Contest Preparation Strategies

Preparing for an amateur radio contest is nearly as fun as operating the contest.  Designing, building, and maintaining a contest station brings a unique set of rewards.  As does planning, practicing, and implementing an operating strategy for maximizing contest score.  While both station building and operating bring a unique set of rewards, station building tends to eat up an inordinate amount of time.  The time to plan, build, implement, and maintain a contest station outweighs the time spent preparing to operate that station.   I’ve been fortunate to be a guest operator from the N2QV station in New York since November of 2015.  While I miss the satisfaction of building and installing my own antennas, guest operating has provided an opportunity to give more consideration to operating strategy and improvement.

I’ve recently implemented some specific strategies for improving operating skills.  For adults, its extremely difficult to make significant changes in any aspect of our lives.  Our bodies and  minds are not nearly as malleable as when we were children.  However, it is still possible to make big changes, but it takes an extreme amount of effort.  For the past year, I’ve attempted to hone the three following principles:

  1. 10,000 Q rule
  2. Visual Representations
  3. Habits Not Score

The 10,000 Q Rule

Since November of 2017, I’ve instituted the 10,000 Q rule.  Simply stated, log 10,000 dual run QSOs in DXLog before a major contest.  This rule was first implemented for the 2017 CQWW CW contest and subsequently in the 2018 ARRL DX CW, 2018 CQ WPX CW, and 2018 CQWW CW.  That’s a total of 40,000 simulated contest QSOs with real call signs in dual run (OK, 2BSIQ if you must) mode.  Seeing guys like KL9A, N6MJ, and N4YDU put up some big numbers both on and off the air was a significant motivating factor for me to learn to manage two pileups simultaneously.  I’m slowly learning to run faster and still have a ways to go to catch up to the top ops.  But, its encouraging to see small improvements over time.  Below is a checklist that I’ve tried to follow when practicing:

1. Make 10,000 Qs before the start of the contest using DXLog in Dual Run mode.
2. Practice for at least one hour per day in ten minute increments.
3. Track number of Qs per 10 minutes, average number of Qs, Overall Qs, average pileup size, and average speed.
4. Make notes after sessions in order to document thoughts or strategies to improve performance.
5. Use a tailored database comprised of the most active DX callsigns.



Dual Run Practice
Screenshot of the Google Sheet used for Tracking Progress


Visual Representations

Because I’m cheap and a glutton for punishment, I decided to drive to New York for the 2018 CQWW CW contest.  I could have easily hopped on an airplane and made the direct flight to La Guardia in about three hours but in addition to the two previously cited reasons, I also wanted the flexibility that is provided by driving.  It’s nice to not mess with TSA, crowded airports, and being at the mercy of “mechanical problems.”  Even easier would have been to operate the contest remotely.  But I missed operating in person and am beginning to appreciate the advantages and satisfaction of being on site for contests.  So a 20 hour car drive provided lots of time for mental contest preparation.  The first three hours of the car ride were spent in silence attempting to create visual representations and plans for hour by hour operating strategies.  This is much harder than it sounds.  The human attention span is somewhere around 8 seconds, clocking in just behind that of a goldfish.  During the exercise, my mind would often drift off onto random subjects and I had to constantly refocus on walking through each hour of the contest.  Below is a checklist of items that I attempted to think through and visualize on an hour by hour basis for the contest:

  1. Decide which bands each radio would be operating.
  2. Visualize which operating strategy to use (e.g. dual run or SO2R).
  3. Visualize specific frequencies and beam headings.
  4. Create alternate plans in case the primary operating plan for that hour might not work.
  5.  Make mental notes of target areas outside of Europe to find.


