Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Radio Contesting

Reading back through some of my earlier ham radio journal entries I found the following account of my first foray into the world of radio contesting.  It's great how a journal can record our thoughts and feelings, preserving the small details of our experiences that would otherwise slowly fade from memory.  I think this entry makes a worthy blog post because it describes one of the many facets of the amateur radio hobby.

June 17, 2009

Sunday June 14, 2009 was the SKCC Weekend Sprintathon.  This is a monthly 24 hour operating event organized by the SKCC (Straight Key Century Club).  The SKCC encourages the use of straight keys, sideswipers and bugs (semi-automatic) keying devices with which the operator must manually generate the dots and dashes of  Morse Code.  That is one of the rules of the WES.  One must use one of these three types of manual keys.  By nature code sent by straight key is much slower than that generated by paddles and electronic keyers which produce exact length dashes and dots and properly space the elements of the individual characters.  This keyer and paddle set up allows very high speeds and great accuracy to be attained but the resulting code can sound machine like and cold.  Using a manual key one developes a personal style or "fist" as it has been called since the early days of telegraphy.  Years ago proffesional telegraph ops could recognize each other on the line by the distictive sound of the other ops fist.
The semi-automatic key, because of its all mechanical action and the fact that the operator has to manually control the length of the dash permits its inclusion in SKCC events.
In radio contesting the object of the game is to see how many different contacts one can accumulate in the allotted time frame.  A contact or "exchange" between stations during a contest is comprised  of several key pieces of information.  These are call sign, RST (Signal report- Readability, Signal strength and Tone), QTH (my location is), Name and SKCC member number.  This data must be successfully exchanged and copied by each op in order for the contact to be valid for scoring.
What makes the WES such a great event for the neophyte CW operator is that the speeds are usually a resonable 15 to 20 words per minute even amongst the serious contenders.  There is no set "speed limit" and one can make contacts at whatever speed he or she is comfortable with.  The whole purpose is to encourage new ops to try their hand at contesting in a more relaxed and less stressful environment.  And above all else simply have fun. 
I decided a few weeks prior that I was going to commit to participation in the Weekend Sprint and submit a score.  I practiced my copy skills as usual and practiced sending the exchange off air.  With growing nervous anticipation I waited for the Saturday evening start time to arrive.  Many hams have said the best way to improve your code speed and put contacts in your logbook is contesting.  Up to this time all my contacts have been on a quiet frequency with as many of the variables under my control as possible.  I was more than a little apprehensive about operating in the hectic atmosphere of a contest.  During my first months as an amateur operator I tuned into the various contests to listen.  Some of the large international events fill the whole CW portions of the ham bands with activity and everyone is sending code at 30 wpm or more.  On any frequency there could be two or three exchanges happening simultaneously, with the ops focusing in on the signal they are after by the slight differences in pitch of the CW tone.  No way was I jumping into that maelstrom.
The SKCC WES runs from 00:00 UTC to 24:00 UTC.  UTC means Coordinated Universal Time, A 24 hour time standard used by hams around the world so we can all accurately "be on the same page" without confusing time zones.  Here in Ohio 00:00 UTC means 8:00 PM Saturday.  I made sure I had a good dinner and made a pot of coffee.  I even warmed up before the start time with a suprise DX contact with a ham in Columbia.  (DX means distance or stations located in other countries or continents.)
During the next four hours I made a dozen successful contacts using my Nye Speed-X straight key and to my suprise I actually found myself enjoying the quick exchanges.  Much different from the half-hour relaxed QSOs I had grown accustomed to.  Around midnight I started making more errors in my sending and decided to call it a night.  I was mentally drained and went to bed looking forward to an early start the next morning.
Sunday about 7:00 AM found me back at the desk with a fresh cup of coffee. Bands were again full of activity.  I added to my log book until around noon and took a break for eggs and toast.  At this point I had been at the desk for about 9 hours total.  Five hours Saturday night and four hours Sunday morning and I could take no more.  I had learned my first lesson as a single op contest station.  The real challenge is not how many other stations you can work but how long you can sit on your rear in front of a radio.
I went outside and mowed the grass, and worked on a landscape project. Simply enjoyed the pleasant June afternoon outdoors.
At 6:00 PM I sat down at the radio and made a couple more contacts topping off my logbook page.  The event ended at 8:00.  In the past 24 hour period I had made 19 contacts in 14 states.  In my catagory (greater than 5 watts up to 100 watts) I ranked 42nd out of 77 submissions.  48th out of 98 total entries of all power catagories combined.
Here are my thoughts on the event after resting a couple of days.  I was never more happy to unplug the Speed-X and put the Vibrokeyer* back in line.  Straight keys are my first love in amateur radio but using one for long periods can sure get tedious.  I had a lot of fun participating and even worked the two top ranked ops.  I got some great practice operating with QRM (interference) from other close by stations.
I really need to bite the bullet and get a CW filter for my radio as it is still in stock configuration- barn door wide receive.  A CW filter narrows the receiver's passband allowing you to tune exactly on a desired signal while adjacent signals are blocked making it much easier to concentrate on copying the target transmission.
My ranking far exceeded my expectations and now the seed has been sown.  How much better could I have done if I found a way to stay at the radio the rest of Sunday afternoon?  The good thing is WES happens once each month.  Now I have a benchmark to aim at next time.

*The Vibrokeyer is a single lever paddle that runs an electronic keyer circuit in the radio.  I used this keyer in addition to my straight keys my first months as a ham because I felt I was not ready for a semi-automatic bug key. 
 At about the time of the one year anniversary of getting my amateur radio license I received a Vibroplex Original Bug as a birthday gift.  This key is pictured above.  Learning to use the bug was one of my original goals in ham radio.  I wanted to be able to use both straight keys and a semi-automatic bug for SKCC events.  As a side note the Vibroplex was first patented around 1904 and has been in continuous production by the American company Vibroplex for over 100 years.  Very cool to own and use this piece of communications history.  

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, informative post. That's a really nice looking key too.