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K6TU - ARRL Sweepstakes 2014

There are certain contests I enter each year - ARRL Sweepstakes is one such contest despite its long exhange and the Sunday afternoon doldurms that result from a combination of being able to work a station only once and NFL football!

Each year I set out to do better - for me, this means attempting to beat my personal best in the contest and generate a better score.  Usually I sit down in early October and attempt to think about what went well the previous year and what I thought I could do better.  Time clouds the memory and I wonder what I forgot - Sweepstakes started as "taking one for the team" for me especially the CW event (more on that below) but I'm beginning to see the finer parts of strategy and preparation required for the event.

Rather than cast my mind back 11 months, I figured I'd document my experiences in Sweepstakes and other contests as I go through the year.  This way, I can capture things while they are fresh in my mind.

CW Weekend

Like any triathlete, I have a weaker event that detracts from my overall performance. For me, I love Phone and RTTY but struggle with CW.  My original license in the UK was a VHF only class B license back in 1973 - no code required.  It was only when I immigrated/emigrated to California that I had to learn CW.  

Time pressures being what they were at the time, I didn't take CW classes or ask for much mentoring (a bad mistake) so learned CW the wrong way - its not about dots and dashes - its about pattern recognition.  I got my US Techncian license by passing the 5 WPM requirement and then started working on the 13 WPM required for the General.  I squeeked past the 13 WPM test on the first shot and then put CW on the back shelf - the prospect of 20 WPM required for the Extra was like Mt Everest - nice to look at but a killer to climb.  I emerged from that test session as an Advanced licnese holder - even though I hadn't prepared for the Advanced written test.  Enough basic theory and regulations stuck in my head that I passed that Element the same day.

I upgraded to Extra when the FCC reduced the CW requirement to 13 WPM and thought I was done.

My fellow contesters here in California encouraged me to support the local club in CW events.  Truth be told, that club is full of excellent CW operators who really dislike Phone contesting.  So I brushed up my CW and jumped into the deepend aided with the excellent multi-channel CW reader built into Writelog - I survived, I wasn't a great CW op but I could generate a decent number of contacts plugging away at 20 WPM or so - barely entry stakes for serious CW contesting.

I'd stuck with Writelog for a long time - its a great logger and well worth the $30 yearly subscription.  I'd tried N1MM but really hadn't liked it and had difficulties getting its voice keyer working with PowerSDR that ran my Flex5000 based station.  Writelog just worked out of the box and so I'd stuck with it.

Then came N1MM+... after operating W1AW/6 for a couple of sessions during the ARRL Centential using it as a logger, I was impressed.  The work flow just seemed more natural and I especially liked some of the additional tools that had been added.

One problem - N1MM+ doesn't have a built in code reader - instead it supports either fldigi or CWGet.  I tired both but they are not as polished as the multi-channel reader in Writelog.

As a result, my CW score this year was down over last year - fewer contacts.  I have since resolved to dispose of the CW reader as a crutch and am trying to spend 30-45 minutes a day using Morse Runner from VE3NEA with the speed set to at least 30 WPM...

Although yet to be proven out, my CW score last year suffered from a number of errors which I think resulted from using a pre-fill file.  Some see pre-fill files as evil (I'm not wasting time on any debate) and deliberatly change things like their Check exchange from year to year.  Looking at my Log Checking Result from 2013, it was clear I'd got dinged for errors in the exchange - usually a single field.  This led me to suspect that I "heard" what I saw from the pre-fill rather than what I really heard.

This year, I threw the pre-fill file under the bus...  down one crutch and now determined to get rid of the other...

My result for 2014 CW was:

Station worked great, my score was limited by my CW skills, not propagation, strategy or anything resembling a good excuse :-)

 

Phone Weekend 

Different story by a long shot.  I had been very pleased with my score last year in the Phone event:

  • Checked score 191,730
  • Raw QSO's 1184
  • Final QSO's 1155
  • Error rate (score adjustment) - 1.7%
  • Operated 22:50 minutes BUT lots of short breaks
  • Sunday afternoon doldrums was dreadful and a real demotivator...

Source of errors?  

  • Pre-fill file likely bit me a couple of times
  • Busted callsigns

So how to do better?

Maximize Butt-in-Chair time

  • Take fewer breaks by preparing light snacks and stocking the operating position with plently of water
  • Operating posture - keep back straight, feet on floor, look down at the logger entry window to minimize fatigue.
  • Keep ergonomic breaks shorter and aim for a full 24 hours in the chair.

