10 episodes

Explore upcoming ham radio HF contests with VA7ST. From globe-spanning pileups to challenging and fun regional contests, we'll look ahead at the next events in the world of radiosport for amateur radio operators.

Zone Zero podcast VA7ST

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Explore upcoming ham radio HF contests with VA7ST. From globe-spanning pileups to challenging and fun regional contests, we'll look ahead at the next events in the world of radiosport for amateur radio operators.

    Episode 24: CQ WPX RTTY and ARRL DX CW

    Episode 24: CQ WPX RTTY and ARRL DX CW

    The old song continues – conditions ain’t what they used to be – but the end is in sight. With two of the biggest contests of the year coming up in February, will the HF bands hold up well enough to enjoy? We’ll take a look in Episode 24 of Zone Zero.



    Hi everyone, and welcome to the middle of winter here in the British Columbia interior. It’s minus 26 outside with the windchill – cold enough to slow the grease in the tower rotator. But we won’t let that slow us down with two very big contests on the immediate horizon.

    Here in the first week of February, we’re angling toward the upcoming CQ WPX RTTY contest on February 9 and 10, and the following weekend February 16 and 17 the whole world lights up for the ARRL International DX CW contest.

    These are two very different contests. The WPX RTTY is an “everyone works everyone” event with lots of rate on every available band. It’s a bit of a rate-fest, with a nice short exchange – a signal report and serial number.

    It’s vital to remember that the QSO points double on 40M and 80M in the RTTY contest. I can’t stress strongly enough how great it would be if more stations went to the lower bands in the evenings to take advantage of the double-point contacts after the sun goes down. Sadly, 80M is often a wasteland after an hour or two of darkness.

    An interesting little statistic from last year – 95 percent of the contacts made in the 2018 running of WPX RTTY were made on 20M, 40M and 80M. I’m willing to bet that a very small fraction of those were on 80M – it’s a real lost opportunity for the full-time stations aiming for all 30 hours on the air.

    Our good friend Ed Muns, W0YK, is the contest chair for this one. In his report following the 2018 running, he noted that a total of 3,060 stations entered as single-operator last year. Almost 1,800 of those were low-power – running 100 watts or less – and another 1,137 were high-power. Ed sure knows this contest inside and out, and in fact won the high-power all-band category last year operating from P49X in Aruba. He won, but noted it was his third-lowest score over the past 12 years.

    For teletype fans, WPX RTTY is the best contest of the year – with the possible exception of CQ Worldwide RTTY and the ARRL RTTY Roundup — with plenty to work even now in the lowest sunspot years.

    Contrast that with the ARRL DX CW contest, which only allows contacts between stations in the US mainland and Canada and the rest of the world. That puts more emphasis on DX-capable stations, especially in the low-sunspot years when bands won’t support as much intercontinental activity.

    At the time of this airing, there are a total of ZERO sunspots, and solar flux is parked at 71. That’s not as low as it can go, of course. We have seen flux fall to 68 or 69 in the bottom of the solar cycle, so we’re in for a little bit of a treat with a few extra points of flux. A tiny bit more flux is better than none.

    But recent contest activity is a good predictor of what’s about to occur. For both of the upcoming contest weekends in February, I’m anticipating limited activity across North America on 15M with almost all the daytime production to be found on 20M.

    Last year in the WPX RTTY I managed just one contact on 15M all weekend long and had my second-lowest final score ever. This year, I’m expecting to land 100 or more contacts on 15, as I have been working stations from across North and South America on 15M in recent weeks.

    That means you should not neglect 15M in the WPX RTTY, and point at the Caribbean from the US and Canada in the ARRL DX CW contest. Competitive stations will be there to find those openings. The multipliers will be well worth staking out 15.

    From here in Western North America, even 20M will pose real challenges in the ARRL DX CW contest,

    • 6 min
    Episode 23: Looking ahead to CQ Worldwide CW 2018

    Episode 23: Looking ahead to CQ Worldwide CW 2018

    The 2018 CQ Worldwide CW contest is coming to a radio near you on the November 24 and 25 weekend.

