Chasing the Chase – Part 2

By Don Hill, AA5AU

April 2018

April 1 was the day I finally reached the top ten, but then a few hours later fell back to 11th when Z60A uploaded their logs. There were now four DXpeditions in the top ten. Toward the end of the first week I got dropped to 12th when the 3D2EU DXpedition uploaded their logs but they only had 4814 points and that put them just ahead of me in 11th place. There were now five DXpeditions in the top eleven spots. As I said before, I wasn’t worried about DXpeditions. I would eventually pass them.

My strategy for the first week of the month is to call CQ as much as possible on FT8. Despite working a full-time job, I was still able to spend a good amount of time at the radio after work and on the weekends. I put a new line at the top of my QRZ.COM page in bold red print which read “For 2018 – Please dupe me on FT8. Work me each month on each band for the International Grid Chase. Thank You!” I think it actually worked as I noticed I started getting duplicate stations answering my CQ’s. The first weekend I made 239 contacts in the EA RTTY contest and 63 contacts in the NA Sprint SSB. I also made a lot of FT8 contacts that weekend.

Things seemed to slow down on FT8 during the second week so I was able to spend more time working on my SteppIR yagi refurbishment. I wanted to get it completed and installed before the WPX CW contest at the end of May. It would be the next major contest on the calendar.

I had hoped to work a lot of Japanese grids during the JIDX CW Contest during the 2nd weekend but bad weather kept me off the air most of Saturday the 14th. The bands were also very poor that weekend with a high A and K index.

Photo 1 – Bad weather kept me off the air on Saturday April 14th

When the weather cleared that weekend, I was able to finish my SteppIR antenna. Now I needed to install it but a few things still had to happen before that could be done, so the antenna sat on the back porch.  At about this time I noticed a certain station in Arkansas, Gary KE5TD, making his way up the leader board and at one point he was less than 300 points and in 12th place just behind me. I needed to keep an eye out on him.

Photo 2 – Refurbished 3-element SteppIR antenna ready for installation

During the 3rd week, band conditions started to improve. I operated the CQMM DX CW Contest the 3rd weekend and made 263 contacts. With points from those contacts and FT8 contacts made that weekend I was able to pull back out to over 380 points from KE5TD. During the last week of April, band conditions were very quiet and there were excellent openings to the west on 15 meters several hours past sunset that yielded many points from FT8 contacts.

That week I removed the Pixel loop receiving antenna and D3W dipole I use for 30 meters off the 35′ tower in anticipation of installing the refurbished SteppIR antenna. I also did something that would ultimately help me in every aspect and that was repairing and re-installing my Cushcraft D40 rotatable dipole. It took a direct lightning strike in 2010 and was severely damaged. I had obtained the parts to fix it, but was unable to do so because I lacked an antenna analyzer to tune it. I now have an antenna analyzer so getting the antenna tuned was a cinch. The improvement over my 40 meter inverted vee was significant. It was actually more like night and day.

Photo 3 – Cushcraft D40 installed on the 35′ tower.

May 2018

With all the tower and antenna work during the last week of April combined with having to work late on May 1st, it allowed KE5TD to make up 150 points on me and get within 230 points. When I was at work, I would check his call on to see he was busy working FT8. Like many others in the top ten, he had a presence on at least two bands at the same time. That got me thinking I needed to connect my second radio for FT8, so on May 2nd that’s exactly what I did.

That evening it took about an hour to connect a spare USB sound card and make the necessary hardware connections to my Kenwood TS-870S transceiver. I then configured WSJT-X and JTAlertX to run two sessions at the same time – one for my Icom IC-756 PRO III and the other for the Kenwood. It was so easy I wondered why I hadn’t done it earlier and fumed about all the points I probably missed. In my quest to get more operating time, I also configured the station for remote access and made nearly 70 contacts remotely on the 3rd of May using a laptop computer while away from home.

Photo 4 – Running WSJT-X and JTAlertX on two radios

That evening, while doing my 30-minute workout on the treadmill, it occurred to me that I could access my desktop computer in the shack from my smartphone. So I downloaded an app and before the workout was complete, had worked three new grids from my smartphone. Things were getting interesting finding new ways to keep pace. That same day I passed Z60A for 9th place.

Photo 5 – Working FT8 digital mode from my smartphone
Photo 6 – Working FT8 from the treadmill.

I took the day off work on May 4th to install my refurbished 3-element SteppIR yagi. It took over 2 months to rebuild it. It was a fun project that I documented from start to finish. Now I had a second high-band antenna that would help yield more Chase points when operating two radios.

Photo 7 – Newly installed refurbished 3-element SteppIR yagi with D40 dipole on the same tower.

I operated FT8 from my smartphone anytime I could. Take the wife shopping and while she’s looking at clothes, I’m working FT8 remotely. Fixing breakfast? Work FT8. On Tuesday, May 8th, I made 324 contacts on FT8. Some were remote but most were made that evening when both 6 and 10 meters opened up to vast areas of the USA via E-skip. It was the first major E-skip opening of the season. The next day I made 143 contacts. The margin with KE5TD grew back to over 300 points as I gained more than 100 points on him in the first week of operating my home station FT8 from my smartphone.

