The first and third weekends of November are great opportunities for US and Canadian hams to jump in and give it a try. The ARRL November Sweepstakes is the oldest domestic contest and it has two weekends - the first for Morse (CW) and two weeks later for Phone (SSB). Since it's a domestic contest, even modest stations with low antennas can do very well indeed.
What's the object of the contest? Make as many contacts as you can on 160, 80, 40, 20, 15, and 10 meters (not on the WARC bands or 60 meters) with the 83 ARRL and RAC Sections. You can contact each station once during the contest. If you work all 83 sections (called a "Clean Sweep") you can get a really nice coffee mug. If you make 100 QSOs, you can get a pin and start a collection! Work on your WAS or WAVE awards. Try to spell your name from the last letters of the calls you work. Work your home state. Work your brother's state. Nobody can stop at just one QSO...
The 2013 ARRL CW Sweepstakes is Nov 2 - Nov 3 local time
The 2013 ARRL Phone Sweepstakes is Nov 16 - Nov 17 local time.
That's Saturday afternoon through Sunday evening.
You can operate for 24 out of the 30-hour contest period.
Since CW is the first weekend, let's see how it works using CW jargon. (It works just the same on Phone.)
Although you might recoil in horror at the high code speeds, tune wayyyyyyy up in the bands and there will be some folks going nice and slow. The old Novice bands on 80, 40, 15, and 10 meters (above 100 kHz from the bottom of the band) are often the home of a number of slow-speed stations hanging out. Don't be afraid to jump in and give 'em a call. I *guarantee* your code speed will double with just a few hours at the key.
What about the Phone weekend? Many of us might say, "Gee, Phone SS must be easier to operate than CW." Well, yes and no. Certainly it's more natural to use one's voice than the paddle and the rules are the same so Phone should be a snap, right? All other things being equal...but they are not...phone operation has characteristics all its own.
The phone bands are considerably more crowded than CW. First there's the bandwidth issue - a phone QSO takes up more frequencies than a CW QSO. Also, there tends to be more casual (non-contest) phone operating (nets, rag chews, etc.) of which you need to be aware and coexist. Please be courteous to other band occupants - whether contesters or not.
Unlike CW, some folks seem to be enamored with using "the last two" to call. Please use your entire call sign. Nine times out of ten, the other station will copy it right the first time. And use phonetics - NORMAL phonetics. (Willie Billie Five Willie Billie Willie might seem funny to your friends, but not in the middle of a crowded contest band!)
Single-operator stations can enter Sweepstakes in the A, B, or U categories. What is the U category? It stands for"Unlimited" and it means that you may use information from the spotting networks such as DX Summit or a local VHF channel tohelp you find stations to work. There are Unlimited categories for both low-power and high-power operation. If you use ANYkind of information from outside your station to find call signs, obtain exchange information, or learn the frequencies ofstations to contact, you must enter your log in the Unlimited category. If you tune in and copy every signal on your own, youmay enter as Q, A, or B depending on your power level. If you have questions about what category to use for your entry, sendemail to email@example.com and the Contest Branch Manager will answer them.
Contesting isn't like day-to-day operating. The bands are full of strong signals packed close together. It's like playing a real football game instead of a game of catch. You'll find that you need to use some of those receiver controls and narrower filters. In fact, cranking in some attenuation or turning down the RF Gain control will improve receiver performance dramatically under the strong-signal conditions in a contest. By effectively using the capabilities of a modern receiver, you will surely find that the band is quieter and nearby signals less disruptive. In fact, you will find yourself making better use of your receiver's controls every day!
Because there are so many strong signals present during a contest, having the preamp turned on is not at all necessary and will likely lead to severe intermodulation and overload problems in your receiver. Turn it off - this will also help a non-contester operating on the bands.
Noise blankers work by sensing strong pulses of RF anywhere on a band and then turning off the receiver during the pulse. In a contest with lots of strong signals, the noise blanker gets confused and starts turning off the receiver in sync with the strong signals. This makes your receiver audio sound like the strong signal is splattering all across the band! The first thing you should do when operating on a busy contest-filled band is turn off the noise blanker.
The attenuator seldom gets a workout, but it can be your biggest friend when dealing with strong nearby signals. It's surprisingly easy for a strong signal to drive a receiver's RF amplifier or mixers into non-linearity known as overload. This creates spurious intermodulation products, known as "crud," up and down the band. 10 dB of attenuation cures a surprising number of ailments at the cost of just a couple of S-units of signal strength. Try cranking in some attenuation and you may find that interference drops dramatically when your receiver is no longer being overloaded. Remember that the goal is to maximize signal-to-noise ratio, not necessarily absolute signal strength. Try out your attenuator and you may be surprised at how much it cleans up a band even on a weekday!
Late breaking news - RF Gain controls are not welded in the full-on position! This makes your receiver very sensitive, but also leaves your IF (and sometimes the RF) amplifiers susceptible to overload. Experiment with backing off the RF Gain to see if it doesn't improve your receiver's performance in a strong signal environment. Even during casual operating, backing off the RF Gain can dramatically reduce background noise. Experiment with changing the AGC settings or even (gasp!) turn it OFF and use the RF Gain control instead. It doesn't take much to change a QRM-clobbered QSO into a fairly manageable channel.
Does your receiver have Passband Tuning, IF Shift, Variable Bandwidth or similar controls? All those new DSP features you paid for can also clean up noise and attenuate low-frequency or high-frequency interference. There's no time like the present to find the receiver's manual and learn what these controls do. You'll find they make day-to-day operating easier and more successful, too.
When operating in a contest, you need to be sensitive to the effect of undesired spurious transmitter byproducts. It's one thing to set up your voice keyer and speech processor on a calm, weekday after work and quite another thing to then hammer it during the contest when you're excited.
Do an on-air audio check with a friend to learn where to set mic gain and processing level. Learn what your ALC and Compression meters show with audio levels set properly. Turn on the amplifier fan and every other noisemaker in the shack to see if they make an unwanted contribution to your signal. Be sure you don't have RF feedback on any frequency. Listen to a playback of your voice with every noisemaker in the shack turned on. It's important that all that RF energy is carrying your message and not fan noise. Use a windscreen on your boom mike to limit the high-frequency pops and snaps. You need the crisp high end of speech, but not the transients that overdrive a compressor. Windscreens also reduce fan and background noise.
Check to be sure that running an amplifier doesn't cause RF feedback or distortion to your mic or voice keyer. Better to find that out now instead of during the contest. CW operators should check for key clicks, too.
A small digression. I often hear that contest stations have low-quality audio and I believe that some of these complaints are a result of confusion. Contests are not about audio fidelity, they are about intelligibility. The two do not always go hand in hand as the military well knows. The important thing is to convey the information, not to sound like Bing Crosby. During a contest, I want to have a punchy, crisp signal that is easy to understand on a crowded band. During a regular ragchew, I'll switch to a signal with more dynamic range and more low-frequency response. The two types of operating have very different audio requirements.
It's a lot of fun - the hours will fly by. Keep a simple paper log the first time out to make it easy - you can worry about entering it on a computer later. There are complete rules and instructions for operating and scoring and sending in the log on the ARRL website for Sweepstakes. Check out the 2013 Sweepstakes Operating Guide.
Come next spring, you can click on over to the contest results on the ARRL's Contest Branch Web site, such as these PDF versions for 2012 CW Sweepstakes or Phone Sweepstakes, and wonder-of-wonders, there your call will be with the mighty titans in the very same font size just a few lines away. Woo-hoo!!