.
When DX signals are riding the noise, those decibels convert to QSOs and multipliers that are out of my reach. I'm not complaining since it is an incentive to pursue phasing my towers for top band gain. I can already hear well with my Beverage system. Indeed, I can hear many DX stations that cannot copy me. Not everyone can live in a quiet location.
Since I am not in contention to win I can only compete against myself. That is, to improve my score over preceding years or to reduce the gap to the big guns on top band. I prefer to instead chase DX in the contest and do as well as I can without upsetting my life by staying awake for two nights. My objective may change when/if I improve my transmit antenna.
The short version: I can't win and the contest is long, so I decided to have fun by working DX and running NA stations at other times. Mission accomplished.
My transmit antenna is very good but has no gain. Recently I doubled the number of radials for higher efficiency which, although it helps, is an improvement of no more than 1 db. I have little trouble working DX when conditions are cooperative. Late Friday evening when the propagation to Europe was good, I did well at running European stations.
My receive capabilities are better. With three reversible Beverages that are from 150 to 175 meters long, I can copy most anyone. I could build a vertical receive array with a higher RDF, but hearing well is not my problem. I hear better than almost everybody else hears me. Most hams have a higher local QRN level.
An imbalance between receive and transmit capabilities can be a problem. Usually it's a station running high power and unable to hear due to their local noise. We call those alligators: big mouth and small ears. I'm in the opposite situation. I something think of myself as an SWL (short wave listener) when I can't work many DX stations that I hear very well. Alligators and SWLs both have difficulty filling the log.
The only antenna work I performed in preparation for the contest was to repair an intermittent F connector on the northeast-southwest Beverage. I pulled off the twist-on connectors, removed corrosion and lightly coated the threads with dielectric grease. It was an easy job in the cold winter weather. I considered myself lucky that recent wind and ice storms didn't damage the Beverages.
DX prospectsAn important difference between a major contest like CQ WW and CQ 160 is the number of contest DXpeditions. There are many in the former and few in the latter. Don't expect to work many countries in CQ 160. That said, there is a lot of DX to be worked when propagation cooperates. This year that was mostly limited to contacts between Europe and NA. That's quite good on top band for the peak of the solar cycle. I logged 51 countries, which is pretty good for the hours I put in. The highest I saw from eastern NA was 70.
There is an ebb and flow to propagation on 160 meters. It isn't like the HF bands. Signals from an area can rise for 10 or 30 minutes before falling back down. You need to be on at those times to work DX. Since these events are largely unpredictable, you must be diligent during the contest. I stayed up late the first night and was rewarded with lots of contacts with Europe and the west coast of NA.
Stations located far from the major global population centres have little incentive to be active in CQ 160. They can only work stations during periods of propagation enhancement. Many of those stations are in the southern hemisphere where it's summer and the atmospheric noise is very high. That's less of a hindrance in multi-band contests since you need only check 160 occasionally. For a 160 meter contest it can be very dreary indeed.
When there is propagation to those distant parts of the globe there may be no activity at all. Several times during the contest I saw weak but consistent RBN reports from a CX, yet throughout the contest I heard no stations from South America further south than Venezuela.
Propagation extended towards the west and northwest to KH6 and KL7. I worked two of each but nothing farther. Japan and other east Asian stations were active but not heard here. It was the same for them except for a few of the top band big guns. Based on their reports, ZL and VK stations worked mostly western NA stations, and few of those.
I enjoyed working the DX on offer, and that's all you can ask for on 160 meters. Many times the propagation during 160 meter contests is far worse.
With so many stations packed into a fairly narrow spectrum there is bound to be conflict. There were several examples of it during the contest.
When DX conditions to Europe are marginal, we can hear each other although QSOs are difficult. The reason is that most stations do not hear well, either due to local noise and poor or no receive antennas. NA and EU stations operate right on top of each other without noticing. Try to work one of those Europeans and conflict arises. I tried a few times and it wasn't worth the trouble, even when I did my best to avoid QRMing the NA station when calling the DX station.
One workaround that
some stations use is to run high in the band. The idea is to be decoded
by skimmers and attract stations to QSY from the lower end of the band
where activity is greatest. It works, to a degree. One reason is that many skimmers use antennas that are poor for
receiving DX stations and fail to decode weak signals. Another is
that many of the stations drawn to the spot can't copy the weak DX
station. Of course, there are many unassisted stations that won't see the spots.
Early in the contest few stations tread on the FT8 watering hole at 1840 to 1843 kHz. Over time, more and more stations went there. To avoid adding to the potential QRM I avoided calling those stations. As the rate slowed and FT8 operators abandonned the window (probably because of the QRM), I called a few of the CQers in the window. The damage had been done.
