Saturday, September 22, 2007

It takes patience

By pretty much all accounts, we are either at, or very close to, the bottom of the current solar cycle. For those of us who like to bounce signals off the ether (no, not ethernet), that means that it's generally a lot harder to work distant stations. In fact, it's just about impossible on some bands, because the ionization required to support propagation on those bands is either entirely absent, or is at such a low level, that it's effectively non-existant.

My home station is pretty modest: I have an Icom 756 ProII and use either a Heil Pro-set Plus (generally for contesting), my relatively new Heil GM4, or even my Bencher BY-1 paddles. That feeds into a G5RV antenna in the backyard, which is strung between two trees at a height of between around 30' to maybe 45'. (One end is lower, it was a somewhat smaller tree.)

The G5RV (I'm referring now to the antenna, not to Louis Varney, G5RV who designed it) is a compromise antenna.(See the first G5RV link for lots of details on that aspect.) It's designed to work on all bands between 10m (28mHz) and 80m (3.5mHz), although I've been able to use mine (with less-than-stellar results) on 6m (50mHz) and 160m (1.8mHz) as well. When I first got interested in HF, I wanted to put up an antenna that would work on most of the HF bands, would be relatively inexpensive, and would be easy to install. Although getting the feedline into what is now my permanent shack was quite a challenge (I'll save that story for another post), a bunch of folks from my radio club came over and helped get the G5RV (as well as a Coment GP-15 tri-band vertical for 2m, 70cm, and 6m) up in the air and set up.

When I was trying to figure out what kind of antenna to put up, I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that for HF, I was going to be using some kind of wire antenna, as opposed to a beam of some type. Quite a few people I spoke to told me that a G5RV would work, but not very well, and I probably wouldn't work a lot of DX. Fortunately (for me), at least the latter part of that statement proved to be wrong.

I was fortunate to start working DX towards the end of 2000, at which point Solar Cycle 23 was just at the first of a double-peak (see the earlier link to see what I'm talking about), so it was relatively easy to work all over the world. 20m, the workhorse band, was open until very late at night (more like very early the next morning). I hadn't really gotten the hang of working 40m or 80m, but there was still plenty of DX the higher bands.

When I commented to some of the G5RV nay-sayers that I seemed to be having little trouble working plenty of DX, they attributed that to the fact that it was the peak of the solar cycle, plus the fact that as a relatively new DXer, almost everything was new, so it just seemed like things were working out.

So, fast forward to late summer of 2007. The bands are in terrible shape, there's noise,
propagation in general is just lousy, and some of the key indicators of solar activity, such as solar flux, look like an EKG of a patient who is dead. (At times when the cycle was at it's peak, the base level was higher, and the spikes would go to the M and X levels frequently.) There are plenty of places on the web to get a good explanation of what all this means (and I highly recommend picking up a copy of "The New Shortwave Propagation Handbook" by Jacobs, Cohen, and Rose if you want to really learn something about the subject).

Anyway, despite all the difficulties, I do try to work a little DX as often as I can. It's more exciting when there's a DXpedition going on to an interesting place, but when there isn't, I'll try to find a station in a country that I haven't worked on some new band or new mode (or both), just to keep the cobwebs from forming on my microphone or my key. But as it happens, there is a pretty interesting DXpedition going on at the moment from a place called St. Brandon, an island in the Indian Ocean just north of Maurtius. The callsign for the operation is 3B7C and the group doing this is the 5 Star DXers Association, who got together for to do things like this. St. Brandon is relatively rare as DXCC entities go, although there was a team operating from there as 3B7SP earlier this year (who were originally supposed to operate from another nearby island.)

Although I worked 3B7SP when they were on, I wanted to try to work 3B7C to make some contacts on new bands. Because 3B7 is rare, as expected, the pileups were huge, especially during the first few days. I made a few attempts to contact them during the first few days of their operation on 40m, which should have been (and in fact, was) the best place to try to work them, but I wasn't able to get through. However, as time went on, I kept trying, first in the spots where I figured I'd have the best chance to work them (40m and 80m), and then eventually on 20m and 17m.

The key here for me, and this is where it ties into the post title, is that you have to be patient. On several nights, I sat by the radio, calling over and over again while trying to figure out their split pattern (when it wasn't obvious). Fortunately, my radio has a built-in voice & CW keyer, and the computer has a CW keyer, so it didn't have to do it "manually" for the whole time, but I did have to listen, and listen, and listen. Most importantly, I had to be trying to make a contact, not griping on some email reflector about how poor the conditions are (yes, I complained here, but that was after I'd made the contact). It seems that too many people find excuses ("The bands are just no good", "my antenna isn't good enough", etc.) rather than actually getting in front of the radio and trying to make a contact. I can guarantee you that you will not make a DX contact on the air without using your radio. That's what I do, and to date, it's netted me about 283 different DXCC entities, all of which were worked with my 100 watts into a compromise antenna. I had to be patient, but it's worked well.

On an unrelated note, after Scott, NE1RD, mentioned that he'd been toying with Twitter, I decided to give it a shot as well. You can view my feed on their website, and there are other options to follow it in other ways as well.


  1. Anonymous7:24 PM

    Hi David,

    I've been waiting out the bottom of the sunspot cycle too. I have an article with some plots of the sunspot numbers against the QSOs of W3LPL, by band.

    Its no big surprise what the graphs show, but the picture is eye catching.


    The graph showing all bands is a link.

    Here's to sunspot numbers above 60!


  2. Hi Keith,

    That's a really interesting graph, thanks for pointing that out to me and for doing the research. I'll likely include that in a future update. And I like you blog as well, which I've now added to my RSS feed.

    By the way, if you need help with your domain stuff, email me (off-blog), I might be able to help, I've got a fair amount of experience with such things.