Monday, August 26, 2019

Introduction to amateur radio contesting

A major amateur radio interest is contesting. Whether your favourite activity is HF or VHF, Morse, phone or digital modes, there's sure to be a contest for you.

So what is a contest? A contest is an organised event where participants make as many contacts as possible within a given time. Apart from being an exciting and absorbing activity in its own right, contesting allows you to test the efficiency of your station together with your operating skills.

Contesters keep a record of the contacts they make and send it to the contest manager afterwards. The contest manager checks the logs and submits the results to be published on the organiser's website. Several months later the top scoring stations get a handsome certificate in the mail for their efforts.

Why do people enter contests?

People enter contests for various reasons. Some hams are driven by a competitive urge to be number one. They get a great buzz out of pitting their station and operating skills against others around the world. Those who wish to talk to as many countries as possible and collect QSL cards for one of the many operating awards on offer find that international contests bring out rare stations not active at other times. Others use contests to test the effectiveness of a new piece of equipment or antenna because of the large number of stations on air.

Types of contests

There are contests for all types of operators. Some are single band and single mode, while others are multi band and multi mode. The length of contests varies, from under an hour to as much as four weeks. Most major contests, however, run for 24 hours. The pace of operating ranges from relaxed to hectic.

Choosing a contest

A comprehensive list of coming contests is given in the monthly amateur magazines and on national society websites (ARRL, RSGB, RAC, WIA, NZART etc). Rules are also published there.

There are several big international contests, for instance the CQ World Wide and ARRL DX Contests. These are the real serious ones. Then there are country or state specific events. The operating pace is a bit slower and they provide a great opportunity to work many stations in a particular area. There are big and small contests to enter every few weeks if you are such inclined.

As an example here in Australia we have:

* Remembrance Day Contest (August) - Australia's biggest contest. States compete for RD Trophy. Highly recommended.
* Oceania DX Contest (October) - An opportunity for overseas stations to work Australia and New Zealand and vice versa.
* VHF/UHF Field Days (Spring, Summer and Winter) - Chances to go portable on the VHF/UHF bands. Activity is mostly SSB with a little FM.
* Ross Hull VHF/UHF Contest (December/January) - THE contest for the serious VHF/UHF DXer and microwave enthusiast. Most activity is SSB rather than FM. The contest runs for weeks and is more a marathon rather than sprints like the VHF Field Days.
* John Moyle Field Day (March) - Portable operating on all bands. Great fun!

Other groups also run contests. For example, the VK QRP Club has its QRP Hours Contest. Some clubs also have their own contests or scrambles. All these are excellent contests for beginners, as the pace of operating is fairly slow and/or the contest period is short.

DX contests that give extra points for prefixes worked are particularly good for those in less populated countries as it puts you in demand. However, participation in these events is suggested only after you have gained experience in one or more of the smaller local contests.

Making your station contest-ready

There are several aspects to consider when setting up a contest station. These include:

* Efficient equipment. Transceivers with intermittent faults have no place in the fast-paced environment of a major contest. Either fix it or use another rig. Equipment attributes such as receiver dynamic range, variable selectivity (especially on CW), punchy but clean speech processing, low levels of internally-generated receiver noise, and fast transmit-receive switching will all aid HF operating. A big linear amplifier is not a prerequisite for a successful contest operation; even homebrew QRP rigs can do quite well in contests provided that they are not the ultra-simple 'bare bones' types that omit desirable features such as VFOs, audio filtering, sidetone, easy transmit/receive switching, etc. On VHF and UHF FM set your equipment to tune in 25 kHz steps and have the most popular simplex frequencies in memory to allow quick frequency changes when required.

* Reasonable antennas. You should get some contest contacts with almost any antenna, but to win, good antenna performance is a must. Receiving performance is as important as transmitting performance - you need to hear them to work them. If noise is a problem in your area (particularly on the lower HF bands) you may need to consider a separate antenna for receiving, such as a rotatable magnetic loop. Generally speaking, however, simple dipoles and verticals are entirely adequate for the station not expecting anything more than an average score in Australian contests.

* Freedom from interference. There is nothing worse than having to shut down because of a TVI complaint in the middle of a contest. Do some operating in the week prior to the contest to assess band conditions, station performance and to establish whether TVs in the neighbourhood will be affected by your activity.

Interference to your station is just as important - ensure others are not using appliances that cause interference while you are operating. If you plan to use a computer log, do a test to ensure that the computer does not spoil reception. If there is any degradation of receive performance, use a paper log instead.

* Station layout and operating position. All frequently used equipment should be within arm's reach of the operator. Antennas should be controllable from the shack, so that the contester doesn't have to go outside to change them. Band changing should be easy and quick. If using HF, it is desirable (but not essential) to have a second transceiver or communications receiver handy so you can monitor WWV or scan other bands for activity while operating. The operating table should have plenty of room for writing if a manual log is to be used. Comfort is important as you will be at the radio for several hours at a time, so invest in a good swivel chair and ensure that both it and the table are at a comfortable height.

Preparing for the contest

Before the contest read the rules and consider which section and category to enter. Depending on the contest, there may be a choice of phone, CW or open modes, VHF, HF or all band and various operating periods. Not all contests have as many sections as this - some have the CW and phone sections as separate contests on different weekends. Factors such as station location, equipment and bands available, likely propagation, and time available will influence the section chosen.

