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3830 Report

Propagation roller-coaster. That’s what the weekend felt like in Aruba. The sun asserted its influence quite differently here than what I’m reading in other 3830 reports around the world.

I arrived on Tuesday, expecting marginal conditions and wondering if 10 meters would even play a role in the contest. The solar forecast was not encouraging. Wednesday, when I first got on the air, my interest was piqued when there had solid propagation into Europe on 10 meters. Moreover, Europe was still coming in solid well after their sunset. At nearly the same time, JAs were rolling in as well as other Asia and Oceania. Hmmmm, I wondered, maybe it would be an exciting weekend despite the forecast.

Tuning around shortly before 0000z Saturday and deciding what two bands to start on, there was no activity on 10 or 15. Even the lackluster forecast showed both bands open. What was going on? I was about to start on 20 and 40 and at the last minute took a flyer and started on 15 and 20. I figured I could always move to 40 quickly and Europe would be occupied working each other at the start anyway, not beaming down my way. Surprise! In the last 30 seconds before the start, signals started appearing on the bandscope. Launching my first CQ on 15 and 20 resulted in instant pile-ups on both bands. The first four hours were the best P49X has ever experienced in this contest, either as SOAB or M2. There was a 229 hour and several 7-QSO minutes.

As usual, I had detailed statistics from prior years posted in front of me. I had a table of hourly data (Qs, points, mults and score) from the four best earlier events, one SO and three M2. I watched in amazement as the real-time data was pulling more and more ahead of the best score ever posted before, our 2011 4-person M2. Of course, there were 44 more hours to get through, but the prospects sure looked good.

15 meters didn’t start tapering off until the third hour. Normally, I’d expect that in the first hour. Moving to 40, rate was OK, but the overall score differential began to slow down. I fought hard to at least maintain the margin achieved in the first 4 hours. 20 dropped out in the fifth hour and the resultant rates on 40 and 80 were dismal. Well, that made sense if the high bands were so good. Disappointed, I still held hope for high rate the next morning on 20/15/10. Meanwhile, slogging through the night on 80/40/20 took its toll on my stamina. In parallel, the current data fell discouragingly behind our 2011 effort. The initial euphoria was sacked.

Mercifully, daylight came and I began to feel a bit better with some rate on the high bands. Loads of fun to run Europe and North America with occasional sizzle from other parts of the world. The thought always enters my mind: “Where do all these RTTY contest participants come from?” Many of them weren’t in Super Check Partial and then there were those transmitting FSK from their K3 by sending CW to the radio. However, now the current data showed lower rates than some of our prior Saturday daytimes. Discouragement increased as the Qs and score fell further and further back. 10 and 15 closed down earlier than normal and I was on 40/20 way too soon for the long night ahead.

Integrating 80 into the mix lowered the rate further. I was physically and mentally spent. The early signs of sleep deprivation became apparent early in the evening. I took a 5-minute bio break and was determined to power through to around 0800 (4am local) when I’d treat myself to 2-3 hour nap. Couldn’t last that long. Low-level hallucination set in. My exhausted brain created a wholly different “story” for what I was doing. I knew the story wasn’t right, but I could not figure out what I was really supposed to be doing. That’s scary, but the repetitive motions of contesting are so ingrained that I was actually working and logging correctly, even if for the wrong reason. Then, I started nodding off, falling asleep in the chair. It became clear, even in my foggy state, that getting more than 2-3 hours sleep was a better trade-off than painfully logging 30-40 QSOs per hour. Worse, I’d not be in any shape to handle the high bands on Sunday … assuming there would be much high band action.

I crashed at 0400 and set the alarm for six hours later. (I discovered on Monday that this was an excellent decision due to the solar event during that time and virtually nothing happening on the low bands.) Less than fully refreshed early Sunday morning, I fixed a quick breakfast to eat while getting started on 20 and 15 meters. At least the hallucination was gone and I fully understood what I was doing at the radios and computers. 20 didn’t last long before 10 overtook it and I switched bands on that radio. This happened faster than usual because 20 was rapidly blacking out and by 1400 there were zero signals to be seen or heard on 20 meters. Checking 20 frequently all day showed it continued to be totally blacked out. (Truly … zero signals!) On Monday, I read reports that 20 was playing well elsewhere in the world, though 10 and 15 were generally better by comparison.

Fortunately 10 and 15 played well all day Sunday, though 15 was staggering with signals fading in and out. Ten meters was clearly the better, in fact, nearly the ONLY, band that was working well. Europe stayed in late and Asia/Oceania came in well. As the evening approached, 15 was all but gone and 20 was still AWOL, so what do I use for my second band? I’d been also checking 40 and at least there were RTTY signals there. The bigger European stations were weak but copiable. For the last 1.5 hours of the contest, I was running on 10 and 40, the “best” bands from Aruba. How weird is that? On Monday I found out from the P40HF guys that 20 did open a bit during this time. But I had quit checking it after it had betrayed me all day long. I suspect it wasn’t much better than 40.

