P40L-P49Y Contest Summary Information

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Another fun RU is history, my 14th in a row from Aruba. Not much can detract from the enjoyment, except maybe a dismal Sunday. Saturday was pretty typical of recent years, but Sunday reminded me of Sweepstakes Sunday. In Aruba, though, this Sunday’s issue was propagation more than activity. There wasn’t enough off-time in the rules to cover the extended period Sunday morning before 15m opened up after 40m closed. Moreover, 40m was slow even before it closed and 20m was just marginally open. 10m never opened at all and had very high band noise, despite a short, modest opening each day the week before RU. A 33-QSO clock-hour Sunday morning from Aruba highlights a serious problem.

Still, there was plenty of excitement and great operating experience during the contest. In the first few hours Saturday I hit a new personal high 60-minute QSO rate of 242. That can only happen with excellent QSO partners and I heartedly thank them for an exhilarating run. Pre-dusk Sunday produced a short 20m JA opening that is typical in most of the RTTY contest weekends here. The biggest thrill was working JA1XS, my close friend in Yokohama who runs 100 watts to a Hustler mobile whip on the balcony of their high-rise apartment! Propagation can be amazing in both extremes.

Once 40m was totally gone Sunday morning, I had no choice but to CQ on the seemingly dead 15m band. Not a blip on the band scope across the entire band until about 15z. Eventually PZ5RA was the first to answer with a solid S9 and providing a new mult. Shortly thereafter, MI4I whispered through the noise floor for a second new mult. Then Glenn W0GJ also whispered in and I didn’t hear another NA station on 15m for 35 minutes when the east coast started dribbling in. In fact, only 4M1K was worked on 15m during that half-hour. By 18z, the 15m band was back to what I’ve come to expect but by then it was too late—valuable high-rate hours had been lost. Even at the solar minimum I’ve not often experienced these poor conditions. This reminds me of a similarly frustrating temporary “black hole” phenomenon in the 2008 CQ WPX CW contest where we could faintly hear other Caribbean stations rapidly running Europe while we heard nothing for several hours.

Only 6 Europeans were worked on 15m, drastically down from prior years. One ZL and two KH6s were all that came from Oceania on 15m and nothing from Asia or Africa. Accordingly, total mults were 10 less than the lowest out of the prior 13 years. I also missed ND and the same 5 Canadian mults that eluded everyone. This, coupled with 500 less QSOs than several of the recent years resulted in a score that is number 3 from the bottom of the 14 contests. Several years ago, I predicted that 4000 QSOs were possible in this contest. I still believe this when propagation and activity combine for the necessary conditions.

This bit of disappointment during the contest was almost outdone by problems encountered prior to the contest. Late Thursday night Windows 7 offered to do a routine security update which I accepted on the left-radio PC. When the computer tried to restart after the update, it came up in a recovery state from a fatal startup failure. I ultimately determined that the problem was only recoverable by restoring the factory drive image. Fortunately, one advantage of using identical, dedicated networked PCs for my SO2R setup provides a redundancy that aids in quickly rebuilding the software system in one of them. I actually use 3 identical PCs with one as a spare that can be instantly substituted for one of the others. Still, it took 6+ hours to fully update Windows, re-install WriteLog/MMTTY/2Tone, etc. Configuration is augmented by copying ini files from a working PC to the rebuilt one. Even so, it takes a large portion of a day to accomplish.

I had almost finished this process Friday afternoon when the same fatal error happened. I was doing the last of the Windows updates in parallel with installing apps and doing the configuration. So, I embarked on a second image restore and began the process all over, this time with none of my IO (radio CAT and FSK/PTT keying interface) plugged in. I also did nothing until all the Windows updates had completed. Thankfully, this approach worked and all was ready for the contest by 2am Saturday morning. Meanwhile, I lost the benefit of the several RU practices Friday night by only having one radio to participate.

This cost me when I discovered in the first minutes of the contest that my setup had some issues that would have been caught in the practice sessions. After finding excellent 15m and 20m run frequencies at 18z, the first QSO is a dupe (!) because I had a warmup log loaded. Carefully correcting that on three computers and finding new run frequencies got me started finally at 1807z. It then took a bit to hit my pace so the first hour was down from where it might have been. By the second hour, things were back to where they should be and I was off and running, so to speak.

