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MICROSTRATEGY -or- HOW TO WIN VHF CONTESTS AND HAVE FUN DOING IT This month's installment of this column is all about sweating details-- the things that are actually involved in working a VHF contest. This article is intended primarily for newer contesters, as the 'big guns' know what works for them. A few of these ideas are my own opinions, and I invite any suggestions or criticisms from other contesters. What I wish to effect is a continual improvement of the contest training process. GENERAL PRACTICES This article is not intended to be a 'from scratch' tutorial. Some knowledge about VHF contesting, such as how to make a con- tact, is assumed. Nevertheless, let's look a Nevertheless, let's look at a typical phone QSO and see how to make it effective as possible. The first thing you need to do is ascertain that your trans- mitted signal is intelligible. This is especially important for sideband work. Call another station BEFORE the contest begins, and do a radio check. Better yet, check with both a local station and one a bit farther away. It is very important to not have clipping, splatter or distortion on your signal. It is easier for a distant station to dig a weak, intelligible signal out of the noise than a somewhat stronger, distorted signal. Now, you are tuning around on the sideband portion of 2 meters. You run across a station calling CQ: CQ CONTEST, CQ CONTEST, CQ CONTEST, THIS IS WC2ABJ, WHISKY CHAR- LIE TWO ALPHA BRAVO JULIET CALLING CQ CONTEST AND STANDING BY. This is a nice average call. CQ is called three times. The call is given once normally and once in phonetics. The postlog is fairly short. This sort of call is about right for average condi- tions. The most efficient response you can give is simply: WHISKY TWO ALPHA PAPA ECHO An experienced operator need only hear your call once to know you are there. Don't give your exchange at tt give your exchange at this point. Let him come back to you. Note the use of phonetics. Assuming reasonably good conditions, the reply might be: W2APE THIS IS WC2ABJ. FOX NOVEMBER ONE THREE. Depending on the operator or the conditions, he might add 'OVER' or 'BREAK' to the end of that. Also note that the number part of the grid square is given in separate digits. Your response should be: ROGER, FOX NOVEMBER ONE TWO. THANKS AND GOOD LUCK. W2APE Notice the efficiency of that exchange. Now words are wasted. Even the 'thanks and good luck' is important-- it is an act of courtesy, and should be used whenever possible. Now, the completion of the exchange. ROGER. GOT ANY OTHER BANDS? The calling operator isn't messing around. You should endeav- or to work a station on all the bands you have, and there is no better time than now! The asking of this crucial question often decides who wins VHF contests. If you have any other bands, you would now tell him, and, hopefully proceed to work him on those bands! (Or, at least make skeds if things are busy at the moment.) But, our responding station does not, so he simply answers: NO. W2APE NO. W2APE The calling station wastes no time. GOOD LUCK IN THE CONTEST. WHISKY CHARLIE TWO ALPHA BRAVO JULIET QRZ? The QRZ is the same as CQ and is much less cumbersome for short calls like at the end of a QSO. If conditions are good, another station could come back immediately with his call, and the following QSO is shorter by the length of calling CQ (Usually the longest part of a contest QSO). It takes a surprising amount of work to develop the disci- pline to operate this way. Don't expect to fully master it in the first twenty minutes of your first contest. You can work on this sort of thing with a friend or a tape recorder before the con- test. But, if you master this, you will ready to be at the re- ceiving end of a pileup. And in the VHF world, pileups can happen to ANYBODY at almost ANYTIME. PILEUPS While on the subject of pileups, let's briefly talk about pileup courtesy. Always give your full call when the calling station calls QRZ, unless the calling station specifically asks for suffixes only. Give your call once, or at the most, twice. (Twice usually works best only with real short calls like NS9E) Complete your exchange quickly. Others exchange quickly. Others are waiting. But, DON'T FORGET to ask the calling station if he has any other bands. And, if another station does this before you, and they QSY, it is OK to follow the other station. But, give the first station the first crack at the QSO if you both get there at the same time. This will help you deal with the frustration of wait- ing for a chance to work a bit of choice DX only to have another station drag him off frequency and run the bands through 47 GHz! (Herein lies a big advantage in going multiop-- one operator can stay on the pileup and another operator will run the station on the other bands.) SEARCH AND POUNCE OR RUNNING? These are the two different methods of contest operation. Search and pounce is the process of tuning around the band and working stations that are calling CQ. Running is the process of parking on a frequency and calling CQ. The two methods have different uses for different classes of stations. Search and pounce is the best tactic for the small to medium station in any single-operator class. The small station can make best use of his limited antennas to tune in a station before attempting to work him. It is an excellent tactic for crowded bandcrowded bands for any class station. It is the easiest method for new contesters trying to learn the best way to operate. You can listen to other, more experienced stations and get 'tips' on