AA5AU Contest Notes – 2011 CQWW RTTY Contest

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – Hunter S. Thompson

The 2011 CQWW RTTY Contest should go down as the best ever RTTY contest up to this time. There is no question about it. Never has there been the combination of excellent high band conditions to go along with what undoubtedly will be a record number of participants. RTTY contesting has come full circle and we’ve waited for years to see 10 and 15 meters come fully back. In the 2011 CQWW RTTY Contest, they were definitely back in a big way.

All along, my plan was to operate the Single Op, All Band, Low Power (SOAB Low) category. Most of my “serious” efforts are low power since I don’t have the antennas to complete in the high power categories and I’m sure my wife and neighbors would not appreciate the interference. It wasn’t until the week of the contest that I even realized there were new categories which included a Single Op, All Band, Low Power, Assisted category. Running assisted did not really appeal to me. Since use of the Packetcluster is permitted in most RTTY contests, it’s a nice change of pace to contest without it. In the week leading up to the contest, my friend Mark, N2QT, mentioned to me he would be going Low Power Assisted. I decided on Wednesday before the contest that I would definitely go Unassisted. Now it was time to plan some strategy.

What’s interesting is that the strategy I planned for had nothing to do with the actual operating of the contest. I rarely strategize about operating. In radio contesting, your operation is forced on you by band conditions. You operate the bands that are open, put in as much seat time as you can, work as many stations possible, and hope for the best. I never think about if I’m going to CQ more or look for multipliers more or target a certain band more or anything like that. My goal is to work every station I hear and work as many as I can. For CQWW RTTY, I don’t worry about off times since none are required. I like 48 hour contests because my experience and skill allow me to out-QSO most people. So the longer the contest, the more of a chance I have at successfully competing against those stations in my category that will have a higher points per QSO average than me. So my strategy would be nothing about operating.

My strategy was fully about how I was going to remain alert and operate at a high level for up to 44 hours of contesting so I could maximize my QSO numbers. I wasn’t concerned about QSO points or multipliers, only contacts. I hadn’t done a full effort in CQWW RTTY since 2009. I realize that’s only two years but I couldn’t remember what it was like. I operated 40 hours in 2009. I’m not a big fan of staying awake for long periods of time. I like my sleep but I love RTTY contesting. Because I have reduced the number of RTTY contests I participate in full-time, I was looking forward to a serious effort in CQWW. In the past, not just in contesting, I’ve become physically ill when going too long without sleep. The last thing I wanted to do was to get sick when I was trying to have fun. So I strategized on how to enjoy a RTTY contest with little sleep, maximize my QSO total and still feel good physically and mentally all the way to the end. I knew if I didn’t feel good, I wasn’t going to enjoy the experience. Fun is the main reason we all contest anyway, isn’t it? Can’t have fun if you’re not feeling very well.

About two weeks before the contest I sent a post to the RTTY reflector asking for suggestions on how to stay alert for the contest. I received a lot of replies from contesters on the different methods they used. All the suggestions seemed good but the best advice given was by my good friend Ed W0YK. Ed suggested that I read Randy Thompson’s (K5ZD) article “A Sleep Strategy for DX Contesting“. So I did. After reading Randy’s article, I decided I would try to do one 90-minute sleep cycle each night. With a few minutes before falling asleep taken into account, it would put my operating time at about 44 hours (it actually turned out to be a little more than 43 hours). I did 44 hours once before in 1999 when I was fortunate to win SOAB Low Power World. If I couldn’t remember what it was like operating 40 hours in 2009, I certainly couldn’t remember doing 44 hours in 1999. I was 42 years old in 1999 and now I’m 54.

