Thursday, November 1, 2012

SSCW 2012 Preparation

I'm excited to be preparing for another solo Sweepstakes CW effort from Kevin, AD6Z's QTH this year. Here are some of the things I'm doing to prepare for this year's event.

New for me this year - SO2V

The last few years, I've gotten a bit frustrated with the pace of the contest on the second day. Since Sweepstakes (SS) rules only allow one contact with each station, regardless of band, SS tends to be an activity-limited event, as opposed to rate limited events like the CQWPX Contest, which allow once-per-band contacts. This means that Sunday afternoon can be pretty slow.

For example, suppose I've been calling CQ on 15 meters for 3 minutes without a response. Should I press on with this run frequency? What's limiting my rate? Should I find a new run frequency?

Listening to my recordings from last year, I think I was probably too quick to give up on a run frequency and start an S&P pass up or down the band. This year, I plan to use N1MM's SO2V (Single Operator 2 VFO) support to keep the run frequency and start tuning with my K3's second receiver for an unworked station (I'll be entering the assisted class, so I should be able to visually tune onto a spot on the VFO B bandmap). If I don't get a response to my current CQ, hitting backslash and Enter will swap VFOs and send my call, and when the S&P contact is finished, another backslash + Enter will pop back to the run frequency and call CQ.

This is not as good as true SO2R (Single Operator 2 Radio), but is a lot easier to implement. You don't need (obviously) a second radio, nor do you need bandpass filters. I'm hopeful that it will help keep the rate a little higher during the latter parts of the contest.

Of course, it would be silly to try this for the first time in a contest you want to do well in. I practiced this technique during the California QSO Party, and found that I was able to handle the "mental workload" associated with managing the entry window focus and listening to two receivers at once. So I feel ready.

Ergonomic Tweaks

I'm making a few minor ergonomic tweaks that should help improve my score this year:

Full Size Keyboard - I use an HP Netbook for logging, and while it's a nice little computer, it has a mini keyboard, and in particular, the functions keys are really small. I attribute a few of my busted QSOs to fat-fingering the received exchange, so using a full-size keyboard should help. A full-size keyboard will also make CW speed control easier. On the netbook's keyboard, to do PgUp and PgDown, you need to hold the Fn key, and all three of those keys are really tiny.

Big Function Key Labels - If your function key labels are hard to read, it's really easy to hit the wrong one when handling a fill request. In fact, I was so bad at it last year that I mostly sent fills by hand. This year I'm putting a long strip of cardstock above the Fn keys with big, clear labels.

Two Monitors - last year, I was only using the laptop monitor, and that didn't give me sufficient vertical space for the bandmap. As a result, it was hard to see when an unworked station would show up. This year, I'm planning to use an external monitor for the entry windows and bandmaps, and put the more "strategic" windows like multipliers, score, and rate on the smaller laptop display.

Automate, Automate, Automate

I've found that the more I have to think about mundane tasks, the more likely it is that I'll get distracted and make a mistake. For example, if I've used RIT to tune in an off-frequency caller, if I forget to center the RIT dial, then I may have to fiddle with it on the next QSO. To solve that problem, N1MM has a nifty macro, {CLEARRIT} that I now have in my "TU" message. So there's one less thing to think abiout.

I also finally "get" Enter-Sends-Message (ESM) mode in N1MM. I used to shy away from it, especially in S&P mode, because I didn't understand the relationship beween the selected entry field and what ESM would send. Now that I've had a lot of practice with it, I can do almost all my logging meta-actions with just the Enter key and the Tab key.

Propagation Maps

Stu, K6TU, has developed a really neat Propagation service that produces propagation maps specific to your location and station characteristics. They're a great way to understand which bands are open, and to where. In the past, Dean Straw, N6BV, has produced a map like this and shared it with the club, but Stu's service allows you to customize it. The service does all the heavy lifting with the VOACAP program and generates a plot of expected signal strengths across either the US/Canada or the world.

Here's an example plot for AD6Z for 10 meters at the opening of the contest, assuming a smoothed sunspot number of 79:

I've found these maps to be a big help when planning band change strategies, or chasing that elusive mult. For example, the map above tells me that if I'm looking for high rate, 10 meters might not be the best choice, because it's just not putting a big signal into the heavily populated east coast. The 15 meter map, on the other hand, predicts S9+10 signals into the east coast:

Of course, this doesn't mean that 10 meters isn't worth using, since it will likely be open and stations will go there to spread out and get away from crowded conditions on 15 and 20.

Stu is offering the complete service free of charge to NCCC members for a limited time.  For non-NCCC members, there will be free services as well as enhanced services that are available with a subscription fee. See

Local Skimmer Again

Like last year, Kevin will have his SDR + CW Skimmer running locally, feeding spots to my laptop. This works out really well in practice - you don't end up seeing spots for stations you can't hear, which can happen if you're getting spots from the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN), whose receivers may be far away from you. The only problem was that the SDR was getting desensed by my transmitter, and could only "hear" when I wasn't transmitting. I'm hoping that we can address that issue because there will be much less non-transmitting time if I'm using SO2V effectively. As a backup, I can always switch to a traditional packet cluster node to receive spots from other SS participants and/or the RBN.

Stretch Goal

Last year I had a claimed score (before log-checking) of 1099 QSOs and 80 sections for a score of 175,840, completely SO1R, in the U (assisted, high power) class. I'm hopeful that I can add a hundred or so contacts by using SO2V, so I'm setting a stretch goal of 200,000 points, which works out to 1,205 contacts, assuming I get all 83 sections.

Hope to see you on the air!

-Gordon KM6I

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