improving your own operating. Running is useful for all classes of stations, but is the best for serious single-ops and almost mandatory for big multi- ops. It works well on all band conditions, but works best on quieter bands like 222 MHz. Running teaches good operating in a hurry, because you must quickly and accurately copy the respond- ing stations as fast as they come. And, when conditions are good, running is the most FUN way there is to operate. Because of the unique properties of our VHF bands, you can expect to occasional- ly be at the receiving end of a pileup! BIRD-DOGGING Bird dogging is attempting to steal someone else's calling frequency. This is not looked upon favorably. Many large stations that tend to sit on a frequency will occasionally allow another station to work a DX station when they are through, if asked. If they allow you to do this, ask the DX station to move off fre- quency so the calling station may resume calling. If you attempt to bird-dog some station, they are liable to keep callinliable to keep calling whether you are there or not. CW OPERATION This is an area of operation too often ignored by the novice or intermediate contester. This is very unfortunate, for many points are lost by ignoring CW. You don't have to be a CW speed demon to work VHF. 10-13 WPM solid is all you really need or should use. The only time you should consider a higher speed is if the band is WIDE open, as sometimes happens on six and two meters. Even then, 20 WPM is plenty fast! When is CW most effective? First, CW should be your primary mode if you are working 222 MHz, or 902 and above. It should be used at least twice an hour on all other bands, and considerably more than that on 432 MHz. Alternate several long calls followed by a short call now and then. Your long call should be more than 30 seconds, but less than a minute in length. Your short calls should be under 30 seconds. A memory keyer is almost mandatory for work on 222 MHz or above, where you should be making extensive use of CW. Second, always be ready to switch to CW, even right in the middle of a QSO. For this sort of operation, it is to your great advantage to have a rig that doesn't change frequency when you swiwhen you switch from sideband to CW. (The TS-530, used as a transverter IF, is such a rig.) If you aren't so lucky to have a rig like that, know how far and in what direction you have to tune to correct the frequency shift. You will often find switching to CW will enable you to work a station that otherwise can't hear you or vice versa. Knowing when to switch to CW can increase your score 25% or more! Third, CW is the only mode that will work well on many of the microwave bands! It is also most effective for exotic modes, such as aurora. An important CW operating trick is proper use of your RIT control. If you hear a weak station respond to you, use your RIT control to tune him in, not your main tuning. That way, the other station won't be chasing you when he comes back to you. I have lost a number of important QSO's by failing to use the RIT con- trol properly! This works on phone, too. Take my word for it; CW is WORTH THE EFFORT! USING YOUR ROTOR Proper use of your rotor is crucial to maximizing your score. The first thing to consider in choosing which direction to point the beam is where are the contacts? You should have a good idea in which direction the major VHF population centers HF population centers are from your QTH. A knowledge of where band openings begin and end is also very useful. For instance, sporadic E 6 and 2 meter openings often open to the South first, and gradually work to the South- west and the West. The other important thing to do when using a rotor is to periodically move it slightly. This is especially important for big stations that are constantly calling CQ. One station I know of makes a habit of making his beam heading roughly follow the minute hand on a clock. Other stations move their beam every 5 or 6 calls. How much you move it should be a function of the direc- tivity of your antenna. The more directive, the smaller the increments you should use and the more frequently you should move it. Having more than one steerable antenna per band is a major advantage, and should not be overlooked if your station can accomodate it. FM OPERATING I once saw a videotape showing 30 lions fighting for a share of a single wildebeest. All you could see is about 3 tons of lions crawling on top of each other, all trying to get a bite. This is kind of what FM contest operation is like! FM operating is quite different from weak signal operating. eak signal operating. The operation takes place on specific, channelized frequencies rather than spreading out over a slice of spectrum. There are many more operators who just have FM than there are sideband operators. These operators also tend to have less operating experience than most sideband operators. This all tends to cause massive confusion! Don't be dismayed if you are trying to work a station and another station crashes right over the top of your QSO. Often, propagation is such the other station couldn't hear your QSO and didn't know he was interfering. Be patient. Keep trying. I have almost never failed to work any station that I could hear on FM. There are some ways to minimize this problem, and these apply especially to two meters, where the problem is most severe. First of all, SPREAD OUT. There are SEVEN different simplex frequencies for two meters. Don't concentrate on 146.49, 55 and 58. Many of the RVHFG members make it a point to monitor 147.51 most of the time. If we would start using even