Sunday, October 05, 2008

2008/9 Contesting Season Starting

It's that time of the year when contesters are kept busy and the Grumpy Old Men are grumpier: The start of the contest season. I'll get to the Grumpy Old Men part in a bit, but first the part of the contesters.

There are contests every weekend of the year, but the more well-known (or "bigger") contests start taking place around now and continue for the next few months. I imagine this has to do with worldwide propagation or something, but to tell the truth I've never really looked into why the "big contests" alll start right about now.

The good news is that for contesters, there's usually something "big" every weekend. Last weekend I participated (or "played around", as I like to say) in the CQ WorldWide RTTY DX contest. In this contest, any station can work any other station, so even if the band conditions aren't very good (in my opinion, they were awful Saturday, though they improved to merely lousy on Sunday) you can usually find lots of stations to work within your own country. Of course, the way scoring works you get more points for working stations outside of your own country, and even more for working stations outside of your own continent, so that's what you try to do, when you can.

The RTTY (pronounced "Ritty") in the name of the contest means that you can only use Radio TeleTYpe mode to make contacts. Originally, this mean that there was an actually mechanical teletype connected via some specialized equipment to a radio, but now, most RTTY enthusiasts use their computer sound card with a fairly simple connection to their radio, along with an encoding/decoding program on their computer, such as the very popular MMTTY. What's really nice about these digital mode contests is the amount of automation that can be done by your contest logging program. As I've mentioned before, I use N1MM's contest logger, which has some really terrific features for handling digital contests, even for casual contesters like me. For example, as with all contests, the exchange of information between stations is structured, with little or no change between contacts. (For this particular contest, nothing at all changes.) The N1MM program allows you to set up your exchange sequences such that once you've gotten the other stations callsign, the exchange process is almost entirely automated. The operator then needs to hunt for stations, adjust the radio to make sure that there's "clean copy" (meaning that you can read the information being sent), and then just do a few mouse clicks or keyboard presses (all configurable) to complete the contact.

One interesting thing about RTTY mode is that although you can hear the sound that the other station is sending, unlike CW (and certainly unlike any speech modes) it can't be decoded by ear. (Ok, I've heard that some really experienced guys actually can decode RTTY by ear. I sure know that I can't. Here's an audio sample, you can decide for yourself). The software used to help tune in the signal has a tuning aid to help you zero-in the signal, so you can use RTTY completely without any audio coming out of your speakers (or headphones) if you want to.

Anyway, I've played in RTTY contests before, and one big thing for me is that they are often a good place to pick up a new country, or a country that I've contacted before on a new band. My decision to participate in this contest was very last minute: I think I fired up the contesting software about 15 minutes after the start of the contest, spent a while configuring it, and then operated for a while on Friday night. I did some more operating Saturday afternoon, and again Sunday afternoon into early evening. I wound up on the air for around 12 hours or so, and made 257 contacts, with a score of just under 115,000 points. I was quite happy with my effort, which I think was decent for a low power station just "playing around".

One thing that I did was to set some "moving target" goals for myself to help keep going. Initially, I wanted to try to make at least 150 contacts, which seemed reasonable on Saturday afternoon. After I surpassed that, I decided that I wanted to break 100,000 points, and then, at the very end of the contest, I decided that I wanted to make at least 250 contacts. (Although I did succeed in that, I was getting a little frantic as I was about 3 contacts short of my goal with not long to go in the contest, and seemed unable to make any others. Fortunately, I managed to work a bunch of stations during the final minutes.) Setting these kinds of goals for me helps to make things fun. Unlike serious contesters, I "cheat" by setting my goals as I'm operating. I do this because I'm trying to keep things fun for myself. If I'd set out to make 250 contacts before I started Friday night, I probably would have gotten discouraged during the day on Saturday when things were going slowly and given up. So, I "cheat" and create goals that seem reasonable for the conditions and the amount of time I'm likely to have available. I'm not suggesting that this works well for anyone else, but it works for me.

This weekend is the California QSO Party contest, which is one of my favorite state QSO party contests. (As I've mentioned before, the goal of these contests is to make contact with as many stations within a particular state as possible, or for those within that state to make as many contacts in general.) Sharon and I had plans on Saturday (visiting a few wineries in the Hudson Valley in New York), so I only had a few hours to operate in the contest on Sunday. Unfortunately, the bands just weren't cooperating early Sunday afternoon, and after about an hour of operating, I'd only worked eight stations. Listening now (around 4PM EDT), things seemed to have picked up a bit, so maybe I'll try again in a while, but my initial attempts were not fun, so I stopped to work on some other things, including writing this.

So what about the Grumpy Old Men comment? It seems that as the contest season gets underway, the complaints start to flow into the mailing lists complaining about the contesters. Some of the complaints are legitimate, since unfortunately some of my contesting brethren do just plop themselves down on a frequency without ensuring that the frequency is not in use. That is just plain wrong, period. However, some of the complaints are made because "the contester was on the frequency that we use every day, and even though they were there first, they should move". Sorry, but that's not the way things work. We amateurs have a reasonable amount of radio spectrum to use. There's plenty of room for all of us if we cooperate with each other. We are fortunate to have these valuable resource to share. If we can't play nicely with each other, then the FCC might just decide to pick up our collective sandbox and give it to someone else.

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