Recollections of a Rookie: The 2017 Virginia QSO Party

Five minutes in and I’m already surprised.  I kind of went into it thinking 40m would just light up.  Not so much.  Activity emerges slowly, like individual stars at twilight. That isn’t the big problem, though.  The big problem is that I can only hear half of each of those contacts!  I can hear the Indiana or New York or Ohio end just fine – and the exchange makes it clear these are VaQSO Party contacts.  But the Virginia side is a murmuring, incoherent burble, surfing along the noise.

 So much for NVIS and short-skip.  I’m already regretting what I did with my antennas.

Tuning up and down the band.  Fourteen minutes in I finally stumble across a strong, readable Virginia signal.  It’s Arno W4AKO!  And he’s already up to number 14!  Wow.  Something about separating the wheat from the chaff…

With my first, virgin contact in the log, I settle in.  The buzz of anticipation is over.  This is going to be a lot harder than I thought.

Up and down forty.  Running to one end, then the other, like a disconsolate motorcyclist off his meds.  Over the next hour I make three more contacts.  Embarrassing.

In retrospect, letting go of a band that isn’t working seems obvious.  But it’s harder than it sounds.  Forty, for me, has always been the heavy hitter.  The one HF band that works when all the others have gone squirrely.   And all that got reinforced in the weeks leading up when I studied John KX4O’s Cabrillo stats from previous years’ VaQSO Parties.  I marked up a sheet of paper with which bands are open and “fat” on an hour-by-hour basis.  I figure propagation might be a little worse than last year, given where we are in the sunspot cycle, but the general characteristics should be about the same.  That paper now stares back at me from where I have it pinned at eye level.  Eighty comes and goes.  Twenty comes and goes.  Forty?  Forty is just simply always there.  Old reliable.

So, yeah, letting go is hard.

But if 40 has gone all drunk and messy, 80 is just the opposite… bright and clear-eyed!  Virginia stations dotted all over the band.  And so I bend to it and go to work.

It’s still slow.  But it’s steady.  After a few hours I’m ready to draw another conclusion… Search and Pounce is fine when working DX.  But it’s like a sniper carefully working a shot.  It’s laborious and slow and takes lots of patience.  It’s decidedly not the way to rack up points in a hurry.

This is my first contest, so it’s a work in progress.  Or, rather, I should say I’m the work in progress!  But I’m already getting an inkling.  My mind stretches back a couple months to when I was reading Contact Sport, J. K. George’s account of the 2014 World Radiosport Team Championship.  The boys and girls in that contest didn’t wander the bands, searching for quarry.  They set themselves up as bait and let the airwaves come to them.

I’ll pause here and confess.  There are elements to this Ham Radio thing that are fraught, at least for some of us.  Hearing, interpreting, and remembering call signs on the fly isn’t a skill I was born with (am I the only one who, for the first couple of months, kept a written-down copy of my own call sign there in front of me, lest I forgot?!).  Nor were phonetics – neither the standard ones nor the non-standard ones, much less the off-the-wall ones – any part of my lexicon before I started down the road with this hobby.

When I’m working DX, I can be that sniper.  I can take my time.  I can listen to however many contacts I need in order to get his call sign right, to get his cadence.  I can do a quick lookup on QRZ if I want.  I can move up five or down ten or wherever the nearest clear frequency is and tune up to within a gnat’s eyelash, before moving back.  I can get positioned just so before lifting my rod and casting the line.

And yet you can’t do all that and not forget, not appreciate, that that guy or gal on the other end has no such benefit.  What you might take two minutes to prepare for, thoughtfully and deliberately, he has but a couple of seconds… usually intermixed with a bunch of competing stations!  In a heartbeat he has to parse that babel of voices, interpret the phonetics, and pull something out of the morass of signals.

I listen to the radio and shake my head at the poise and presence that so many of you display.  I only hope that one day I can become half as competent.

All of which is to say, being on the receiving end of one of those dreaded pileups was something I had never experienced.  And so it’s with no little trepidation that I first venture out.

“CQ, CQ, CQ.  Virginia QSO Party.  This is Kilo-Four-Yankee-Whiskey-Zulu.  K-4-Y-W-Zed.  Listening.”

Nothing.

Again.  And again nothing.

One more time.  Once more, a fruitless pause.

And it’s not long before I conclude that I’ve done my duty.  It’s with a sense of quiet relief that I reach for the VFO knob.

I’m halfway up the band when I turn back to the computer.  Placing three fingers on the trackpad of the Mac, I swipe to the adjoining desktop.  The one with John’s spotting network up in my browser.  I’ve been watching it periodically since I began.

