W4AU - 2003 Virginia QSO Party
The Story

Friday, March 21, 2003 9:22 AM By John Unger, W4AU of Hamilton, Virginia

       It has been a couple of years since I did a write up of my experiences in the VAQP, and that last time was when I operated as a single op station in 2001. The main reason I like to do a writeup after a contest like the VAQP, where I've invested a lot of time and effort, is so that I will have something to look at next year and maybe not make some of the same mistakes; it isn't to brag (and there's not much to brag about this year).

       This year was the second time that I set up my station for a multi-operator station, and I had learned a lot after that first attempt at doing multi-op. Actually last year's set up was more like a single-op effort with a little help from my daughter, Hilary. She had been able to put in only a few hours, so most of time I simply operated as a single-op. This year was different as Hilary was able to put in more time, was more comfortable and experienced, and consequently made a much greater contribution to the total score.

       First, the setup, which I tried as much as possible to put together like a "real" multi-multi station. Basically, I set up three separate tranceivers for the VAQP. Station 1 was a Kenwood TS-850 and Drake L-4B amp. That rig was essentially SSB only on 10, 15, and 20 meters and was connected to my KT-34A beam. Station 2 was the TenTec Omni VI+ and Alpha 78 and operated on 40 and 80, SSB and CW. For 40 meters I use a double-extended Zepp antenna, which looks like an over-sized dipole fed with a short length 450 ohm twin lead and a 4:1 balun; it is up about 50-60 feet, is 190 feet long, and is cut for the CW part of 40 meters. For 80, I have a dipole cut for 3550 kHz. My TenTec Model 238 tuner on the output of the Alpha makes it possible to use both of these antennas on the phone portions of 40 and 80. The third station, for VHF / UHF, was my newest acquisition, an Icom 706MKIIG, which was connected to a Diamond vertical on my chimney; this antenna covers 6, 2 and 440. Each station had its own computer running TRLog, and the two computers on the HF stations were networked together so that all the QSO's were displayed on each computer screen as they were logged. I have ICE band-pass filters on the outputs of both of the HF rigs to reduce interference between the two stations when they are on the air at the same time. We had absolutely no problems with interference between the stations this year.

       I decided to start with one HF station on 40 SSB and the other on 20 SSB. Hilary arrived about 30 minutes before the contest and sat down and got comfortable at the 20 meter station and began tuning around to get the feel of the bands, etc. About 15 minutes before the start I found a clear frequency about 7280, called CQ, and worked a few guys just to get some reports of my signal and the audio quality of my voice keyer. With about 5 minutes to go Charlie, K4LJH, called in from his temporary expedition mode QTH in Middlesex County with a very nice signal. We chatted until the bell rang at 1800Z, and I put him in the log as QSO #1.

       It got very hot and heavy very fast for me right from the start. I had 20 QSO's in the log in the first 10 minutes and 48 QSO's after 30 minutes. For some reason, Hilary was having a hard time getting going on 20, though. Then I looked over at the grid and plate current meters on her L-4B amp and found that Murphy had struck, as usual; she was hardly getting out at all! I stuck her on the VHF rig to make some quick Q's while I tried to figure out what was going on. Much to my dismay, I found that Mr. Murphy had somehow turned the mic gain on the TS-850 down almost all the way! With that little problem solved, Hilary was soon back on the air and running stations on 20. We ended up with 90 Q's in the first hour of the QP.

       We continued to work stations at a good clip with me on 40 SSB and CW and Hilary on 20 SSB for the next 4 hours; our hourly rates were 85, 76, 61, and 72. It was neat to have TRLog on the two computers showing all the QSO's being made by both HF stations. We even managed to pass a few guys from one band to the other for an extra QSO.

       Hilary left about 2300Z to go home for dinner, and her absence was immediately felt as the rate dropped of 45-60 QSO's per hour for the next 5 hours. I worked mostly 40 CW and 80 SSB and CW and then went to 20 CW and SSB before calling it an early night and closing things down about 0330Z with 599 Q's in the log and getting to bed at a reasonable hour.

