Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Notes on CQ WW CW

This past weekend was the CQ WW CW contest. Again I entered as SOAB (single-op all bands) QRP. Last year I managed to place #1 in North America and #4 overall. I was specifically targetting this contest when I designed and built new antennas for 40 and 80 meters. Even though I did enter the SSB contest with these antennas the difficulty of getting any results with QRP SSB on those bands was not a proper test.

The low bands are especially challenging for QRP and I was not pleased with my results on those bands last year. With the rapid demise of 10 meters due to the waning solar cycle the low bands become increasing important.

While there is some time yet before the claimed scores are published, and months more to wait for the official results, initial indications from 3830 are that I've done well. That does not mean everything leaned in my favour, only that more things seemed to go right than otherwise.

With my memory still fresh this seems a good time to reflect on the contest, especially since much of it has to do with topics I regularly cover in this blog. But first the raw numbers from N1MM Logger+. Since about 40% of my contacts were with the US my results are not comparable with US participants who get 0 points for US contacts.
  Band    QSOs     Pts   ZN  Cty
   1.8       8      14    3    2
   3.5     171     391   10   35
     7     259     659   19   62
    14     289     767   25   82
    21     317     885   20   81
    28      67     175   16   29
 Total    1111    2891   93  291
Score: 1,110,144
Errors are inevitable so the official score will lower than what is claimed. Reducing errors is an important skill that all contesters must learn to protect the fruit of their effort. I was clumsier than usual in this contest, which is explained further below.

10 meters

Mistakes happen, and that happened to me on this band. With the decline in the solar cycle I had low expectations from 10 meters. Unfortunately I overdid it, avoiding it simply because it couldn't produce many QSOs. I missed many multipliers. It got so bad that late Sunday afternoon I didn't even have zone 3 (west coast North America). Calling CQ fixed that problem within a minute. However it was too late to correct my strategic error.

During the SSB weekend I picked up many South American stations on 10. I hoped to do the same on CW, but it was not to be. The level of CW activity down south is quite a bit lower than on SSB. But I did work several nearby US stations on 10 due to an apparent sporadic-E opening; we have entered the winter Es season.

Lesson learned about 10 meters. I won't make this mistake again.

40 meters

The pair of inverted vees delivered the results I wanted. In fact I spent 90% of the time on the new north-south vee since it worked better to Europe, southeast US and Caribbean. Its broadside lobes are actually about 30° clockwise from the north-south axis which is why it worked so well. The east-west vee worked best for Africa, west coast North America and the Pacific.

I heard far more DX than I could work with QRP. There were many Japan, Siberia and even long-path VK/Pacific stations heard. I tried but got nowhere. It doesn't hurt to call since sometimes a miracle happens. I worked 3B9HA that way.

The new inverted vee worked very well on 15 meters to pick up QSOs and multipliers to the south while the yagi pointed northeast to Europe. Much of the time this sufficed, negating the loss of time devoted to turning the yagi.

80 meters

Despite the inability to do an A-B comparison with my former antenna I am now ready to declare success with my new 80 meter vertical. There is an ability to hear and be heard that, over time, comes clearly through. QRP on 80 is always a struggle, and it was no different this past weekend. Yet again and again I did succeed. The improvement may only be several decibels, yet that is enough to improve results.

Look at those numbers above. That's 35 countries (33 DXCC & 2 WAE) with 5 watts CW this weekend. From the 3830 submissions I compared very well to other QRPers in the contest. I worked stations from Russia in the east through to Hawaii in the west and South America to the south. I heard but could not work several stations in Asia.

One mistake I made was to send CW too slowly. I tend to automatically do that with QRP on 80 since I assume that I'm always going to heard weakly by others. After the contest I scanned my reports on RBN and saw that my SNR (signal to noise) was excellent throughout the northeast and even out to the western US and Caribbean. I could have gotten away with a speed closer to 30 wpm.

