Contesting — Event-Based Radio

Amateur radio has many facets — public service, emergency communications, VHF, UHF, moonbounce, “ragchewing” with friends on the air. The list goes on and on, but for me the most exciting radio activity is contesting.

Some call it a radio sport. I would agree. You have to practice, it is hard work, and it’s great fun — like being inside the world’s biggest interactive video game.

Few weekends go by that I can’t be heard somewhere on the HF bands playing (or working hard) in one contest or another. I participate in all the big events — CQWW, ARRL DX, North American Sprints and QSO Parties.

I’m also in SARTG, BARTG, SCC, SAC, IARU HF World Championships, TARA PSK Rumble, Makrothen RTTY, WAEDC, and dozens of other contests across the calendar, including several state QSO parties (California and Washington are my faves).

  • VA7ST is my callsign for contesting these days… shorter for CW.
  • I used the callsign VE7ASK for many contests in 2002 and the first half of 2003.
  • Watch for VA7ST in CW, RTTY and the odd SSB contest.

Contest Focus feature stories

Occasionally, I will write a contest preview (predictions of how I’ll do in the contest) and follow that up with a summary of how the contest actually went. Here are the current Focus stories on the site:

2010 CQ WPX SSB (March 26 and 27, 2010)
The bands were good, but a bad choice — taking an afternoon nap — hurt my 20M totals. I never recovered from the lost contacts.

2010 ARRL DX CW (February 20 and 21, 2010)
I broke my personal record in this one — it was the first contest in which 15M played a major factor, thanks to the arrival of Solar Cycle 24.

How contests work

Each contest is different, with its own unique rules. Generally, you try to contact as many other stations as possible within a specific time-frame.

A contest might be 24 or 48 hours long. Many begin at 0000z on Saturday, which in B.C. is 4 p.m. Pacific Standard Time (5 p.m. during Daylight Savings), and go all weekend. Many contests limit the number of hours a single-operator can go — 30 hours, 36 hours, or no limit at all.

Contest scoring is usually a calculation of points-per-contact multiplied by some other number — the “multiplier” — which might be the number of states and provinces you contact on each band, or the number of countries, or even callsign prefixes (“VA7” and “VE7” from B.C., and “VE6” from Alberta, would count as three unique prefixes, for example).

Scores can add up very fast later in a contest. For example, if I have 100 contacts worth 3 points each, that’s 300 QSO points. Multiply that by 100 multipliers (let’s say, 25 states on four different ham radio bands), the score is now 300 contact points x 100 multipliers = 30,000 points. Every additional contact would be worth 300 points, and each time I add another multiplier, additional contacts are worth even more!

Your equipment (radios, antennas, and often computer gear) is matched up with your knowledge, persistence, and the predictably unpredictable forces of nature.

Will the sun blast the Earth with a flare, wiping out signals for an hour or two, or the rest of the week? Will it rain or snow, making static you can barely hear through? Will the dog chew through your antenna cable just as you are working Mongolia for 200 badly needed points?

From the opening seconds you try to contact as many fellow hams as possible before the furious contest clamor suddenly stops many hours later. It all ends in a deafening silence as you sit back and bask in the knowledge that you have done your very best with what you have — no matter how your score racks up in the final standings.

Plus, you have the pleasure of hearing ghost CW or RTTY signals in your head for the next three days.

Participating in contests has become an important part of my life. It is an escape from the stresses of work, and it keeps me engaged in something I love to do. Goodness knows, we all need more of that in our lives.

It does take planning and compromise, family-wise. I strive for balance and I am fortunate to have a wife who accepts (if not understands) this passion, and kids who like to help their dad do odd but interesting things with wire in the back yard.

Please take some time to look through my contest scores. I have included links to the more detailed contest write-ups I’ve posted on the 3830 Contest reflector.

I hope to hear you on the air in the next contest. I’ll be listening.