On the morning of May 11th, I woke up to find I had surpassed the E31A DXpedition on the leader board and was now 8th. Not only was I pulling away from KE5TD, I was gaining steadily on the station ahead of me in 7th, That operator, Barry, N2BJ, in Illinois, had a 300 point lead before I started 2 radios and remote operating. By end of that that first week, the lead was down to 185. These were significant gains and the newfound ways of making contacts while away from the shack, plus being able to work two radios, were paying big dividends.

The summertime weather pattern of daily thunderstorms finally kicked in on the 18th which would be the last day I would be able to leave the station powered on while unattended. I saw weather trouble brewing and the XYL shut everything down before severe thunderstorms smacked us hard that afternoon and evening. It was a stark reminder of what this kind of weather can do as it ripped some decorative lattice off the side fence that had been there for years. I was happy to see the newly installed 3-element SteppIR yagi take the big wind with no problem. The next day I mowed the lawn and worked FT8 from my smartphone during breaks.

Photo 8 – Working FT8 while cutting grass.

On Sunday, May 20th, I decided I needed to do something about a 30-meter antenna. Since I had taken down the D3W dipole, I had been using my 80 meter inverted vee with a tuner but it was not an effective way to operate 30 meters. It occurred to me that I still had the 40-meter inverted vee up on the main tower. I decided to make it into a 30 meter inverted vee by folding back the legs to see how it worked. It worked much better than expected. With the apex at 40′, it actually seemed to work better than the D3W did. That afternoon and evening I worked many stations on 30-meter FT8 including contacts into Europe, Russia, Lebanon and Turkey. I was cautiously optimistic that I had created a really good 30-meter antenna.

All the while, I was looking forward to the CQ WPX CW Contest which would occur the last weekend in May. I was hoping the points from the contest would push my score up to where it would take everyone else a while to catch back up. As the contest approached, so did a tropical weather system that formed in the Caribbean Sea near the Yucatan Peninsula. There would be a possibility of a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico on contest weekend that could affect my effort.

Luckily, Tropical Storm Alberto took an easterly path into the Florida panhandle, which for the most part left us here in Louisiana on the “dry” side of the storm and I was able to fully participate in WPX CW. And what a contest it was. I originally set a goal of 1000 contacts. However, conditions were so good that I had surpassed that after the first day. So I reset the goal to 1500 and ended up with 1868 contacts which pushed me solidly up into 6th place in the Chase.

June 2018

The month of June is known for its 6 and 10-meter E-skip openings. A major E-sklp opening occurred on Sunday, June 3rd. I was able to work several new grids on 6 and 10 meters.

Photo 9 – Screenshot from showing big six-meter E-skip activity on June 3, 2018.

I operated six meters in the ARRL VHF Contest during the 2nd weekend of the month. Six meters opened up on Sunday, June 10th, and I made nearly 300 contacts. Most of the contacts were on SSB using my voice files. I also worked as many as I could on CW to maximize points-per-mode. I only made a few contacts on FT8 because it is too slow for contesting. I worked 99 total grids in the contest, but since I split SSB and CW, that resulted in nearly 150 new grids for points in the Chase. It was significant.

The day after the contest, on June 11, I passed Tim, N3QE, for 5th place on the leader board. I realized it was probably only temporary because Tim is one of the best operators in the world and he’ll surely make a strong comeback during the fall contest season. His location in Maryland will allow him to kick it into another gear when the big contests come in the fall.

During the next week and a half, I was able to maintain my position and actually pull away from Tim a little despite having a big project at work and working on Saturdays. On June 20th, I was over 200 points ahead of him. I was helped mainly by nice E-skip openings on 6, 10  and even 12 meters in the evenings after dinner and late into the night.

Field Day took place on Saturday and Sunday of the last full weekend in June. I had volunteered to work that day, as I had the previous Saturday, but still planned on getting on the air after work and then again on Sunday . I only made 318 contacts during Field Day despite good openings on 10 and 15 meters Sunday. However, by the end of the month only about 20% of those I worked during Field Day had confirmed via LoTW. It was a huge disappointment and I didn’t feel so bad for not putting in more time. The last week of June got a little slow on FT8 and it seemed I’d worked everyone I could for points. I worked all day at my job on Saturday, June 30th, so I wasn’t able to make any points on the last day of the month.

Despite missing three Saturdays in June, I was still in 5th place overall and had stretched my lead over N3QE to over 500 points. What happened to Tim? I hadn’t seen him on the air in quite a while and was a bit concerned. I was less than 200 points behind NF3R in fourth place. For the month of June, I placed 15th, but actually had the fourth best score among grid chasers behind KJ3L and overall leaders K3WW and S52D. There were three World Cup special event stations in the top five for the month. I felt pretty good about my June performance considering how much seat time I had missed. At the half way point in the Chase, I was doing much better than I had ever thought I could. Six more months to go. I was looking forward to it. Should be interesting.

Continue on to Quarter #3 here.