There was similar interference with phone operators (AM and SSB) during the evening hours when they are most active. Due to the different mode band widths some "sharing" can be tolerated but it is never pleasant for either operator. Conflicts of this type are common during contests and some pile ups on rare DX stations since there are no firm mode sub-bands on 160 meters. I recall tuning to 160 meters during NAQP SSB and deciding not to bother searching for DX due to the large number of phone signals.
SO2R/SO2V operators that vacate a frequency to call a station (S & P) elsewhere risk losing their run frequency. There were several times when I came across a clear frequency and heard no reply to a couple of "QRL?" requests. So I called CQ to start a run. Soon the absent station returns and resumes CQing. Who's frequency is it? Since I wasn't serious in the contest I never bothered to assert my claim to the frequency. In other circumstances I might react differently.
Now it's time to talk about signal quality. That means key clicks. When everybody is packed together, key clicks interfere with stations up to 3 or 5 kHz away. Mostly it's just annoying while at other times the interference is a problem. I wonder how many of those stations realize how poor their signals are. They are glaringly obvious on the 7610 spectrum scope. I feel a little sheepish mentioning it since my FTdx5000 is notorious for key clicks. However, in this contest I used the far cleaner Icom 7610.
Prospects for improvement
Doing well in 160 meter contests requires more than a quiet location and good receive and transmit antennas. In a single band contest it is necessary to maintain a constant presence by running almost full time. Yet it is also necessary to search for and work stations S & P.
One of the methods that the most competitive stations use to increase their score is a second receiver (SO2V). Some go so far as a second station (SO2R). If the signal of the transmitter into the second receiver is too strong -- which is almost always the case -- the second receiver is disabled while transmitting. That is highly disruptive to effective operating, especially since the primary VFO or radio should be almost always running.
The solution is a remote receive antenna. It can be far enough to allow the second receiver to perform well during transmissions, or have a notch in its pattern directed at the transmit antenna. Using a receiver with a high blocking dynamic range allow continuous reception on the second radio, often quite close to the transmit (run) frequency. When a station is found, the VFOs or antennas can be swapped to call them with only minimal interruption to the run radio. This is ordinary SO2R behaviour but with both rigs on the same band.
SO2R for 30 hours is not easy, and is made more difficult by the paucity of new stations to work during the second night. There's a lot of effort for little return. Assisted operation using human spots and skimmers (RBN) eliminates the tedium of spinning the VFO and typing calls. Many top band operators dispense with assistance and embrace the challenge of doing all the work themselves.
I kept it simple and relaxed by operating SO1R with assistance. I felt no temptation to turn on the second VFO to call stations while I was running. SO2V isn't technically difficult if you can deal with constant interruptions due to the transmit cycle. I have no plan for a separate remote receive antenna to make SO2R/SO2V more viable on 160 meters. My only plan for improvement is to eventually phase the two big towers, as described earlier.
It is a rare contest where the scoring equalizes the playing field among stations in diverse locations. There are two rules in particular that skew the points awarded to a QSO:
- The 5 points awarded to QSOs between US and Canadian stations favours Canadians because there are so many more Americans. US to US and Canada to Canada contacts are worth 2 points.
- QSO between countries are worth 5 points while those between continents are worth 10. That rule benefits stations just beyond the continental divide. For example, south Italian islands in Africa, Cyprus, Africa islands near Europe, and north South America.
The scores of Canadian stations are much higher than those of Americans with similar numbers of QSOs and multipliers. The difference is greater for African stations adjacent to Europe who typically win the overall. Of course, stations farther afield fare even worse since they can never make many contacts in a 160 meter contest. An inter-continental QSO is 10 points whether the distance is 100 km or 10,000 km.
Do these scoring differences matter? Solutions exist such as the distance and power based QSO points used in the Stew Perry top band contests. In CQ 160, if you restrict comparisons between stations in the same country, region and category, the scores are comparable. But many of the contests top awards aren't awarded on that basis. I don't expect to see scoring changes anytime soon. I'd be happy to be proved wrong. I say this despite the benefit to Canadians of the extant rules.
There is also the matter of hemispherical bias. A top band contest in January favours the northern hemisphere when nights are long and the atmospheric noise low. Southern hemisphere stations have short nights and high noise. Moving the contest to coincide with one of the equinoxes would improve hemispheric equality. That, too, is unlikely to change since the majority of 160 meter activity is in the north.
I'll close with an interesting development. Several stations in Europe sent me recordings of our QSOs. Recording contests is common, and not only for the top competitors for whom it may be mandatory. I suppose some enjoy doing it for whatever reasons they might have. It was interesting to hear what my signal sounds like at the other end of a 160 meter DX contact.