So with my sleep strategy in place, I needed to think about other things that would allow me to stay alert and still feel well. One suggestion I received was to eat small meals – that made sense. Another suggestion was to drink nutrition shakes instead of eating. That was new to me but I heard Herschel Walker (former college and NFL star) on ESPN radio the very next week saying that he eats very little. He mainly drinks nutrition shakes and the radio hosts were marveled at his physique and how well me looked years after he retired. So I decided I would put nutrition shakes into the strategy. Someone suggested drinking Gatorade instead of soda. Many told me to stick to coffee. But even though I like coffee, I prefer Diet Coke. I had asked the reflector subscribers about drinking Energy drinks and the consensus was no. However, my limited experience with 5 Hour Energy drinks convinced me that they do work for me although I was skeptical at first until I tried one on a day when I was dragging at work. It did give me a boost without any aftereffects.  After reading the manufacturer’s recommended dosage requirement (limit 2 per 24 hour period), I decided I would consume four 5 Hour Energy drinks – two each day. I’m not a big eater so I decided I would eat a meal before the contest and one on Saturday evening. I also decided I would drink a nutrition shake (a generic brand similar to Ensure) for breakfast and lunch each day. Then I took something else from Randy’s article when he says “Working stations is like potato chips to me…” and I decided I would not eat snacks during the contest. I had a large can of whole cashews available but I did not open them until late Sunday.

Something else that I normally do during long contests is to consume BC Powder. BC Powder is an over-the-counter pain reliever. Each “powder” contains 650 mg of Aspirin, 33.3 mg of Caffeine and 195 mg of Salicylamide. The recommended dosage is one every 3-4 hours for pain and not to exceed 4 powders in 24 hours. I used to take four every 24 hours during contests but I found it jacked me up so much I couldn’t sleep. So part of my strategy was to limit my intake of BC powder to two each day. (I’m already on aspirin therapy so skipped my normal daily aspirin). I didn’t take any BC powders before my first 90 minute sleep cycle because I didn’t want the added caffeine to keep me awake. I would have a hard enough time to fall asleep already with the excitement of the contest.

Something else Ed suggested was to keep the drapes on my window open, and to look outside occasionally. I normally have the window open in the mornings and evenings so I can tell when it’s sunrise or sunset, but then keep the shade and drapes drawn closed during the day to keep the heat out of the room. Ed said it would help me, so I left the curtains and shade open on the window the entire contest. So that was my strategy and I kept to it. It was this very strategy that helped me to my best ever CQWW RTTY contest effort. I used to set goals before contests, but I kind of got away from that because contests are strictly fun events for me now with no emphasis whatsoever on winning. I did think I would try to get 2400 contacts which would be an average of 50/hr over the entire contest. Since I barely made over 1600 in 2009, I thought 2400 was a bit of a stretch but I liked the challenge.

I took Friday before the contest off from work. The biggest thing I needed to do that day was to get the third radio (SO3R) up and running in a position where I could easily employ it and not detract from my normal SO2R routine. I spent most of the morning rerouting cables and making space for the radio immediately to the left of my Icom IC-756 Pro III. The third radio is a Kenwood TS-870. It is the first ‘870 I ever bought but had been relegated to a backup role because the LED lighting on the display is dimmer than my newer TS-870 which is my dedicated second radio in my SO2R setup. So the setup this weekend was suppose to be an ‘870 on either side of my PRO III. After connecting power and an antenna to the third radio, I was tuning around the bands when all of a sudden I had no receive. I thought one of my audio cables had come undone, but when I got an Error message on the screen of the radio, I knew the problem was terminal. Although a little disgusted, I was also a little relieved because I didn’t know how SO3R was going to go and whether or not it would take away from my normal efficient SO2R operation. It has been many years since I last tried SO3R. I got away from it because my station was not set up for it and at the time my feeling was that efficient SO2R is better than non-efficient SO3R. But I was going to give it another try because I felt I had enough experience to efficiently handle a 3rd radio. I left the radio in position because I had placed one of my rotator controllers and the SteppIR controller on top of it and they were more easily available and closer to eye level than sitting directly on the desk. So despite not having the third radio, I had improved my station setup in a small way.

