Zone Zero: February packed with activity

The month of February promises something for everyone, as several major international contests and some pretty neat regional activities fill the calendar.

We’ll take a look at what’s on the near horizon in this episode of Zone Zero.

Listen to Zone Zero episode 26

Ham radio is a pretty amazing hobby – it’s socially distanced by design, but worldwide friendships and acquaintances sure make you feel like part of a real community. As the global pandemic surges, we’re fortunate to have such a remarkable pastime that keeps us engaged and connected with one another.

Thanks for joining me for this episode of Zone Zero. This is Bud VA7ST, and this time out we focus on the month of February and a jam-packed roster of radio contests. As I said in the intro, there’s something for everyone this month – whether you’re a CW or RTTY lover, prefer phone contests or the newer digital modes like FT4.

The lineup

  • BC QSO Party Feb. 6-7 (rules)
  • Mexico XE RTTY Feb. 6-7 (rules)
  • NEW! European Union EU DX Feb. 6-7 (rules)
  • CQWW WPX RTTY Feb. 13-14 (rules)
  • ARRL Intl. DX CW Feb. 20-21 (rules)
  • CQ 160M SSB Feb. 26-28 (rules)
  • FT4 DX Contest Feb. 27-28 (rules)

Recap: CQ 160M CW

Despite trying pretty hard for a few hours, I had little joy in the CQ 160M CW contest over the past weekend.

Read the pre-contest post

I put in just under four hours mostly CQing rather than subjecting others to what must have been a pip-squeak signal, and finished with only 80 contacts in 13 states and provinces for 4,700 points.

That was running low power, at just 100 watts, for the first time in a few years as I didn’t want to bother with the amplifier for what was intended to be a casual outing this time.

Conditions were not too good from this far-western part of North America, especially without high power. The experimental loop-on-ground antenna for receiving did help out quite a bit on a few contacts that I could not pull out of the noise using the inverted-L transmit antenna. So, a low score – yes – but I managed to get some very good experimenting done, which is one of the things I love contests for.

Bottom line for that contest: there’s always next year, and next time I’ll be ready. I have some spring and summer inverted-L improvements to make.

A station a few hundred miles away here in BC – Neil, VA7DX, operating at the VE7SCC club station in Coquitlam, British Columbia (with high power into a dipole at 70 feet) managed 236 contacts in 39 states and provinces, and three other countries for a much more presentable score than I had. Well done Neil!

QSO Parties in triplicate

The first contest is near and dear to my heart – it’ the British Columbia QSO Party. Established about a decade ago, this event on the first weekend of February has grown wildly in recent years. Everyone points toward British Columbia to work as many VE7 or VA7 stations as they can, collecting BC’s electoral districts – those are the equivalent of counties in the United States.

Get on the air and seek out those BC stations. There are some really beautiful photographic certificates on the line in each competition class, mode and power category in BC and outside BC.

I should also note that on the weekend of February 6 and 7, you’ll also find the Vermont QSO Party and the Minnesota QSO Party.

XE International RTTY

If you missed the BARTG RTTY Sprint in January, you may be hankering for a teletype fix. You’re in luck.

Mexico’s annual XE international RTTY contest also runs the weekend of February 6 and 7. It starts at 1200 UTC on Feb. 6 and runs until 2359 UTC on Feb. 7 – the organizers want everyone to note that the contest is now 36 hours in duration, reduced from the previous 48-hour marathon in previous years.

If you haven’t been active on teletype, here’s a great chance to fire up the gear and get on the air. It’s one of those everyone-works-everything contests, so there’s plenty to work no matter where you are.

The objective is to collect Mexico’s state and federal districts, as well as DXCC countries – they count once on each band you work ‘em, so scores can rack up pretty nicely over the weekend.

The exchange for non-Mexican stations is a signal report and a sequential serial number. XE stations will send their state or federal district.

You get two points for contacts in your own country, three points for contacts with a different country, and four points for contacts with Mexican stations.

I have always enjoyed XE RTTY, though for the past four years I’ve had to miss it because it’s on the same weekend as our British Columbia QSO Party. This year is no different – in fact, things are getting worse thanks to our next item.

Inaugural European Union DX Contest

The world can never have too many major DX contests, in my opinion. And the world hasn’t disappointed us.

New on the annual calendar is the European Union DX Contest, or EU DX. Set to run on the first weekend of February, the action runs from 1800 UTC February 6 to 1800 UTC on February 7 – if you’re doing the math, that’s 24 hours of worldwide frenzy.

There are categories for CW, Phone and Mixed operations. I know which one I’ll be in – I am a sucker for CW and given a choice, that’s my preference every time.

Those familiar with the CQ DX and ARRL international contests will recognize the setup for this new DX contest. But there’s one new feature that bears getting to know: European stations will be sending a signal report and their European Union Region – a four-character code, consisting of two letters and two numerals.

For example, a station in Germany’s Saxony region will be sending “DE13”.

A complete list of the EU Region codes is included on the EU DX Rules page.

Non-EU stations send a signal report and your ITU Zone.

