Sunday, March 13, 2016

A visit with a QRP contest station

160m Spring Stew Perry Contest - QRP style

I had the opportunity to visit with Paul Stroud AA4XX as he worked the early hours in the 160m Spring Stew Perry Contest.  Paul is an avid CW operator dedicated to QRP and QRPp operations.   When he works contests he often participates using the Knightlites club call WQ4RP (Note the QRP in the call).

AA4XX operating as WQ4RP during the 160m Stew Perry Spring Top Band contest

160m Top Band

160m (top band) is challenging due to the physical logistics of a suitable antenna.  I had the opportunity to assist with a portion of raising the 160m vertical loop antenna at the "Excalibur antenna site" and installing the 24 elevated radials that help make this antenna so effective.  There's a lot of wire in the ground system.  The antenna site is located in the woods, off grid, and away from electrically noisy homes.  

Power to the remote shack is supplied by a quiet Honda 1kW generator operating a couple dozen feet from the shack.  Due to the lower power requirements of QRP Paul can run the generator on eco-mode allowing its small fuel tank to provide 8 hours of operation between fill-ups.

Paul uses a Ten Tec Argonaut VI, running 5 watts output into the Excalibur 160m vertical loop.  He uses N1MM+ logger software and a WinKeyer interfaced to the software.  He also employs a SDR (software defined radio) feeding CWSkimmer signals across the band.  An antenna splitter simultaneously feeds the SDR and the Argonaut. The SDR receiver is switched out during transmit by a DX Engineering RTR-1A Receive switch.  His CW key is a N3ZN ZN-QRP model.

The N1MM+ logging software keeps track of which stations have already been worked and the CWSkimmer interface displays calling stations on the band being heard by his antenna.

The remote QRP station setup for contesting

In the Stew Perry contest the only information exchanged was grid squares.  I'm still relatively new to CW and watching Paul casually copy grid squares sent at 30wpm was impressive.  I would have had to ask the caller to re-send their grid squares 5 times but Paul makes it look easy.

Instructions for the newbie

Paul explained to me the in's and out's of operating in a contest.  Speed and timing the openings were important, as was persistence. The integration of the software and receiving tools optimized his operating but experience and skill seems to be the biggest factors to success.  I could have sat down there using the same tools but I would have been dumfounded with the logging controls and the speed the other stations were sending information.  However, not all stations were sending at mach speed.  When Paul worked a station sending at a slower or faster speed he would use the interface to Winkeyer to speed up or slow down the sending simply using the Page-up / Page-down keys.  He would change frequency to a new station in the skimmer display by clicking on it.

Due to the limited amount of information exchanged during the contest most of the sending is accomplished via macros programmed into the contesting software.  Paul rarely had to touch the CW key during the time I was there and his primary physical interaction with the radio seemed to be changing bandwidth or bandpass settings (he tends to keep bandwidth at 500Hz).  

Paul demonstrating the contesting software and usage

Why QRP?

This contest was not a QRP-only contest although there were multipliers for working QRP.  There were plenty of big gun stations operating and the Reverse Beacon spots showed some of them with 56dB SNR reports pounding the ionosphere with their big amps.  

The strongest signal spot  last night for WQ4RP was 35db with the average at around 18dB.  Paul has worked QRO in the past but the challenge of QRP operation is now in his blood.  During a previous 160m CW contest this winter he and Dick Hayter N4HAY worked 3 stations in Hawaii with Excalibur which thrilled them given the current propagation on 160m.  QRP adds a bit more challenge and those multi-thousand mile per watt contacts on the top band make it all the more special

Finding the next station to work. (N3ZN QRP CW key in the foreground)

Why contest?

As a new CW operator I'm still getting my feet wet and enjoying the process of improving my CW copy skills doing more ragchews than adding stations to the log or chasing DX.  I casually contest with the SKCC weekend sprints and it can be fun to see how many stations I work but I'm not ready for real contesting.

During the time I observed, I could sense Paul's excitement seeing the propagation progress across the band and when a distant station in Russia was heard he looked forward to the challenge to getting that one in the log using QRP.  He let the stations running big amps get their fill before jumping in.  Ultimately he wasn't able to work that station but he later worked a GW3 station in Wales which was a first for him on 160m.  The rewards of contesting seem to be in the accomplishment of something difficult and achieving something new.  I can understand that.

What's next?

With summer coming on 160m will turn noisy from atmospheric static and the opportunities for top band contacts fewer.  Attention will turn to other bands and challenges for a while.  Maybe Paul will decide it's time to get that 40m Moxon back up on the tower as the sunspot cycle decreases this summer.

I enjoyed the opportunity to watch real CW contesting first hand.  It is technically challenging and requires skills I do not yet possess and I look forward to progressing in my CW/QRP journey to the point where I can assist Paul in a contest.
That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard, AA400


  1. Good evening Richard, a very nice post about QRP contesting.
    73, Mike

  2. Another excellent article regarding QRP. Great job Richard!

  3. Richard,

    Look into the Free Morse-runner program. It is an excellent way to improve you copy speed by simulating running during a contest. I'm a new CW op as well. I don't run yet in any of the CW contests but I found the program has helped with my ability to copy callsigns sent faster than I usually can copy, which translates well to Search and Pounce.

    Nice blog BTW,
    Evan N3TWM

  4. Hi Chris,

    I was quite humbled by your post. Thank you for your kind comments. I've been at this game since high school, and I don't give much thought to the skills I have acquired over the ensuing years, as they have been acquired in spurts separated by periods of hiatus. I remember how hard it was for me to learn the code initially, but after getting on the air as a novice I found that using the code was great fun, and it wasn't long before a group of us young guys were asked to help out with the local cw traffic nets. That allowed us to see how the pros did things, and it encouraged us to keep reaching for higher levels of proficiency. Then about ten years ago, I was privileged to join the local PVRC contest group, and they helped me to drop the habit of writing everything down before entering the info via keyboard. I was already copying solidly in my head, but it took some time before I was really ready to trust my memory. To me, there is nothing more enjoyable than getting a group of ops together to share in the fun of cw contesting, especially QRP style. It is exciting to see younger ops like you developing your CW skills. You have made astounding progress over the past few months, largely due to your commitment to get on the air and use the code every day. Keep up the good work!
    72, Paul AA4XX

    1. Thanks for the background Paul. We never talked about the process you went through to attain your proficiency. As with most things in this hobby it sounds as though it was through sharing and the encouragement of other hams. I appreciate what I'm learning from others and hope to pass some of that along as well.

      We need to have some more on air cw practice sessions where I can send using my Vibroplex Bug for your amusement.

  5. This was a great read, thank you for sharing all the interesting details. I particularly enjoyed the pictures and learning about 160m contesting and band conditions. And what a cool shack AA4XX has set up! K8VOX