Another curious point with the vertical is the changing impedance in the rain and when the ground is wet or frozen. The change is not large and sometimes it is beneficial. It will interesting to monitor this when snow covers the ground. That is not far off now that the average high temperature in Ottawa is below 0° C.

The vertical's SWR on 160 meters is a little over 3. At 5 watts the KX3 handles it well without a tuner. I used it to pick up a few easy multipliers (VE, K, zones 3, 4 and 5). After the contest I tried it with the FT-1000 MP and 100 watts. The mismatch was managable with the rig's internal tuner, though likely with substantial loss. I worked a couple of Caribbean stations without difficulty. It seems I have a chance to do a little DXing on 160 this winter.

Friday, Saturday, Runday

Tactics must change throughout the weekend as contesters fill their logs. What each does depends on their location, station capability, propagation and operator interest. I will talk to this from the QRP perspective.

Friday evening (local time, after contest start at 0000Z) is the "feeding frenzy". With everyone's logs empty every heard signal is a potential QSO. Big guns work big guns and run rates are high. All you can do with QRP is S & P the big guns and hope to pick off others if they can be heard through the QRM. Calling CQ is almost always pointless since QRP will not be heard well.

Saturday morning the frenzy repeats on the high bands. I find that calling CQ on Saturday is usually pointless, and in any case high rates can be achieved S & P. This is also an opportunity to find the rare multipliers hiding among the big gun signals. It takes some patience, but they are there. Their CQs are not as readily answered since they are not well heard, other than the few that are also big guns. For the QRP operator this is an opportunity.

Saturday evening is the time to bulk up on low bands QSOs and multipliers. QRP CQs are often answered, though not so much by DX stations. It's a way to work American stations. The points are fewer, but points are points. They, too, are eager to work any Canadian stations they run across.

When dawn arrives on Sunday I change tactics. Every chance I get I will CQ in an attempt to run. For me this means Europe on 20 through 10, depending on propagation and QRM. When 10 isn't open the QRM on 20 may be too much to handle until late morning. But these are the money bands for QRP on Sunday. This is why I like to call it Runday rather than Sunday.

And run I did. Nothing on 10 this year, just a few multipliers to work in Europe and elsewhere. I was regularly able to achieve decent runs on both 15 and 20. After 15 meters closed to Europe I surprised myself with my best run of the weekend on 20 meters, which is unusual for QRP. I ended the contest with brief runs on 40 and 80.

I did many band changes throughout the weekend, playing the fact that other single-op participants are doing the same. This is a good strategy for both S & P and running.

The QSO faerie

In the short time since I returned to contesting in 2013 there has been a noticable improvement in technology. One of those is the CW skimmer. Although it is difficult to measure I get a strong sense that more of it is being used all the time by contesters.

Even on a crowded band my CQ's had an interesting effect. At first, nothing. Then after a minute or two a steady stream of well known contest calls start responding. It's welcome even if a little odd. Of course many multi-op stations in the latter part of the contest are hunting for anyone they have yet to work, including weak VE3 stations. But what I'm hearing seems like something else is going on.

A day after the contest I searched the historical data of DX spots and RBN (reverse beacon network). All weekend there were only two spots for me. Obviously that didn't drive many my way. However RBN had a continuous stream of reports for me every time I called CQ. I then tried to correlate the stations reporting me to RBN with the call signs in my log. The correlation was very poor.

My inference is that one or both of the following is going on:
  • Assisted operators getting a live RBN feed see the automated spots for me on their band maps, click on my call and try to work me. Although many of the stations reporting to RBN are calls known to be in the contest it isn't them that are calling me.
  • Assisted stations have one or more dedicated SDR receivers connected skimmers that send spots to the operating positions that are not running, and those operators call me when they are able. These are local skimmers only, not shared via RBN.
Several times I was called by stations who obviously did not hear me or heard me very weakly. I use QSK on the KX3 so I can hear them calling while I'm transmitting a CQ or the contest exchange with someone else. It's unlikely that they stumbled across me while tuning their VFO!