one of the 147.XX frequencies, it would greatly ease the overcrowding on 2 meter FM. Make it a discipline to monitor a frequency other than 146.49, 55 and 58. (147.51 is suggested) Second, a Second, avoid peak operating times (Unless you are FM only!). If you have sideband, start the contest on sideband, and avoid FM for about the first hour or so. The activity hours are also a good time to operate FM, but avoid the first ten minutes or so of each activity hour. (This is a good time to get grids on side- band, anyway!) One other peak FM time is just after the Monroe County FM net on Sunday night. Third, try to work other RVHFG members on sideband, wherever possible. Fourth, if a new station appears on a crowded frequency, move him to another frequency! For stations with considerable sideband capability, it is very important to NOT IGNORE FM! The January VHF contest is not as big of a VHF contest in most parts of the country as it is here. Every FM QSO you make is multiplied times all those multi- pliers you got on sideband. Think of it this way. FM is your 'tonnage' mode where you will make many, many QSO's but relative- ly few multipliers. Sideband and CW is where you get the multi- pliers, but you work fewer stations there. It takes both FM and sideband to make a really big score! SECRET: Don't overlook 6 meter FM this year. There has been an explosion of activity there in this last y there in this last year! ROVER OPERATION The most important thing to keep in mind when rovering is TO SIGN 'ROVER'!!!!! It's also important to note the /R in your log when you work a rover! As I pointed out in last month's column, rovers should be two-operator operations for best efficiency. It also could be very helpful in case of a breakdown in the middle of nowhere. If you are operating alone, avoid the temptation of trying to get up that 'big hill' unless you are absolutely sure you can get back down!! Also, there is nothing in the rules that prohibits having extra, nonoperating people along, such as a driver. This could help maximize an operator team's efforts. There is an extremely important quirk in the rules that I must take a moment to explain. Say you plan to operate fixed on Saturday, and rover on Sunday, and turn in separate logs. You must be careful not to work the same stations you worked when fixed, when you are rover IN YOUR HOME GRID SQUARE. There are two reasons for this. First, you can only work each unique callsign ONCE in a grid square. Any suffixes, such as /R, do not create a new unique callsign. Secondly, a single operator station can operate from anywhere in their gridanywhere in their grid square without signing 'ro- ver'. This should be something to consider if you are operating QRP or FM H/T only. One-person rovers can improve their effort by taking along a portable cassette recorder and taping their QSO's while they are in motion. Just make sure you announce the time and the band on the tape so you can create an accurate log. Although there is much question about the validity of a 'grid circling' operation like the Northampton ARC rovers did last year, there is nothing wrong with working other rovers for points, and even swapping grids as long as you run your operation in such a way as to contact as many other stations as possible. This is especially important in January. But, at the same time, don't throw away easy points! 10 GHz WBFM AND LASER If you want to do well on these bands, do your homework ahead of time and plan a mini 'DXpedition' to the QTHes of those who have such stations. PACKET RADIO CONTESTING Packet QSO's are completely legal as long as you properly connect and disconnect from each station. If you want to get a few QSO's while you sleep, set up your TNC to beacon frequently on a busy simplex packet channel, such as 145.01. Havnel, such as 145.01. Have stations connect to your mailbox and leave their call and grid square there. Make sure to have your grid square available, either during the connect message or in a prominently labeled message. Acknowledgment of your exchange is that your message was success- fully stored. And you acknowledge that you received the other station's call and grid by the simple act of leaving the message. (Of course, live packet QSO's are acceptable, as well.) Also, it is important to remember that NO PACKET CONTACTS MAY BE MADE THROUGH ANY FORM OF DIGIPEATER! AMATEUR TELEVISION CONTACTS There has been some discussion of using Amateur fast-scan TV for QSO's. This is fine, too. Just avoid using the 435 MHz sim- plex ATV channel for these or the weak signal ops will all rise as one man and pin your coax! ACTIVITY HOURS Make sure to pay special attention to activity hours as indicated by the 'clock' in your contest pack. You shouldn't limit your operation of a specific band to those hours, just simply spend more time on these bands during their activity hours. The evening activity hours are usually somewhat more productive than the morning activity hours, but don't ignorehours, but don't ignore the morning activity hours. SHORT CONTEST OPERATION I know that many of you cannot operate the full length of the contest. Some of you can only work a few hours of it. What are the best times to get on if you cannot work the full contest? The first few hours are always a good time. So are the activ- ity hours of any bands you have. Late Sunday afternoon and Sunday evening in general are all good times. Just after the Monroe County FM net is a good time for FM QSO's. The last half hour or so is also a good time to be on. Expect a '30 lion' pileup if this is the first time you have been on in the