The trough of this solar cycle continues to produce interesting (albeit frustrating) effects. You may remember our struggles during the SPDX contest. This past weekend, amidst the WAE contest, we were treated to an X-class flare and an ensuing three-hour total HF blackout. And I do mean total.
Nick, K1NZ and I headed up to our familiar haunt, the superstation QTH of Dave, K1TTT. For those of you new to this blog (or new to ham radio), Dave is a legend in these parts for building a top-notch contest station but letting others use it. Unfortunately for us, it didn’t matter how big the station was; the conditions were truly awful.
“Oh yeah, I’ve seen conditions this bad before, just never during a contest weekend.” – Dave, K1TTT
Nick and I managed some uneventful runs on Friday night. The money band was 20 right from the get-go, but 40 did manage a gentle opening the first night. We were working only DL’s, something analogous to WAE, but almost all of them had very low serial numbers. So we knew the conditions were global after all.
Dave was experimenting with the new waterfall display in N1MM. Using a separate SDR, we were able to see the band and find holes to run more quickly. Well, we could have probably run anywhere in this one, but I imagine that’s what it would be useful for on a busy weekend. Cool nonetheless!
Jeff, NT1K came up Saturday and stayed into Sunday morning. The overnight was awful; at times we went 30 minutes or more without a single QSO. I sat down and fought KC4AAA’s pileup just to stay awake. At some point, we all went to bed — it was like the antennas were unplugged.
Jeff grabbed the early morning 20 run and had probably the best few hours of the entire contest. I relieved him and was treated to a decent five hours of strong Europeans. When I finally needed relief, Nick sat down and continued. But it wouldn’t last much longer…
A massive X-class solar flare struck just as things were finally rolling. Nick stopped operating — there was no use. Total HF blackout! The flare was so tremendous that the ensuing proton storm hasn’t yet died down (and it’s Tuesday as I write this). Conditions remained in M-class until the end of the contest, although we did manage another few paltry runs of Europeans.
Sometimes contests are feast-or-famine. This time, it was just famine-or-famine. Join me in a quick prayer for the next sunspot peak.
Nick, K1NZ and I decided to make a serious multi-one effort in the SP DX Contest from the fine station of Dave, K1TTT. Little did we know just how much of an effort that would become. A combination of local WX and space WX made things a real mess. The station performed flawlessly, as is the hallmark of most operations at K1TTT, but it was a real struggle.
Dave had arranged, per our request, a somewhat experimental setup: configuring the station for SO2R but with the two-keyboard option in N1MM+. This would allow for two operators at any time while retaining the interlock features of SO2R. The left position could listen to left radio audio OR right radio audio OR both (one side in each ear), while the right position could only listen to the right radio audio and could only work CW. We couldn’t do any in-band work, so each radio was relegated to separate bands.
The journey to Dave’s place started early Saturday morning. I woke up around 6 local, looked out the window, and found that overnight a whole bunch of wet, slushy, heavy crap had fallen from the sky and coated everything. My own municipality hadn’t bothered to plow the roads — the thought of Dave’s wilderness QTH being accessible seemed in doubt. But I headed off anyway, and my first stop was just east to pick up K1NZ.
I drove through Springfield and Wilbraham — two larger cities here in WMA that should, by all right, have been plowed and sanded. They were not. There were several hairy maneuvers, especially one after leaving the K1NZ QTH that found us headed toward the shoulder with absolutely no control over the vehicle. I can’t believe it’s going to be the SP DX contest that kills me.
We made two necessary stops: the package store for Polish vodka (finding none, we settled on Mr. Boston and we were willing to pretend) and the Williamsburg General Store for Moxie, my contesting beverage of choice. These days, I can only find Moxie at that old general store, and the stop is now mandatory on our way to Dave’s.
The roads were actually better when we finally reached the Berkshires. I attributed this to the elevation; at about 1000′ ASL, the conditions changed from ice/slush to fluffy snow, which is actually easier to drive in. We made it down Dave’s street with only minor slippage and had finally arrived.
Dave gave us a tutorial on the dual-keyboard setup, a configuration I’ve taken to calling Two Men One Mouse. He cautioned us that the right radio was really only useful for spotting on other bands, since transmitting required changing focus — an easy task when SO2R, but one requiring some coordination with two operators involved. We decided to ignore that recommendation and attempt dual CQ’s at several points during the contest. Did it work? We’re not sure. More on that later…
Immediately, 20 was wide open. 10 and 15, on the other hand, didn’t even qualify as existing. I managed a good run of SP’s on CW while Nick thumbed around a mostly-dead 15m band. Everything is OK; 40 will open soon and we can use both radios!
