This article first appeared in Feedback, the newsletter of the Georgian Bay Amateur Radio Club, and was later printed in issue #1 of On The Air magazine.
I admit it: for most of my hamming years, I have viewed contests as one of those aberrant behaviors that attract a small crowd of fanatics, wreak havoc on parts of the band I never use, and fill up the center pages of QST. What's the attraction to a 30-second QSO? Why go looking for pileups?
I late 1992, I found out. I can pinpoint the place and time: it was at our club booth, at the Split Rail Festival in Flesherton. I had wanted to make this year's booth extra special, so I brought my HF rig and TNC to demonstrate a RTTY station. Little did I know that the CQ Worldwide RTTY contest was on the last weekend in September! Suddenly, I -- a completely "green" RTTY operator -- was making RTTY contacts left and right. RTTY with Japan! With only 10 watts!
From that point on, I was hooked. I'd never been a DXer or a Big Time Operator, but during that contest I sure felt like one. Usually my signal gets ignored by DX -- but during a contest, EVERYONE wants to talk to EVERYONE! Even if you're only running 10 watts and a lash-up antenna! Well, I'd been a frustrated QRP enthusiast for years...maybe I'd just been working QRP in the wrong places.
Thus was born the GOAL: to actually make some serious contacts with my Ten-Tec Argonaut. I'd never got anywhere with this rig. I know that this is partly because I never used a decent antenna, but for years this rig had been sitting neglected on my shelf. If anything could vindicate this rig in my eyes, it would be a contest.
I realized that my best chance for QRP would be a CW contest. I've always liked CW, but had never been able to attain much proficiency. But I had read somewhere about a ham who doubled his CW speed in a contest. Thus was born the SECOND GOAL: increase my CW speed as much as I can.
So, with a freshly tuned-up rig, I entered the next CW event that happened along: the November ARRL Sweepstakes. The ARRL, bless them, had set aside "slow speed" CW segments -- a perfect starting place for a contest tyro like me.
The Operating Manual suggests setting objectives during a contest. Mine was to make 25 QRP contacts -- this would prove to me that the rig was getting out. Seven and a half hours into the contest, and not trying hard, I made my 25th QSO.
Okay, okay...I was too conservative. The Manual also says you should measure yourself against comparable stations -- similar location, similar power. So I bumped my objective up to "make as many points as the lowest-scoring VE3 station last year." (About 3,000.) And I'm getting excited now, and the pace in the slow-speed segment is becoming frustrating...maybe I should move down where the Mega Operators are.
There's no way I would call CQ in the "fast lane." I can't handle a pileup at 30 WPM. So I continued with "hunt and pounce," which is the best way for a neophyte to contest: find a station calling CQ, and call him. Then call him again, and again, and again, until he works his way through HIS pile-up and hears your signal.
Gee...I can't copy 20 or 30 WPM, but while I listened to a station knocking off contact after contact, I realized that I could pick up his call -- one letter at a time. And I could pick up his ARRL section, and check number, and serial number, and I could hear the serial number increasing by one for each contact. Hey, if I could make him hear me, I'd know in advance everything he would send back! I cranked the keyer up to 15 WPM, the fastest I could send, and sent my call...and scored a QSO!
That set the pattern for the rest of the contest. Suddenly I could make ten contacts an hour! I hit 3,000 points in no time. No problem, revise the objective upward once more: now I'd try for an even 100 QSOs.
Oh dear, 100 QSOs and the contest still wasn't over. One more revision: I'd try to equal last year's top VE3 QRP score (about 9,000 points).
Well, when the dust settled, I had 274 QSOs, covering 56 of the 77 ARRL sections, for a total of 15,344 points. Hmmm...I guess that Argonaut works after all! And a quick check revealed that I had increased my CW speed from 12 WPM to 17 WPM.
Since then, I've entered the CQ Worldwide DX Contest, the ARRL 160-Meter Contest, and the ARRL 10-Meter Contest: always QRP, always CW. Before these contests, I had never even tried 10 meters. The high point was working New Zealand on 10 with that same 4-watt Argonaut!
First, three basic observations:
1. You can contest casually. Sometimes it's a lot of fun to jump into a contest, just so you can give contact points to all the other participants. You don't HAVE to submit logs, or fill out forms, or anything -- just find out what information the other guy needs to complete a contest exchange, and send it to him. Usually this is a signal report and your location: province, ARRL Section, DX Zone, or whatever, depending on the contest. You can look this up in QST, but if that's not available, a contester will usually be happy to tell you what to send. (Anything for a contact!) This is a great way to get the "feel" of contesting, without panic.
2. Look up the contest rules. These appear in QST's "Contest Corral", and for ARRL contests often appear as articles. Write down the "exchange" -- the information to be exchanged by stations in the contest, and the recommended contest frequencies.
3. Read the Operating Manual. There's a good chapter on Contesting.
Having done that, if you decide to contest "seriously," here are several suggestions I found useful, and several lessons I learned, as a complete neophyte to CW contesting. Much of this applies to phone contesting, too.
