Twenty years of contesting experience had completely vanished.  Where is the VFO knob?  Replaced by a mouse wheel.  Where is the  CW paddle?  It’s now a keyboard.  The familiar view of mountain top vistas?  Replaced by a condensed neighborhood of houses and traffic.  Everything was different as I sat down in front of the “radios” as the clock ticked down to the start of the 2016 ARRL DX CW contest.

The clock hit 0000z and I was immediately greeted with a flurry of European callers in the VIP section of  40 meters.  That mythical area where us midwest guys only dream about.  The band edge on 40 meters.  But that shouldn’t be happening.  If you live west of the Mississsippi river you should never start on 40 meters running Europeans.  Much less in a primo band spot.  This contest was different though.  While my butt was in Arkansas my brain was in New York piloting one of the most powerful radio stations on the planet.

The first hour ended with 134 contacts going into the log.  Not bad considering two days ago it looked as if the operation would be cancelled.  Unfortunately a remote operation relies on one thing that is completely out of everyone’s control.  The internet!  Antennas can snap like twigs, amps can explode, and the electricity can vanish.  All of these have solutions: build another antenna, swamp amps or run low power, turn on a generator or hook up a battery.  But you simply can’t find a work around when the internet is broken.

The New York area experienced storms the week of the contest and something bad happened to the internet connection at N2QV.  Technicians from the ISP were called and they claimed to have fixed it.  But it was clear that something was still not right.  Remember the days of dial up internet service?  That’s what we had.  Fortunately, the N2QV station was able to call upon the expertise of a highly skilled lawyer and an IBM computer genius.  I pity the ISP service tech that had the pleasure of experiencing the wrath of this dynamic duo.  Thankfully the lifeline of the remote radio operation, the internet, was restored quickly after the phone call.

My game plan going into the contest was run Europe and pick off all the Caribbean mults.  Unlike CQWW CW, the interest in this contest is not world wide.  Just look at the announced operations for the two contests and you will see what I mean.  In CQWW you have global activity with lots of juicy mults.  ARRL is primarily comprised of a handful of dxpeditions to the Caribbean.

So as the contest chugged along, I continued to run Europe on 40 meters.  The rate slowed rapidly and I was hesitant to touch the second radio.  Habits matter.   Big time.  Within the first 5 minutes of the contest, I break my first keystone habit:

The second radio is utilized throughout the entire 48 hour contest!

The second radio lies dormant until 0033z when TI5W is found on 20 meters.  Typically the second radio is contributing to the score within the first 3 minutes of the contest.  I had full use of the second radio thanks to custom software provided by WU2X.  However, instead of that familiar compact black box in the form of a TS 590 I would instead be turning my attention to a computer screen and mouse.  Thousands of times my index finger would meticulously scroll through the band looking for fresh meat.  There was no real radio and no real reason to look at the radio.  My eyes stayed glued on the N1MM+ bandmap as mouse wheel slowly made its way around the bands.  The second radio contact count for the first hour is telling; only 6 contacts.  As the weekend progressed though free spinning wheel of the mouse became my friend.  The final numbers showed 222 second radio contacts.  Like the first hour of the contest; this number was not bad.  But not bad rarely equals #1.

The rate quickly cooled on 40 meters but the following interesting mults called in the first couple of hours: 9H1, 9K2, OX3, UN7, A93, A65, SV5.  Hopefully that last QSO doesn’t get thrown out.  A QSY to 3508 around 0200 saw the rate meter perk back up.  The next several hours were spent grinding Qs out on 80 meters while the second radio combed through 160 and 40.   A couple of quick CQs around 0430 on 160 netted some much needed European mults on 160.  But this came at a great expense with the 0400 hour netting only 59 contacts.  The CQ episode on 160 lasted exactly 15 minutes.  No need to linger on 160 just get the mults and get back to the higher rates on 80 and 40.  Back to 80 meters at 0500 for European sunrise.  The first 10 kHz of the band is the place to be so I nestled into 3504 and let the 80 meter 4 square do its thing.    Back to 40 meters at 0600z. The first six hours of the contest ends with a total of 589 Qs.  Not bad.

The next three hours get slow.  The Asia opening that happened in CQWW CW on 40 meters just isn’t there.  It’s probably a combination of low activity and poor conditions.  To highlight this, the 0800z hour sees only 18 Qs go into the log.   The log shows a 12 minute gap from 0841 to 0853.  Did I unintentionally take a power nap?  Not that I remember.  In hindsight sleeping for 30 minutes would have been the best use of my time in order to be fresh for the European runs on the high bands.

At 0920 a quick scan of 20 meters shows it to be dead.  But so is 40 and Europe has to be somewhere.  I call CQ on 20 meters and slowly have big gun KW packet guys call in.  They are weak but the 0900z hour ends with 73 contacts.  The band continues to build and the benefit of getting there early is clear.  Front row seats at 14001.  The 1000z hour jumps to 142 Qs and the 1100z hour continues to climb to 188 Qs, all on 20 meters.  This is a good number, but I know it could be better.   Turning those 190 hours into 200 hours is something I must learn to do.  Also important is learning to still utilize the second radio in these high rate environments.

