Monday, April 20, 2009

The QSO Party. A kinder, gentler contest

I remember my early days as a ham, tuning across that bands and hearing a curious call over and over: “CQ Contest”. I was intrigued, but also very intimidated. The rapid-fire replies and responses were, at times, difficulty to understand. How did they get that speedy delivery…coffee by the gallon? With no time to sip the brew, maybe they were getting their caffeine by intravenous. I quickly learned efficiency is critical. Once false move and the responding station may snarl harshly. I also found out the hard way that to give a signal report any less than 5-9 was akin to ham high treason (subject of an earlier post). While I’m overstating things a bit, the big international DX contests in particular, can strike fear into the less seasoned ham.

I spent some of the weekend taking part (saying I was competing might also be an overstatement) in the Ontario QSO Party. As an analogy, if the big-time DX contests, with their strict protocols, is like the UN security council, the QSO Party is more like a backyard bar-be-que. Sure, there are some guys seriously competing and trying to collect as many counties as possible, but the overall ‘feel’ is simply more relaxed. Want to add a few more comments during the contact....especially if you happen to know the other op? No problem, and you probably won’t get your head bitten off.

While most U.S. states have a QSO party, Ontario, I believe, is the only Canadian province with its own. It’s been around about 10 years now and this year was the first one I’ve participated in since 2005.

The exchange for a typical QSO Party (or q-so as it’s often pronounced) is a signal report (you might even get away with giving a real one) and the name of your county, often abbreviated to three or four letters. If you’re outside the host state/province, then a signal report and name of state, province or DXCC is sent.

Now, the issue of “counties” in Ontario is a bit of a head-scratcher. We have a real dog’s breakfast of jurisdictions. Many are indeed called counties, but we also have regional municipalities, districts, united counties and a few larger cities that aren’t part of any of these and are stand-alone entities. Luckily, every jurisdiction has a three-letter abbreviation. In all we have 50 of these things.

Maybe one of the reasons I like this contest is that I’ve actually won my county a few times. Not sure about this year, as the bands weren’t overly cooperative and I wasn’t able to spend as much time at it as I would have liked. But I’ll submit the log and we’ll see what happens. I heard just one other station from my county (Hastings-HAS), but he’s a pretty serious contester…drat! Maybe next year.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter weekend activities

It was a long weekend, but with a number of family get-togethers and other Easter-related events, time spend in front of the radio was limited. I did rise early on Saturday morning with the hope of making a few JA contacts on 40 meters CW as the Japan International DX Contest was underway. However, I heard only a hint of a couple of stations from the land of the rising sun and I was only able to tell they were indeed from JA because I could copy the responding station. I did hear two ZL’s calling CQ contest but didn’t call as they we’re looking to snag JA’s as well and a contact with a VE would have netting them zero points (although I would have loved it for the log book). I wonder if New Zealand has any type of DX Contest of its own? I’ll have to check that out, although I don’t recall one.

Worked a few stations in the Georgia QSO Party Saturday night, primarily 40 meter CW, but also a couple of phone contacts. Speaking of such contests, the Ontario QSO Party takes place next weekend (1800 UTC Saturday April 18 to 0500 Sunday the 19th, then again from 1200 to 1800 UTC on Sunday). I hope to be as active as possible and as time permits to put Hastings County on the air. I'll be on phone and CW, primarily 40 and 20 meters. I WISH I had a decent antenna for 80 meters. I can use the tuner so that the match on my 40 thru 6 meter windom doesn’t cause blue flames to shoot out of the back of the FT-897, but I think of the RF energy shoots straight up and lands approximately 15 feet from the antenna! Too bad, because 80 is the only band that hold up late into the night.

So keep an ear out for VE3/VA3’s next weekend and give us a shout!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

DX "Echoes" without propagation

I’ve dabbed with EchoLink for the past 3 or 4 years, but now that I’ve established a local simplex EchoLink node, I think my activity will be increasing. If you don’t know much about EchoLink, it has some similarities to IRLP (Internet Radio Linking Project) but also and some significant differences. Both systems use VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) as the conduit, if you will, between two VHF or UHF repeaters, simplex nodes or, in the case of EchoLink, even directly between two computers. Detractors may say simply connecting two computers with no RF link isn’t ham radio. Well, technically that may be so, but it’s still a neat way to connect with a fellow hobbyist. Personally I prefer hooking into simplex nodes or repeaters so that there is an RF link on at least one side of the QSO. Having said that, if you can’t get near a radio, you can still use a mic hooked to your computer to connect with a far off RF link. A lot of options with EchoLink!

Last night I punched in a few DTMF tones to our local node VE3ALC-L and up comes a repeater in Walkerston, Queensland, Australia and a call indicating I’m listening brings a response from George VK4AJL. He was mobile and on his way to a model railway show. We had a nice QSO and when he commented that they’re heading into autumn, I’m reminded of the differences between our hemispheres.

Next, a connection to an EchoLink equipped repeater in Bethel, Alaska. A nice chat with Mark WL7BCT gives me a bit on insight into his life in this small community not too far from the Bering Sea.

One thing to bear in mind: these “DX” contacts are of similar FM quality to a chat with your ham buddies on your local 2 meter water cooler. With the possible exception of a little drop-out or the occasional buffering audio, courtesy of that internet pipeline, it’s nothing like the challenge of listening for a weak 4x3 signal through QRM and QRN. Therefore, be prepared to have an actual conversation! While many HF DX-ers are satisfied with a signal report, those are pretty much a moot point on EchoLink.

Now, I must admit, I tried about 10 different repeaters and simplex links and was met with silence 8 times. But, isn’t that the nature of repeaters? How many times have you put out a call on a local repeater only to be met with a non-response! Some people just don’t like picking up the mic to talk to someone they don’t know. Too bad, as they’re missing the main joy of amateur radio! You also have to consider the time difference. It was about 9:00pm local time for me. If I bring up a repeater in Europe, it’s maybe 3 or 4 in the morning there. I chose areas where I knew it was “wakey time”. It was early afternoon Sunday in Australia, and early Saturday evening in Alaska. Luckily the EchoLink page that displays active stations and nodes lists local time.

Give it a try! You can download the software in a few minutes (yes, it’s free). You will need to send proof you’re a ham, such as a scan of your licence or certificate and confirmation could take up to 24 hours. In the meantime, you can check the current logins page, see if there’s an EchoLink equipped repeater or simplex node in your area. Just pick another node, punch in the DTMF code, and give it a spin!