Decide whether to use electronic or paper logs. If electronic (most popular and now essential for club entries) download and familiarise yourself with the logging program (eg VK Contest Log ) and ensure your computer and transceiver co-operate (computers can interfere with HF reception and be affected by strong RF fields). If paper logs, make sure your pens are working and rule up (or print off) sufficient log sheets.

Have a realistic expectation of what you can achieve in a contest, taking into account factors mentioned above. As an example, a low power operator well outside the major cities may be disappointed with how few contacts they get in a VHF contest if they were hoping for a competitive score. On the other hand, someone who decided that their main aim of entering the contest was not to make a large number of contacts, but to confirm that they could be heard by city stations on a new antenna they have built could come away from the contest with their expectations satisfied. The country operator aiming for the big score might have been better off to work HF instead.

Particular contest rules can skew operating patterns and influence activity. An example some contests may reward different prefixes, countries or grid squares while others are a flat one point per contact (which is good for those in densely populated areas).

Geography makes a difference. Even if only a mediocre antenna was being used, a low power station with many amateurs 300 - 1000km away should do quite well on 80 and 40 metres. In contrast, the same station with a similar antenna in a remote area 2000km from the main centres would find things difficult. If they wish to persist with HF they may be better off on higher bands like 10, 15 or 20 metres, bearing in mind that conditions on them can be volatile.

The lesson of these examples is to consider your circumstances and how the rules and scoring system will affect your activities. Last year's results can give a guide to the relative popularity of contest sections and the scores you need to get to be competitive. If no one entered a particular section last year, try it this year - the chances are that you will be the only entrant and get a certificate.

Know the capabilities of your station. Your normal operating should provide the information needed, including the directions most and least favoured by your location and relative performance on various bands. A good opportunity to check this is to note the signal reports given when several locals are calling a distant station. If the signal reports you get are consistently weaker than for most others, your operating procedure will be different than if you are one of the louder stations.

In the hour before the contest, read the rules, look at propagation charts and check the operation of antennas and equipment. Ensure that you have sufficient pens, paper, and log sheets available.

During the contest

The big hand is approaching the twelve on the station clock, and, with microphone in hand, you're poised to make your first contact in your first contest. So how do you get contacts during contests? There are two main ways. Either scan the band looking for stations calling CQ ('search and pounce'), or put out calls yourself. The tactic chosen depends on things like band activity, propagation and the capabilities of your station.

Beginners should use the 'search and pounce' method for their first several contacts. Then later on, after you've worked all the stations calling, put out CQ calls yourself.

Making calls allows stations tuning across the band to find you and give you a number. This can significantly boost the number of contacts obtained. The reason for this is that during a contest there are all types on the band, from the die-hard contester to the station who says they're not really in the contest, but are happy to give out a few numbers. Many of these less serious participants won't put out calls themselves, but will respond to stations calling CQ.

I mentioned before that operating tactics are shaped by station capabilities. This is because people often prefer to answer CQ calls from stronger stations. A weak station on SSB with two strong stations either side may not easily be noticed by people listening. Also, strong stations can 'hold' a frequency, and ward off those who may be tempted to stray too close to it, but weaker stations may not be able to do this when the band is crowded.

If you're a weaker station it's best to use the 'search and pounce' technique most of the time, especially during the bigger DX contests when the bands are busy. Carefully scan the band for stations who are calling but haven't been worked before. Even if a calling station is weak, give them a call anyway - they may be using low power or have an antenna worse than yours. When calling, just give your own callsign - the other station already knows theirs!

Notwithstanding the above paragraph, weaker stations should not give up calling CQ altogether. If conditions seem reasonable but there are few stations around (common during less popular times eg early morning or late at night), you will work no one if you just listen. Put out calls yourself - if your signal is readable, people tuning across will call. As was mentioned before, calling CQ attracts many of the types tuning across the band who you'll never work if you only answer other people's calls.

Contest contacts are much shorter than other amateur radio contacts. All you need to exchange with the other station is a five or six digit number, consisting (usually) of a signal report followed by a serial number starting at 001. This serial number increases by one for every contact you make, thus you might send 57003 to the third station you work in a contest. Repeat this if your signal is likely to be weak at the other end. An example of a typical contest exchange is given below. The pace of operating varies between contests. When it's fast and frantic, just give the signal report and number. When it's slow, some people will tell you their name and location as well. Conciseness is particularly important when signals are weak or if using CW - 5wpm is excruciatingly slow for most CW operators, and you'll win the thanks of many if you just send the bare minimum of information the contest rules require.

While operating, fill in a log sheet. This should show date, time (UTC), band, mode, callsign, number given, number received and points. Try to keep it legible - the Contest Manager may need it when he is checking logs.

A typical contest exchange

The following is a typical example of a phone contest exchange between VK3AA and VK6AA.

{VK3AA seeking a contest contact}

(VK6AA): VK6AA {VK6AA responds}

{VK6AA's signal is 5/7, VK6AA is VK3AA's eleventh contact in the contest}

{VK3AA's signal is 5/8, this contact is VK6AA's first in the contest}

. {Contest contact ended successfully and both stations enter the contact in their logs. VK3AA continues calling CQ, while VK6AA looks for other stations calling CQ}

On CW, the procedure is similar, except there is a heavy use of abbreviations to save time. Very often, nines are sent as 'N', and zeroes as 'T'. Thus, the first station you work might receive a '5NNTT1' number from you, which is the equivalent of a 59001 report on phone.

Contest videos

Watch these to hear contesting in action.

PS: Do you sometimes come across terms that you're unfamiliar with? The Illustrated International Ham Radio Dictionary can help. Available in both ebook and paperback it's great value. Find out more here

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