And now I’m staring at it in disbelief.  My own call sign sits there, beaming back at me.

Crikey!  It’s one thing to bail on your own.  But when someone has gone to the effort to spot you it creates… I dunno… kind of an obligation?

Spinning back to 3.829, I sigh with relief.  It’s still clear.  I begin once again.  “CQ, CQ, CQ…”

The words are hardly out of my mouth.  And here they come.

There’s a pregnant pause with the first one as I suddenly realize that our exchanges are reversed.  But then I’m into it and working them and after a few of ‘em I see, like most things, there’s a rhythm to it.  You just find that and go.

And boy is it fast!  An elation takes hold as I realize how quickly my contact and multiplier counts are growing.  This is the best thing since sliced bread!

It doesn’t last long.  A dozen or fifteen contacts and it’s over.  But not before I’ve experienced a little bit of magic.  Something I won’t soon forget.

Speaking of John’s spotting site… it was invaluable.  You’re sitting there with only one band working and all the stations you can hear are already in your log.   Sure, you’ll find the odd new one when it shows up by tuning up and down.  But it’s world’s easier when you see it show up on the spotting network.

MacLoggerDX, my logging software, worked fine.  One of the first things you learn is that determining if a station is a dupe is such a critical part to all this.  I can’t imagine doing it without software!

Most of the day Saturday I’ve gone back and forth between the desktop where I have MacLoggerDX up full-screen – and running my normal DX cluster – and the adjacent desktop where I have John’s spotting site.  Manually copying the call signs from the spotting network back to MacLoggerDX is a bit of a pain.  Too much swiping back and forth.  Too much getting half the call sign and having to go back to get the rest.  So late in the day I reverse that… I light up John’s spotting network as the telnet cluster within MacLoggerDX.

Much better!  Now it’s mostly Virginia stations showing up in the band map.  Now I can just click on them to populate the call sign box to see if they are a dupe.  And spotting them takes only a single click, versus filling out several fields on the web form.  I leave it like this for the rest of the weekend.

I discover radio contesting is a physically demanding sport.  Who knew?!  No surprise, really.  A lot of sitting and not a lot of moving.  Not all that different from a long motorcycle ride in that respect.  Late in the afternoon, my neck and shoulders sore, I start getting up more often.  Bringing in a load of wood for the woodstove helps.  As does walking the half-mile to get the mail.  And at the end of the day, Ibuprofen is your friend.

Saturday ends quietly.  I toast the day – my Spartan results rather a contrast to the rich experience I’ve enjoyed – with a big bowl of ice cream.  And then I head off to bed.

Sunday is a mix.  I wake up excited to get back at it.  Dreaming of more of those pileups and my score ratcheting up like Rapunzel’s hair.

But the bands remain diffident.  Eight O’Clock is lonely.  And 40m still has the flu.  It will prove a little better than yesterday.  But that’s not saying much.  Mostly it’s a day to stay on 80, with brief excursions elsewhere.

I rue not having 2 meters.  I’ve got the KX3 that can do that via the full-length J-pole outside my window.  But there’s a problem with the FTDI cable Elecraft shipped with it and I’m still waiting for the replacement.  Until they send that I’ve got no CAT control.  Probably wouldn’t much matter anyway.  Three watts out is fine for hitting our local repeater.  Maybe not so much for making it to Skyline Drive.  Still, there’s a twinge of regret every time I see one of those spots show up.  And I’m guessing it might be a key to band-hopping… something I still need to learn more about.

Speaking of Skyline Drive… I don’t hear Andy K1RA or Jason KJ4EOO the entire weekend.

There are some other big stations, though.  W4VA is ubiquitous, and I can’t help but smile every time I come across them.  And in one of my contacts the fellow asks me if I’m a member of the Fauquier Amateur Radio Association.  It’s with a sense of pride that I reply “Indeed, I am!”

K1RO out of New Hampshire had just the best signal all weekend.  He was something of an epiphany for me… emphasizing that an out-of-state station can often be in a fantastic situation to play a QSO party.  The propagation woes that bedeviled most of us in-state guys, and poked veritable holes in all the NVIS theories (kidding), was his strength.  Not that he didn’t leverage it with lots and lots of operating expertise – he surely did.  But he also made me realize that looking beyond your state’s borders for a QSO party can be handsomely rewarded.

Finally, I’ll just say that I marveled at many of you guys.  One of the interesting things about the exchange is that your pal on the other end knows instantly where you are; and you know exactly where s/he is.  I would just shake my head at some of the scores I heard.  No excuses.  No worrying about band conditions.  Just making it work.

My hat’s off to you.

 

What I wrote….

 

What I should have written….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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