Monday, July 23, 2012

2012 IARU HF Championship

I like the IARU HF Championship because it comes right after field day, and it usually signals the zenith of my interest in ham radio for the year. After the IARU I usually start to feel like I better enjoy summer before it ends, and then in the fall the holidays come and projects are forgotten.

This year I again entered in the Single Op Phone Only QRP category. I'm sort of an accidental QRP-er. I built an Elecraft K2 fully intending to later build the KPA100 100w amplifier. I still fully intend to do so some day. In the meantime I'm stuck on QRP.

The K2 is a competent contest receiver. Once a station is out of the filter, it usually doesn't cover up the weak ones. I did have to give a wide birth to the  transmissions from N1UR who was operating across town at higher power. That said we successfully operated simultaneously on the same bands and indeed worked each other on several of them.

I connected the K2 to a large wire loop up perhaps 30 to 40 feet, fed with window line via a tuner. I cut the antenna to the size that would fit easily in my yard, which was a bit less than would be resonant on 80m. This would become a problem later. I supported it at three points, and it forms roughly a right triangle.

I was hoping 10 meters would open, so I also operated a separate rig on 10 meters, a RadioShack HTX-10. I call this poor-man's SO2R. This radio lacks a power control, so I turned the mic gain down to limit the PEP to five watts. This radio works fairly well and I made several contacts on it. I fed this rig into my MFJ Super Hi-Q Loop on a post in the garden. This antenna is actually quite efficient on 10m, I think about 90% vs a free space dipole; not bad for a four foot diameter loop. It's bandwidth is also relatively high on 10m.

Typically in this contest I do not find CQ-ing to be very productive. I do it sometimes, usually with the voice keyer when things are slow and I need to stand up and stretch. And I make some contacts. But I make the bulk doing search and pounce.

I scrub the bands in this contest. It's important to catch as many multipliers as possible, so it's important to understand propagation and who will be on what band at what time. It's also important to simply tune around because there are always surprises.

I always like to tune in the direction of decreasing pitch. That is in the direction in which signals start out high pitched and gradually come down in to tune. I think this technique lets you better perceive the individual stations before you're on top of them, making it easier to tune them in quickly without skipping past them. It's easier to hear a station with a higher pitched tone and they enter the passband earlier as you tune. This way as you work one station you can hear the noise from next one and jump straight to it. So when I search a USB band, I always tune upwards, and on an LSB band I tune downwards.

There's no band time limit for single op and I take full advantage of that. For most of the contest I was sweeping 15, 20, and 40 meters on the K2, and periodically working 10m on the HTX-10; a few times when 10 sounded really hot I moved the K2 there to take advantage of it's superior performance. But mostly I searched and pounced on the K2 and periodically multiplexed simultaneous S&P on the HTX-10.

I decided I would start out CQ-ing on 20m at the contest start and see if I could make a few contacts before the band turned into a complete zoo. I did quickly make a few contacts, and then they dried up, so I went to S&P, as usual. I moved the K2 to 15m and spent a substantial amount of time there, periodically going back to 20, and working 10 on the HTX-10.

I focused heavily on multipliers, although I never passed up the chance to make a QSO if I thought I could do so relatively quickly.

Band conditions were mostly quite good. 10m was a nice surprise; I made 25 QSOs including 14 multipliers. I worked DX stations in South America, the Carribian, and even Europe and the Pacific. It was open to South America well into the night.

15m was excellent and was the best performing band for me, yielding 115 QSOs. Although I periodically jumped to 20m, I spent most of the day and evening on 15, working some excellent DX all over the world. Finally as it started to shut down I began to work 20m more heavily and added 40m to the rotation.

20m was a zoo for much of the contest and I tried to avoid it to a certain degree. It seems to be the band I have the most trouble making contacts on; it's full of loud stations that can't hear me. It was still my second best band, though, yielding 100 QSOs and 42 multipliers. 20m shut down in the wee hours and never really came back.

40m was a strong band for me, yielding 78 QSOs and 33 multipliers. I was able to work Europe, South America, and the Pacific. Later in the wee hours the recent CME triggered a G2 geomagnetic storm and 40m was pretty washed out by it.

When I tried to get on 80m, to my dismay I discovered that my antenna would absolutely not tune up. I am scratching my head because I'm fairly certain I had tested it and found it to be OK. I considered a few emergency repair attempts, but after giving 80m a listen and hearing no more than three contest stations, and still making a decent rate on 40m, I decided to write 80m off. This was probably the right move as 80m never seemed to improve. I did miss a few multipliers though, and it's a lesson in why you should test your equipment thoroughly well in advance of the contest and not just slap it together like I do.

Finally at 1100z I called it quits. Every band was dead, and worked out anyway. Also I wasn't feeling too hot after 25 hours of wakefulness. At an ending rate of 2 QSOs per hour, I don't think I missed much in that one hour.

In 2009 I won the Single Op Phone Only QRP category in the W/VE area with a score of 15,300. This year my claimed score is 113,696!  Band conditions were certainly much better than in 2009, even with the geomagnetic storm. We'll see how this also benefited my competition, but I have a good feeling that I may place first again. And it just goes to show that you don't need the world's greatest station to be competitive in radiosport. The operator makes the station. With persistence and skill, even a modest station can prove competitive.

QRP phone is a tough category and I want to thank everybody who worked me for their patience and persistence in pulling me out of the noise.

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