With about four hours to go before the start of the contest I laid down for a 3-hour nap. Why three hours? Because that’s two 90-minute sleep cycles of course. But that didn’t work out so well. I was way too excited to sleep but I did lay there and rested and enjoyed the company of my oldest cat, Katarina, as she snuggled up to me as we both watched TV. At 6 PM, or one hour before the contest, my wife Sharon called me to dinner. I don’t remember what dinner consisted of. I was too preoccupied with getting to the shack. With 15 minutes to go before the contest, I entered the shack. I didn’t have to do anything because everything was all ready to go. WriteLog was running on both PCs and the network was up, everything was turned on, the PC clocks had been synchronized, the ice chest of full of Diet Coke (OK, I didn’t take the Gatorade advice). I had my 5 Hour Energy drinks, my nutrition shakes my BC powders and my can of cashews. Oh, one more thing, I had sugar free gum. Lots of gum… I checked WWV and the numbers were SFI=158, A=3, K=1. I was encouraged.

I decided I would start the contest with the PRO III and SteppIR on 15 meters. The ‘870 and KT34 would be on 20 meters. I figured running low power that I would start low in the band and alternately CQ on each radio. I started on 21076 and 14076 kHz. The first call would be from, of all people, Mark N2QT on 20 meters. The next contact was WB3JFS in NV on 15 and all of sudden I had huge pileups on both radios. In the first ten minutes I had 33 contacts that included VP9I and JW7QIA both calling in on 15. After 30 minutes, someone crowded me out of my 15 meter frequency so I had to move down 2 kHz. In the first hour I worked 129 stations and it was a very good start. Since I was working just about everywhere in the USA and Canada on 15, I pointed the SteppIR due north. Working the USA on 15 just after sunset was a good sign. Another good sign was that a number of JA stations were calling in too. I was very happy to see this. But after another 15 minutes, I had to move down further on 15 as the band was getting very crowded and I was having trouble holding a frequency. The same happened on 20 as I got forced off 14076 and decided to go up to 14112 kHz and try there. 20 was going pretty good too with mostly US and Canada but with some Europeans calling in as well. This was great! I wasn’t real happy with the rate on 15 after the first hour so I went S&P at 0111Z when things slowed down a bit. After a quick S&P pass on 15 I settled back down to 21076 kHz where I started a nice West Coast and JA run that included W6HGF/KH0 calling in. The run on 21076 only lasted an hour but it was a good solid run. During that run I went S&P on 20 meters. Things slowed down quickly on both bands so at 0224Z I went to 40 meters (SteppIR) on the Icom and 80 meters (inverted vee) on the Kenwood. I set up CQing on 3590 kHz while I started an S&P run on 40 starting at the bottom of the band. When I got to 7063 kHz, I found the frequency clear so started running there and decided to move the Kenwood back to 20 for an S&P sweep of that band at 0330Z. It only took about 20 minutes to sweep 20 meters and then it was back to 80 where I went S&P. In the meantime, I got moved off my 40 meter run frequency but found 7077 kHz clear and started running there briefly but the rate seemed slow. I found 3578 kHz clear while S&P, so stopped there for a run and started S&P 40. This went on for several hours, S&P and running on 40 and 80 alternately, as I could not successfully run on both bands with a rate I felt comfortable with. I have practiced for years at being highly proficient at S&P. I call it power S&P. It works well for me and most of the time I run one radio and power S&P on the other. Power S&P is a fast paced S&P where if I don’t make a contact right away with a station I land on, I map it to the bandmap, then go to the next station. After working the next station, I jump back to the station I mapped and try again. The emphasis on power S&P is to try to keep a rate going that is better than if I was running on a band I am having difficult running on. Normally I have great success at power S&P and don’t have to pass on many. If there’s a huge pileup on someone, I don’t waste time with it, I move on and try back later. My rates weren’t out of this world that first night. After the 129 that first hour, the rate dropped to 92, 71, 64, 65, 73, 37 and 44 between 0600-0700Z.

