Getting Started in Ham Radio Contesting

PUBLISHED ON APR 11, 2021 — CONTESTING

It’s been a while since I’ve composed anything on this site and frankly it’s because I consider most aspects of Ham Radio boring. This isn’t the first time I’ve taken a break either. Since last December I’ve exclusively worked digital modes, with FT8 as primary. This was fun for a few weeks as I learned more about my new Yaesu FTDX 3000 and how WSJT-X worked. After a month of operating FT8, I realized it didn’t in fact involve much effort to make contacts; after two months I realized I had completely mastered the art of pointing and clicking within WSJT-X. I never made it to the end of three months.

It wasn’t until last week that I had a desire to get back on the air and attempt my hand at a different accept of the hobby. I wanted to jump into the world of single sideband. I’m not much of a people person to the point where you could say I intensely dislike interacting with most people. Strangers especially. Hence, this is a significant step for me. I managed to work up the nerve to call CQ on 40-meters one night and ended up speaking to a nice gentlemen name Ron from California. I was counting on this being a short QSO, just to develop an understanding of phone operations. Ron had other ideas; he wanted to ragchew (God, I fucking despise that word!).

In the fifteen minutes that I spend talking to him here are a few things I learned from Ron. To start with, Ron is retired, second the weather in California is different from that of Utah, third Ron doesn’t know when to shut up. I tried three times to excuse myself politely from the conversation. I implemented my go to phrase “Alright, I’m going to let you go.”, I said “Ron, I have to go”, and finally “Ron, I got to go! My kid is crying.”. The dude just wouldn’t shut up even after that.

I thought about swearing off SSB for good out of fear having to talk to another Ron, but decided not to after remembering that ham radio contesting exist. What better way to enjoy single sideband without having to have meaningful personal interactions with people? With a new found zeal I begain looking for the next availiable SSB contest to participate in. Unfortunately for me that was the North American SSB Sprint

How Not to Start in Ham Radio Contesting

I’ll be the first to announce that my idea of jumping unprepared into one of the hardest ham radio contests was a foolish idea. I was lucky enough to have a friend who was already big into contesting and had a large beam antenna on a seventy-foot tower to assist me navigating my way through the contest. I couldn’t imagine trying to blindly participate in this contest with my modest station.

My number one piece of advice if you’re thinking about getting into ham radio contesting would be finding someone who comprehends what they’re doing to demonstrate how things work. It also helps if you’re capable running 1,500 watts of power to a beam antenna too. Not everyone can achieve that so set your expectations extremely low for your initial contest. You’ll be grateful you did.

My goal for the NA SSB Sprint was to make twenty-five contacts and stop. It didn’t matter if I took one hour or the entire four hours I was going to make twenty-five contacts. This doesn’t seem like a arduous task at first, but when you consider the rules for adjusting frequencies it’s a massive deal. I’ve spoken about the NA SSB Sprint, but what exactly is it and why is it so difficult?

North American SSB Sprint

The North American SSB Sprint is a short, intense competition which challenges the most skilled operators, while allowing others to sharpen their skills. Lasting only four hours and using only the 80, 40 and 20-meter bands, these contests demand that participants be on their toes at all times. The Sprint’s unique frequency stipulations eliminate the conventional approach in many contests of dominant stations sitting on one frequency and running others. This is a contest of constant motion.

There’s a special QSY rule that all everyone must follow while participating in the NA SSB Sprint:

If any station solicits a call (eg, by sending “CQ,” “QRZ?” “going up 5 kHz” or any other means of soliciting a response, including completion of a contact where the frequency was inherited), that station is permitted to work only one station in response to that solicitation. The station must thereafter move at least 1 kHz before calling another station, or at least 5 kHz before soliciting other calls. Once a station is required to QSY, that station is not allowed to make another contact on the vacated frequency until or unless at least one subsequent contact is made on a new frequency.

Sounds confusing. The basic gist is if you answer someone’s CQ then the frequency becomes yours. You’re then allowed to call CQ. If someone answers your CQ then you must move at least 5kHz before calling CQ again. If multiple people answer you you can work all of them as long as you move at least 1kHz away from the frequency you called CQ. The rule is complex to grasp at first but once you stubble your way through your first NA SSB Sprint it’s not hard to figure out. As far as I can tell this rule exclusively applies to the NA SSB Sprint but their may be others out there.

Final Thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed my time during the NA SSB Sprint. After I had achieved my goal of twenty-five contacts, I was hooked on ham radio contesting. I’ve since started looking for small contests that I can participate in while I continue working to improve my station. Contesting has thrust me into thinking about how to become a more skilled operator and what do to my station to maximize its potential. It’s easy to look down on contesting and those who do enjoy it. After all bands are packed with activity during contest weekends. And the curmudgeons can’t locate a clear frequency to hold their 24x7 bitch session net, but the thrill of competition more than makes up for it. I’m appreciative I took time to learn more about contesting. Even though I was foolish and jumped into one of the most difficult contests on the air, I would recommend anyone give it a try.