Habits Not Score

A few hours before the start of the 2018 CQWW CW contest, I began to write down band goals for contacts, zones, and countries.  After finishing, I promptly wadded up the piece of paper and threw it away.  Too many uncontrollable variables impact an operator’s score that can trick that operator into feeling a sense of accomplishment or failure.  Two significant ones being equipment failures and unforeseen propagation changes.  Other ones happen too such as when a hurricane or massive ice storm roll through, destroying some or all of the antennas.  Totally unrelated to radio life matters pop up too such as signing papers for a house closing during a contest.  Regardless, judging contest performance based on a few numbers should not be the best indicator of how well that operator performed on that particular weekend.  One other variable comes to mind that impacts contest results- the arbitrary system of using continents to base points per QSO in CQWW contests.  It’s not uncommon for a second or third place world finisher to have MORE contacts, zones, and countries than the first place world finisher.

Judging contest performances on habits and not score seems strange.  We are habituated to believe that the person or team with the highest score was the best.  From a literal sense it is true that whoever has the highest score is the winner.  But does that mean that person or team actually performed at their personal best?  Attempting to judge contest performances based on


habits and not scores allows the operator to give a truly honest assessment of their operating prowess instead of just comparing themselves to others.  Put another way, its more important to compare ourselves to how we were yesterday than to compare ourselves to other people today.  A few examples of these operating habits that were implemented for CQWW CW 2018:

  1. Call CQ for all 48 hours, preferably on two bands.
  2. Hold at least one frequency at all times below the first 10 kHz of the band.
  3. Make band transitions seamless.
  4. Do not log a call unless 100% sure it is correct.
  5. Be aggressive about moving multipliers.


While the 10,000 Q rule, forming precise visual representations, and implementing habits played a part in the final score from the 2018 CQWW CW contest, it is still true that having a big signal and even bigger ears on all bands is a must to be competitive.  The 2018 CQWW CW contest provided perfect conditions for running two pileups simultaneously from the United States with the majority of those hours occurring on the low bands.  It will be really exciting to see the big numbers that will be amassed in a few years when the high bands start to come alive again.



Kevin, N5DX

Running, Remote, and WPX CW

I’ve been doing a lot of contest operating the past few years.  For the years 2014 and 2015, I’ve operated a combined 19 contests.  Additionally, thousands of contest type QSOs were made in casual DX operation from the Cayman Islands as ZF2DX.   There is no question that all of that operating time has allowed me to hone my contesting skills.  In the past, operating three contests in a year would have been the norm.  The rest of my radio time was spent building antennas, running the Cycle 24 business, or just general maintenance tasks around the shack.  Cycle 24 is long gone (both the actual cycle and the business) and operating from the N2QV station has allowed me to focus solely on the act of operating.

A second place finish in the 2016 ARRL DX CW contest left me hungry to see if I could perform better in the next big contest.  WPX CW offers some interesting strategies to consider.  Off time and optimization of six point contacts on the low bands are the main factors in posting a competitive score.  For years, the WPX  contests have been considered a one radio affair.  A look at participants logs will show you that many (but not all) single ops just run, run, run, for the entire contest and give little attention to the second radio.  Why bother when a WU2 prefix is just as valuable as a 5H3 prefix, right?  Wrong, there are several hundred contacts that can be made throughout the course of the 36 hours that in the end add up to a significant amount of points and mults.  The optimum strategy would be to mix traditional SO2R with duel CQing.  Unfortunately, the setup at N2QV is not optimal for duel CQing.  I would just have to utilize the second radio the old fashioned way, by tuning the dial and finding people to work.

Thankfully, for the WPX contest I would have a dial to tune.  For ARRL DX CW I used a mouse wheel for the entire 48 hours to tune the second radio.  While that may sound like torture, it actually was user friendly and had little impact on my final score.   Scott, WU2X, had time to perfect his Radio Remote Link (RRL) software that allowed my TS 590S to fully control the TS 590S at the N2QV station.  S meter, knobs, RIT, etc. were all 100% functional.  Very cool considering it was all accomplished by software.  In other words no external hardware was needed.  Just a USB cable from the 590 to a computer.  A simple mouse click on the home screen shortcut and my 590 came to life and immediately went to the frequency of its twin in New York.