All the while that first night I was struggling with rate and waiting on sunrise in Europe. I was hoping for an all-night run on 20 meters to boost the rate and morale. It didn’t happen – perhaps a solar flare killed 20. I went to 20 meters at 0730Z (0230 AM local) and it was dead. There was not one RTTY signal on the band. I worked NN6XX on 80 meters at 0746Z (0246 AM local) and decided it was time for my first 90 minute sleep. I went to bed but couldn’t sleep. I was too excited. Eventually I did sleep for 90 minutes but my break ended up being nearly 3 hours.

When I woke up, I drank one cup of coffee with milk and sugar, fed the cats, and restarted the contest at 1040Z (0540 AM local) on 40 and 80 meters. I was feeling pretty good. The propagation numbers were identical to what they were at the start: 158, 3 and 1. At 1115Z I found signals on 20 meters and moved the 40 meter radio there so I could have the SteppIR on 20. I left the Kenwood on 80, CQing at 3595 kHz while I went S&P on 20. At 1145Z, 30 minutes before my sunrise, I checked 15 meters to find signals from Europe! I put the Icom on 15 with the SteppIR and the Kenwood on 20 with the KT34. After working a few stations on 15 S&P, I checked 10 meters on the Kenwood just before 1200Z to find signals from Europe on 10 meters and it was still before sunrise. This got me very excited. I put the Kenwood on 10 with the KT34 and started running on 15 with the SteppIR at 21111 kHz while S&P on 10. It immediately became apparent that the KT34 had a problem on 10 meters. The SWR was jumping all around and I was hearing some popping static. Stations weren’t hearing me well on 10 with the KT34. So I put the Icom on 10 meters with the SteppIR and the Kenwood on 15 with the KT34. The KT34 worked much better on 15. In fact, it worked great because 15 ended up being my most productive band with over 800 QSOs and most of them by using the KT34 at only 40 feet! And the SteppIR was working great on 10 as it should.  So the KT34 became my 15 meter antenna and the SteppIR my 10 meter antenna the rest of the contest. I tried running on both bands but it just wasn’t working. So that’s how it went for most of the morning as I tried alternating running and S&P on 10 and 15 meters but was mostly S&P on both radios and the bands were FULL of BIG signals. My rate sucked but I was prepared for this ahead of time. I kept telling myself that it was a marathon and not a sprint. Whereas I can enjoy 12-13 straight hours of 100 QSO/hr rates running low power in the ARRL RTTY Roundup, I’m happy with 50 QSO/hr rates in CQWW. I have to remember that 50 Qs average over 48 hours is 2400 contacts. And 2400 contacts is very good for me in CQWW. It’s a DX contest, I’m low power with low antennas and I’m not on the US East Coast. When things aren’t going as well as I hope they would, I just have to settle myself down and remain steady. That’s what I did. I remained relaxed and enjoyed the operating.

Getting back to my strategy, it was working well even though it was early in the contest but I found myself doing things that had hurt me in the past. I was slouching and sitting in my chair cross-legged. In the past, slouching toward the radios had caused my back to hurt and sitting cross-legged would hurt my hips and knees to point where I could barely walk after sitting this way for several hours. So I made a concerted effort to sit up straight in my chair with my legs straight down and my feet on the floor. It was uncomfortable at first, but then it got easier and made me feel better. Occasionally I would stand up and operate for a few minutes. And I would look out the window occasionally to watch the sunrise or just see the green grass in the backyard and the base of the smaller tower. There’s nothing else out there but a 6′ wooden privacy fence. But I did find it helped. I don’t know why but it did. Ed knew something I didn’t.