Shortly before local sunset, having heard nothing (literally nothing) on 10 or 15 but working all mults on 20, I started sweeping 40. Europe began slowly creeping in shortly thereafter, and I snagged a good run frequency and used the second VFO for the freshly renewed mult hunt. It was at this point we initially tried dueling CQ: Nick on 20 phone and me on 40 CW. We found that 20 had already died, despite our best efforts, and Europe was little more than a whisper. He worked a few MS and MO QSO Party participants just to try out the operating arrangement. We eventually got up to rhythm, but it was all for not, as yet again, we were down to one workable band.
Suddenly, it was as if someone had unplugged every antenna. I actually stopped my auto CQ and started checking SWR! I had heard the band go totally silent in a matter of minutes. Dave came down, saw the painful rate, and glanced over at another monitor in the shack.
“There’s your problem,” he said, “M-class flare!” Lo and behold, the SFI was way up and we finally had sunspots, but they came with an awful price tag: radio blackout from the flare. Since we were headed into the dark side, we knew the effects would be mitigated. We weren’t counting on another flare striking the SP’s in sunlight shortly thereafter, and a third slamming into us Sunday morning!
Rates plummeted. 40 never fully opened. The entire contest took place on 80, where we again managed to work all 16 multipliers. I threw out a few CQ’s on 160 but didn’t even get spotted by a single skimmer, an impressive feat from a station like K1TTT. Nick and I headed for bed just after EU sunrise, having exhausted 80. I’ll run EU on 15 in the morning!
Morning cracked early and I went back into the shack to scour 15 and 10 (insert laughing). The weather outside had drastically improved from the day before. The sun was out and the snow was even melting. The memo did not reach the propagation gods, however, and 15 never came around. I barely heard a PY working inaudible SP’s, but after a while even he admitted defeat.
We finished the contest short of 300 QSO’s. The two-keyboard SO2R feature is pretty slick for a single operator with a certain style, but not terribly useful for two operators. We never had much of a chance to really dig into it, since only one band was ever open at a time. It was handy to run on the left radio while Nick did S&P on the right, as I could listen to both radios in the left chair, I was able to help Nick pull out a few very weak multipliers on the right radio without leaving my run. I’d like to try it again on a much busier weekend.
Special thanks to Dave, K1TTT for the use of his FB station, and Nick, K1NZ, for making pierogi when things got slow. A very special thanks to Mr. Boston himself, who managed to help us through a 10 QSO hour on 40 — he’s the real MVP.
It was 0500 at the lonely 40m position. A very faint multiplier called and I struggled to work him. I summoned every bit of skill acquired over a nearly-twenty year contesting career to get him in the log. The multiplier: DL. That’s when I realized just how tough the conditions would be.
There were static crashes. There were frequency fights. There was power line noise. There were stack issues on 20m. Had we been at a lesser station, perhaps we would have been defeated. Luckily, we were at K1TTT’s place, where even the failures have to obey Dave’s rules. After all, he wrote the book on it…
I pulled the overnight on 40 the first night, until W1TO mercifully relieved me from a band that wasn’t doing much more than swallowing auto-CQ’s and spitting forth dupes. I spent the rest of the contest primarily on 40, although K1NZ managed time there as well.
W1EQO spent the entire contest jumping between 160 and 10, and from the early score rumors, it looks like his effort was not in vain. Our total on 160 was almost deadlocked with K3LR, although one cannot overstate our geographic advantage there (but we’ll certainly accept those results).
Sunday, the contestmen produced an interesting result on the 20m stack. The individual antennas, when selected, presented disastrously high SWR. By the end of the contest, however, the scenario had reversed and the stacks presented a high SWR while the individual antenna selections were usable. I’ll let Dave explain the entire thing on his maintenance blog, but it was one for the ages. There was also a broadband power line problem that Dave managed to fix; apparently he’s dealt with this type of thing once or twice.
Class: M/M HP
Operating Time (hrs): 48
Club: Yankee Clipper Contest Club
It’s a great luxury to have a local multi/multi station, especially one as hospitable as K1TTT. If you live anywhere in W1, it’s worth the drive to take advantage of Dave’s open door contesting policy to see how a big station functions. It’s especially valuable because the stock operators are not only experienced but class acts to boot.
We’re looking forward to working everyone again next DX contest season!
I had the tremendous opportunity to operate from the K1TTT superstation in nearby Peru, Massachusetts for ARRL DX CW. I’ve been operating contests from Dave’s place for about 15 years now but it’s a treat every time.
This year, we used my call for a full multi/multi effort. Conditions were better than expected but not fantastic; luckily the team was up for the challenge.