The other side of the wall

Space_Shuttle_Columbia_launching

I got back from a trip on Friday, woke up at a reasonably leisurely hour on Saturday and thought it would be fun to test the waters of the big CW contest going on. Almost immediately, I was drawn in and didn’t leave the chair for another seven hours. Since the CQ WW DX contest is based on zones and there just aren’t many contesters in my zone (39), it was very flattering to be the object of desire for the rest of the world, but being on this side of the DX wall is quite different from what I’m used to.

At the best of times, I was working three calls a minute in a jedi mind-trance, but that of course was not typical. There were plenty of times where I was dialing around, trying to get noticed with my 100W and two-element antenna. However, the converse was also a challenge – sometimes I would be plugging away at a good rate and then all hell would break loose. Somewhere, someone had spotted me and suddenly I would find myself lying on the space shuttle launch pad, looking up at the main engines sparking to life, while trying to hear a song playing on someone’s ipod on the flight deck. The experience of operating into a solid wall of callers added some new perspectives…

  1. Spreading. I did what I could to isolate signals in a pile up, but for me, Europe and North America are on the same beam heading. That’s usually a plus, but with dense incoming signals, it only compounds the problem. I thought about going to split operation, but I’m not sure how that’s viewed in a contest where spectrum is particularly limited, so I stayed simplex. Whenever possible, I favored callers to each side of my frequency, mostly so I could hear them, but also to encourage some space in the middle so others could hear my signal (although I realize that the pile up was likely louder on my end). With the RF gain dialed down and playing with tight band pass, I could generally pull out a signal or at least part of one.
  2. Prefix > Suffix.  For the DX station that can only hear bits and pieces of signals, sending a bit of the prefix works if the pile up is cooperative and the prefix is relatively unique. Calling “7Z1?” is a lot more likely to succeed than “DL1?” because there could well be five “DL1” who quite reasonably think you are talking to them. Sending the suffix only is like asking to be pommeled with a sock full of quarters. Some sequences jump out at me like “FF” and it’s tempting to send “FF?”, but that tends to confuse callers, so I avoid it.
  3. Near-misses. Whenever I can send the whole call I do, but sending almost the call can also succeed if the other operator can hear clearly and is experienced enough to correct an almost-right call. Sending the call minus the final letter will usually provoke a reply with a correction and in the best of cases includes a correction and an exchange, which lets me just send the corrected call and “TU”. Sending a slightly wrong call of the correct length can misfire though, particularly if the call is off by a dot, like an S/H  error. In that case, I’ll sometimes tag on a request to confirm, like “W5HHS? BK”, but sometimes the other station has already spun the knob or just isn’t expecting something like that outside the normal rhythm of the exchange.
  4. Redundancy. When conditions aren’t optimal some redundancy can help, such as when the other station would send its call sign before the exchange in a reply. Similarly, a positive assertion that I got the call right is helpful. “CFM” works, but an “R” would also serve and is more concise.
  5. Verbosity. In a contest like this with high throughput, excess baggage is annoying. I wouldn’t fault anyone for sending TU, 73, GL, etc., but more than that is not considerate.
  6. Speed – high. I’m puzzled by stations that reply to me at 40+ wpm. If they want to call at 40, that’s fine. Replying stations can listen as much as they need and then make their call. However, when I’m listening into a pileup, I’m much less likely to reply to a speed demon. Further, if I don’t get the call the first two times it is sent, it would make sense, particularly in times of efficiency, to slow it down.
  7. Speed – low. I’m happy to reply to callers that send more slowly. If I’m in search and pounce, I’ll send at their rate. If I’m calling, I will slow down if the exchange is complicated. In this particular contest, I sent “599 39” over and over, and for that matter, the exchange could be inferred from my call sign, so I did not slow down from my typical 28-30 wpm. With a serial number, however, I certainly would, because that can be more intimidating. I will say that I have difficulty replying to a very slow (relatively) call when I’m facing heavy traffic. First, because as a basic survival reflex I want to do whatever I can to swim back to the surface to where there is oxygen. Second, because in the time that it takes to send the slow call once, I may have copied several other calls and when in triage mode will almost always take the calls on a first-come basis. Also, the slower call is more likely to require repeats, which would not only slow down my rate, but take up the time of everyone else in the pile up who are hoping for their chance to log zone 39.
  8. In the weeds. Conditions were better on Saturday. On Sunday, I had a lot more noise; I think most of it was local. I found myself turning the antenna not for maximum gain towards population centers but to minimize the noise. I tended to work the loud stations mostly on the first day, which left weaker but more numerous stations for the second day. It also may be that some stations spent the latter part of the contest on “less sure” contacts with multipliers and that I was a weak signal to them as well. Whatever the cause, while calling CQ on the second day, I felt like I always had a subliminal rumbling of stations just at the ESP threshold. Having spent a lot of time with low power rigs and suboptimal antennas, my natural inclination is to perseverate, trying to resolve the weaker stations as they wax and wane with propagation. On the other hand, I’m aware that this is not a good contest strategy, as the opportunity cost is missing other contacts, which might be stronger and could be from some juicy multipliers. I think there’s some room for judgement here.
  9. Familiarity breeds contacts. Having participated in a bunch of contacts this year, some call signs are becoming familiar, and when I might otherwise be on the fence about decoding a call, it’s much more likely to be one that I’ve worked before from this location.
  10. CW rocks. My voice was raw and I was cranky after the SSB version of the contest, but I was wired and ready for more after 24 hours of CW (…although I did continue to hear CW from creaking pipes, refrigerator motors and birds well into the next day).

How did it go?

Pretty well, I’d say. Knowing that my low band antennas are not strong performers and that I got a late start, I went for the “classic” 24 hour version of the contest and operated at times favoring the upper bands.  Overall, I worked 1554 contacts (1534, without the dupes), so I had averaged a bit more than a contact per minute; not too bad considering that some search and pounce time was more about multipliers than rate.

My best DX included Senegal, Mariana Islands, and Guam, but there were also some less common stations “in the neighborhood” like the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Rodriguez Island.

Here’s the final breakdown:

40 meters: 3 contacts, 3 zones, 9 countries
20 meters: 133 contacts, 21 zones, 32 countries
15 meters: 750 contacts, 25 zones, 76 countries
10 meters: 648 contacts, 72 zones, 66 countries

Total (assuming I did the math right and all the contacts were recorded correctly on both ends): 1,132,452.

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