That 2014 is NOT a typo. In response to WRTC 2014 (New England area, USA) someone asked me to write something about that edition of WRTC and the process leading up to it. The exact request was:
Would you please be willing to give me some additional thoughts on what it’s like to give it your best shot, especially from a smaller station with a tribander antenna, and to come up short.
This is what I came up with in July 2014, over five years ago already. I don’t think it got ever used somewhere. Some of the things are still valid today. Others have been proven wrong. I did not even try to qualify for WRTC 2018 in Germany. I have no plans to do so for 2022 (Italy).
Be warned: It’s a long read and possibly not interesting. I just put it here for the archives, from ON5ZO’s vault, vintage 2014:
Thoughts on WRTC and how (not) to get there
What does it take to get qualified to go the WRTC – the Walhalla of radio sports a/k/a contesting? Let’s try to explain this to an audience not intimately familiar with the world’s greatest hobby. Let’s assume that you’re already familiar with ham radio in general and the niche that is contesting, and also know the concept of WRTC – the Olympics of radio sports if you will.
The short version of this exposé is really simple. You need to earn points over a three year period. This is the interval between two WRTC events minus some leeway for the dust to settle from the previous event and to manage the administrative process for the next one. You can earn these qualification points by doing very well in about a dozen of yearly returning popular radio contests. Doing well means putting down top scores in these big international events. It’s not a ‘winner takes all’ system, but close enough. The winner of a contest for a certain predefined region gets much more WRTC credit points than the runner up. And the latter gets more selection points than the guy or gal that ends up in third position.
Putting down top scores in a major ham radio contests depends on many parameters. The key factors are of course operator skills, the setup and equipment (i.e. the ham radio station) and the geographical location. In a ‘top gun’ type of competition that WRTC claims to be, operator skills are dominant. The concept tries to rule out advantages in equipment and location by providing 100% identical stations in a tightly contained geographical area. But for the selection process, the setup and geographical area do matter. A lot.
WRTC team selection is done based upon geographical repartition of the world. But for the contests that are part of the qualifying criteria, everyone is free to travel away from a location that is considered bad for playing on the radio (like the North Pole) to a superb location for the propagation of radio waves. Exotic islands in the Atlantic around the equator come to mind. Usually big scores are reported from these low latitude locations. This means that someone in a normal everyday location like Belgium needs to battle against a fellow countryman who operates from the Azores. Not only is the island location much more important to reach all parts of the world, but the Azores guy will probably have a country monopoly whereas there likely will be dozens of people on the air from boring Belgium. The guy in the outskirts of Brussels will have to be a much better operator to overcome the advantage of the island location. This concludes the theory. Practice shows that it’s virtually impossible to overcome the huge geographical difference favouring more southern locations. But everyone is free to go wherever he or she wants. So many guys taking a shot at WRTC and living in everyday locations, pack their bags and go operate somewhere else. It doesn’t always need to be far away. Some just travel a few hundred miles to reach a different qualifying region to flee local competitors in a given contest. The catch is that a traveller still earns points in the group defined by his home region and not in the class of the geographical region he was operating from.
Next to skills and location, there is also equipment. In ham radio contesting this essentially boils down to high towers with big antennas. Preferably multiple towers with many antennas. So if you’re wallet is fat and you have the space, constructing a mega station will probably put you on the podium among the winners. Now imagine what happens if you put a top notch operator (skill!) in the chair of a world class gigantic contest station (setup!) in a superb location (geography!). That’s right: he who can pull this off a couple of times a year during a three year period is sure to rake up tons of selection points and will end up at the next WRTC event.
So all man may be created equal, the selection process does not treat every operator equally. To add to the inequality there is yet another level that defines the way a competitor builds his selection score. Ham radio contesting can be done all alone by one individual, ‘single operator’ in contesting lingo. Or a WRTC candidate can be the part of a multi-operator team. Serious multi-op teams achieve big scores. And there aren’t as many of these. Yet most have an impressive antenna farm. In some regions there are only a handful of these active on the air during contests. That means that the odds of ending first in your region in this class are pretty high. Ca-ching! Lots of qualification points for those who are part of this group effort.
This concludes the facts. Now for the opinion.
First off: where do I position myself on the playing field? I rolled into this hobby and in no time I became addicted to ham radio contesting. It offers me a technical challenge as I need to build and maintain a station. It offers me a chance to become better at something every time, practicing Morse code skills and improving tactics. This is rewarding. It offers me the opportunity to isolate myself from the hectic daily life during the contest weekend. A mental flush so to speak. It offers me the thrill of competition. It offers me a lot of friendship: the proverbial ‘friends we’ve never met’, as the amateur radio saying goes. After more than a decade I have the audacity to call myself a good and experienced contest operator. Good. No more and certainly no less.
