I had to skip last year’s edition because of a nasty storm that kept me from raising the tower and antennas. This year the weather gods decided to bother someone else somewhere else. Actually they did kind of interfere with the mood by providing very nice weather. For the first time in what seems like forever: blue sky, sunshine and more than 16°C. I would not have done this contest if it were SSB with this kind of weather. But I like this contest a lot. Little did I know the sun had more in store than visible rays.
I delayed setting up until Friday which was supposed to have the least wind and be dry. It was windy and gusty enough and frankly: it was cold outside when setting up. Almost ninety minutes later I went upstairs and did a quick SWR check. I do this by hitting the ‘tune’ button on the K3 which I programmed to give a 13W RF carrier.
I had also taken out the matching stub I put in line with the 40m dipole for UBA SSB. Since I wouldn’t be doing SO2R I took out the harmonic filter stub as well. SO2R in this one? I’ll be glad to have one band open at a time towards USA. Being lazy I didn’t take out the jumper cable from the T-joint and just connected both coaxes (one from antenna , the other one to shack) with a PL-female-to-N-female adapter. All antennas behaved as expected. Great.
I took things easy the rest of the day. I went to bed around 9PM local and set the alarm at half past local midnight. That would give me half an hour to get ready.
And ready I was. The amp was warmed up, software loaded, drinks and snacks, comfy hoody and pants. I found a sweet spot on 40m ready to launch CQ in 5…4…3…2…1.. GO!
OQ5M TEST – beep + flickering LEDs = tripping amp. RX on the K3 strongly attenuated. HUH? PANIC. Something’s wrong here. Key rig again? Amp trips. SWR suddenly sky high on 40. And on 30. It’s not the main RX as the other bands were fine. Is it the dual band antenna? It tested fine with 13W – QRO must have fried something. Not again? Noooo not after the KPA-500 thing last December.
The contest just started and I find myself without 40m antenna and maybe worse. This is a bad thing. I can ‘t stand unforeseen situations, let alone facing damage. THINK ON5ZO, THINK. I grab the antenna analyzer and rush outside. To reach the relay box where outside world meets inside world, I need to go down the stairs, cross the living room, go through the kitchen, go outside and cross the terrace and slalom between crates and boxes in the garage.
While doing this, I face my biggest fear for now: we just had a few days of strong frost (to Belgian standards, down to -10°C) and snow after heavy rain. Maybe a water-soaked connection up the tower that burst when frozen? Wouldn’t be the first time QRO blew something here. See my toasted trap story. This would effectively mean the end of my all-band effort. Forty meter is the most important band right now.
I arrive at the switchbox. I decide to measure the antenna direct on the coax coming from the antenna down the tower. SWR graph shows no problem. Neither on 30m. So with a few mW (analyzer) to 13W (rig), it’s OK. That lowers stress levels a bit. It could still be a QRO-triggered problem, but probably the antenna is OK.
While commuting the stairs-living-kitchen-terrace-garage trajectory a few times back and forth, I try and test the following:
- Bypass the 5B4AGN bandpass filter > not the cause.
- Use other port on relay box > faulty relay is not the cause.
- Take out coax jumper with N-PL mating adaptor: SWR and RX OK, even with 1200W QRO.
So it’s either the adapter or the coax jumper. I suspect the adapter because I bought it while the jumper is made by me. That will have to be settled later. The important thing is that I can now finally start the contest on 40m. It’s 0033 UTC so I lost a good half hour of prime time and a few years of my life probably. That’ll teach me, not testing things with QRO like I did up to a point in the past.
The rate goes up and up and up. In 25 minutes I log 90 QSO. That extrapolates to 216/hr. Yoinks! The next two clock hours I log 336 QSO: 168 on 40m, 168 on 80m. Not bad with simple antennas (dipole and wire vertical) and reasonable power (1200W) from Belgium. Then it slows down. I try some 160m interleaved with 40 and 80 but I get stuck at 68 Top Band contacts. I am disappointed by that number. But most Belgian amateurs probably will never work 68 Americans on Top Band in their whole life. So it’s relative, no?
Suddenly I feel that signals start to fade and it seems the propagation plug is pulled. I check solarham.net: K at 4. Sunrise is a bust. Not even a single W6 / zone 3 station. I do hear ZL pretty loud. But signals get eaten by the north pole if they have to pass over it. Conclusion: 7 MHz dies quickly and I decide to see the positive side: time for some sleep.