    Over the past month I’ve made some major changes to the VA7ST setup, including updated equipment and a fairly substantial reconfiguration of the shack layout. Contest prep is done and I’m ready to roll. How about you?

    Let’s get going with Episode 23 of Zone Zero – the CQ Worldwide CW preview edition.



    Welcome to the big CQ Worldwide CW contest preview edition.

    We don’t do this very often, but I will open with a bit of homework for you – be sure to listen to the pre-contest report from last year – Zone Zero Episode 15, which is packed with interesting information about the contest that still holds true for the 2018 running of this great big event.

    Pre-reading/pre-listening: 2017 pre-contest Zone Zero

    For extra credit, I invite you to also listen to the 2017 post-contest report

    Okay, that’s the homework assignment.

     



    Now let me tell you quickly about some of the homework I’ve been up to. Big changes are now in place at VA7ST. A new transceiver and amplifier have brought the shack up to current contesting snuff with the first major renewal of gear since I added the FT-2000 and SteppIR 3-element yagi in 2009.

    I decided the investment was entirely worth it and long overdue – providing improved receive capabilities for incredibly congested bands in the bottom of the solar cycle, and more power for all bands, including 6M work.

    I’d like to think that this was all in anticipation of the biggest contest on the annual calendar – CQ Worldwide CW — but the reality is I’ve been contemplating the changes for quite a while.

    The new equipment includes an Acom 1000 amplifier, which has been in place for a couple of weeks now and was used in the Worked All Europe RTTY contest to great effect.

    The other item is a new Icom IC-7610 transceiver. This is an amazing bit of kit – software defined radio in a real radio box with knobs.

    I’m still learning how to use its capabilities, but I did manage to get it on the air in two-VFO mode in Worked All Europe RTTY earlier this month and spent hours while CQing on one receiver and searching and pouncing up and down the band on the other receiver.

    The IC-7610 also did a great job in the past weekend’s Sweepstakes Phone contest – providing almost clear-channel audio on my run frequencies even when 20M was packed to the rafters with stations. It’s really quite something to experience.

    Having two spectrum displays – one for each receiver – in N1MM Logger makes it dead-simple to see signals and callsign labels, so you can click and jump on any signal you haven’t worked before.

    All the new gear meant a rethink of how I have the radio room laid out. Specifically, I had to rearrange the desk surfaces to put two transceivers in their optimal locations – so I can easily tune the bands, reach the knobs, adjust amplifier and antenna tuner, and still have the correct ergonomics for three computer monitors and a keyboard at hand.

    So, now I have the Yaesu FT-2000 as my left-hand radio and the Icom as the right-hand radio – they’re Radio B and Radio A from left to right. Then a little further to the right side and continuing around the corner of the desk surface, I have:



    * my keyer paddles

    * the Acom amplifier

    * an AEA AT-3000 antenna tuner that serves as my main antenna switch.



    After 30 years this setup is about as close to perfect as I’ve ever come. Everything within easy reach, nothing in a spot I’d rather not have it.

    • 17 min
    Stress and the ham radio operator

    Stress and the ham radio operator

    We get a little introspective this time, looking at what’s stressful about contest operating, and how de-stressing it really is. And we’ll talk about contests, too. That’s the direction we’re heading in Episode 22 of Zone Zero.



    Welcome to Zone Zero – if you’re new to the podcast, it’s pretty much a radio contester’s diary. I’m Bud, VA7ST, and for years I’ve been keeping notes about my contest experiences and that morphed into this irregular set of audio diary entries. I know lots of fellow contesters are just like me, and I also know how useful it can be for new contesters to hear what others have experienced.

    I thought this time out we’d consider some of the virtues of contesting that have little to do with competing, and everything to do with wellbeing and what our fun pastime – this avocation on the air — does for us.

