The first 24 hours were marked by a relatively quiet ionosphere, returning to normality from a late week disturbance, and consequently relatively low energy levels in the ionosphere. That made for spectacular conditions on 80 and 160 on the first night, while 40 remained fair-to-middling, at least from England. The MUF seemed to sort of hover around the 7 MHz mark on the transatlantic path, with sudden rushes of callers from particular regions as the F layer aligned just right – here a burst of W9s, there a bunch of Texans – but even the New England stations were weak at times. N7GP called in to give me Arizona on 160 at 0316 – I’m pretty sure the first time we’ve done that from G6PZ in ARRL CW. The 80 metre four square works great as a receive antenna on 160 when we’re in single op configuration, but top band receive remains a problem on this small plot of land when we’re operating multi-single.
Rate wasn’t exceptional on 40 even right at the start – my first 100 Qs were only at a rate of 154 – in a good year this can hit 200 – and it slowed through the night. Saturday dawn was superb on 80 and 160, but slower than normal on 40. West Coasters were coming in on 40 right from the start though, and kept calling in clumps right through the night.
15 was in great shape on Saturday, and 10 opened just a little on direct path, with W4s and eastern W5s coming in well for a while, and big guns making it through from the Northeast and near Midwest – but even Illinois depended on an ESP level QSO. I suspect there was a decent skew path opening as well – some of the big guns peaked a bit when I turned the antenna to South America, but no-one much was looking for it. 15 had much better rate but I didn’t know if 10 would do anything on Sunday so I traded rate for multipliers. 15 played nicely until after 2100, and then 20 was runnable until midnight. Even West Coast stations were calling in on 20 until shortly after 2200.
I presume some sort of flare hit then because conditions were not great when I went down to 40 at midnight and they got progressively worse during the night. I filled in a few remaining East Coast multipliers and managed a few QSOs into the near Midwest on 160 just after 0100, and 80 was runnable but unspectacular for a while. And then things got really bad after about 0400. Rate was terrible on both 40 and 80. I tried up high on 40, and on both bands around the 050 mark, in the 025 to 035 window and down low and just couldn’t get rate going anywhere. Signals were mostly watery and weak and noise on 80 was really bad. I was getting very tired. 160 produced absolutely nothing half an hour before sunrise, 80 was not much better and even on 40 up to 5 minutes were passing between answers to CQs. I had gone to bed relatively early on Saturday morning, barely half an hour after local sunrise at 0722 and I didn’t even make it to sunrise on Sunday. When you are falling asleep standing up while hitting F1 to listen to noise, it’s time to visit the Land of Nod.
20 and 15 started really badly on Sunday. I didn’t get to the radio until just before 1200 and I’m not sorry about that. The first two hours were painful, rate about 60 or so. Then 10 opened a little, not great rate, but it was no better when I went back down to 15, so I went back to 10 on the basis that it did sound a little better than Saturday and I might fill in a few extra W5/9/0 mults.
Then things got better and better. I guess that overnight storm put a little extra fizz in the F layer. I ran off over 500 QSOs on 10 on Saturday afternoon, with pretty much everything worked except the Pacific Northwest and the far northern Plains and Mountain States. There was a decent smattering of callers from Arizona and, presumably Southern, California. Nevada, Utah and Montana produced single callers for the multipliers (thanks KE7X, K7ACZ and W7LEB!) 10 packed in around 1800; 15 was playing nicely but the callers were mostly very weak – the occasional big gun with a booming signal reminded me conditions were still good – but I noticed my low 20 metre QSO total and several easy mults not in the log on that band (like Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma) and decided rate would be as good on 20. Went down at 1920 and the band was in superb shape, rate and strong signals from the get go.
After half an hour and only really Wyoming and Idaho remaining on 20, decided I would try to milk the last of 15 metres at 1950 but the band closed a lot earlier than Saturday and I couldn’t get rate going; perhaps it would have been different had I stayed on the band and had a run frequency well marked on Skimmer and Cluster. After 2 QSOs and a quick skim of 15 to confirm even the East Coast big guns were dropping fast, I went back to 20, found 14020.5 where I had been running was still clear, and reckoned that if 15 was closing about 90 minutes earlier than last night, if I was lucky 20 might carry me through to about 2230.
40 is really brutal before 2300 from here in ARRL CW – the band is open and there is always an initial burst of strong East Coast casuals and the odd weak DXer as far as the Mountain States, but rate tails off after 15 minutes and its brutal, 20/hour stuff from whenever that is until the Yanks come down from the high bands about 2300.
