SOTA Popularity causing longer queues
SOTA activators are finding that on weekends the number of “chasers”, or stations wanting contacts with them, is gradually increasing. The response to an activator’s “CQ SOTA” on a Sunday morning on 40m now resembles a mini version of the pileup caused by a rare DX station. There may be only 5 to 10 callers at a time, but for ordinary VK operators just wanting to log a few contacts this situation is much more pressured than the response to an ordinary CQ call. An ordinary portable station in a national park or at a lighthouse receives less attention than a SOTA activator on a summit.
The chaser may well know that there are a number of activators likely to turn up on the band(s) during the morning. SOTAWATCH.ORG shows the likely activations as “Alerts” and the actual stations heard or worked as “Spots”. The combination of the data available creates additional pressure to catch all the activators, before they stop operation due to battery power limitations, a change to another band or closing down to leave the summit.
The activator tends to use battery power that is sufficient for several hours of typical operation on at least one band. The lure of S2S (Summit-to-Summit) contacts which qualify not only as contacts for the activator’s own summit, but also “chaser” contacts for the other summit and contacts for the S2S award. Thus activators themselves may be calling other activators in the pileup.
So it can be easily seen that even for the dozen or so callers, most are very keen to make their contact with the SOTA activator.
Listening to a typical contact, though, contacts are not completed efficiently in many cases. Apart from the information necessary to log a valid contact, ie. callsigns, signal reports and confirmations of reports, any other information exchanged is superfluous and only serves to delay the process. It is frustrating for those waiting to make a contact with an activator who may not be on air for much longer, to hear a long contact being made, with information such as the weather, how actually strong the activator’s signal is and how amazing it is that a 5 watt radio can be heard over the long distance of the contact. If the waiting chasers are truly unlucky, the caller will go into more detail about his station, how he thinks conditions are today, etc. To add to the problem, some chasers will also point out that other stations are probably wanting to contact the activator!
This may seem outrageous but in my view, apart from callsigns and summit details, the additional discussion has no place in a SOTA contact. Also there should be no need for three or four overs by each station to get a valid contact into the log.
What is the ideal SOTA contact?
Contacts need to be efficient and quick. To achieve that, the activator needs to take charge of the process and flag to callers that he wants to make efficient contacts. How does this work? Here is an example.
The activator VKyCBA calls CQ SOTA and one or more stations respond. The activator being called makes a list of the callsigns heard if possible.
In his first response the activator sets the pace and style of the contact.
Activator: “VKxABC this is VKyCBA portable, (optional: Good morning/afternoon, thanks for the call,) your report is five by nine, five nine, my summit code is VKx/RR001, (how do you copy?) callsigns …”
[By starting the contact in that way the activator is letting the calling station know that this operator is prepared to make it quick and concise. Setting the standard lets the caller know to respond in similar terms. Note that the report has already been given to the chaser.]
Chaser: “VKyCBA portable this is VKxABC, Roger/Romeo, thanks for the report, you are five by seven, five seven. Thanks for the SOTA contact and have a safe trip back home. Best wishes VKyCBA this is VKxABC “
Activator: VKxABC this is VKyCBA portable, Roger (or Romeo) and thanks for the report and the contact. VKyCBA portable is clear and calling QRZ SOTA”.
Now a pileup ensues as the contact just made has attracted listeners who now want a contact with the activator. The activator must retain control of the frequency. After making a list of the calling contacts, or a partial list, a new contact is commenced with the callsign copied first. If several callsigns were noted in the pileup, they are acknowledged and that has two effects: first, the callers know they will be the next to be worked so they don’t go away, secondly the station now being worked knows there are others waiting so he should make it quick.
In this procedure it is vital that the signal report is included in the first transmission from the activator. That tells the chaser not to muck about, give a report and get the contact over with. So what if the activator didn’t look at the S meter or conduct extensive analysis of the incoming signal strength? Will the chaser worry much about the report if he gets a contact in his log? No.
In particular this means ditching the “give you a report on the next over” sentence. If you do that, you commit to another two overs to make the contact. In that time the activator could be making another complete contact.
At the end of that contact, the activator can say something different from QRZ SOTA. This time he can say “clear with VKzBCD and now calling the next on my list, VKzDEF, good morning thanks for the call, you are five by seven, five seven, how do you copy me, (callsigns)…
By controlling the sequence of operations the activator is making sure he is in charge. But also by noting all callsigns copied, it makes it possible to work stations in a fairer sequence. If at the end of each contact, the activator simply calls CQ without mentioning callsigns already heard, even if only part calls were noted, a new pileup ensues and the stations who have possibly listened to several contacts being made are now competing with anyone new who has arrived on frequency. Remember new chasers are always looking on SOTAWATCH and finding the activator’s frequency. They will join in the chase and unless the activator gives existing callers a fair chance, the newcomers will make the contacts instead of those who have already called.
Like a contest?
Yes, this process is an adaptation of the procedure used by successful contesters in a “run” of contacts. The number of “overs” is kept to a minimum, that way the contacts are made quickly.
“But wait”, you may say, “that makes the contacts simply signal reports. That isn’t the type of contact I like to have”.
That is true, it is a very short and somewhat impersonal contact, though once you know the regulars you will know their names and you can add personal touches without unduly extending the contact. Most activators post to the SOTA_Australia group at Yahoo. But the activator may not have battery power (or suitable weather) to make 25 contacts each taking 5 to 10 minutes. So to be fair to everyone, including the activator, it is best to whizz through the contacts, allow those who want to look for other contacts to do so, and when the smoke clears you can always call the activator back and exchange some chat about the weather, the walk up to the summit and all the other stuff. And if the activator has plenty of battery power and is not wanting to close down and go to another summit, or get out before the weather worsens, he will likely be happy to chat.
Confirming the reports
What about confirming the reports? Many people are heard “reading back” the reports received from the other station. This is not necessary, all that is required is that the report is acknowledged if copied completely. This is done using the word “Roger” or the modern equivalent “Romeo”. They mean “Received your transmission fully”, or in other words “I am confident that I copied everything necessary 100%”. This is called a procedure word or Pro word by some networks, specifically military. Other professional networks such as aircraft communications also have specialised Pro Words, with unambigous meaning, such as “clear to land”.
If you are in doubt about the report, and only if in doubt, you can either say:
- “Please say again my report” (using the pro-word “say again”)
- “I copied my report as Five Seven, please confirm”
followed by a quick break for the other station to confirm. However this should only be necessary when signals are low or there is a lot of interference. In the majority of cases, there is no problem copying reports from the other station and the reading back of reports and comments on them can be reduced to a single word: Roger or Romeo.
Why the term “say again”? Like “roger” it is also a pro word. The reason it is used is in the phonetics, the sounds, which make this phrase very easy to recognise. The alternatives used by some amateur operators are phrases like “repeat my report”, “give me my report again”, etc which do not contain pro-words that will be recognised. (We have all heard responses like “what was your question?” to which the late Tony Hancock would have the other station saying “no, what was your question”. )
I suggest this procedure would speed up SOTA contacts and make it possible for more chasers to join in the fun.
I will be interested to hear other views on this and see whether more activators use this kind of procedure in future.