At least there was a steady stream of callers on 40, but it was like working 10 or 6 meters when signals are right at the noise level, workable but as weak as they could possibly be. It was really fun running 10 and 40 simultaneously. It was also thrilling when new mults come in near the end of the contest. Like double mult 3V8BCC calling in on 40 at 2326 and final mult CR3L getting in the log at 2355. The Germans supplied the mult that exactly equaled my 2010 SOAB HP mult total, though with a slighter higher Q count and score.

With 3-4 hours to go at the end, it was certain that the score would end up in 5th place of all the P49X efforts, 126 Qs lower than 2010. Sure, I was disappointed, but only because Friday night temporality raised the prospects for blockbuster conditions. But this didn’t detract one bit from the exhilaration of CQ WW and working so many familiar and completely new stations around the world. It seemed like the entire German and Italian populations were participating.

CQ WW is a grueling contest in several regards, especially for the SOAB entrant. This weekend confirmed even stronger the value of multiple decoders. Just like the saying, “You can never have too many antennas”, the same can be said for decoders. I smile when reading reflector threads about which particular decoder is “best”. In my experience, all the ones I use are best at one time or another. And, each is best often enough that it appreciably saves time asking for repeats. The Hal DXP38 saved the day on numerous occasions when neither MMTTY nor 2-3 instances of 2Tone got any part of the call or exchange. The same can be said of the other two. And, 2Tone has the unique property of perfectly decoding inaudible signals. That sounds like an impossibility, but I sometimes get perfect copy when I hear no trace of a signal in the headphones. Numerous times I’d glance at the 2Tone windows and see a new mults, or station, that was not in the headphone audio. Other times, MMTTY or the DXP38 will copy perfect and 2Tone gets nothing. I typically run two instances of 2Tone for Flutter and Selective. Those, along with the standard MMTTY and DXP38 decoders, have been doing a stellar job in recent contests.

I love the multiple aspects of radio sport: antennas, station design, hardware and software, operating strategy and tactic and, of course, the uncertain vagaries of propagation. The successful contester has to balance all these disciplines to prevail. For example, when I awoke Sunday morning the 91B amplifier was powered off. I quickly swapped in an 86 and later determined that one of the start-stop fuses was blown. It appears to be a power supply problem, but I haven’t had time to fully troubleshoot it.

And then, at 2200z Sunday, a few keys on the left keyboard stopped working reliably, most notably the Enter key which I use for CQing and QSLing. Even the trackball stopped working so the cursor couldn’t be moved. I left a number of stations hanging in mid air. Before I could get the keyboard and trackball swapped out, while still running on the other radio, it started working again. In retrospect, I don’t think it was hardware, but a USB problem, perhaps RFI, don’t know. For me, this all just illustrates the richness of our hobby with its multi-faceted aspects we need to conquer.

In terms of operating, there were an abnormally high number of dupes. I hope I wasn’t working someone else’s pile-up. I don’t think so because almost everyone sends my call sign with their exchange. The other thing that struck me was the abnormally high number of call signs that are not in SCP. That is surely a great sign for RTTY and contesting in general. More of my mult moves were successful and I really appreciate everyone who tried. Some of you moved so fast to my other radio, it felt like you were already there with a second radio of your own.

As I’ve noted before, RTTY transmit bandwidth, aka “key clicks”, is still a huge issue. Unfortunately, those who narrow their own transmit bandwidth are penalized with greatly increased QRM from others with signals who can move in closer to the narrower signals. I fear that this is going to take a long time to fix. FSK users can’t do much without switching to a radio that has this problem fixed. Unhappily, today very few radios have narrow FSK bandwidth. AFSK users have more individual flexibility to keep their signal sufficiently narrow.

I like to compare my multiplier numbers to assisted Single-Ops and Multi-Ops as the target to shoot for. I have a long way to go and that challenge is motivating. I do work the second receiver in each radio while running on the main receiver, but the intensity needs to be continually increased. This is a good example of a tough skill development that is easier to learn in the RTTY mode and then carried over to CW and SSB. I’m really pleased with how well WriteLog and the K3 work together on very efficient and effective SO2V.

If this diatribe isn’t long enough, the statistics below can be perused. Thanks to Andy P49Y/AE6Y and John P40L/W6LD for sharing their cottage station with me. And, thanks to all the participants who were key to my having a fantastic weekend on the radio. I hope they all had as much fun as I did.


Ed, P49X (W0YK)