So I could not run on both radios at the same time because the rate was too slow that morning. And it actually got worse going into the early afternoon. My rates from 1200-2000Z on 10 and 15 meters Saturday were 53, 74, 68, 64, 45, 40, 27 and 32. Finally after 2000Z, things picked up a little and I was having better success running both bands (at 28101 and 21122 kHz) at the same time for a while. The bands seemed a little better and it was kind of strange to be working EU this late on both bands. I checked WWV to see the SFI jumped to 190. At first I didn’t believe it. I refreshed the screen, then minimized the page and reopened it and it still said 190. I’d minimize the page, make a few contacts, then bring it up again. Was I hallucinating already? No, I wasn’t. The solar flux index had jumped from 158 to 190 somewhere between 1800 and 2100Z and I was working Japan and EU at the same time on 10 and 15 meters. The A index was 3 and the K index 2. It was really cool. And the next five hours of rate (2000-0100Z), included moving from 10 to 20 meters at 0045Z, were 59, 75, 64, 86 and 74. So as you can see, I didn’t exactly burn up the rate meter on Saturday but it was getting better and I was having fun and feeling pretty good about things. At the end of Saturday 2400Z, I had 1329 valid contacts and 488 total multipliers. I really didn’t notice as I was just slugging away and enjoying the nice propagation.

At 0230Z, I moved the Icom from 15 to 40 meters and the Kenwood from 20 to 80 meters as signals on 20 were going away. The low bands weren’t great that night but the noise was low. I was able to run both bands with some success at 3595 and 7074 kHz. The low band rates that night starting at 0200z and going to 0700Z were 36, 52, 59, 38, 28 and 34. I did go to 20 meters around 0521Z and worked some EU and a couple of JA stations (total of 50 contacts on 20 but nearly every one was a new mult). But it wasn’t much and not enough to justify staying up all night so at 0815Z (0315 AM local), I worked SM6NOC on 20 meters and then went to bed for my second 90-minute sleep. On Saturday I drank two nutrition shakes, drank two 5 Hour Energy drinks and consumed two BC powders evenly spread throughout the day, along with a small meal somewhere around 2300Z. I watched LSU beat West Virginia on TV and this kind of gave me a bit of boost. Go Tigers!

I didn’t have any problem falling asleep this time. When I woke up I made a cup of coffee with sugar and milk, fed the cats and restarted the contest at 1018Z on 80 meters. I felt refreshed. I was happy that my off-time totaled nearly exactly 2 hours instead of 3 like the previous night. I ran on 80 while S&P on 40 until moving from 40 to 20 at 1100Z for a few minutes, then went back to 40 for a few minutes and finally moving to 15 meters just before 1200Z and to 10 meters at 1244Z. The SFI was still 190, the A was 4 and the K was 2. I was excited all over again and didn’t feel tired at all. I drank a nutrition shake for breakfast then started on Diet Coke. The weekend was a steady stream of Diet Coke and chewing gum. I kept a plastic jug in the shack and only left the shack for the bathroom when the jug is full. I HATE losing my run frequency for bathroom breaks!

I was ready to go for another solid day of high band contesting. Again, in the early hours on 10 and 15 meters it was power S&P on both radios. Power S&P on two radios is the hardest thing to do because it takes up so much more energy than running both radios (easiest way to operate) or running one and S&P on the other. Finally at 1440Z I started a solid run on 21157 kHz. Yes – 21157 kHz!!! Never in my life had I run this high in the band but it worked for a while. I tried running on 10 at the same time but only worked 4 stations in 8 minutes and that’s too slow for me so back to S&P on 10. The run on 15 didn’t last long either, so tried the lower end at 21077 kHz. That didn’t last long either so it was back to power S&P on both radios until I got a run going on 28149 kHz. Man, I was way up the band but that run was working pretty well for a while. Then back to S&P both radios again. There were signals everywhere on 10 and 15 but the bands didn’t seem as good as Saturday. I checked the numbers and saw the K had risen to 3 and I could tell it. All morning I had been looking at my summary window and seeing the very low totals on 20 meters. This was partly by design and partly by what the bands dictated. With 10 and 15 being open, there just wasn’t any time for 20. And I had checked 20 periodically both days and found only a few signals during the day. I figured this was because the MUF (maximum usable frequency) was so high and that everyone was on the higher bands. I decided I needed more contacts and would get more multipliers on 20, so I moved from 10 to 20 meters at 1850Z to check for signals. There were a lot of signals but not enough to go there yet so I went back to ten. My rates up to that time were 36, 50, 50, 39, 45, 33, 31 and 40. Finally at 2000Z I left 10 meters for good and settled on 20 meters where I went S&P starting at the bottom of the band. In the meantime I was having success running on 21145 kHz with the KT34. The rate immediately started picking up and was 73 between 2000-2100Z. It took a full hour to S&P 20 meters until I found a nice clear frequency on 14136 kHz. Then I ran both 15 and 20 meters and my rates between 2100-2300Z were 71 and 73. Things were looking up. It’s a good thing that it turned out this way (running on both radios at the end). By the end of the contest I was getting a little tired. I was slumping more and leaning toward the radios and lacked the discipline to straighten my back. I sat cross legged because it was more comfortable. I was getting tired but being able to run on both radios definitely helped because it’s the easiest way to operate SO2R on RTTY. I had popped a BC powder at 2000Z in hopes it would bring me home to the end.