I enjoy working out at the gym.  100% weight bearing activities and generally not my legs.  I hate doing leg exercises.  But in the weeks leading up to the WPX CW contest I decided to try something different.  Running.  Other than occasionally being forced to run a mile in high school for basketball, I had no experience with long distance running.  Keep in mind that high school is now a very distant 20 year memory.  My plan was to participate in a local 5K that was set for a week before the WPX CW contest.  OK, not participate…. WIN.  Yeah, that goal didn’t last long.  After my first mile on the treadmill I thought that death was imminent.  I ran the mile in about 8.5 minutes and was doubled over on the gym floor.  Pathetic.  The winning times in our local 5K are generally around 19 minutes.  A 5K is 3.1 miles, so the winning time averaged around 6 minutes and 12 seconds per mile!  If I’m going to do something then I want to do it 100%, all out.  But trying to compete with people that have been running competitively for their entire lives was just unreasonable.  I revised my goal to complete the 3.1 miles in under 24 minutes.

WPX 1st ten minutes
First 10 minutes on 40 meters

I was supposed to be live for the WPX CW contest.  N2QV and WU2X had a project for me to complete at the station in NY.  The plan was for me to operate WPX CW and then complete one piece of the new 160 meter antenna.  Unfortunately, that didn’t work out so I ended up operating the contest from Arkansas while remotely controlling the N2QV station.  The plan was simple, pound 40 meters into submission.  The 4/4 stack is killer and with every DX contact adding up to 6 points the band should be easy pickings.  I also wanted to have a total of 1200 contacts between 40 and 80 meters and 500 second radio contacts.  The second radio goal was a bit lofty, but at the same time it’s only 14 contacts per hour for 36 hours.  That sounded doable.  I also felt that the single op guys underutilized 80 meters.  The trend seems to be to totally neglect 80 meters until the second night.  Then spend about an hour CQing there before retreating back to 80 meters.  My plan would be to keep the second radio on 80 in order to maximize the double point contacts and also do some brief CQing there in hopes of having all the multi ops find me.

The first 6 hours went by quickly.  The first off time occurred at o619 with 739 contacts going into the log.  The run radio did not budge from 7002.74 for the entire first operating period.  As expected, the Europeans just kept coming and I welcomed them into the log with open arms.  Of the 739 contacts that occurred, 512 of those were with Europe and the majority of those came on 40 meters.  This did present a problem though.  In past WPX contests, I’ve been able to hang with the East coast guys in terms of mults because of all of the U.S. and JA prefixes.  Operating from Arkansas allowed me to beam both to the east coast for Europe and to the west coast for JA.  However, operating from the East coast doesn’t provide the opportunities to supplement all of the EU prefixes with U.S. and Japanese prefixes.  This put even more emphasis on the importance of utilizing the second radio to find mults, even if those mults were only 1 point contacts.

Unfortunately, 80 meters held true to form.  I ended the first 6 hours with only 31 contacts on that band.  I attempted some brief CQs and second radio stints but the band just didn’t yield anything.  20 meters was also disappointing.  Other than a smattering of EU and SA the band was dead.  However, there was no doubt that it would come to life when the sun came up.  15 was the big question mark.  Conditions had been poor leading up to the contest, and it seemed as if the A & K indexes were improving but it was unclear if it would be enough for 15 to really open into EU.  So far the remote had been just OK.  There were several times when I adjusted the latency so as to improve the quality of the audio.  This is not good though, because all of those lost milliseconds add up over the course of a two day contest.  The condition of the HF bands and the remote stability were looming in the back of my mind throughout the contest.

