by Jim Kearman, KR1S
(This article first appeared in the inaugural issue of 72, the New England QRP Club newsletter, and was reprinted in the April 1992 issue of QRP Quarterly.)
I've operated contests with QRP and QRO. I've also been on both sides of the pileups, having operated from C6AFQ a couple of times. Many QRP contesters are, unfortunately, using techniques that hurt their chances for a good score. Maybe they feel inferior, due to running low power. One of our favorite methods of selling QRP to non-believers is to explain how reducing power from 100 to 5 watts only reduces your signal strength by about three S units. Keep that in mind when you're contesting!
Many stations we work in contests are trying to keep their "rate" up. Rate is the number of contacts/hour. It's possible to have a rate greater than 150 during good conditions, and rates over 200/hour aren't unusual! Sending "QRP" instead of your call, or appending "/QRP" to your call may make you stand out in a pileup. But, if the other station can pick out "QRP," he or she can pick out your call, too! If all the other station gets is "QRP," you have to make an extra transmission to conclude the contact. There goes the other station's rate. Big-time contesters don't like making extra transmissions, so just send your call. When I operate contests I'm always glad to hear a QRPer in the pileup. But, most contesters I know couldn't care less what you're running. If you want to impress people with your QRP prowess, get a good score and submit it to the contest sponsor. We can all read about it in the writeup, after the contest!
Another similar mistake is repeating your exchange. You think you must because you're weaker than the pack. Contesters are very good operators as a rule, and they can hear well. If the other station needs a repeat, you'll hear about it Don't repeat the exchange unless asked to.
QRPers are an honest bunch, so they give honest signal reports. (This morning I got a "519" from GØNCE on 10 meters. Curse the S meter! According to my RST table (in the ARRL Log Book), S1 means "Faint signals, barely perceptible." What Owen really meant was. "Your signal isn't moving my S meter.") Every contester worth his salt uses the excellent contest logging program developed by KIEA, called CT. Unfortunately, you can't use CT in QRP ARCI contests, but it's usable in just about every other contest.
CT assumes every signal report is 59(9), and so do serious contesters. Like it or not, the days of honest signal reports in major contests are gone. In a contest, I don't really care what my report is; if you copy my exchange I'm happy! The shortened report "5NN," where "N" is an abbreviation for "9," is the way to go. In fact, some hardcore European stations use "ENN"! No wasted air time there.
QST and CQ publicize all major contests and most minor ones. The notice tells what the exchange is. You should send the exchange and nothing more. If the exchange is a signal report and CQ zone number, and you're in New England. I want to hear "5NN 5." I don't want to hear your state, name, power, antenna or weather! If you feel compelled to tell me, write it on a QSL and mail it to me. (If I'm outside the country for the contest, don't forget the SASE. US/VE cards without SASEs go into the wood stove.)
Asking a DX station for QSL information during a contest is risky. Contesting outside the US does strange things to your metabolism. Many of us are fond of sampling the local liquid product when we go offshore. I sometimes want to say "I shoot every tenth station who asks for QSL information. I just worked the ninth one ..." QSL information is available on PacketCluster, in the DX newsletters, and (belatedly) in the major magazines.
I'm not a big fan of SSB contests but I operate them when sufficiently motivated. My most recent motivation led me to C6AFQ for the CQ World Wide (WW) phone contest last November. We made a point of not responding to stations who sent their "last two letters." Like sending "/QRP." this technique adds at least one transmission to the QSO and is entirely unnecessary. If I can hear the "last two" I can hear the first two, three or four, so please spare me. The last-two business started with so-called DX nets, where people say "please copy ..." and other ridiculous things. When a station says. "please copy 59 oh-five," I want to say, "please QSY" (that isn't true, but this is a family newsletter). Good communicators say what must be said; no more, no less. Be polite to your spouse, be brief to me. If you want to rag chew, stop by 7040 on Saturday mornings or look me up at a meeting.
