2017 PODXS 31 Flavors Contest

The psk31 amateur radio contestFor a change, I have stayed put in Madagascar for a few weeks in a row, and on the weekends, I have taken part in a few contests: the PODXS 070 Club’s 31 Flavors digital contest, and two CW contests: JIDX and CQMM. In this post, I rant on about what it is like to work psk31 from Madagascar and then review my experience in this year’s 31 flavors amateur radio contest.

Thoughts on PSK vs RTTY

Over 95% of my contacts are CW, and in my remaining time in Madagascar (probably a year), I would like to diversify a little. Voice will always be challenging because of distance, propagation, and what I can manage in terms of radiated power on each band. Taking the set up that I have for sending email over radio, on evenings with reasonable propagation conditions, I have run either PSK or RTTY.

Working split

Of those two modes, from this experience, I prefer RTTY, despite the greater bandwidth efficiency and error-correction of psk31. My perception is that the folks on the other end of RTTY are generally more experienced than those running PSK modes. My guess is that this is because RTTY is an older mode and more associated with DX work. When calling CQ on PSK, the first couple contacts tend to go okay, but as soon as I am spotted or start showing up on PSKreporter or in people’s superBroswers, multiple stations overlap on my calling frequency, and I get gibberish.

My typical response is to start calling “up”, hoping that responders will shift their transmit frequency up a bit so they don’t interfere with each other or me. However, very few stations follow this advice. I’m not sure if it is a matter of not noticing the instruction, or ignoring it either intentionally or for lack of technical ability to split their receive/transmit frequencies. Whatever the reason, when I start calling “up”, I ignore stations responding on my calling frequency. However, some stations do not get the hint, and will continue hammering away at the calling frequency for as long as I remain on the air. On some occasions, I have shifted to a new frequency, but on others I have taken a break or quit for the evening in response. On RTTY, operating split seems second nature to most, and I can work stations efficiently because they will spread out in the kilohertz or so above me. There are still a few stations that will reply on my calling frequency, but after going unanswered for a bit, most catch on and shift their transmit upwards.

PSK ops disproportionately favor 20m

It may be a matter of propagation, but I also have the sense that PSK is heavily biased towards 20 meters. When working RTTY, it is not unusual for me to be spotted quickly on any band, but I can work many stations on PSK without ever being spotted on the cluster network. This makes calling CQ on 20m in PSK difficult for a station like me, which will have a weak signal relative to more local stations in areas with a high density of ham operators. PSK also seems more US/EU-centric than RTTY. I have been surprised not to have more PSK contacts when I point the hexbeam, for example, at Japan. On the other hand, I am always pleasantly surprised by the variety of stations that reply to calls on RTTY.

Please — don’t hit the macro button

Finally, I find that PSK operators are a bit too wedded to canned exchanges. I have nothing against contacts that of a more ragchew nature, and when in the US and EU, I’ve had plenty of good conversations on keyboard-to-keyboard modes. However, as a courtesy to other operators who want to work a remote station, I would suggest keeping exchanges short unless the remote station is chatty.

To give people the best chance of getting a Madagascar contact in their log, my exchanges resemble “XX1XX XX1XX 599 599 de 5r8sv 5r8sv”. The redundancy to assure that both callsigns show up right in the log, with the hope that I can avoid the transactional overhead of someone asking for a repeat to be sure of either callsign. On CW, I make a point of giving a real signal report, on PSK, I don’t see the point — it’s digital, either it works or it doesn’t.

When I fire off one of these short exchanges, though, not infrequently the reply comes in the form of a novella: a signal report followed by details of station set up, antennas, previous medical history, the local weather forecast, and a list of dogs and cats in and near the station. I am always happy to hear the other operators name and I put that in my log, but the rest of the information is really not desired (well, maybe the operator’s dog’s name). Again, I find that RTTY operators are much more likely to default to short-form exchanges for DX stations.