The audio on the remote sounds awesome.  A hiccup does occur around sunrise but a quick tweek of the buffering and things are back to normal.  20 meters still sounds great, but that is dangerous thinking when operating from the east coast.   No time for stoic contentment in a DX contest, you must be a hedonist and always search for a higher high.

Sure enough 15 is rockin.  Not REM rockin but Foo Fighters rockin.  Wait, if your check is before 1990 then you didn’t get that reference.  Let’s try another one, not Hall and Oats rockin, but Def Leopard rockin.  One more just in case that still didn’t catch the target demographic: not Beach Boys rockin but Black Sabbath rockin.  All aboard the 15 meter crazy train!

Unfortunately I break another Keystone habit:

Band changes must be made with the utmost efficiency.  Both transition from one band to another and placement are key.

My transition is quick with one minute between Qs on 20 to 15 but the placement is terrible.  21067, UGH.  It’s 8:30 eastern time by the time I move to 15  and everyone is already entrenched in their own spot of spectrum.  The rate is good but not good enough and the 1300 hour finishes with only 141 contacts.  That number should have been in the 180s.  Poor frequency selection was caused by lingering on 20 meters.  Get to 15 meters sooner!!

Like in the CQWW CW contest I have interference on the RX antenna on 10 meters.  Plus the antenna is a vertical so I’m worried that many mults are not being received by the antenna.  At 1400z I abandon 15 and hope that it is a good time to CQ on 10.  The gamble does not pay off.  A few southern EU call on 10 meters.  I set to the task of running on 10 meters while hunting 15.  This is not a winning strategy and unfortuantely it continues for 20 minutes.  I come to my senses and find the edge of the band open on 15 meters.  But the damage is done and only 127 Qs go into the log.

Not much happens for the next few hours.  I Continue to run on 15 meters and work a few South America and Caribbean on 10 meters.  At 1630 I QSY back to 14001.  It seems early to be on 20 meters.  At 1827 I find ZF1A on the second radio for a new contact.  It’s hard to believe that one year ago I was operating with K6AM and N6MJ in this contest.  I can picture John and Dan huddled together working through the pileups in the ZF1A shack.  Cayman is a great place to be in February, but in that moment I’m really relishing the moment that I’m experiencing.  Operating a major DX contest from a massive station on the East Coast from the comfort of my own home.  Truly the life of Riley.

I follow the Europeans to 40 meters at 2100z.  A peak out my window confirms that the sun is high in the sky and the local time is 3:00 in the afternoon.  Of course where the RF radiates is what matters and that happens to be an hour closer to Europe.  I’m a little late getting to 40 as I have to go up to 7012 to find a good frequency.    I’m rubbing my little paws together in anticipation of working Asia long path on 40 meters.  But it never happens.  The only interesting call is a VK7 to come in over Europe.  The Worked All Europe contest continues for the next several hours until I QSY to 15 meters at 2300 to try to run Asia.   A 30 minute run nets 46 contacts from our JA and BY friends.  The rate was about the same as it was on 40 so I consider it a good move.  But the next 11 minutes is wasted trying to make something happen into Asia on 20 meters.  DU3 calls me on 20 during this time so it isn’t a total loss, but 5 contacts in 11 minutes is disappointing.  I finally land on 80 meters and have 4O3 and LX7 call for easy mults.

The half way marks concludes with 2400 contacts and 2.7 million points.  At this point I’m feeling great.  10 meters was disapponting  but I felt that I worked hard to get all of the Caribbean guys and big gun EU stations.  I’m still a little bummed about the transition from 20 to 15 meters.  The last 24 hours has been an immersion in radio land and now it no longer feels like a remote operation.  I’ve averaged 100 QSOs per hour for 24 hours from Arkansas.

Half Way Mark of ARRL DX CW

Half Way Mark of ARRL DX CW

Twenty-four hours in and I’m feeling good.  Both mentally and physically.  However, I was lieing to myself.  I break another keystone habit:

Do not DX in a DX contest!

I continue to grind out 40 meters with the rate hovering in the 50 an hour range.  Europe is asleep and I’ve worked most of them anyway.  I realize that I’m missing many Middle East mults on 80 meters.  Perhaps they will call me if I CQ on 80 meters?  Bad idea.  The second radio is for DXing.  The first radio is for running.  I spend two hours on 80 meters. TWO HOURS! The rate plummets to 30 an hour.  In hindsight the lack of sleep was clearly effecting my judgement.  I’m slamming Red Bull, 4 hour energy, and Cliff Bars but it doesn’t help.  It’s not until a few days after the contest that I realize the mistake.  WU2X pointed out that the only difference in operating strategy he saw between myself and K3CR was my long stint on 80 meters Saturday night.  During this time Alex was on 40 meters while I was on 80 meters.   Sure enough, a check of my log showed that the 0200 and 0300 hours were all spent on 80 meters.  With dismal hours of 31 and 37.  As soon as I QSY back to 40 meters the rate jumps to 61 Qs in he 0400 hour and continues to increase.    I started playing DXer, hoping that Africa or the middle east would call me on 80.  And my foggy brain never realized that I did this for nearly two hours.