Back on the air at 0926z after a three hour nap.  My hopes were high for a big 20 meter run and then transitioning to 15 meters for more of the same.  A quick CQ on 14005 netted back to back EU contacts, but the next EU contact would not be for another 20 minutes!  Aargh, I was to early to the party.  The band simply wasn’t open.  I spent time desperately searching for anything on the second radio.  OA4SS, WL7E, VK4SN,  and VK6LW all went into the log on 40 meters.  20 meters slowly started to wake up and finally around 1000z the band was actually runable.  I made a note to myself that I was 30 minutes early.  During the 1000z hour, I managed to squeeze in a few second radio Qs on 40 meters with ZM1A and ZF2ET.  The 1000Z hour ends with 131 contacts in the log.

ZF2ET (aka K5GO) is operating from the island of Cayman Brac with a single 14AVQ vertical and 100 watts.  The antenna is not impressive but his signal is.  He has built a small house directly on the water with only salt water between himself and VK, JA, US, and EU.  A few antenna upgrades and the station will be highly competitive.  The place will also be available to rent, with a full arsenal of radios and amps available for use.  Hopefully I can get a family discount and put my Cayman Brac callsign, ZF9DX, to good use.

15 meters still isn’t close to opening.  40 is dead so there is no where to go but to do some in band SO2R work on 20 meters.  The amplifier setup and second radio RX antenna (a triband vertical) allows me to tune through 20 meters while also CQing on that band.  The rate is declining.  The 1100z hour ends with  122 and the 1200z hour ends with 110 contacts going into the log.  15 meters needs to wake up, and fast.  I find ED8X on the second radio along with HP1XT and a few South Americans.  But still no EU.  I put the second radio back on 20 meters and find 4 new contacts within 5 minutes all while maintaining the run frequency on 14004.90.  In band SO2R is fun!

At 1349z I take about 1.5 hours off.  Back on the air at 1523 and I decide that if 15 is going to keep hitting the snooze button then I’m going to shake it out of its slumber.  Surely 24 elements pointed right at EU will be enough to get the band hopping.  The 1600z hour ends with 87 contacts going into the log with 65 of those coming from running on 15 meters.  The band isn’t great but it allows me to pick off 22 contacts on 20 meters using the second radio.  4Z4AK calls in at 1708z and nine minutes later A60A also calls on 15.  The band is open but the activity is sparse.  Then at 1725z 4K6FO calls as well.  Regardless of the lack of importance of rare prefixes it is enough to keep things interesting and motivating.  I bounce back and forth between 15 and 20 meters for the next couple of hours.  The rate is not good and I’m just biding my time until 40 meters opens.  The first half of the contest ends with 1900 contacts going into the log.  3600 Qs would be a great finishing total.  One of the unfortunate aspects of our hobby is the air of mystery regarding who your competition is and how that person is doing.  I figure that N2NT and K3CR would  be low power.  Those two guys are top notch competitors.  It’s always possible that K5ZD could decide to put in a full time effort.  Like NT and CR, Randy is the cream of the crop.  The one guy that I’m confident is my competition is K1LZ.  Krassy has a huge station and is a big time operator.  Competing with him will take everything that I’ve got.  During the 0200z hour the second night while running EU on 80 meters I get the dreaded call from K1LZ.  There is a big knot that forms in my stomach in anticipation of hearing his serial number.  At least in WPX the competitors are able to easily know how they are doing in terms of contacts.  However there are several factors that play into this comparison.  We do not know how much off time the other person has used up.  We also do not know what the point per QSO of the other station is.  K1LZ sends me 5NN 2186.  SHIT!  I hit the enter key and fire off 5NN 2086.  A full 100 contacts behind Krassy.  There is nothing to do about it other than to keep pushing and hope that my mult and point total is enough to make up the difference.  I doubt at this point that I can close the QSO gap.  K1LZ is a run machine and given his location and high fire power advantage I don’t see how I can gain 100 Qs on him.

Nothing is easy the first time you do it.  If it is, then it’s probably a drug.  My new favorite book is Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.  If you don’t want to read the book then check out the authors research article:

Here is the gist: innate talent is a myth.  How is that for a book summary?  If you want to know more then check it out.