4. Set achievable goals. Contesting is more fun if you feel you've accomplished something. You get an emotional boost that can carry you onward, or you can quit with a feeling of satisfaction. Start with modest goals -- you can always adopt new ones.
5. Hunt and pounce. If you have a weak signal, or can't copy fast CW, or don't know the contest procedure yet...let the OTHER guy call CQ.
6. Listen to a few exchanges. If you're new to contesting, you'll learn the "protocol" of a contest exchange. If your CW speed is slow, this gives you a chance to copy the other guy's info, without having to ask him for many repeats.
7. Ask for a repeat if you need it. If you missed something, most stations will be happy to repeat it. Some will even slow down. I've found it best to ask for a repeat BEFORE sending your half of the exchange -- once he's got your info, he's off to someone else! (This is another reason to let HIM call CQ -- he sends his info first.)
8. Outwait pileups. If there are 30 stations calling him, be patient. He'll work through that list quickly, and eventually will hit a lull. Stay with him until you're the only station left -- then he'll hear you. (This may not work for DX.)
9. Sneak into pileups. This is where full break-in keying is a godsend. After he calls QRZ?, you can try to jump in ahead of everyone else -- but when you hear that pileup of CW, stop sending. Sometimes everyone in the pileup stops to listen at the same moment. When you hear that moment, send your call quickly! (One of my great pleasures was snatching a DX station from a pileup of QRO operators in this way.)
10. Start in the low speed segments, but move to the high speed as soon as you can. The low speed segments build confidence, teach you the contest protocol, and improve your CW speed. But it can take several minutes to complete one exchange in the "slow lane" -- everyone is sending slowly and asking for repeats. If it's points you want, move to the "fast lane" as soon as you can copy the exchanges. If the contest doesn't have an official "slow lane", look for the slow stations at the high end of the contest frequency segments.
11. Sweep from one end of the contest segment to the other. You need a system, so you don't spend several minutes discovering that the station you're listening to is one you've already worked. (Duplicate contacts with the same station count ZERO!) I usually sweep from low to high frequency -- the activity is heaviest at the low end, and gradually expands higher as more stations join in.
12. Get propagation forecasts beforehand. For multiband contests, this will tell you when to switch bands. I've had good luck with the charts published monthly in QST. Better information can be had from ARRL bulletins, which usually appear on packet as well.
13. Use an electronic keyer. Otherwise your arm will fall off.
14. Use a memory keyer. This can really take the chore out of sending your call (repeatedly), sending your half of the exchange (especially if it's complex), and (if you dare) calling CQ. I program 5 memories into my keyer:
To illustrate how these memories are used by both stations, here's a typical CW contest QSO:
|CQ TEST DE K8XXX|
|VE3RHJ 5NN MI|
|R 5NN ON VE3RHJ|
|TU K8XXX TEST|
"He" uses memories 3, 4, and 5, and "I" use memories 1 and 2, in that order. If I'm not sure I have his call right, I'll send it before the "R 5NN ...". Memories #2 and #4 will change depending on the particular contest. Some contests require sending a serial number for each contact; many memory keyers can handle this automatically.
15. Use a CW filter. If you can't copy fast CW, you'll never copy it in the midst of twenty other stations. An IF filter is best, but if your rig -- like my Argonaut -- doesn't have one, even a simple audio filter can make worlds of difference. I've found that 500 Hz bandwidth is too wide; 250 Hz would probably be about right.
16. Use a tape recorder. Perhaps I shouldn't admit it, but between the pileups, the fast speed, the QRN, and my frazzled nerves, sometimes I don't copy the full exchange sent by the other guy. So I keep a tape recorder connected to my receiver and running constantly. If I miss something, but I know it was clearly audible -- maybe just a shade too fast -- I won't ask for a repeat. Instead, I'll rewind the tape and replay the QSO until I've copied everything. I've lost track of how many contacts this has saved, when the other guy didn't hang around for repeats.
17. Use a dupe sheet, even if the contest doesn't require it. A dupe (duplicate) sheet is a record of all the stations you've worked, organized by call sign. This lets you quickly find out if you have already worked a station you hear. Trust me -- after 25 QSOs you won't be able to remember any call signs you've worked! Also, most contests require dupe sheets after 100 QSOs, and if you reach 100 by accident -- like I did -- you'll be glad you kept the sheet. Dupe sheet forms are often available from the contest organizer, or you can make your own.
18. Use the "official" contest log sheets. Not a requirement, but it certainly makes logging easier, since they have blanks for exactly the required information. Log sheets are usually available from the contest organizer.
Why am I still contesting? First, I need to keep up my CW proficiency: my weekends have been too busy for contests these last few months, and I feel my "fist" and "ear" slowing. Second, it validates my faith in QRP (not to mention my purchase of a QRP rig!) Third, it's exciting! I've always had a competitive spirit, and if I choose the terms, I can actually make a good showing! I placed second among Ontario QRP stations in the 1992 ARRL 160-Meter contest.
Of course, there were only two Ontario QRP stations...