Another sign is that after several minutes the calls would quickly taper off to almost nothing. Presumably everyone eager to call me after seeing the skimmer spot has worked me and  I am left to attract callers in the usual manner: S & P operators hearing me while tuning the band.

Think of it as the QSO faerie. Instead of putting a tooth under your pillow at night you launch a weak CQ into the aether and you are sent callers by these technological marvels. It's a gift, and it's rude to refuse a gift offered in good faith. QRP operators may have the QSO faerie to thank for filling their logs.

Advance planning, or lack thereof

Serious contesters do a lot of preparation before major contests in which they intend to be competitive. I don't mean antenna work and the like that I do, but the operating position and training. They practice with tools like MorseRunner, tune their logging software to make best use of their abilities and station equipment, and experiment with placement of monitors, keyboards, rigs, paddles and rotator controllers, run propagation predictions, develop precise operating schedules and so on.

I am not like that. Back when I used to primarily join multi-ops it was almost always someone else who did this, if it was done at all. I just showed up and operated. I willingly took direction from others as to when and where to operate. Certainly I would speak when I disagreed, but when all was said I simply went to work. For me the fun aspect of contests is more important than winning. Too much planning tends to make it less fun. At least that's how it is for me. Others thrive on the planning, both before and during the contest. It does help to have someone like that on the team.

So when I contest on my own things go awry. It's not that I can't plan, only that I dislike it and find ways to avoid it. This is odd since in my professional life I am regarded as exceptionally organized and for years I managed teams of people to successful completion of important projects. But amateur radio isn't work, and my personal life is far less structured. I make no excuses. That's how I like it.

So what went wrong in my planning:
  • N1MM Logger: I used ESM (enter send message) during the contest, but without sufficient practice. My attempts to edit calls and exchanges and properly sync those with the playing of CW scripts went terribly wrong. What confusion I caused. Only after the contest did I read up on all the things I should have known.
  • WinKeyer: Since purchasing the WinKeyer I have been using it with the FT-1000MP. I made a mental note to buy or build the interconnect cable for the KX3, and totally forgot about it until Friday afternoon. This prompted an emergency shopping trip to find and buy a suitable cable. I was all out of male 3.5 mm stereo plugs so I could not build one.
  • Propagation: I have a general understanding of which bands are open where and at which times. Usually that's good enough. As noted above this went especially wrong with 10 meters. I also missed openings on other bands to multiplier-rich distant locales since I was too focussed on bulking up on QSOs. In that pursuit it seems I forgot all I knew about those openings. I had nothing written down to jog my memory.
  • Operating schedule: Due to a planned medical procedure I was not 100% for this contest. Lengthy sessions in front of the radio were impossible. The discomfort was a constant distraction and required frequent breaks. I'm sure I could have done better if not for this. I expect my error rate to be worse than usual due to my poor concentration. At least this trouble is temporary and I'll soon be better than ever.
Overall the contest went well despite all these mistakes. I could resolve to address these for future contests but, realistically, that isn't likely. Fun and planning don't mesh well in my mind, and I prefer fun most of all.


  1. Ron, thanks for this detailed debrief of your CQWW experience. It's very helpful for the little guys, novice contesters like me. I have no aspirations to be one of the whiz kid cw contesters, but...I'd like to improve my rate and score each year (in the limited # of hours I give to contests, roughly 6-8 hours per weekend). Several of your suggestions are do-able for me, both for antennas and for scheduling. I haven't yet stepped out into the deep water to "run," but your example of running on "Runday" is what I should try. Tnx.

  2. Thanks, Don. Glad you enjoyed it. You should give Morse Runner a shot. It's a painless way to practice a bit of running. You get to set the speed. If you have TCA check the article in the current issue.

    Ron VE3VN


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