    If you work in a high-stress environment — or are a particularly high-strung retiree for that matter —  ham radio may be the best stress-reduction therapy there is, short of walking your dog or going fishing.

    Unless you have an unwalkable border collie like ours or my luck with the fish. Then contesting is definitely time better spent.

    When I have a moment of spare time, I find it quite relaxing to just sit and listen to people chat — whether that’s using Morse code or phone or even digital modes like teletype or PSK.

    There’s something mesmerizing about a CW QSO under way. Like the beer ads once said, Those who like it, like it a lot.

    And then I go and screw it all up by being a contester. Talk about self-inflicted stress. I will admit there are times when being in a contest makes me nervous or downright angry. When Europeans are piled up on top of me and I can’t work them fast enough for their comfort, I get anxious — imagine that happening on two bands at the same time with an SO2R setup!

    And then there are those times when some lid parks on top of me and thinks he’s going to outbid me for the frequency.

    That’s stressful because it wastes my time, but I also know I’ll rarely lose a frequency fight with an interloper. I don’t obsess about holding a frequency as I know most of the time interference is not intentional and many times I’m the low-power guy the other guy probably can’t hear, but I do have a secret weapon in those instances. And that is the sustained pressure of all the stations trying to work me.

    The VE7 or BC multiplier is pretty valuable in most contests. People want it more than the other guy’s multiplier, and they eventually drown out and chase away persistent irritants co-located on top of me. Stress relieved.

    I find the weekend flies by if I’m in a contest – I get into flow and don’t think about work for hours at a time, and certainly not nearly as often as I do without a contest to focus on.

    But perhaps the greatest anxiety reducer there can be is social interaction — being with other people and, in particular, others who share your interests or a common goal. During any one contest, you might spend five seconds in contact with a fellow operator making your exchanges. But over a lifetime of contesting, you begin to feel a strong sense of kinship with your competitors.

    I could offer a long list of people with whom I have never had more than a brief hello on the air, but I consider friends and would miss if they were not out there sharing the experience with me each weekend.

    They don’t know it, but I smile to myself every time I work fellows like John W9ILY. We’ve worked literally hundreds of times over the years, even when he was in PJ4. John was one of the first guys I made a contest QSO with when I got back into contests in 2002, and he’s there almost every time out in the 16 years since.

    I don’t know John, but I consider him much more than an acquaintance.

    • 13 min
    Episode 21: Summer potpourri

    Episode 21: Summer potpourri

    High summer in the Canadian west – or the Pacific Northwest depending on your outlook — is a glorious season. It’s a quiet time to relax in the sun, read back-issues of your ham magazines, or comb through catalogs and websites to contemplate new gear for the shack, maybe a new antenna or coax. And it‘s a chance to catch up on all the little jobs you put off last spring, in the crazy belief that you’d have all summer to get to them.

    Let’s get going with Episode 21 – the summer potpourri edition of Zone Zero.



    A three-month hiatus since the last episode has been pretty full around the VA7ST household. We’ve flown across the country and back, been salmon fishing out on the Pacific, enjoyed the 2018 Pacific Northwest DX Convention, and put in quite a bit of listening time on 6M while hiding from the summer heat and wildfire smoke outside.

    Here in southern BC, for the second fire season in a row, we’ve had some pretty serious wildfires in the area, and the smoke is horrendous. It hangs low over the valley, marring any view, cloying at your lungs and pretty much making things dark and miserable.

     

    Outside the shack window right now, I am looking through the pine forest on our lower property and cannot see the valley beyond. Tall Ponderosa pines and Douglas fir trees a few hundred feet from us look like ghosted ship’s masts just discernable through the haze, and the sunlight filtering through it gives everything an amber tint that is actually quite pretty, as long as it is only temporary.

    For the past couple of days around our part of the country, the smoke has been too thick for the sun to heat things and the daytime temperatures dropped from 100F to 68F, making for great sleeping at night when it falls to 55F.

    But for several weeks those 100 degree days, along with the dense smoke, have made working outside a bit too uncomfortable, so we’ve found other things to do.