contest!! The worst times-- Late at night, late Sunday morning and early Sunday afternoon, early Saturday evening. If you don't have much of a chance to operate, try to avoid these times. METEOR SCATTER Sunday morning during the contest is a good time for random meteor scatter QSO's on six and two. Refer to Mark Hoffman, KA2RDO's excellent talk in September for details on how to oper- ate meteor scatter. This is an excellent way for a good op to pick up a few more grids! LOGGING AND DUPING This is an area that is often overlooked by the inexperienced operator.ienced operator. It can make or break your effort, especially if you are a multioperator station. The best way to log is with a computer. The W2HPF software is available free to all club members (Contact me if you need a copy). This will keep track of your total score, your grid and Q counts for each band, and inform you of needed bands and grids as you work various stations. Proper use of a computer logging system can increase your score by 25% or more by eliminating needless paperwork. One thing to check carefully well before the contest is if your computer interferes with your station. If it does, steps should be taken to 'RF harden' your computer. If this is not successful, it is better to manually log than to have a 'deaf' station! If you log on paper, it is critically important to WRITE LEGIBLY! I have come up with specific ways of printing some letters that makes it very easy to tell between an O, a 0 or a D. Another common one is telling the difference between a u and a v. This is even more important if you are part of a multiop team--someone else needs to read your log! Use a dupe sheet on a band if you anticipate more than 20 or so contacts on a band. I know it is a pain I know it is a pain to keep up a dupe sheet during a busy contest, especially on a busy band, but it could considerably improve your QSO rate at the end of the con- test. If you didn't use a computer this year, think about it for next year. OTHER OPERATING HINTS HEADPHONES- you should try to use headphones as much as possible. They are like a 6 dB boost to your sensitivity! POSTURE- Make sure the chair you sit in to operate is com- fortable. Operating with a backache is no fun at all whatsoever. Extra time spent laying out your station to be ergonomically efficient is time well spent. FOOD- This is an often-overlooked area that can improve your alertness. First of all, avoid caffeine unless you habitually use it. In that case, don't alter your caffeine consumption. Avoid alcohol! It dulls your alertness. For snacks, avoid those high in sugar. I find snacks like pretzels and popcorn best during con- tests. For food, a normal, balanced diet is best. Eat several small meals rather than one large one. Use diet soft drinks to keep your throat wet. Some contesters advocate bizzare diets such as orange juice, ketchup and candy bars. My advice is avoid this silliness. REST PERI. REST PERIODS- Take a few minutes to stretch every few hours. And, if part of a multiop team, try to relax during your breaks if this is possible. A few hours sleep at night can really regen- erate you. At least for now, there is little activity at night. If you want, sleep in your radio room with the radios on. Your adrenalin level will prevent you from missing that occasional rare one! COMPUTER TIPS- If you don't run your contest software in such a way as to print out each QSO, make it a habit to save your log to floppy every couple hours in case of the dreaded computer crash. It is also a good idea to leave your computer on through- out the contest period. For some odd reason, more computers fail during boot-up than at any other time! CALL PLACARDS- If you are guest operating at some other station using another call or grid, write the call and grid clearly on the back of a QSL card, etc. and display it prominent- ly where you can easily see it. Then, as contest fatigue starts to set in, you can easily remember the correct exchange. SKED FORMS- If you are doing a multioperator effort, prepare a little sked form to fill out for microwave skeds, etc. You may include on it places for the station's call, 6 digtation's call, 6 digit grid, sked time, beam heading, 'we call them' or 'they call us', a place to indicate calling on even or odd minutes, etc. Fill it out when you move a station and give it to the other operator. This will help eliminate communication foul-ups. CHRONOMETERS- Everyone should have access to the correct time, to the nearest second, especially in stations with capabil- ity on the microwave bands. This will facilitate making skeds with other stations. BEAM HEADING TABLE- This handy operating aid should be in every VHFer's shack. Simply calculate the beam heading to the center of all the surrounding grid squares for as far out as you wish. Put these on a table and post near the rotor controls. That way, when you hear a weak one from such and such a grid, you immediately know exactly where to point your antenna. YL OPERATORS- If you are running a multiop effort, consider putting on a YL operator. For some reason, a YL's voice is like a 6 dB power increase!! I could go on and on and on with ideas on improving your contest operation, but space does not permit. If you use some of these ideas, there is no reason your score shouldn't improve. If I missed anything important, please brg important, please bring it to my attention for future inclusion in this series of articles. 73's for now and good luck in the contest! REMEMBER-- THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF YOUR STATION IS YOU!! Have FUN! See you on the air!!!!