Since I have limited resources in Euros and acres I need to play with a modest station here at home. Many people will envy what I have for a station but it’s not what we call a ‘big gun’ by contesting standards. Since I’m confident enough not to blame my skills for not making it to WRTC 2014, I admit that the station is too small to kick butt during the selection contests. If you paid attention, you might raise the question: why don’t you travel to a big gun station in a finger licking location? The answer is threefold. I’m not to keen on travelling. Furthermore I don’t like to spend a lot of money in this phase of life to travel and rent a station. And finally: my job as a teacher does not allow me to take off from work when the interesting big contests are held. So with all this in mind, I never intended to go to WRTC. At first I didn’t even intend to try to get qualified to make it there. So why am I talking about all this then?
A contest in progress is like a siren that lures me into my ham radio shack. I love it and have become pretty good at it given the location and the limitations of my station. Maybe I became quite good because of these two limitations? You can find me in most international contests, big or small. Over the years I have improved my station which in turn improved my scores. So at a given moment I found myself pretty high in the WRTC selection ranks for my particular EU region. Seeing these spreadsheets made me chuckle as I didn’t have any aspirations at all yet there my call sign was. But the more contest scores got published by the various sponsors and thus taken into account for the WRTC qualification calculation, the more my position up there got consolidated. That got me thinking. Almost dreaming.
WRTC had always appealed to me. I followed the four previous editions from a distance. Not so much for the competition itself. I don’t perform well under stress and you don’t want to look like a fool among your peers. My thoughts were about meeting all these people. Contest after contest my log got filled with these people’s callsigns. I have exchanged emails on a regular basis with some of them. And I have met two or three guys in person. It would be great seeing them again. So by now I had reprogrammed my mind to overcome my travel phobia. And I had saved up plenty in the ham radio sock. Furthermore if you participate as a contender, the organizers pay for almost everything and arrange all you accommodations. The scrooge that I am.
The tripping point: summer 2012. With still a bunch of qualifying events to come and after consulting some of my peers and my wife, I decided to go for it. Note: some of these peers I talked to are there right now as either a competitor or a referee. As a single operator I would be active 24 hours or even 48 hours straight. I would intensify my operations to maximize my scores. I conducted my own experiment to see if a normal guy like me operating from a small pistol station from ubiquitous Belgium could make it to WRTC. A few months later I found myself in the fourth position in my region’s ranking. Only the top five scorers could make it to Boston. So my experiment was on track. Furthermore it made me proud achieving this all by myself in the Single Operator category and without travelling to a better location than Western Europe. All others had been part of multi-op efforts or went to better locations. Or both combined. I’m a down to earth kind of guy and don’t consider myself special but seeing this spreadsheet filled me with a great sense of accomplishment. But we weren’t quite there yet so I needed to set full sail and do very well in the upcoming contests.
I already mentioned it was time for an opinion. Here it comes: I hate the fact that participation in the multi-op category gives an individual so much WRTC credit. Don’t hate the player – hate the game. I’m not putting down the guys who jumped over me because of participating in a multi-op. Maybe I am by bringing this up but I don’t intend to question them in any way. I just don’t get it why the WRTC organizers have such a high esteem of multi-operator activities. In an extreme case, an individual’s contribution might have been limited to operating the coffee machine. Or operate one hour and then go home. Or he might as well not have been there at all yet asked his friends to put him on the operator list for WRTC credit. Mind you: I am not accusing anyone. I don’t even have a clue or proof of such practices. But I want to get my point across. What is the individual’s contribution to the team score?
Another issue I see is that being part of a group effort is much less a burden on your health. If I do a contest forty eight hours straight, which is needed to score high and rake up a lot of WRTC points, it takes me a week to go from zombie to more or less human again. A team member in a multi-op can rest and sleep during the contest. What is harder? Making 4000 contacts on my own, or 8000 as a five man posse? Please tell me. You know my point of view, you know how I see things.
To cut a long story short: in the end I didn’t make it. The last series of scores contributing to the selection total made me drop out of the top five. I came in tenth. The number nine spot was taken by another lone wolf operating alone from home. But his home is Spain. The advantage of being south? The eight others either operated out of their selection area or in a group effort or both combined. I admit that at first this was a bitter pill to swallow. I had fooled myself into believing that it was possible to pull this off using a small modest station from the centre of Belgium. Turns out I was wrong.
I wish the future WRTC Selection Committees would reconsider the weight and impact of multi-operator scores. I don’t have a problem with the fact that people travel to better locations though. The rule states that out of the twelve scores that make up your total points, only six can be out of region and only six can be from a multi-operator effort. That means that if you play it smart, you travel six times to an equatorial island and you find a big multi-op station in your home area for the other six. That’s one way to outgun the little pistols from a common location. That’s the way to outgun me. I don’t want to come across cocky or arrogant, but I’m pretty sure I pack enough skills. Because I need to play with less toys from a less interesting location. So I don’t blame myself. I’m stubborn as a mule and an introvert individualist, far from being a team player. I never wanted to change my operating style and habits to make it to WRTC.