    Or to think about while doing nothing. It is summer, after all.

    In June, we celebrated our son Dan‘s graduation from the University of British Columbia, and the next day got on a plane and we flew to Ottawa, Ontario, where our eldest son Andrew graduated from law school. Life goes on and now that the lads are done with school for now, I feel like I’m about to have a whole bunch of spare time and a few more bucks to pretend I’m not spending on ham radio.

    Field Day under the sun

    For ARRL Field Day this year, I hooked up three car batteries and two 40-watt solar panels on the back lawn and operated QRP. I found an auto-wrecker that sells refurbished 12-volt car batteries for $15 each, and they are in good shape for the very intermittent use I have for them. The system charged up with the 80-watt array, and kept me going well into the evening the first night, and the next morning even early sunlight helped keep me ahead of the current draw.

    For the record, the two 40-watt panels are simple Coleman brand, that came as a two-pack with 7-amp charge controllers, from one of the great sources for all sundry items – Canadian Tire. I saw their late summer flyer this afternoon and see they are selling a two-pack of 100-watt panels for $350 – which is about half the price a single 100-watt panel sells for during the rest of the year. If I was serious about building an off-grid radio station, now would be the time for adding more solar oomph.

    Fishin‘ for fun

    In July, I took a break to go salmon fishing with my brother Matt, who has a great salmon boat in what must be the world’s salmon fishing capital – Sooke, BC. We came back empty handed, but still ended up enjoying some incredible meals of salmon he had caught earlier that week, and fresh crab hauled up on our way back in to the harbour. What a luxury to have access to free salmon fishing. Even if it means Matt is the captain.

    Matt took a group out the day after we left, and

    • 14 min
    Episode 20: Who’s on first? Real-time score reporting

    Episode 20: Who’s on first? Real-time score reporting

    Spring has hit us with full force in southern British Columbia. This is Bud VA7ST, and I’m sitting here with a bit of a sunburn from my first couple of days of full warm sunshine and looking forward to the next six months of outdoor activity.

    Operating in a contest often means giving up big chunks of a sunny weekend in favor of fun on the radio. It’s quite an investment of time, and if there’s anything we can do to make that time  even more enjoyable and less isolating, it’s worth doing.

    We toil away with purpose during a long contest weekend but – at least for single-operator unassisted  categories – we intentionally avoid sharing details about where we are making contacts or whom we have found on the air. But that doesn’t mean we have to be isolated from our competitors.

    I thought it might be interesting to begin this episode by looking at a few outstanding contesting community resources that can help add to the enjoyment we get from our investment in time and station-building.

    Live, online score reporting

    In recent years, thanks to the availability of Internet access from just about anywhere, a growing community of contesters are posting their live contest scores in real time to online score reporting services.

    These are quite sophisticated online pages that gather up-to-the-minute contest scores from around the world and publish them live. Anyone can go online and watch the competition unfold, with stations jockeying for position in the various categories.

    Over the years, I have found this to be one heck of a motivator to try harder, to keep my butt in the chair and keep turning the dial or turning the antenna looking for that next valuable multiplier or contact.

    There are two primary online score reporting sites – I like them both.



    Contest Online Scoreboard

    This site works with all the popular contest logging programs, including N1MM Logger, WriteLog, DXlog, Win-Test and several others. The development team includes Victor VA2WA, Alex K2BB, and Randy K5ZD, and they’ve done a masterful job of building a site that is easy to use and reliable.

    You can view a station’s total score up to the minute, along with the number of contacts they have, and a band-by-band breakdown, as well as their multiplier totals.



    CQcontest.net’s scoreboard

    Also compatible with all the major contest logging programs, CQcontest.net is a powerful score reporting site. Developed by the R4W team in Russia, it’s very popular with the global contest community.

    It, too, offers a variety of ways to view the live scores – you can dive down into the details of a station’s activity, view statistics and even view hourly rate graphs for any station, all in real time.