Luckily, 20 kept producing until after 2320 when I decided I would do better than the 65/hour I was managing by then on 40. WJ9B gave me Idaho for what I presumed was my last multiplier of the contest at 2246; never did get Wyoming on 20. Quickly tuned 20 and the band was nearly empty, even the East Coast big guns had turned their antennas west by then; but callers had just kept coming, often with moderate signals, at just over 100/hour until 2300. Decided I was too tired to fight for a run frequency on 40; callers were strong but rate was terrible up on 7079. After 3 QSOs decided to try, and to my surprise succeeded in, blowing a hole on 7001.7 when an instant and brief but extremely useful pileup descended on me and scared the neighbours away. 47 QSOs in 28 minutes isn’t mindblowing, but it was better than I was going to get elsewhere.
One last surprise – VE4YU had called in on 15 just after 10 closed and I moved him successfully to 20 and joked that I would see him on 40 just before the end of the contest – he had called me on 80 on the first night. I didn’t hear YU calling in, but VE4VT called me in that final run at 2338 for multiplier number 315 and Manitoba on four bands. There were a few Left Coasters in that final run as well, good enough signals that I could copy through bottom-of-the-band splatter and 12dB of attenuation.
Only three Newfies called in all weekend, but produced a clean sweep of multipiers between them. VO1HP broke through my best top band run with his usual great signal at 0251 on Saturday, VO1GO kindly moved from 40 to 80 just when conditions were getting to their worst at 0544 on Sunday, and just when I was getting worried, VO1SA moved from 10 to 15 to 20 at 1310 on Sunday. Thanks to all of them.
I was really tired going into this contest, for no reason I can figure – I have just spent a deeply relaxing three weeks in a monastery in Yorkshire and I had slept well all week. I guess I just wasn’t psyched for this as we’d been supposed to be doing multi-single until the last other operator dropped out on Friday morning. Hence, I only spent about 37.5 hours in the chair, lots of breaks for food, pipe and sleep. I now see I am in a virtual tie for second place in Europe with DL6FBL and 9A6XX for second place in Europe and I have the tip of my nose just in front of Ben. Had I known that, I would probably would have spent an extra hour in the chair on Saturday morning for another 40 QSOs. Congrats to both Ben and Lee for great results.
I think I tuned the bands for QSOs and mults maybe four times, twice on 10 metres on Saturday. Otherwise the game in this contest from a big station in Western Europe is run, run and run and the mults will call. I was also messing about on Twitter and Facebook lots while running at 120/hour or so, which kind of tells me it’s time I grew up and learned how to do SO2R.
Inside the station, equipment has never worked better. Outside, we lost the lower SteppIR from the stack – the weather has been brutal in the West Country over the past month, lots of snow which we aren’t geared for in this climate, and then lots of storms with high wind. The driven element of the lower SteppIR decided it had enough and broke off.
Operating is changing. Lots of people are using macros and computers in big CW contests now, are operating them like an RTTY contest, and clearly don’t copy Morse well. That’s cool, but if you’re doing that then please set your macros to be short contest style not “G6PZ DE NZ1XYZ NZ1XYZ UR 599 599 (in long numbers) NY NY 73 ES TU K”. And set them for 30 wpm, not 12. It makes the game more fun for all of us. CW needs less redundancy than RTTY because mostly the guy at the other end can copy the code and can make reasonable assumptions like, if the auto fill is telling me this is guy is in New York and he’s a W2, the odds are ?Y does not mean Wyoming…
Another consequence of that is that sometimes two people call, you give a full blast of the callsign to the stronger one if you can, but the other guy assumes it’s him and gives you a report. Sometimes you can fish two QSOs out for the price of one, but sometimes that just confuses the hell out of people, and lots of times the guy gives his report and just tunes on. No, you didn’t get the QSO and you’re getting a bust penalty from the ARRL. Sorry, not my fault – it’s not hard to learn how to recognise your own callsign even at extreme speeds. It’s your callsign after all.
Zero beat calling just gets worse. Lots of people are clicking skimmer spots, and again that’s cool but do remember if you click at the same time as someone else, if he’s stronger I will work him 100% of the time, and probably less efficiently than I would if you called 50 Hz off. If you’re both the same strength, then some freak of nature superop like K0DQ or G4BUO will probably cope, but I’m stuffed until you stop zero-beat QRMing one another and I’d guess that goes for most even pretty competent CW operators. Learn how to instinctively tune a few tens of Hertz of the Skimmer or Cluster spot and you will work more stations, faster. You will also break pileups against stronger stations. Trust me.
One lovely thing about this contest is that constant calling is so much less prevalent in North America than in Europe. In contrast to the situation when I first started contesting however, peak rates are much lower than for CQWW, at least if one isn’t in a prime Caribbean or Zone 33 location. The balance of contesting activity is definitely shifting further to the east, both within Europe and towards Asia. We can look forward to more interesting times in the sport with that changing geographical dynamic.
And congrats to Toni for kicking my backside from the Azores. I hope he doesn’t mind if I say I knew I had no chance at competing – in terms of station, geography and indeed my own operating skills – from the start!