Another few words about the sun. Not only was the sun showing itself, there was something going on with its digestion. Something didn’t quite make it through the solar bowel system and it had to come out and barfed into the direction of Planet Earth. The A and K were peaking. Bad thing!
When I return around 1200 UTC I’m surprised to find 20m open already and the band jam packed. I squeeze in. In CW you fit anywhere. In SSB it’s a problem. Two hours for 226 QSO. Not bad but not great either. The usual suspects are not loud and the casual operators are S5-S6. K index at 4… On Instagram someone is reporting northern lights on live webcams in the Arctic. Bad thing for the HF folks.
I try 21 MHz. I work a few, I call CQ and get a few QSO but it’s obvious this band will not deliver. That makes 10m the better band. It does what you expect from 28 MHz: nothing. No backstabbing, just in your face closed beyond twenty kilometers. With 38 QSO spread over 2 hours, I’s 20 20 20 20 meters all the time… Unexpected: a marginal opening on 15m yields another 130 QSO spread over two slow hours. I work a few stations from deeper in the USA, including WD6T in CA. That concludes 15m on Saturday. I’m sure Sunday will be better, it can’t get any worse. Or can it? Soon after sunset I can pack my things on 20m as well. The last hour was slow with watery signals and not really anything beyond central USA.
I am now in a vacuum between 20m closing and 40m not yet open. I am not tired but with nothing left to do, I soon will be. Better get some sleep now and make it through the second low band night. I return in the shack four hours later for the second half of the contest.
Summary of the second night: 100 QSO in one hour (86 on 80m, 14 on 40m), then the rate goes down together with the signal strength. I know it’s the solar flare and not the RX. The best signals are on 80. But nothing from the western half of the US of A. There are a few good signals on 160m and I work another 40 there spread over the whole night. I have a feeling Top Band would support more activity if people would try now. Soon I worked all on 80m and 7 MHz is dead. Sunrise is an absolute lowlight. I find myself home alone and take a good nap on the couch in the living room with the dog next to me on his blanket on the floor. He couldn’t care less about QSO or solar flares.
Back at 1200 UTC. Same routine: grind out 20m. My hopes for a better 15m band got shattered. I hear nothing. Zero. All spots in the bandmap come from either USA or SA based skimmers. I hear faint traces of PY, CX, LU but nothing from K or VE. I soon get bored of the low rates so I decide to take a break and enjoy the sun with a brief inspection of the garden.
Funny moment: I went out of my way to work VE5SF on 20m for a spotted multiplier. I land back on my frequency, call CQ and get called by VE5MX. Once more: if you run, the mults will come.
Later on I decide to call it a day on 20 because that band is almost dead. Was it even vibrantly alive this weekend? Once again I am stuck between 20m gone and 40m not yet there. The plan is to check 40m later on, or just go to bed.
I am a contester so the bed was just a silly idea. I CQ’ed on 40m and did S&P as much as I could. The rates were low, often ten to fifteen minutes between two QSO. Reminder: I made more than 3 Q/min in the first two hours. I got called by a few multipliers. One of which VE5MX again. The last three hours go by with only 34 QSO in three hours, all on 40m. Sad.
Far from a record score. Too bad I didn’t break the psychological 2000 barrier. Oh well. Almost.
A few observations:
♦ WAS mults never worked, on no band whatsoever: North Dakota, Nevada and Wyoming. Missing a few VE mults too but that seems normal.
♦ Two different VE1 sent MAR and insisted on MAR and not NS. What’s up with that?
♦ Online scores: USA and rest of the world thrown together. Very hard to see whom your competing against from here.
♦ Propagation and location: I heard a weak CR6K running USA on 15m while the band is totally closed for me. That’s 2000km down south from here. Then he reports on 3830 he’s playing handicapped. Sigh.
It’s always fun working friends from over the Atlantic. AE5X was well represented this time with four QSO in the log. I knew he was testing his IC-705 and I was amazed how well he sounded with only 5W. Later on I read his report: he was using the QRP rig to drive a KPA-500W. Glad to exchange reports John.
I hope to be back next year. I had scheduled the SSB part in two weeks but I’ll skip that. SSB under these conditions? With the weather this nice? I doubt it. But then again: it’ll probably rain in two weeks, and the ionosphere will have settled down probably. Oh the lure of HF DX contesting…