My training for the 5K was coming along nicely and it was amazing to see how practice can improve an area of weakness.  I was now running up to 4 miles.  It sure wasn’t easy but with each session hopping on the tread mill and achieving my goal became easier.  Every time there were voices in my head urging me to quit and sometimes I would succumb to those voices.  However, I attempted to put the voices on mute and just focus on pushing myself.  I loved seeing the sweat fling off my body.  The treadmill was drenched and I pitied anyone within the splash zone.  The more I ran, the easier it became.  The myth of talent certainly jived with my experiences.  I’ve managed to become a skilled basketball player, golfer, and contester.  And I thoroughly sucked at all of those things for a long time.  Only after years of practice did I get to a level where I felt competent in those activities.   Running was slowly becoming easier.  Although, I had years to go to get to a stage where my times would actually be impressive.

At the half way point of the contest the log contained zero zone 24 or 25 contacts.  I had to find some way to tap into these multiplier rich areas of the world.  Perhaps there would be a morning run on 20 meters.  For now, it was time to milk 40 meters for every last 6 point EU contact.  I started running at 2314z on 7012.  The 2300z hour finished with 90 contacts with 72 of those coming on 40 meters.  A great run in my mind considering it was the second night.  The pace continued with 92 contacts at the end of the 0000z hour.    During this hour, I managed to find JT5DX on 20 meters on the second radio.  A few minutes later TZ5XR calls in on 40 meters.  I ask him to repeat his call several times because it doesn’t seem legit. But he insists, so I put him into the log.  I then find UN7FW on 20 meters and quickly jump to CQ on 20 meters with the big stack pointed north.  I’m hoping to pick up some deep Asia and Russian prefixes with an over the pole run on 20 meters.  The move is a bust.  Other than 4J4K and RK9F nothing good calls.  The second night 80 meter run comes right on que.  An hour and a half on 80 nets over 100 contacts with most of those being 6 point EU contacts.  I’m aware of lingering on the band after making the mistake in ARRL DX CW, so as the run dies I transition to the band edge on 40 meters.  4L1MA quickly calls in on 40 meters and then A93JA is logged on 20 meters.  It’s incredible how well the multiband vertical works as the second radio RX antenna, especially on 20 meters.  I pull the plug at 0626z and take a nap.  I know that to catch K1LZ I will have to push extremely hard.

I slept a little later knowing that the previous day 20 meters opened about half an hour after I guessed it would.  The thought occurs to me that one of the aspects that makes contesting so enjoyable is the unknown variable of the day to day contest conditions.  Unfortunately, I get to experience a totally different variable that is related to remote contesting.  I’m greeted Sunday morning without the use of my audio program that enables two radio operation.  To make matters worse, my local computer is acting like someone has installed a virus in it that’s sole purpose is to drive me nuts.  I swap out local computers but still do not have access to the second radio audio.  Luckily the remote radio guru, WU2X, is able to quickly fix the problem and I’m back in business.  The entire cycle, from problem to solution only lasts about 20 minutes.  20 meters is strong and I decide to not waste an off time.  Instead I just lose 20 minutes of operating time.

wpx ja 20
Brief Asia run on 20 meters

15 meters sounds better the second day!  But before leaving 20 I turn the stack to the north and am rewarded with a short run of 12 Asian mults comprised of JA, BY, and an HL contact.    The 1200z and 1300z hours are spent with exactly 89 contacts going into the log for both hours on 15 meters.  I find VY2TT on 20 meters at 1200z on the second radio.  Ken really has this contest figured out and I feel good to have 2550 contacts to his 2685.  7Z1HL calls in at 1158z and then at 1203z K1LZ drops by.  I have pulled to within 75 Qs of his score, 2553 vs. 2685.  I feel a small dose of accomplishment and keep pushing.  At 1315z YD1DTE calls over EU for a nice Asian mult on 15 meters.  At 1334z 9J2BO calls in, not Asia, but a mult none the less.  A few minutes later FG5LA calls in on my run frequency on 21013.85.  All of these contacts from all over the world with the four high stack pointed at EU.  The second radio finds some JA stations hiding out high in the band on 20 meters and three consecutive mults go into the log.  Nothing much else interesting happens for the next several hours.  I follow EU to 20 meters and try to balance off times and rate.  I’m hoping that 40 meters is open for one final run.  I doubt that 15 will open to JA but I need to somehow improve the paltry JA prefix count.  At this point I’ve worked about 15 JA multipliers. 20 continues to produce with my rate hovering between 65 and 80 during the afternoon hours.  The 2100 hour shows zero second radio contacts.  This is a shame as I’ve undoubtedly left some points on the board.