Pay attention to sources or errors

  • Eliminate the pre-fill file, log what you hear and ask for repeats where there is doubt due to QRM etc.
  • Use SuperCheckPartial (heck, I am it's maintainer!) and doubly check any callsign not in the database.
  • Watch fat-fingering effects on the keyboard
  • Ask for repeats or verify the information received if I have any doubts at all about its accuracy.

Increase number of QSO's

  • ARRL stats over the years show that there is always more activity on Saturday than Sunday - so maximize the amount of operating time on Saturday and sleep later on Sunday morning.  Reivew of the 2013 logs show that early morning Sunday activity level was weak before about an hour before dawn on the West Coast.  So I planned to operate until at least midnight on Saturday night or later as long as the rate supported it.
  • Set a rate target and when the rate falls, do something different!  Consider changing band, change from Running to Search & Pounce
  • After looking at the propagation predictions from K6TU.NET, it was clear that from the West Coast, hitting the population centers was a high band job.  Time spent on 80m should focus on getting close in sections but there was no margin in spending time trying to work weak stations.  Also, 20m is always crowded and difficult to find a run frequency so the money bands would be 40, 15 and Old Sol permitting, 10m.
  • Remember that most multipliers will come to you - use spot assistance and run Unlimited to take advantage of nailing a full sweep early on in the contest.  Then just go for rate.
  • Embrace the Sunday doldrums and accept the rate will be lower.  Use spotting, band changes and just keep tuning across the bands for S&P.  
  • In S&P, tune high to low.  Most people seem to tune the other way and its not infrequent to find that you are following the same guy doing the same thing you are!
  • In S&P, if you can't get the station in two calls, mark him on the logger bandmap and move on - come back to him later.
  • Spend the time to learn the logger functions ahead of time - RTFM and learn what can help.
  • Minimize the words used in the exchange...  avoid "Please copy", don't spell out my callsign in the Sweepstakes exchange phonetically unless the other guy is weak and I want to make doubly sure he had my call correctly.  As Dragnet's Sgt. Joe Friday said... "The facts ma'am - just the facts".

These were my thoughts going in...

I finished last night with the following:

  • Claimed score 225,096 points
  • 1356 QSO's
  • Clean Sweep!
  • 23:15 hours of operating
  • Much better time utilization with smaller breaks

BUT...

There is still plenty of optimization to be done in break time.  I took fewer and smaller breaks as the attenton to ergonomics paid off.  I had no neck or back pain during or after the contest.  More comfort during the contest.

Rather than taking a break to cook dinner, prepare dinner ahead of time and maybe even eat while operating.  This was a Homer moment... doh!

I operated non-stop except for a dinner break from the opening bell until 12:30 Sunday morning by which time the rate was beginning to drop off.  I went off to sleep about 150 Q's more in the log than last year and needing only NL as the remaining multiplier for a sweep.

Band breakdwon shows that I executed on the strategy I laid out band wise:

Band      QSOs      Pts      Sec

80m       41        82       1

40m      471       942      14

20m       94       188       1

15m      433       866      67

10m      317       634       0

I started operating on 15m and had excellent rate - 90+ Q/Hour for the first three hours and well into the fourth.  It was only after 4 hours of non-stop operation - all Running CQ.  Then I dropped down to 20m for about an hour then took 30 minute to eat dinner about 630pm PST.  I started up after dinner on 40m.  I was late getting to 40m and as a result struggled to find a run frequency - I had to suffer S&P for a couple of hours.  The rate wasn't bad but could have been better.  

Around 9pm I dropped down to 80m but activity was meager here in California so eventually went back to 40m - found a run frequency and just kept running CQ alternated with some S&P whenever the rate fell below my minimum target of 50 Q's per 10 minute rate.  I went off to sleep with about 150 more Q's in the log than last year and needing only NL as my last multiplier for the Clean Sweep.  I had chased only one other multiplier - VI (Virgin Islands) as I saw one spotted and never had one call me.  I made very certain he was in the log and that I was in his!

N1MM+ has a great tool for rate information that I used - it shows the current rolling 10 minute rate plus bars for the last 100 minutes, the previous and current hours.

N1mminfo

I had this in front of me the whole contest and as the 10 minute bar sank below 60, it was my kick in the butt to do something about it!  Writelog has a similar set of rate counters but they are text based and updated on time periods that vary.  This graphic was great as a motivational tool!