       After all the decent QSO rates on Saturday, Sunday started off slow for W4AU, and things did not improve greatly. While waiting for Hilary to show up, I started out on 40 SSB about 1240Z and bounced around the bands for a few hours averaging about 25 Q's per hour. Even Hilary's dulcet tones couldn't get things going on 20. I got discouraged. I got out of the chair. I went for a 90 minute bike ride. Hilary went to the movies. Finally, about 1900Z I got reengaged in the QP. We had good times on 40 SSB working our mobile LARG'ers and acting as an informal "net Control" for other fixed stations in the QP who wanted to work the rare counties activated by Tom, Carol, Denny, and Chester. It was great fun, and the last 7 hours of the VAQP seemed to pass by pretty quickly. We finished up at 0200Z after some decent rates on 20 SSB and CW with a total of 889 QSO's in the log.

       Some General Observations (in no particular order):

       Mults - I really messed up this year with finding and working DX and ended up with only 11 DX mults (down from 42 last year). I know that band conditions were not all that hot, but I was just not clever enough to be on the right bands at the right time Sunday morning, especially. On the other hand, our total of 81 Virginia counties and cities is the best ever done from this station. States and Provinces at 46 and 9 is about average with past VAQP's. The Virginia mult total was helped immensely by well-run HF mobile stations operating across the state this year: WB3AKD, KF4TJI, WA9LAZ, KF4TJJ, K4UK, and K4MUT.

       Station Setup - I had thought that I could easily convert the multi-multi setup that I was using when Hilary was operating alongside of me to my normal single-op, two-radio setup without any problems during the QP. I was mistaken. The combination of reconnecting lots of computer and radio cables and changing TRLog parameters was just too daunting for my tired brain. The net result was that when I operated alone, which was most of the time, it was difficult to use the other radio to find out what was happening on the other bands while sending CQ on the transmitting radio. When we had two operators cooking, the HF setup was great! Our performance on VHF/UHF was poor. We simply did not take or make enough time to see what was happening on those bands and subsequently missed a lot of QSO's and 3-point mobile contacts. I think we really need to have a third operator to do that station justice.

       Other Operators - I had very few problems with things like frequency fights or deliberate interference on 40 or 80 SSB, the only two bands where I've ever had any problems in the past. Other hams seemed to be more courteous; I was asked to move a few kcs once in a while and actually gave up a pretty good run frequency on 40 Sunday morning when some hams politely asked if they could have the frequency for 30 minutes or so (I did make sure all three of them worked me first!). I figured it was time to work some CW anyway.

       Band Conditions - The low bands seemed to be in great shape. Not too much noise (except 80 Saturday night) and decent propagation. The high bands were another matter. Solar activity seemed to interfere with 10 meters and I never heard that band open at all. I'd be interested to know if anyone made many QSO's there. I missed a good opening to Europe on 15 meters Sunday morning that Norm (the sly fox) caught, and, therefore, we missed some good European mults. I worked a few Europeans on 20 on SSB and CW, but 99% of the contacts on that band were with US and Canadian stations.

       LARG Operations - These observations come immediately after the VAQP, so I don't know what people's scores are. I was impressed with all the LARG members I worked or heard on the air. Everyone sounded professional, efficient, and polite and seemed to be having a good time. In terms of signals, I was very impressed with the K4LJH signal strength from both Middlesex and Matthews counties. Charlie was running a IC-706MKIIG from a battery to a 40 meter Windom in a portable mode in Middlesex and had his Yaesu Mark V on an 80 meter Windom from a cottage in Matthews. Both locations were near the water, which may explain the good signals. WB3AKD's mobile signal was outstanding and was easy to copy from all of his portable locations (except when he was in the tunnel). It was also great to work K8SYH a couple of times from his new QTH in Pittsylvania County. Bill had just gotten moved in the day before the QP and still managed to get up a 40 meter sloper and get on the air to make some points for LARG!

       Why? - Last year we made 1036 QSO's and had 253,000 points; this year's score looks to be about 185,000 with about 877 good QSO's. Why was this year's score not up to last year's standard? I certainly can't blame my other operator; Hilary spent more time in the chair and made over twice as many QSO's as she did last year. I think a lot of it has to do with my attitude and performance. I allowed myself to get too discouraged with slow rates on Sunday morning and didn't work hard enough to get those relatively easy DX mults on the high bands when they were open. On Sunday afternoon when things got better, I spent too much time working CW a low rates when I should have been on 20 SSB running stations in the western U.S. I guess that's the problem with liking CW too much.  Probably propagation also had something to do with the score; I'll have to wait until I see how others did on the high bands.

Best Regards, John - W4AU