A Digital Free Contest: January VHF 2020 Wrap-up

For me, it wouldn’t be a contest if something didn’t happen to 6 meters – and ice was the culprit this year. Saturday morning before contest start, we had a rather nice mix of freezing rain and snow. This didn’t effect getting up the hilltops, but getting back down was a little bit of an adventure. Initially we had a (small) group that was going to head out to an eastern grid convergence, but due to low numbers and bad weather we scrapped it the morning of the contest. Since we scrapped it, I decided to throw in the towel on my eastern grids trip, and stay in the local four, heading down to my usual starting spot in FN02 – just outside of Attica, NY.

I happened to get there just as the weather was starting to turn, so the trip up the hill was a breeze as there was still pavement. I arrived about 30 mins before contest start so I had time to get the elements out on the 6m beam, and reinitialize all of my software. I got out of the car, climbed up on the bumper to unscrew the clamps on the elements, and behold…. a layer of ice right on top of it. I banged on it with the back if the screwdriver, and though I was able to get the thicker outside layer off, that didn’t help that the inner threads were frozen. I smacked it a few more times, and got the screw to turn, loosened up the clamp, but the element was frozen inside.

I thought about grabbing the butane soldering iron/torch that I brought with me, but I figured I’d have to fill it a couple times to thaw all of the elements, and then since it was still raining, I’d likely have to do it again when I packed up and headed to the next grid. I decided to just leave the elements in, and if someone wanted to QSY to other bands, we’d just save 6m for last and I’d turn the power down. This proved to be an okay method, likely the root cause for my lower score, but I can live with that. Next was WSJT-X… the software itself wasn’t the problem, however I was utilizing a different radio than I normally do for the contest, and while everything worked perfectly fine in testing, as soon as I got onsite to the first spot, nothing wanted to interface. This left me both without digital, and without 6m for more than local contacts. You know what? That’s perfectly fine by me. I still had 2m-2304 reliably, so away we went, using 2m voice as the base frequency. I parked on a frequency, and called CQ right at the start, and that was effectively my strategy for whole contest.

I wound up with a decent amount of contacts in FN02, but looking around at about 4:45 I noticed that… well… my surroundings had disappeared, and though a plow had come through once in my time there, the road was pretty much buried too, so I decided that it was best to start down the hill so I didn’t wind up having to walk down. While it was a slow slide down, it actually wasn’t all that bad all things considered. The ride to my spot in FN03 should have only taken me about 15-20 minutes, but instead it took closer to 45. It was about 5:30 by the time I was back on the air, and the QSO rate was rather slow. I operated here for a little over an hour, paused for a dinner break, and went back out to the same location until around 9:30-9:45 pm. Activity was slowing down, and I was getting mighty tired at this point, not to mention my initial plans involved staying out until closer to midnight operating meteor scatter on MSK144, however since WSJT-X wasn’t getting along with the radio I was using, I called it..

I slept in a little later than planned on Sunday morning, however I was still in my next grid, FN13, and on the air by 7:15 am. The roads were much clearer on Sunday morning, however due to the winds I had to move at a little bit of a slower pace on the highway getting out to the location. I was able to run a decent volume of contacts in this spot, and stayed on site until about 10:30am. I made a quick stop for coffee, and headed out to our rover lunch near the four grid corners.

Our usual “rover roundup” had an average attendance this year, and all were able to operate on 6m-1296, and a handful of us ran 2304 as well. We ran the bands in the four grids, and moved on to our next hilltops scheduled, for me this was a field area down in FN12 with a clear shot to the east, and decent visibility to the north and south. This grid was my best performer, yielding the most contacts on all bands, including a few (very cold) 2304 contacts off nothing more than a circuit board antenna.

All in all, with a projected score around 21,500, I know a few more unique grids would have been obtained had I been able to get on digital… which would have been as simple as grabbing my 7100 that was sitting at home since that interfaces flawlessly with the computer I’m using, but I admittedly don’t have as much fun on digital. The fact that my score was less than 1k points less than last year, without FT8 or 6m capabilities, is something that I can definitely be happy with.

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