To conclude I’d like to state that I really was planning to make it to WRTC as a competitor. But I wanted to do it my way. And that’s not about to change. But pushing the envelope from my home station and location took its toll. It took a while to figure out how. It’s hard to believe and admit but I’m going through a temporary contesting burn out. Because I did more than I would normally do. Because I really tried hard but where did it get me? Not even close to the wildcards.
I’m what we call a CW operator. That means I like Morse code a lot and use it almost exclusively. I don’t like spoken ‘phone contacts’. But most of the contests in the qualifying pool are run once in both of these modes. So in order to get enough points, it was important to go all out in these phone contests too. That is not as much fun and leisurely as my Morse code operating. The irony of it all is that of the twelve submitted scores out of twenty two operations in total, none were in the dreaded phone mode. Moral of the story: stick to CW (Morse code). Lesson learned. I’m sure I won’t be going all out anymore in these phone events.
Right now WRTC 2014 has started. The first pictures are uploaded and the first tweets are posted. Once more I’ll be following it from a distance. Let’s see if those who got selected will deliver.
Above was the first version. I stood behind it but maybe this wasn’t really what the guy was looking for in his publication. Too much frustration from my part. So I rewrote it and made it shorter. Again: written in July 2014.
Someone in the contest scene told me he was looking for someone who tried to qualify, especially from a smaller station, but came up short. My experience over the last three and a half years fits the bill. So I started typing, never shy of words nor thoughts, and after burning quite some midnight oil I came up with two thousand four hundred sixty six words. There, I said it! My frustration was ready to go to print so to speak. But I wasn’t very happy with the tone of the story. I sounded like a cry baby. Boohoo, I didn’t make it to WRTC 2014. I let one of my contesting friends read my text and he confirmed what I was thinking. Mostly I was bashing the selection criteria because I don’t agree with some of these. Who’s interested in that?
I sure did try to qualify and for a while I was more or less on top of my regional selection rankings. By all means high enough to become a team leader. At first I didn’t have any aspirations whatsoever. I didn’t consider myself WRTC material. And I figured it was impossible from Belgium with a small and modest contest station. Impossible and useless to compete against the big antenna farms of the multi-operator stations or against the scores of those who live in my region yet travel abroad to southern latitudes. Closer to the equator usually means much bigger scores. And in the WRTC qualifying process these big scores mean a lot of points in the qualification process. But yet there I was in the upper regions of the official spreadsheet. It was then, two years ago and halfway through the qualifying period that I decided to really go for it and see what could be done given the limitations. Limitations being not operating from a radio-wise fantastic location, and not piloting some world class prize winning station. So I cranked up my activity level and maximized my performances. And compared to my own previous performances, I was on a roll. But in the end I did come short.
In fact my frustration of not having made it comes from these limitations. I ignored them against common sense in stead of overcoming them. These intermediate scores lured me into believing it was possible without exploiting what I consider flaws in the selection criteria. I call it flaws because these particular rules don’t fit my personal preferences and romantic views on contesting. But as soon as the latest scores came out and these results were taken into account for the final WRTC selection rankings, I got punched on the nose. Of course you need to travel abroad and submit at least a handful of very big scores for a boost in the qualifying points. Of course being part of some winning regional serious multi-operator group is a must. The scores are needed to add to the qualifying points. But it’s against my stubborn nature.
On the positive side I am proud. Proud to have made it this high in the rankings by sticking to my classic operating scheme of entering contests from home using my small modest station. My ego is big enough to conclude that I must at least have done some things right. But I’m modest enough to put even that in perspective. It simply boils down to dedication and commitment. Being crazy enough, some might call it. Which in my case meant being on the air in almost every major contest and spend more hours in the operating chair than is good for one’s health.
I admit that it was a bitter pill to swallow when the final qualifying scores came out and I had dropped from number four to number ten. Especially since I was looking forward to finally meet all the people in person after having met them on the air over the radio. But I had seen it coming. I was wiped away from the top spots by people who actually had made one or more trips to better locations. Or just happen to live in a better location in my part of the world. Or enlisted in competitive group efforts. While I choose not to do any of these.
In a way it is my own fault. But hindsight is 20/20. My experiment was to see how far I could get competing against those who use the rules and opportunities to their benefit. This experiment has made me push the envelope. Both in the amount of contests I have entered between fall 2010 and spring 2013, as well as in the seriousness of my operations in these specific contests. It really motivated me to keep on going. It’s safe to say that this is true for almost everyone who raised enough points to end up as a team leader in WRTC.
I asked myself if I want to go through all this again. Do I want to be part of a future WRTC? And is it worth the titanic effort? Especially since it has now been established that as a Belgian this can only be done by travelling and / or being part of winning group efforts. Right now I say: ‘thanks but no thanks’. But never say never…
Retrospect 2018: It turns out it can be done from here. OR2F did it for 2018. He did serious efforts in the low power category. Of course this hurts the rate and number of QSO in the contest. If you badly want to qualify for WRTC, this is a small price to pay. But I prefer to run HP and have high rates and more QSO. That’s where the fun is for me. I support and root for my fellow competitors in WRTC but couldn’t care less meself.