    One-stop score reporting

    The good news is you don’t have to choose which online scoreboard to which you want to submit your score. There’s a very handy single address that you can plug into your contest logging software that will take your score report and automatically forward it on to both sites.

    In your logging program, just point the score reporting to this address:

    http://www.b41h.net/scoredistributor.php

    This is a score distributor that will forward your reports to both Contest Online Scoreboard and CQcontest.net.

    And don’t worry about breaking any rules by posting your score to an online score reporting site. These resources are used by many of the world’s preeminent contesters and have been designed by outstanding and scrupulous contest operators. I am not aware of any contest rules that prohibit real-time score reporting – your online score doesn’t tell anyone what frequency you are working, or who you have worked in the contest. At most, another station might be able to figure out what band you are on b...

    • 17 min
    Episode 19: Back at it with new eyes

    Episode 19: Back at it with new eyes

    We’re back in the saddle and ready to look at 2018 through a whole new lens. Literally. I’m seeing like a kid and ready to hit the air again. Welcome to Episode 19 of Zone Zero.



    It has been a long road, but I am back in action and possibly better than ever thanks to the wonders of modern science and medicine.

    Since the end of 2017, I have been in a self-imposed exile from the podcast – spending January and part of February in the grip of near blindness caused by cataracts in both eyes.

    But those days are behind me. In February my right eye received a new lens implant, which gave me 20/25 vision in that eye – I was cleared for driving the following morning. Just over a week ago, I went back to have my left eye done – and that artificial replacement lens has some reading power built into it,. I am 20/20 in both eyes now and I don’t even need reading glasses.

    Well, except for reading the small print on a pill bottle or for soldering electronic parts, perhaps. But I can live with that.

    All of this is to say, I have no excuses left for not putting my entire best effort into whatever I choose to pursue. And my favorite pursuit is amateur radio contesting, as you know.

    A note of thanks

    I want to thank everyone who sent me best wishes while I was waiting for the surgery. In particular, Brian AF7MD in Oregon – thank you so much for taking the time to write and letting me know your thoughts. I appreciate it a great deal and it helped me push through to get back at it.

    Not totally off the air

    Now, I am going to confide in you that while I wasn’t able to see, I was still able to dabble in the occasional contest while I was awaiting my new vision. In fact, so far in 2018 I have competed in 12 contests already, which is quite something when you consider I literally could barely see characters on a computer screen when zoomed in to 200 percent.

    In those 12 contests, I have averaged 269 contacts per event. That’s lower than the average of 310 contacts across the 46 contests I participated in through all of 2017, but still pretty respectable considering my limitations.

    All of this is a segue to an interesting phenomenon I have noticed in tracking my contest performance over the past 16 years – essentially across Solar Cycle 24 as we approach the beginning of Cycle 25. If you go to my contest scores web page, you’ll see the scores I have recorded in every significant contest since 2002. As of this month, I’ve entered 861 contests and there are links to my post-contest write-ups for almost every one of them.

    At the bottom of the scores page is a chart showing each year’s total QSO count and the number of contests entered for that year.



    Curiously, the chart reveals that the highest annual QSO totals occurred in a twin peak – in 2012 and 2014, which correlates very closely with the two peaks we saw in Solar Cycle 24’s sunspot counts.



    If I was a betting fella, I could use this past performance to project future performance.

    So, in 2017 I ended up making about 16,700 contacts. Looking back over the previous solar cycle, I see that the closest equivalent performance was in 2006 with 16,000 contacts.

    I haven’t substantially changed my contesting habits or antenna capabilities over those years. I still have a triband yagi on a short tower, and wire antennas for the low bands.

    With this historical comparison, I think I can reasonably predict that in 2018 I’ll end up with a QSO total similar to one year after 2006. That would be 2007, when I had 18,600 contacts, or a marginal improvement.

    The big jump I would expect to see is next year, in 2019, when I think we will see a rise into the new solar cycle and a significant improvement in contest performance (going from 2007 to 2008,

    • 10 min

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