Sunday morning I got up and was back on the air by 6am.  I started out on 20m and the first conttact was with my last needed multiplier - NL on 20m.  There was a pile up (of course) and I was having to contend with all the East Coast folks calling him.  Took a few minutes but I nailed it!

Then I found a run frequency on 20m - not so hard early in the morning and then ran until about 730am PST when I grabbed another cup of coffee and then moved to 15m.  After an hour on 15m, I moved to 10m and started running CQ.  The rate held up really well until about 2pm - then started to drop off.  Between 2 and 5pm, I alternated between running CQ's on 15 and 10, coupled with S&P across both those bands and 20m.  It was pointeless trying to find a run freuqency on 20m - the panafall on SmartSDR showed overlapping stations from 14.150 to the top of the band.

At 5pm, I dropped down to 40m an started looking for a run frequency - hard going but eventually parked myself just down from 7.300 and held the frequency until the closing bell.  The last 90 minutes were a lot of fun - the rate picked up dramatically and I had lots of pileups!

Lessons learnt

Early in the afternoon on Sunday I started suffering from power line noise that was on both 15 and 10.  Not very strong but enough to make reception of the weaker stations a challenge and really slowed things down.

Some weeks ago I had installed a Pixel Loop shielded loop antenna - the primary reason for the purchase was as a low band RX antenna.  However, it worked well even on 10m.  In the end, I wound up using the Pixel Loop in diversity with the SteppIR DB18E (primary antenna) - this warrants a separate post as the experience was amazing.  Enough to say here that the diversity helped deal with the noise problem, really helped with weaker callers and helped pick out a full callsign from a pileup in a way that was almost ESP!

I do need to now spend the time to re-program the band segments on my Alpha 9500 for 80m.  There were a couple of segments where the antenna selection jumped to my 160m vertical rather than staying on the 80m broadband dipole.  This is a hang over from past programming and something I'd forgotten to deal with.  Now its on the to-do list.

Not all DX clusters are right for getting the best spots.  My local cluster I've used for a long time was having some reliabily challenges over the weekend so I wound up using VE7CC's own cluster.  The quantity and quality of the spots was much improved!  It really helped make great use of the N1MM+ bandmap and the skip to spot keys.

On interesting thing about spots... when I was spotted, I could instantly see the rate go up.  Even more intersting with a lot of stations signing precedence of A and B that aren't supposed to be assisted. Coincidence?  I don't think so - a couple of my fellow PL259 members saw the same thing even when one of them was spotted 200 HZ off...  guess where the caller was zero beat?  I'm beginning to believe that the solution is to eliminate unassisted - policing this adequately is impractical.  Perhaps the ones abusing assistance are the one's that object to the elimination of "un" assisted?  Food for thought!

The Flex 6700 and the Alpha 9500 operated flawlessly - full legal limit, many reports of great audio and the gratifying - "Wow! you are loud!".

I really like N1MM+ and I think I'm a convert from Writelog - nothing to do with free, I think the $30 for Writelog per year is very reasonable.  But N1MM+ has benefited from all the learning lessons with N1MM and I think Tom (Mr N1MM) and his team have done a good job getting a stable logger out so early in its field exposure.  Kudos to them - this isn't easy.  The UI looks a little funky in places, some of the features need polishing but overall, a joy to use.

Yes I'm biased, but the Flex 6700 is amazing.  The receiver is excellent with much lower fatigue factor than any other radio I've used.  The ability to handle a 20 over signal one call and then an S4 the next while dealing with congested bands is without par.  

If you aren't using a Flex 6000 radio, you aren't using the best tool for the job.

Period!

Summary

  • Still room for improvement in time management.  Really focus next year on keeping the butt in the chair.
  • I need a second transmit antenna for 20, 15 and 10.  Then learn how to run SO2V (which is already supported in one radio using the 6700 and N1MM+.  Being able to multiplex attention across two bands at once would really help during the Sunday doldrums.
  • Personal best in the Phone event!  Really a great experience!
  • Having a gain antenna on 40m gives a west coast station a competitive advantage.  It doesn't offset the population density benefit the East Coast folks gain on 80m but its a great start.
  • Diversity looks very promising - need to make this a standard operating practice.
  • Move down to 40 earlier to get a run frequency established and then dont move!

 

 

 

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STU PHILLIPS
MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA

Intense Brit, lived in Silicon Valley since 1984. Avid pilot, like digital photography, ham radio and a bunch of other stuff. Official Geek.

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