The first day of a big contest is pretty hectic. The big guns are blazing away, trying to work each other before the sunspots get revoked or something. The first day is rough for QRPers. Why dig for an S9 QRP signal when there are so many 30- or 40-over signals to work? (You think they'd get the hint and turn off the Alphas, but they don't.) On the second day however, the same big guns are bored to tears and begging for QSOs. Now they'll gladly dig for even the weakest 50-mW station. If your time is limited, spend Saturday with the family and do your contesting on Sunday
Some QRPers really like a handicap. Not only are they weak, but their signals sound like born-again rotary spark gaps. Even worse are signals that drift or choip. I like to hear a lousy signal once in a while -- it makes me nostalgic for my early days. Bad signals sound exotic, and you can usually assume the rig is either home brew or ancient. On the other hand, when I'm "running" stations (calling CQ to get a good rate going), I don't want to lose the frequency I'm on. Finding a clear frequency during a contest is tough. Keeping someone from stealing it is tougher. Spending 10 seconds trying to decipher a weak, whooping buzz saw is a good way to lose that frequency. which makes me feel uncharitable toward the station I was trying to copy.
Is your fist as good as W1AW's? Yes, W1AW sends computer-generated code and so can you. If you just can't send readable code from a keyer (bugs and straight keys belong in museums) use a computer. CT sends code from 22 to 50 WPM, and never makes a mistake (unless you type something incorrectly). At the very least, use a memory keyer. Especially when the exchange is long, like the ones in QRP ARCI contests or CW Sweepstakes, making a mistake is deadly. I gave up on and dumped QSOs with fumble-fingered ops in last year's CW Sweepstakes, rather than risk losing my frequency. Get it right the first time.
There are numerous memory keyers available, including at least two that send sequential serial numbers. One is made by MFJ. the other by AEA. The AEA unit can be retrofitted with CMOS chips, reducing its current consumption to a few milliamps, just right for the solar powered station. I keep an AEA keyer on hand for emergencies, but I do all my major contesting with a notebook computer running CT. CT is cheap, about $40. but you need an IBM-compatible with a hard disk or 720k (min) floppy drive to run the latest versions (7.22 as I write this).
If pride or parsimony means you must use a keyer, make a cue card of the contest exchange. Then, when you finally get through you won't fumble around sending it.
Listening on the bands and watching the PacketCluster spots, I often think the code-free license has been around for a long time. CW contesting requires you to copy the other station's exchange at speeds from 30 to SO WPM. As I mentioned earlier. CT can only go as low as 22 WPM. If it went faster than 50 WPM, people would use the higher speeds.
There are so many ways to improve your ability to copy faster I'll probably miss a few, but here's a sampling: W1AW. MFJ and AEA keyers with "training modes" (AEA's simulates the CQ World Wide contest), the NA contest logging program by K8CC (similar to CT, but covers other contests; NA has a contest simulator, too, hut only for the contests it covers), numerous computer programs, the now-discontinued Dr DX from AEA for Commodore computers and-getting on the air (what a concept!). Code tapes are okay, but they usually stop at 22 WPM, where CT starts. and they're easy to memorize. By the way, if you decide to go modern and use computer logging, take a touch-typing course. I learned to type from a self-study course put out by Gregg, the shorthand people (not WAIJXR). It may still be available from office-supply or book stores.
I could rant and rave about this topic for eternity, or at least three pages. Transceiver manufacturers insist on putting 700-Hz offsets and 700-Hz sidetone oscillators in their rigs. Most people prefer to copy at about 500 Hz or even lower. That means they're always at least 200 Hz off frequency. Other people don't seem to have any concept of pitch; you know them, they sing loudest in church. Stations tend to get cozy during CW contests, often operating within 100 or 200 Hz of each other. If you aren't on the right frequency, you're going to make three people unhappy: the station that hears you, the station you're actually calling and you. You can probably figure out how to learn to zero beat another station, so I won't repeat the process here (Hint: It helps to have a second receiver).
The Europeans are notorious for calling below your frequency, even if you specify you're listening "up." If you call a European in a contest and don't get a response, try calling a little lower in frequency. I learned this tactic in the Bahamas a year ago, when I was calling CQ on 12 meters, listening "up." I knew the band was open because I had heard lots of Europeans while looking for a clear frequency on which to call CQ. After a few futile CQs I tuned down a couple of kHz and found a big pileup of Europeans. I tuned around to see who they were calling, and realized I was the target! No matter what I did or said, they insisted on calling me below my frequency. The last time I went down there, I hung around the very bottom of whatever hand I was on, trying to lure a few of them to their doom, but they just called on top of me instead! Give me a "run" of North Americans any day, even if they're weak, drifting QRPers with Lake Erie swings.
It's often said that operating QRP makes you a better operator. The truth is, good operators get through with QRP, while poor operators fail at even the loudest stations. Concise and accurate is better than loud and sloppy.