2011 Virginia QSO Party Analysis: A Personal Perspective


Paul Bock, K4MSG


Amateur radio at its best can be enjoyable and rewarding, but it can also be frustrating and annoying when things "don't go right"! Whatever the situation, when things don't go as planned it's helpful to step back, evaluate the issues and obstacles and decide how to overcome them. It is this type of analysis that I applied to the 2011 Virginia QSO Party (VAQP) in the numbered paragraphs that follow.


I should offer a disclaimer and note that my VAQP points in 2011 will go to the Fauquier Amateur Radio Association (FARA). Being a member of two local clubs means having somewhat "divided loyalties" so this year FARA gets my operating effort for VAQP and LARG will get it for Field Day.


A word or two about VAQP: Although I'm certainly not a diehard contest operator, I do occasionally participate in contests and have grown especially fond of the VAQP despite often having my participation preempted by non-ham responsibilities. Specifically, I'm fond of the Single-Operator, All-Band, Low-Power CW category, probably because it appeals to my sense of operating simplicity and offers an opportunity to compete against some very fine CW operators around Virginia. My effort this year was rewarded with a final score of 77,861 points which is a personal "best" in the VAQP.


In order to make the analysis easy to follow I divided my comments into two categories, "What I Did Wrong" and "What I Did Right," so without further ado here is how K4MSG fared in the 2011 VAQP.


What I Did Wrong


1. Inefficient Use of 20 and 15 Meters, Especially on Saturday. In past VAQP contests I used 80 and 40 meters exclusively and almost fell into this trap again, but fortunately I gave 20 meters a try on Saturday and made enough contacts to realize that I needed to make better use of 20 and 15 on Sunday. Even so, my QSO production on those two bands was far less than it might have been had I planned better.


2. Poor Antenna Capability on the Higher Bands. As great as my trap dipole is on 80 and 40 meters it is marginal on 20 and 15. This will be rectified for the 2012 VAQP.


3. Too-long Breaks a Few Times on Saturday. While I did use forethought in planning breaks and meal-times (see no. 3, "What I Did Right"), I still ended up taking too much time off in several time slots on Saturday and my QSO rates reflect that. Unfortunately this occurred during potential "peak" periods so it hurt my overall QSO production.


4. Insufficient Practice with N1MM Logger in a Contest Environment. Although I practiced with N1MM Logger in the ARRL DX CW Contest in February I was still doing some "adjusting" during the VAQP, especially on Saturday. I'm not a touch-typist so I had to experiment to find the best way to type call signs to check for duplicate QSOs without slowing down the exchange, which I do using a "bug". I needed three hands, two for the keyboard and one for the bug, HI!


5. Lack of Internet Access in the Shack. While not an absolute necessity, Internet access in the ham shack would have allowed me to make use of spotting networks (especially the one operated by the Fauquier Amateur Radio Association which is heavily used during VAQP). After the contest I installed a wireless router and configured the shack for Internet access via the home PC's Internet connection.


What I Did Right


1. Set Operating Goals Before the Contest. My main operating goal was to raise my performance to 300 QSOs and 100 multipliers, yielding a score near the previous high in my category. Since this would not be enough to win (previous winners have goals, too!) I set a secondary goal of doubling my previous high (34k) which would give me a 5k point "edge" over the previous category high. When I reached that point I opted to keep going and my final score exceeded the previous high in the category by 15k points.


2. Operated for 22 out of the 31 hours. Rich, K1HTV, of Fauquier ARA noted that one key to a high contest score is "BIC" -

"Butt In Chair"! While I was less efficient then I should have been I made it up by extra time operating. The nearest score to mine that is known is K4F (the 2009 category winner who surpassed his previous high score this year), and while he was more efficient than me he only operated 13 hours and my extra 9 hours gave me nearly a 13k point margin above his preliminary score.


3. Paced my operating. My pre-contest planning included things like 5-minute breaks every hour or, if the band is hot, a 7-minute break every two hours; 15-20 minutes each for meals; and 8 hours of sleep between the two days. Keeping the plan flexible but sticking to it as much as possible helped me pace myself (but see no. 2, "What I Did Wrong") and kept me fresh enough to operate long hours on Sunday.


4. Called CQ. I used to be primarily a "search and pounce" operator, trolling the bands looking for contacts. This wasted time and I missed weaker stations who were trolling like I was. This year I made quick checks up and down the band to work stronger stations then "camped" on a spot and called CQ. I was rewarded with many calls from weaker stations who I otherwise might never have worked.


5. Used a Logging Program. I cannot emphasize this one enough. If you are still using paper logs you owe it to yourself to install a PC or laptop in your shack (an older model will work fine) and get up to speed on a logging program. This will save you time during the contest and afterwards when you're compiling your results. And using a logging program that can generate a Cabrillo file is especially important when a club (like FARA) compiles all of the club member results from a contest and submits them in toto. So try one of the "freeware" loggers first, like N1MM, and buy a more complex logger later if you're so inclined, but definitely do yourself a favor and "retire" from paper logs.


Summary and Comments


It would be easy to look back on this contest as an unqualified success based on my preliminary score, but that would be disingenuous. While incremental improvements in the areas noted above may help to increase one's chances of achieving a high score the only thing that can be said with certainty is that future contests will continue to be both fun and challenging. See you in 2012!