The Thrills and Agonies of Radiosport

Scott WestermanBy Scott Westerman – W9WSW

How many of us remember Jim McKay’s introduction to ABC’s Wide World of Sports? “The thrill of victory… And the agony of defeat!” Such are the joys and frustrations for enthusiasts of Radiosport.

Radiosport, the term coined for the dogged pursuit of the many certificates and awards available to those who love injecting watts into a wire. Many still call it contesting. My XYL would call it an addiction in our house. Any way you slice it, it can be great fun!

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 12.31.23 PMRight now we’re in the midst of the League’s National Parks on the Air (NPOTA) contest, a year long celebration of some of America’s most famous places. I’ve talked to fellow hams in every corner of the country, from Yellowstone to the White House, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and everywhere in between. At last check, the leaderboard shows the top contesters approaching the 300 mark. That’s doubly impressive when you think about the fact that the QSOs require amateurs to take their gear to every location, many far from the conveniences on our end of the conversation.

For those dedicated to Radiosport, we have notifications turned on for the ARRL’s NPOTA Facebook page and have tuned our DX cluster filters to grab a spot, the instant it comes up. I get texts from my buddies when a rare one pops above the noise level. And it’s not uncommon for some of us to run home from work to log a set of call letters we need to move one step closer to our goal.

On the downside of one of the most disappointing sunspot cycles in a lifetime, it can also be an exercise in frustration. NPOTA activators run “barefoot”, with no linear amplification. Their antenna systems are usually a compromise to facilitate transportation and set-up. And when the ionosphere doesn’t cooperate, you can scream your lungs out and few can hear you.

How can you pull a signal out of the mud and compete effectively in kilowatt pileups? Here are some tips for building your Radiosport skillset.

Listen – Every operator approaches contesting in his or her own way. Don’t simply dive into a pile up. Listen for a few minutes to learn how people are getting heard. Good operators navigate pile-ups like air traffic controllers, taking incoming QSOs via call areas or making note of two or three stations at a time and asking for specific call letters after concluding a contact. Even with a number of 1,000 watters out there, an op will keep their ears open for lighter signals and give them a shot. The more you can decipher the style, the more likely you are to make a connecti0n.

Have a propagation plan – K9Jy suggests using one of the many propagation programs available to know when you’re most likely to get a good circuit between your location and the target area. Certain bands work better at certain times of day. And activity on the sun can throw conventional wisdom into the garbage can. Understanding band conditions can give you a sense for when to call and when to turn off the rig and do something else.

Spend time with a winner – The best contesters have systems they use for everything from spotting to logging. And most will gladly share their secrets. They plan ahead. They recruit partners to help with the logs. And they do post-action analyses to see what worked and what didn’t, constantly refining their system and improving their chances for victory.

Know your rig – Today’s radios have a complex feature set that lets you customize just about everything. Experiment with filters, watch your AGC settings and make sure the signal you’re putting out is as clear and as high quality as possible. And don’t forget your antenna system. That’s the single most crucial link in the chain. A good one can turn a few watts into a powerful signal. A bad one diminishes even the most powerful transmitter and hides weak signals in the mud.

Try CWMorse Code contesting can be one of the most rewarding ways to earn awards. It’s a language that is best learned through immersion and with regular practice. And it’s a mode that can work well when voice signals lie below the noise floor. Since it requires extra effort, there may be fewer competitors in the space. And many contests give extra credit for those who can speak with their fist.

These thoughts scratch the surface of the rewarding experience that we hams call Radiosport. The most important tip is to dive in and join the fun. Find your own rhythm and experiment. Like any skill, you’ll definitely improve with time.

See you in the arena!

73! DE W9WSW