Rob Suggs KB5EZ 2 August 2015
Our NN4SA Yahoogroup frequently sees announcements of upcoming contests and encouragement to get out to the club station and give them a try. Many of you have home stations but may not have tried contesting yet. My purpose here is to give you a general idea of what to expect so that you can wade in and begin enjoying contesting. Contests are a great way to collect contacts for Worked All States and DXCC. I have around 135 confirmed countries and I think all but about 10 were collected during contests. When you first tune across the bands you may be a bit intimidated, but don’t despair, you can dip your toe in, make a few contacts, and before you know it you’ll be working them all.
There are a number of contests and different rules and scoring. You can get a full schedule of contests and links to their rules at http://www.hornucopia.com/contestcal/ . Although ARRL Field Day is not technically a contest, it is certainly similar and many of you have worked it so you have a general idea of the flow. In most contests you can get multipliers for states, sections, countries, and/or continents. This past weekend was the North American QSO Party (NAQP) CW. Two weeks ago was the RTTY version of NAQP and 2 weeks from now is the SSB event. I really like these NAQP events because they are only 12 hours long (as opposed to some which are 48 hours), have a reasonable contest exchange composed of name and state (or country) like “Rob AL”, and have no high power category so us 100 watt guys are not competing with the legal limit guys. The NAQPs occur a couple of times a year: Jan/Feb and Jul/Aug. All contests have an exchange of some sort. Most are “signal report, state” or “signal report, serial number”. Of course the signal report is ALWAYS 59 or 599 which makes it a totally useless waste of bandwidth and RF energy. But, those are the rules. So I like the NAQP exchange because you at least get to know the other operator’s name and location; or at least his “nom de clef”.
There are 2 types of station operations during a contest: “running” and “search and pounce”. The “running” stations are sitting on one frequency calling CQ, sometimes for the entire event. The “search and pounce” stations, like me, tune the band answering the CQs. Without both nobody would be making any contacts (except for the Sprint-type contests where you call CQ, make a contact, then leave the frequency to the station that just contacted you). The “running” guys’ QSO rates are very high so they will likely win the contests but I have a few First Place certificates on my wall for Alabama section, low power (100w), single operator from doing nothing but search and pounce. Probably because the “running” stations are running high power and there is less competition in the 100w category. Another nice feature of “search and pounce” is that you can listen to the “running” station make a couple of contacts and get the exchange typed in your log before you call.
I like to start at the bottom edge of the band (mind your license privileges) and tune up, working each CQ as I go. For phone, the loud guy wins so you may have to be patient if you are working without an amplifier. For CW if there is a small pileup you might try a tiny split. Turn on your TX Clarifier or Transmit Incremental Tuning and add or subtract 10 or 20 Hz. This is still in the guy’s filter passband but might separate you from the pile. Turn it off before you tune for the next contact because simplex (no split) is the primary mode for contests and being a little off frequency may make the other station less likely to notice you. Although split is used for RTTY DXing I’ve never seen it used in a contest so stay in simplex for that mode. I’ve never run across split during a phone contest. Considering doing that would occupy 5 to 6 kHz of bandwidth it would be rude at best.
There is great software available for logging, calculating your score, and alerting you if you’ve already worked a station on a particular band and mode. We use N3FJP’s software at the club station. There is a separate program for each contest and it understands all the rules for multipliers and duplicates. It can also generate an ADIF formatted file for ingestion into your station logging program and a Cabrillo file which is what all the contests expect for your contest entry – usually by e-mail or cut and paste to a website form. There are many other logging programs available but N3FJP has a shallow learning curve. If you don’t plan to submit a contest entry (which is perfectly fine) just use your standard logging software or pen and paper.
Even if you have marginal Morse Code skills you might try a CW contest. The NAQP is a good one because most operators are running between 20 and 30 wpm. Other contests tend to be faster. I don’t feel guilty using the computer to send my call and exchange because I know it is clean code and the other operator will appreciate NOT listening to my feeble fist. I do keep the paddle handy for the occasional “R R” (roger) or “TU” (thank you) or “dit dit” (see ya) although you can program those as macros as well and simply click on them when needed. I use DM780 with my Winkeyer as the CW interface to the rig and we have both of those at the club station. The N3FJP software can also interface to the Winkeyer and has definable macros which can include the serial number which it increments with each contact. It is also nice to have DM780 decoding the CW (via the soundcard interface) to help you with the calls and contest exchanges. I do advise that you be able to copy your call by ear at least at 30 wpm because the software will occasionally give bad decodes and only your ears/brain can confirm that the other station got it right. If you aren’t totally comfortable with CW by ear stick to the strong stations using clean CW (probably computer generated) that the software is decoding successfully. I’ve found that my code speed has improved as I’ve worked the CW contests with the software as a safety net.