Despite slumping and cross legged, things were going relatively well physically and mentally until I hit 2300Z. Then something bad happened. I had the TV on and found myself transfixed on it and not realizing there were stations coming back to me on both radios. Finally I broke out of it and turned off the TV. Then I was hitting all the wrong keys. I was rapidly losing motor skills and felt like a total zombie. I was seeing callsigns on the screen but did not know how to react, which key to hit or what to do. I was completely and totally lost. I was seeing things move in the shack that weren’t moving. I was hallucinating. Ed had warned me about this. I was nearly mentally paralyzed. I looked at the clock and there was only an hour to go. I felt very weird. And for some odd reason I remembered something Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – “When the going gets weird. The weird turn pro.” I knew I only had a short time to go, so I dug down very deep into something I didn’t know was there and I put every effort I had into concentrating on getting through the last hour. As if everything was running in slow motion I became a robot and acted as though someone else was pushing the buttons. Everything was so mechanical. It was as though someone else was doing the operating and I was just a spectator. I was running merely on instinct. In that last surreal hour, I turned the 4th best rate of the contest and worked 80 stations. I don’t know where it came from, it just happened.

Looks like I need to tweak the strategy for next year to include the final hour… or maybe, just maybe I had the wrong strategy all along.

SH5 Log Analysis

CBS Log Reports


CQ Worldwide DX Contest, RTTY
Call: AA5AU
Operator(s): AA5AU
Station: AA5AU

Class: SOAB LP
Operating Time (hrs): 44
Radios: SO2R


Band QSOs Pts State/Prov DX Zones
80: 265 311 50 17 10
40: 312 588 42 60 19
20: 478 868 48 54 22
15: 829 1775 49 78 25
10: 500 1250 30 71 24
Total: 2384 4792 219 280 100 Total Score = 2,870,408

Station Equipment:

Icom 756 PRO III transceiver running FSK w/external JPS NIR-12 Dual DSP audio filter
Kenwood TS870 transceiver running FSK w/external JPS NIR-12 Dual DSP audio filter
Dell Dimension 4600 Windows XP Pro running WriteLog version 10.88B & MMTTY plug-in to internal sound card
Dell Inspiron E1505 Windows Media Edition running WriteLog version 10.88B & MMTTY plug-in to external Encore sound card
HAL DXP-38 in cloned Rttyrite windows on Dimension PC
Dunestar 600 band filters (one each radio) and Dunestar 800-BPF switch
Dunestar 2 radio headphone selector
Heil headphones
Icom PS-60 power supply on the PRO III station
Astron RS-35A power supply on TS870 station


3 element SteppIR yagi with 30/40 meter loop dipole add-on @ 58′ rotated by Ham IV rotator
KT34M2 4-element tribander @ 40′ rotated by M2 RC2800PX controller/positioner
80 meter inverted vee with apex @ 55′