Given this experience, I thought the best way to get a lot of PSK contacts in the log while avoiding death-by-macro would be to take part in a contest where the exchanges are by definition short.

This year’s 31 Flavors Contest

Strategy

In planning my operator for the 31 Flavors amateur radio contest, I had to pick a six hour operating window. Based on propagation patterns in the previous week, I picked a start time that should have given me good access to European stations for the first few hours and then gradual transition to East Coast and then midwest stations in the US and Canada. With regard to my hexbeam’s directivity, the US and EU are on roughly the same heading, so I figured I would point the antenna at around 320 degrees and work stations as they came in.

European contacts predominated

The plan sort of worked — I did have a nice smattering of stations from Europe and the Middle East: Czech Republic, European Russia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, UK, and the Ukraine. However, propagation took an unexpectedly long time to work its way across the Atlantic. After a strong opening, contact strength to Europe died down for a couple hours and only perked up again with contact to North America at the very end of the contest window. NA contacts were just picking up when I had to stop. It was tempting to keep going on and to shift my reporting times for the contest, but I didn’t want to stiff the EU stations that had provided early contacts. Also, for me, it was around 1 am, and after six hours behind a glowing screen, I’d had enough.

In the end, according to the log, I had 48 contacts, 46 of which counted (I hadn’t realized the six hour window had to align with the start of clock hours, so the first two were rejected by the logging robot). I had spent some time on psk earlier in the week and had worked hundreds of EU stations, so I had expected a higher rate during the contest, but propagation did not cooperate.

Lessons learned

One important thing I learned about this contest is that most of the people that I worked had no clue about the contest itself. The club that runs the contest is based in the US and most of my contacts were in the EU, so this is not too surprising. I think that in general contests involving PSK are not all that common and that most people plying the bands are there for routine contacts rather than contesting. Usually, my CQ for a contest is nothing more than “cq cq de 5r8sv 5r8sv test” or more concisely, “5r8sv test”, especially when it is clear what contest I have in mind. However, in the hope that people would take a moment to look up the contest exchange, I edited the cq to “cq 31 flavors contest de 5r8sv”. A few stations seemed to understand what was going on; for others, I did my best to explain.

The last time I had participated in this contest (2012), I was based in the US. With better signal strength and a common language, I found that most stations were willing to follow me through mode changes, and that for most contacts, I was able to log six qsos on the single band. This time around, I did find some stations that were willing to play along with the mode changes, but most just replied in the initial mode. When conditions were good, I pushed the bandwidth/speed higher in psk mode, but as Europe faded, I stuck to the workhorse psk31 mode.

Plans for next year

Hopefully, I will have a chance to work this contest again next year from this location. If so, I would modify my plan in a few ways. First, I would start at minute zero of a new hour. I would also weight the operating time towards contacts with the US. According to the contest’s summary statistics, very few of the EU stations submitted a log to the contest, and as a consequence I had a very low rate of matching against submitted logs.

Despite that, I think it is desirable to spend some time on Europe, firstly in the hope that over time the contest will expand to include more participants outside North America; and secondly, because stations in Europe are closer and contact is usually more reliable. I may not be able to work as many modes, but when conditions are good, I can work a high rate and pile up DXCC entities, which are also multipliers.

Although I did not work anywhere the rate that I had hoped, I ended up ranking around sixth in the contest, which I feel is not too bad for someone who really isn’t all that experienced in contesting on this mode.

Software

Speaking of contesting, this time around I used N1MM+ with fldigi as the digital interface. This system worked reasonably well, but crashed a few times for unknown reasons. Previously, I had used MMVARI for PSK contesting, and that worked more smoothly, although it is not as polished looking and does not have all of fldigi’s capabilities. Next time, I think the easiest thing to do would be to just use fldigi. The contest exchange does not vary on sending, and all I need to do is to record either a club number or state/province for stations that have one. This should only require a few moments to set up as macros in fldigi.

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