So, you’ll be looking to work as many stations as you can from anywhere – earning one point per contact with your own country, 10 points with EU countries, and three points with non-EU countries. You can work a station on each band for points.

The multipliers are EU Regions and DXCC countries, per band.

And, when it’s all over, don’t forget to send in your log – the deadline is seven days after the contest ends. Check the rules for details.

Time-slicing for VA7ST

Now, I’ll have to time-slice between this new major DX contest and the BC QSO Party, as they overlap – looks like I’ll get on for BCQP’s first two hours then switch to EU DX at 1800 UTC Saturday for the duration, then return to BCQP after EU DX ends, for a few hours handing out my electoral area on Sunday afternoon.

The Keurig is going to get a real workout!

CQ WPX RTTY and ARRL International DX CW

And just when you think it’s all over, two of the year’s biggest contests hit the stage. February 13 and 14 feature the CQ WPX RTTY contest, and the following weekend, February 20 and 21, we have the ARRL International DX CW contest.

Anyone who wants to experience contesting at its pinnacle of activity will want to be on the air for both of those. I wouldn’t miss either of them.

As usual, it’s difficult to predict conditions two or three weeks in the future, but we can pick the dates and go back a month to see what the sunspots were doing. For January 13, for example, we had ZERO sunspots and that may be the case a month later on CQ WPX RTTY weekend. Expect solar flux to be in the high 70s or very low 80s.

For ARRL DX CW, we might see a slight uptick in sunspots, giving us a little more solar flux, but I wouldn’t hold out hope for a flux much above 80 or 85 on that contest weekend.

Still, all the bands up to 15M will be useful to us, anywhere in the world. Some parts of North America will even see trans-Atlantic openings on 15M, though for those of us on the West Coast the openings will be weaker and mostly to the southeast – into South America and the Caribbean. Those multipliers will be well-worth hunting down.

If there’s any life on 15M at all, we might see some limited spotlight openings from Western North America to Scandinavian countries – I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past to be called by OH, SM and LA stations over the pole while I was calling CQ to Japan on 15M late in the afternoon, when 15M is supposed to be entirely asleep toward Europe. We can always hold out hope!

Back to Top Band with a microphone

After the dust has settled in the wake of those two huge DX contests, we get to settle in for a weekend of phone operation on Top Band. The CQ 160M SSB contest runs from February 26 to 28.

Like its CW sibling in January, this one is sure to challenge smaller stations on city lots but plenty of hams have figured out how to put out a great signal and hear through the noise on 160M. For me, that’s a continual work in progress, and I am actively plotting and building equipment to improve my performance on 160M – both transmitting and receiving.

I’m putting together new matching transformer boxes for my Beverage antenna and a Loop on Ground antenna. The Beverage antenna is a single wire strung up about five feet off the ground, running about 280 feet from west to east along my property line. The Loop on Ground is simply speaker wire laid out on the back lawn in a square shape – about 20 feet on a side.

Both antennas are fed with 75-ohm RG6 coax going back to the shack. At the feedpoints, I use simple binocular-core type-73 ferrite matching transformers – aiming for a 7:1 impedance ratio. These little transformers have two turns of 30-gauge magnet wire on the coax side and eight or nine turns on the antenna side to match 500 ohms to 75 ohms.

As I said, this is a work in progress – I have the parts on hand now, and will be building and installing outside if the weather gives me a bit of a break. It has been below freezing with snow flurries for the pasts week with no end in sight, so I am waiting for better conditions to be playing with antennas.

Around the world with FT4

Closing out the month of February, we have one of the largest FT4 contests of the year. The FT4 DX contest runs 24 hours, from 1200 UTC February 27 to 1200 UTC February 28.

Power is limited to 100 watts in this one, so keep those signals clean and the narrow band slots for FT4 should be able to handle everyone just fine.

Multipliers are US states, Canadian provinces, and DXCC entities – counted only once, not per band.

There are two viable software packages for contesting with FT4 – WSJT-X or MSHV. I only use WSJT-X here, because it integrates so well with my logging software, N1MM Logger Plus.

In recent months, I’ve seen comments following FT8/FT4 contests from people who have experienced crashing of WSJT-X. I suspect these people are running older versions of the software – at this station I have been using the latest development release candidates on a Windows 10 machine, and have had no issues at all with WSJT-X in contest mode, with or without N1MM Logger doing the back-end rig control and logging work.

Be sure to check the latest versions of your software a few days before the contest, and test it out as much as possible ahead of time. There’s nothing more frustrating than discovering a fly in the oinkment after the contest has started and the bands are full of juicy multipliers just begging to be worked.

Summing up

Can there be too much of a good thing?

February will help us determine that. Every weekend, almost full-time contest activity will provide plenty of diversion from the pandemic or the honey-do list you might otherwise have waiting for you.

I like to the motto “all things in moderation.” But does that really apply in February? I think most contesters would agree it doesn’t. More appropriate for the times: fish when the fishing is good, and it’s about to get really good!

Be well, stay home and get on the air. We’re going to have a blast this month. So let’s go get ‘em – I’ll see you out there!

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