For RTTY I like to use MMTTY but DM780 works great too. We have both of those programs on the club station PC. We also have FLDIGI but I haven’t tried that one for contesting. They all use the club’s SignaLink box to encode/decode the tones. Unfortunately, the N3FJP logging programs don’t have a built-in interface to these programs although I understand someone has developed one. That means you may have to type the call and exchange into the logging program but you have plenty of time to do that when doing “search and pounce”. It would be tough to do that if you were “running” and calling CQ when you need the speed of point and click to do the log entries. Of course, you need to program a couple of macros so all you have to do is click to send your call and then click to send your exchange. You may want macros that send your name and your state twice in case you get a request from the station you just called. MMTTY has contest modes with macros that can generate and send a serial number if needed.
Phone (SSB) Operating
Phone contests are the easiest to manage but I find my QSO rate is best with CW and RTTY, likely because I am not the strongest guy calling in a busy contest and loud wins the pileup with SSB. You will make a lot of contacts on phone in any contest so give them a try. Gary WA2JQZ and I have worked a couple of the NAQP phone contests portable from Monte Sano overlook. We worked just about everybody we heard using 100 w and end-fed or hamstick antennas.
BTW, for the recent RTTY and CW NAQPs I managed a total of 3 hours operating each and got just over 100 contacts in each. If only I could spend a little more BIC (butt in chair) time I would be more competitive. But my purpose is to have some fun and improve my QSO rates – both of which I accomplished.
A couple of other points. In “search and pounce” you don’t generally need to send the “running” station’s callsign. When he/she sends CQ, just send your callsign once. You may get a “?” or “AGN” so send it again, maybe twice. He will send your call and his exchange. Then you send your exchange. He will then send a “TU” or “thanks” and call CQ, QRZ, or simply “his call, NA” for NAQP, for instance. Then you can tune on to the next one. Easy as that. Just be absolutely sure he got your call right. If not send it again. Don’t send the exchange until he has your call correct and don’t send your call if you are sure he has it. Otherwise you may be entered into his log incorrectly. So here is what a CW QSO might look like. NN4SA is the “running” station with Don at the helm and I am the “search and pounce” for the NAQP.
him CQ NN4SA NN4SA NA
him KB5EZ Don AL
me Rob AL
him TU NN4SA NA
This would be for CW or RTTY but the phone contact looks the same except you might hear “QSO Party” or “thanks” rather than the abbreviations. After my call he might send KB5? so I would send my call again. If he still doesn’t get it I’ll send it twice. For contests which require that aforementioned useless signal report you would use 59 for phone, 599 on RTTY, and typically 5NN on CW, because it is shorter. Some contests use ITU zones, CQ zones, and sometimes transmitter power levels in the exchange. For the power level you will usually hear KW for legal limit and 100 (1TT on CW) for low power. It took me a while to figure that 1TT thing out first time I heard it. Just think about the dits and dahs. I have heard 89 for power. That is probably cutting it a little fine.
For a little extra challenge you might try QRP. Turn the rig output down to 5 w and give it a try. I was shocked how easy QRP RTTY was during Field Day one year. QRP phone is a little more challenging but worth the effort. Almost all contests have the QRP category and it feels great to make those contacts using such low power.
As in all things with amateur radio, the first order of business is to listen. By tuning around you’ll get the cadence of the operators and get a feel for the exchange and other QSO content. Some are a little more verbose with 73 and “good luck”. The details for each contest are listed on that WA7BNM site. We’ll keep reminding you of upcoming contests. If you don’t have a good station at home plan to drop by the club station and at least listen. When you get the feel of the contest dive in and make a few contacts. You don’t have to submit a contest entry to make some contacts but do try to generate the appropriate exchange. You can even make the contacts with your home call and start collecting for the various awards. I used to be afraid to participate in contests in fear that I would “mess up”. They are pretty easy once you get the pattern and most of the operators will help you along. I still goof occasionally but that is OK. By doing “search and pounce” you can wade in and pretty soon you’ll find yourself comfortable swimming in the deep end and working everyone you can hear. You may even want to jump off the high platform and be a “running” station. Whatever you choose to do you’ll hone your operating skills and have some fun at the same time.