Monday, October 30, 2006


Ham Radio CQWW Contest

This past weekend was the CQ DX Contest.

The objective of an amateur radio contest is for amateurs around the
world to contact other amateurs in as many zones and countries as possible. A zone is like a really big version of a zip code. It can be part of a country, or an area of several countries. It's part of the on-air exchange, and simply makes the contest a bit easier to work.

In the nomenclature of ham radio, you "work a contest", even though it's just for fun. The advantages of working contests are improvement of your communication skills as well as testing the quality of your equipment. If your station works well in a contest, it will probably work well in an emergency.

It's also a great chance to see exactly what your antenna coverage is like - whether or not you have a good antenna pattern, which directly affects how well you are received worldwide.

All bands, 1.8 through 28 MHz, are used for this particular contest.

I worked the contest only briefly throughout the weekend, but I logged stations in Hawaii, Canada, Japan, and South America during the times I was on the air. The experience of participating in a contest is completely worth the time and effort. You don't have to have your own station to participate, but you do need to be a licensed amateur radio operator. This is a very easy license to get.

I operated on the 20 meter band (14MHz). Tuning up and down the band I heard a ton of stations calling for contacts. The cadence and rhythm of the voices makes your heart quicken. It's like standing on the floor of the stock exchange, listening for someone to make or take a bid. When a rare station comes on the air and calls for contacts (calls "CQ") then many people answer. This is called a pile-up, because the voices pile up on top of each other. Again, this is similar to a hot stock being offered at a great price by a floor agent at an exchange. Everyone starts yellling.

The ability to pick out calls from the din, to process them quickly, and then move on to the next person, is something developed over time. It takes listening skills, cognitive skills, and stamina. The contest is long. It starts at 0000 hours GMT Saturday and ends 2400 hours GMT Sunday. So, all day Saturday and all day Sunday. This is 48 hours of operating, I reckon. I don't really know if there is a required break, like in some contests. I have to admit to not reading the rules beforehand.

When you contact another station in a contest, the point is to get an "exchange." This is a bit of information that may be your state, or your section, or zone, or grid square locator, or something like that. Some contests have silly/fun exchanges, and some have more serious, detailed exchanges. It varies quite a bit from contest to contest, but all contests require the correct exchange of some sort of information.

For the CQWW contest, you have to get the call sign of the person you're talking to correct, and you have to get their CQ zone. This is submitted to the contest sponsor in the form of a log. Each contact is worth some amount of points. There are ways to increase your score, called "multipliers", that vary from contest to contest. For example, if you contact every zone, or every state, or every province of a country, then you get a boost. This can make a big difference if you are competitive in the contests. There are strategies and tactics to contesting. It's considered a sport, and to be really good at it requires dedication and practice. However, it doesn't take much to turn a neophyte entry-level ham radio operator into a full-fledged participant.

One of the best ways to get involved is to participate in a multi-operator station. This is where several people man a station in shifts, or together, and make contacts. The more experienced people teach you the ropes and give advice, and you don't have to buy a bunch of equipment or put up a big antenna.

I didn't "call CQ" during the contest - which means finding and defending a frequency, where you transmit something like "CQ Contest CQ Contest Whiskey Five November Yankee Victor" over and over again, until people respond, whereupon you do your exchange. I used the "search and pounce" tactic, which means dialing around and answering people doing the hard work. Sleep in, still win.

In order to win, you really have to do both. And, you have to know when the various bands are open - not all frequencies are usable at all times - and you have to know when to take a break so you aren't drooling on your microphone at 3:12 am.

Here's a typical exchange for me:

They: "CQ contest CQ contest 4M5R"
Me: "W5NYV"
They: "W5NYV 59 33"
Me: "Roger, 59 03"
They: "QSL, QRZ?"

CQ means calling all stations.
QSL means "confirm contact"
QRZ means "who (else) is calling me?"

Sometimes you have to go back and forth to confirm an exchange, because there may be a lot of static or you may be a weak station. Then it goes something like this:

They: "CQ contest CQ contest 4M5R"
Me: "W5NYV"
They: "Whiskey Five, again?"
Me: "Whiskey Five November Yankee Victor"
They: "Whiskey Five November Yankee Delta?"
Me: "Whiskey Five November Yankee Victor"
They: "W5NYV 59 33"
Me: "Roger, 59 03"
They: "13?"
Me: "03, 03, 03"
They: "QSL, QRZ?"

The exchange is quick. When there is a pileup, or when band conditions are good, you make contacts as quick as you can talk or as quick as you can log. Making a contact is one thing, but successfully logging it is another.

There are a ton of software tools that help with contests. Actually talking into a microphone for hours and hours will kill your voice. It's acceptable to record the parts that you are going to say over and over again, and transmit those with a keypress of the software interfaced to your radio.

Logging programs help by allowing you to type things in. If you are a multi-operator station, a second person can be assigned the logging duties.

For the contest, I used pencil and paper to log, and a push-to-talk microphone. Since I didn't work very long at any one time, it worked out fine.

One of the things that I thought about over the weekend, while working the contest, was how much Amy would have liked watching this whole process. She wasn't really interested in ham radio, but she was interested in ham radio operators, and I know she would have been really impressed with the whole effort, and how much focus and concentration it took.

I remember when I let her hold my violin. She never really played any musical instruments, but she played a bard on EQ. One of the characters that she fictionalized played the violin, and I thought it might be fun for her to see how incredibly lightweight a violin is, and what it looks like in your hands. She was really taken with how fragile it seemed - something that could make such a sound should be heavy, like an electric guitar. Violins almost feel like they're made from balsa wood. I had her draw the bow to see what it felt like, and she laughed when it made the most horrible sound ever in the history of strings.

I think she would have been equally engaged at the antics of the contest. She would have loved eavesdropping on the "big gun" stations as they chewed through their pile-ups like communications juggernauts - spitting out the syllables in staccato.

Contests, like any competition, can be addictive. For some people, it's their main interest in ham radio. I'm just a dilletante. I will probably never rank very high in the standings, but the sheer fun of working people from around the world in a competitive atmosphere is totally worth the time. Hearing your callsign from a faraway station is such a thrill. I'm looking forward to the next contest, in November.

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