Another issue arose a few days before the weekend when one of my wireless keyboards stopped working. I replaced the USB hub which seemed to fix the problem but it returned later. I added a second keyboard that is less desirable because it has the standard numeric pad area on the right which I don’t use for RTTY contesting. It just takes valuable space which I fully use with two keyboards, two trackballs, two K-Pods and two Beverage switch pods in front of the radios. However, the keyboard worked solidly which was most important.

Then, during the contest the trackball on that computer started freezing up. While slower, I can exclusively use the keyboard temporarily to get around this. Continuing the two runs, I reached into my PC bag and got a mouse that I added into the setup. It worked flawlessly for the rest of the contest. The silver lining of this issue was that I discovered the mouse actually worked better the trackball because the buttons are on the top rather than the sides. I need both a left-hand and right-hand trackball and there are very few choices on the market, none good. I’ll probably use mice in the future as the best compromise.

On the plus side of the potential problem ledger was a Beverage issue we thought existed in CQ WW CW. It seemed then that two of the four Beverages were not working properly, possibly due to a bad or open connection in the feedlines. However, after re-connecting them to the switchbox in the shack, all 4 appeared to work great for me all week. It was nice to dodge that troubleshooting exercise.

Also on the plus side was my maiden voyage with TinyFSK interfaces for FSK/PTT keying. This is an Arduino-based interface that fully offloads FSK timing from Windows and the PC. The result is near-perfect timing completely independent of the main computer. WriteLog recently added TinyFSK support is its native RTTY module so this is also independent of any decoder(s) used for receiving. Another handy feature recently added is Shared Com Ports which allows a single interface on one Com port to serve each of two receivers for SO2V. By using an Arduino Nano board in a small case, the result is a compact cable “dongle” implementation that is essentially just a single USB cable between the PC and radio. A second USB cable provides CAT and digital audio in/out of the radio. RTTY has evolved to a very simple setup. (Of course, my AFSK friends tease me that they don’t need the FSK interface at all!)

People tell me that FSK timing via Windows is good enough, but I’m not convinced. There are a number of poorly timed signals that are obvious from the sound and from the clearly higher decode error rates. With at least 4-6 simultaneous different decoders, the odds are greatly increased that at least one of them will give me clear-enough copy.

Its really unfortunate that there remain so many unnecessarily wide RTTY signals on the band. Many were over 1 kHz wide, reducing the number of spot for others to operate and interfering with neighboring QSOs. I started a list of offending calls and then realized that I couldn’t diligently find all of them while still working the contest seriously. It didn’t seem fair to call out some but not all of the offenders. The problem is easy to spot on a good band scope like the Elecraft P3.

A nice surprise happened when I moved the RIT to listen to one such annoying run frequency next to me. It turns out that it was the S&P callers, not the running station, but the running station was John GW0A, a new mult for me! I might have found him later with the second receiver, but it partially compensated for the QRM I was experiencing.

In summary, this was another fantastic week of learning and solving problems. It seems there are always challenges to combat possible boredom after years of contesting. Thanks for all the QSOs, especially on multiple bands and the many who did 4 bands. Appreciation to Andy P49Y/AE6Y and John P40L/W4LD for sharing their Aruba cottage with me. Looking forward to WPX RTTY, a few weeks out.

Rigs: Elecraft K3 (2), K-Pod (2), P3 (2)
Amps: Alpha 86, Alpha 91B
FilterMax III low power band pass filters (2)
4O3A high power band pass filters
SixPak, StackMatch (2), BandMaster III decoder (2)

Tower 1: C31XR at 43 feet
Tower 2: 2 elements on 10 meters / 5 elements 15 meters at 55 feet
Tower 3: 4 elements 20 meter at 68 feet
         2 elements 40 meter at 76 feet
         1 element 80 meter Sigma 80 at 64 feet
         160 meter \"Double L\" vertical at 67 feet
Four 400-500 foot beverages using K9AY switching box/preamp (JA/W6, W1, EU and

Logging software: WriteLog 12.24E on three networked PCs

RTTY Decoders (each K3): MMTTY, 2Tone(3) on main receiver
                         MMTTY, 2Tone on second receiver
                         (setting both receivers on same frequency yields
                         6 parallel decoders)


Ed - P49X (W0YK)