If you have heard the intense activity at the CW end of the bands during contests, you might wonder how you could join in.
Assuming you have learned morse code and have used it already for ordinary contacts, how different are contests? In some ways they are easier – no need to chat about the weather, your rig or antenna, or even your name. To operate in almost any CW contest it is possible to figure out from listening to contacts under way what the exchange is and whether contacts are international, internal to certain countries but if you are in doubt about the rules look them up on sites such as the WIA contest page (for WIA sponsored contests within VK), or for international contests, the ARRL contest page or http://www.contesting.com/.
Once you know enough about the rules, how do you join in? Do you just call CQ TEST on an “empty” frequency? I’d suggest in most cases it is best to start out by finding someone who is either calling cq or is working a number of stations in a “run”. In that case you will call that station using only your own callsign, sent once only. If you get a QRZ? you either call again once, or if you think there is QRM or your signal will be weak, give your call twice. Using full break-in can be helpful because it lets you hear the other stations calling and most importantly it lets you hear your target answering another station. You can’t do anything about that – in many contests VK is a long way from the centre of the activity so you have to put up with not being heard every time. Particularly in Europe, but also within Asian or US contests there is a lot of QRM and a lot of very strong signals to compete with. You have to persist and you have to be clever in your choice of frequency and your timing.
Here are some more detailed tips.
- Do lots of listening to contest operators to learn what is done.
- Initially it helps to have a pre-written sheet of standard exchanges visible so you can send from the sheet instead of trying to do it out of your head.
- It is usual to send only your own callsign when answering a CQ
- Use break-in techniques rather than “callsign de callsign” at each end of your transmission. So after receivingVk1DA 599234 599234 BK
You reply R UR 559056 559056 BK
the reply will be R TU and possibly a pause, in which you can reply TU
after which the station you worked will call CQ or QRZ? and as he/she “owns” the frequency, you now QSY and look for another station to call.
- In a quiet or slow event there is time to send 73 and stuff but don’t bother in a dx event.
- If signals are strong, twice is enough for calls or numbers. Change to suit the situation. Watch for clues that you are not being copied well – the station you call gets your call wrong, or asks for repeats using AGN or just plain ?
- The simplest reply requesting a repeat of a number or call is NR AGN PSE or for a callsign, QRZ?.
For callsigns it sometimes works to send VK5? BK but there is always someone who is not a VK5 and is convinced you want them to call again, making it tough for the real VK5 to make the contact.
- You need a cw filter – SSB bandwidth is too wide for a cw contest
- Send no faster than the station you are calling.
- If called by a station at a slower speed, slow down to his speed.
- Send no faster than the speed you can copy. (hint: practice)
- If you are operating at 15 wpm and callers persist in calling you at 25 or higher, use QRZ? or a CQ to convince them to remember their manners. A lot of contesters use computers or computer keyboards but this is no excuse for poor on-air procedure.
- Send no faster than you can send accurately
- You will hear stations sending callsigns at one speed but sending the exchange like 59905 or even part of it, at twice the speed. As if that saves them any real time! The number of milliseconds saved by sending that at 40 wpm but running everything else at 25 is so small, it isn’t worth it. I don’t recommend this practice.
- QRP stations and beginners at cw contesting are always better off using the “search & pounce” technique than trying to set up a run, where you sit on a frequency and have dozens or hundreds of contacts with the rest of the world calling you, unless you have outstanding signals and the right conditions. Or unless you ARE the DX.
- In a pileup for a wanted station try to call on a freq between other callers. This means knowing your exact tx freq as heard by the other op. This is what a separate receiver and transmitter used to be so valuable for. Modern rigs match your tx frequency with the sidetone so turning BK off momentarily and tapping a dit or two will let you hear your effective tx frequency. Less modern radios have a sidetone that is nothing like the frequency offset of your radio. You need to use a monitor receiver or another receiver and practice getting the frequency offset right.
- If the dx is operating split, listen for whoever he is working and what the pack is doing. If they are all on 7015.125 you need to be 200-400 hz off the pack either up or down in frequency. This takes planning and experimentation, so you may think this will waste time, but since calling endlessly on the same frequency as 100 others won’t work at all, it is better to let a few contacts go by while you tune in to the way the wanted station is operating, where he is listening and getting your transmit frequency right before calling.
- Logging is usually by computer now but if you are using a key to send you will be moving your hand between keyboard and key. If logging on paper it is a smart move to learn to send with one hand and log with the other. I never learned this well enough for a contest but I still log two contacts per minute in a good contest. Very few vk contests run at this pace for more than the first 15 minutes.
- Your antenna is the most important part of your station in contests.
The pc based program MorseRunner is good contest practice with some fun options. The vk contests don’t use that cipher format but it still gives you practice at copying callsigns with qrm, qrm and an occasional lid calling cw on top of your contact. All good fun. And if you google “morse runner” you find others have not only used it but added other software to interact with it. A useful comment noted on one site: run it slightly faster than your comfortable speed. If you ever want to increase your speed you have to be scrambling, not comfortable.
No doubt this list can be expanded forever but I hope it’s of use.