Finally, at 2239z I find JA3YBK on 15 meters.  He is about S1 on the second radio RX vertical.  However, when I transmit the big stack kicks in and his signal pops up to S6!  I decide to go for broke and find a place to CQ on 15 meters with the four high stack pointed at JA.  There is an hour and a half left in the contest and the move is a gamble.  20 meters is consistent with a steady mix of US and EU.  40 meters has the chance to open and provide double point contacts.  However, the allure of Asian mults is to much to resist and I QSY to 21005.

Race day!  I felt that my training had slacked a bit in the weeks leading up to the race.  Instead of running on the treadmill I had gone out to run the actual course.  My times were disappointing, usually over 25 minutes.   However, I hoped that the actual race would be enough motivation for me to kick into another gear.  It took forever for the coordinators to get everyone lined up.  I had no intention of making a fast start.  Burning all my energy

Crossing the Finish Line
Crossing the Finish Line

in the first mile would be a bad thing.  The leaders quickly said good bye to all of us wannabe runners.  But that was fine with me, I was just racing to get under 24 minutes.  Like most times I felt great for the first quarter of a mile and ready to quit by the .5 mile mark.  But having someone just in front of me was a constant motivator to keep pushing to the end.  The 5 K course is in a loop around a small lake in the middle of our town.  The runners were told that at the half way mark there would be a sign with our times, but when the half way mark came there was no sign.  I hadn’t turned on my running app so I had no way of knowing my time.  It didn’t really matter, I just kept pushing and turned on some Jay Z.  The last half mile felt great and I pushed hard to finish strong.  The finish line was crossed at 23 minutes 21 seconds.  Out of 416 participants, I had finished 16th and first in my age group.

The QSY to 15 meters paid off, big time.  Over then next hour and a half 35 new mults went into the log.  Many JA and BY contacts along with oceania and US west coast comprised the total.  The JA stations were all extremely weak.  Fortunately, they seemed to be hearing me okay because there was a steady stream up until the end.

The contest finished with just over 11 million points.  Despite remote problems due to latency issues, and computer problems due to some rogue virus I was still able to post a claimed score of 11 million points.  Just eeking past K1LZ with a slim half million point advantage.  I was shocked to see that my mult total and Krassy’s was nearly identical.  Some RBN analysis revealed the story.  It appears that Krassy split some of his power towards the U.S. in order to attract all of the valuable US mults.  A great plan that worked out well for him in terms of his mult count.  I was able to garner a small point per QSO advantage that made the difference between our scores.  I was also able to trim the QSO difference to a mere 12 contacts.  Of course, none of this is official until the final log checking reports are released.  Hopefully it will go down as a SOAB high power victok1lz n5dxry via remote operation.  I managed to end the contest with 352 second radio contacts, a respectable total.  I also was able to nearly achieve the 1200 QSO total between 40 and 80 meters.

All of this was made possible by my friends Tariq, N2QV, and Scott, WU2X.  Guys like Tim Jellison, KL7WV, do yeoman’s work to keep the big hardware at the station running.  Tariq is also blessed with some hard working and knowledgeable locals that can do just about anything around the station.  I’m just a lucky guy that gets to play with their toys.


3830 post


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