I’m not going to take any prizes in this year’s ARRL International DX Contest; I only had 32 QSO’s. However, it was a lot of fun, and well worth the time and effort I put into this very casual approach. Firstly, I’m no contest operator; my reliable CW copying speed is no faster than 15 wpm, my antenna is marginal at best (a 65-70 foot longwire strung out of the back of my first floor apartment to a nearby tree, and blocked to the east and north by tall trees and my apartment building), my signal is just 5 watts, and on top of that, I have almost no serious contest experience, and it shows!
The great thing for me about a big contest like this is that there are thousands of very experienced operators the world over all listening for my signal. Many of them have first rate receivers and excellent antenna setups in ideal locations, and they are all listening for me – much more intently than the average non-contest operator who is calling CQ and just looking for a casual QSO or a chat. What an ideal way to see where on the planet my little QRP signals are being heard.
In the first hour of the contest, my head turned to mush. The operating was frenetic, and much of the sending even faster than normal (beginnings and ends of contests are often like this). The cacaphony of signals on the bands had me wondering if I had really learnt morse code at all, or if that had all been a dream, because all I was hearing were impossibly fast dits and dahs that seemed to carry no intelligent information. It was all a bit dispiriting until I calmed down and started to get the hang of it.
I’ve heard people say that they’re afraid to try big CW contests because the operating speeds are too fast for them. Once you’ve sat and listened for a while though, you realize that most contest exchanges consist of just a few well used and oft repeated terms and phrases. On top of that, if you don’t get a station’s callsign properly, you can just sit on his frequency and keep listening as long as you want until you get it right. The poor chap who is calling doesn’t have that luxury; he has to copy your callsign correctly the first time you send it (or the second time if he asks for a repeat). For a start, you KNOW that the other guy is going to give you a 599 report ( I disagree with this practice and like the fact that smaller QRP contests such as the NAQCC Sprint urge participants to give accurate reports). You also often know what the other part of his report is going to be by listening to him QSO’ing with other stations. In the case of the ARRL International DX Contest, the second part of the exchange consists of the 2 letter abbreviation for the state for stations in the 48 contiguous states, and the power for all other stations; if you’re hearing a loud non-US station, chances are he’ll give you 599 KW, or simply 599 K indicating that he’s running somewhere around 1,000 watts, give or take.
So you’ve listened a bit, you’ve finally figured out the other chap’s callsign by listening him send it at 40wpm about a half dozen times (which is what I did much of the time), you also know he’s going to give you a report of 599 KW. All that’s left is to make sure you know how to send your callsign, and how to send 599 CA (or a different 2 letters, depending on where you live.)
Here’s a typical exchange in the ARRL International DX contest
(other guy) JA0JHA JA0JHA test
(other guy) AA7EE 599 KW
(you) 599 CA
(other guy) tu JA0JHA JA0JHA test
and there he’s off, about to work another station. If he doesn’t hear your callsign properly, he’ll send the few parts that he did hear, and then send ? like this:
which is your cue to send your callsign – perhaps this time to send it twice to help him copy it. That’s it – don’t send anything more – no extra phrases, like “QSL OM?” or similar. There’s no need for it. If he didn’t get your report, he’ll send the following:
This is your cue to send the second part of your report (twice in a row to make sure) – no need for you to send the signal report because he knows that you gave him a 599. I don’t like this but it’s the accepted custom, so I’m going to act like a sheep here because I want to get myself in his log.
That’s about it really. There are one or two other things, but you learn them as you go along.
Pretty easy isn’t it – and for that small amount of effort, you have at your disposal thousands of well-trained radio operators with first class setups in some of the world’s best radio locations all listening for your signal, and if not prepared to give you an accurate signal report, at least prepared to acknowledge that they heard you.
It’s brilliant – and that’s why I like contests. It was a bit depressing at first because I called a lot of people who didn’t respond, but I had to remind myself that if a guy was running full legal limit and was registering less than about S4 on my meter, he very possibly wasn’t going to hear my 5 watts at all. On top of that, in the first hour or two of a contest, everyone is going crazy trying to work each other, and the QRP station with a so-so antenna doesn’t even get a look-in. I noticed that an hour or two into the contest, everyone seemed to settle into a brisk yet more measured pace. That and the fact that I had started to get the hang of things meant that I managed to make a few QSO’s.
In all, I spent a few hours of the 2 days at the radio. I did a lot of listening, and a little bit of transmitting. I made 32 contacts of which the majority were with JA land, a few were with Stateside stations, one with Hawaii, one with Asiatic Russia and one (my favorite one) was with CR2X in the Azores Islands. I made the Azores Islands on 5 watts. Awesome!
The moment the contest ended the bands went back to being fairly silent. If you’re not seriously contesting, it’s worth stopping your operating a minute before it ends so you can be tuning around as the end time rolls around. Hearing bands go silent at the end of a major contest is a weird thing to experience. All those thousands of high powered transmitters the world over ceasing transmitting within a minute of each other. Bizarro……
QRP can be hard work, and with a compromise antenna, it is harder work still.
I think though that my antenna situation is about to improve dramatically. More about that in a future post. I don’t want to jinx things…….
How did you do in the contest?