The 0500 hour ends with 83 Qs, 0600 with 85, and 0700 with 96.  However I’m really struggling to stay awake and only 7 QSOs are made on the second radio during this three hour stretch.  At 0910 I finally tap out and retreat to take a 30 minute nap.  I’m hoping to wake up and find that 20 meters has opened early to Europe or a nice Asia opening has developed on 40 meters.  No luck.  I send a text to my dad asking him what happend to 40 meters.  The band truly sounds broken.

Nothing is going on 40 or 20 and I wait patiently until 20 meters opens to Europe.  There is no where else to go except to milk EU on 40 meters.  So all the way up to 1000z I continue to get a few answers to my CQs on 40 meters from Europe.

Finally at 1047z 20 begins to open to Europe.  But it’s slow.  Participation in this contest just isn’t up to snuff and the second day totals show it.  1100z- 106, 1200z-132, 1300z- 131, 1400z- 119, 1500z- 79.  But all competitors within a region are playing with the same pool of potential contacts.  I manage to flush some of those potential contacts down the drain by again botching the transition to 15 meters.

Again I’m late to the Sunday morning party on 15 meters.  It’s 1249z before I begin my run and this time I’ve managed to carve out a frequency on 21028 between two loud EU stations.  It’s not 21001, but the frequency is better than Saturday mornings debacle of 21067.  The rate is good with 3 or 4 contacts per minute pouring into the log.  But after one hour the frequency is getting tight and I’m being smothered by two loud KW stations out of Europe.  I would typically tough it out.  EU is loud here and I’m loud there.  But I retreat all the way up to 21094.  Even worse than Saturday’s position of 21067.  Finally after flailing around between 10 meters and the upper portion of 15 meters the run radio settles in on 21039.  But again I feel the need to leave 21039 and spend a costly 10 minutes of run time looking for a new CQ frequency.  All the inns are full and I again have to resort to high in the band, this time 21086.  And again I move and waste another 8 minutes of operating time looking for a good frequency.  I end up wasting 30 minutes of operating time Sunday morning bopping around 15 meters looking for a good run frequency.

Get to 15 meters early and establish yourself!

At 1429z FG5 calls on 15 meters and he agrees to QSY to 20 meters for an easy mult.  Throughout the contest I’ve been lazy and have broken another Keystone habit:

Pass Mults Constantly and Aggresively.

The contest will end with me only making three successful passes: 4L1 from 15 to 20, TK5 from 40 to 80 and the FG5 mult.  It’s not that the other passes were unsuccessful.  It’s that I did not aggressively engage in asking people to move.  This, coupled with my poor second radio performance resulted in me coming up short in the multiplier department.

Around 1630z 10 meters breaks open for about 30 minutes.  S5, 4X, DL, and ON all answer my CQ for new mults.  The opening is brief though.  My 10 meter mult total ends up lagging my competitors.  There are several likely culprits for the low country count on 10 meters.  The main one being correct antenna selection on the four high stack of Yagis.  Computer modeling shows that the stack should be run out of phase in order to take advantage of the correct angle of incoming European signals.  However, I ran the stack in phase throughout the contest on 10 meters.  The RBN reports are telling.  There are very few spots for N5DX on 10 meters and those that do show up are weak.

I get a text from my dad with three hours left to go in the contest.  I tell him that I’ve lost the contest.  He tells me to push hard for the last three hours.  The last few hours are slow.  40 meters perks up at 2200 and 85 contacts go into the log including a weak YB1 station that calls in with the stack pointed at Europe.  He ends up being the only long path Asia contact of the entire weekend on 40 meters.

The last hour is slow and the band breakdown is crazy: 10 meters- 1, 15 meters- 2, 20 meters- 5, 40 meters- 17, 80 meters- 13.  That flutter of activity only nets 38 contacts.

Final Score

Final Score

After all the scores were reported the N2QV remote experiment looks to be in a second place finish for U.S. and Canada finishing around 300,000 points behind K3 Charlie Radio.  Congrats to Alex on a superb finish.  I would love to point to the remote setup as my downfall.  But I can’t.  It worked flawlessly.  Instead I let a feeling of uncertainty surrounding the entire event affect my operating strategy.  The following items should have been handled better:

  1. More focus on the second radio.
  2. Improved passing of mults.
  3. Do not DX in a DX contest.
  4. Get to 15 meters early.
  5. Smooth band changes are critical.

The finish line was crossed with 5.6 million points going into the log.  An incredible finish.  Not due to any feat of operating.  But overcoming everything Murphy had to throw at us: a blown up K3 just weeks before the contest, implementing the Remote Radio Link software, strong arming Time Warner into providing internet service.  We set out to see if it was possible to be highly competitive using remote radio in a single op all band two radio environment.  We’ve answered that question with a resounding, “YES”

 

2016 ARRL DX CW Breakdown

 

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