3 Tips from Ham Radio Contest Winners

After you’ve participated a few ham radio contests, you may feel that the top scores are out of your reach. How do the contest winners achieve them? They’ll tell you that no magic is involved: Winning contests comes down to perseverance and patient practice.

How to call CQ in a contest

To make a lot of contacts, you have to call CQ. In any contest, more stations are tuning than calling. You can turn those numbers to your advantage. Find a clear frequency, and when you’re sure that it’s not in use, fire away.

Following are a few examples of appropriate ways to call CQ in a contest. (Replace Contest with the name of the contest or an abbreviation of the name.)

  • Voice transmissions: CQ Contest CQ Contest from Whiskey One Alpha Whiskey, Whiskey One Alfa Whiskey, Contest.

  • Morse code or digital modes: CQ CQ TEST DE W1AW W1AW TEST.

  • VHF/UHF transmissions: CQ Contest from W1AW grid FN31.

Keep transmissions short, and call at a speed at which you feel comfortable receiving a reply. Pause for two or three seconds between CQs before calling again. Other stations are tuning the band and can miss your call if you leave too much time between CQs.

When you get a stream of callers going, keep things moving steadily. Try to send the exchange the same way every time. On voice, don’t say “uh” or “um.” Take a breath before the exchange, and say everything in one smooth sentence. As you make more contacts, your confidence builds. An efficient rhythm increases your rate — the number of contacts per minute.

Contesting being what it is, you’ll eventually encounter interference or a station that begins calling CQ on your frequency. You have two options: stick it out or move. Sometimes, sending a simple “The frequency is in use, CQ contest . . .” or “PSE QSY” (which means “Please change your frequency”) on CW and digital modes does the trick.

Otherwise, unless you’re confident that you have a strong signal and good technique, finding a new frequency may be more effective. The high end of the bands is often less crowded, and you may be able to hold a frequency longer.

Search and pounce

Searching and pouncing (S&P) is usually accomplished by tuning across the band and finding stations manually. Another popular method is to connect to the spotting network and use logging software to create a list of stations and their frequencies, called a band map. If your logging software can control your radio, all you have to do is click the call signs to jump right to their frequencies.

If you call and get through right away, terrific. Sometimes, though, you won’t get through right away. Use your radio’s memories or alternate variable-frequency oscillator (VFO). By saving the frequencies of two or three stations, you can bounce back and forth among several pileups and dramatically improve your rate.

Many stations use the spotting networks to find rare or needed stations in a contest. Be aware that using such information usually requires you to enter in an assisted or multiple-operator category. Know the rules of the contest regarding spotting information, and be sure to submit your score and log in the proper category.

If you do use information from the spotting networks, don’t assume that the call sign is correct. Always listen to make sure that it’s correct, because many spots are incorrect (busted). If you log the wrong call sign, you’ll not only lose credit for the contact, but also incur a small scoring penalty.

Be polite

Large contests can fill up most or all of an HF band, particularly during voice-mode contests, and often cause friction with noncontest operators. As in most conflicts, each side needs to engage in some give-and-take to keep the peace.

If you’re participating in a contest, be courteous, and make reasonable accommodations for noncontesters. If you’re not contesting, recognize that large competitive events are legitimate activities and that you need to be flexible in your operating expectations.

That said, how can you get along with everyone? Here are a few tips:

  • Make sure that your signal is clean. Clean, in this context, means not generating key clicks or splatter from overmodulation. (You may hear about such problems from stations operating near you.) A distorted signal’s intelligibility is greatly reduced. A clean signal gets more callers every time and occupies less bandwidth.

  • Make sure that your receiver isn’t overloaded. Keep your noise blanker and preamp off (read about these devices in your radio’s operating manual), and use every receiver adjustment on the front panel, including the front-end attenuator.

  • Listen before you leap. Noncontest contacts are relaxed, with long pauses, so a couple of seconds of dead air don’t mean that the frequency is clear. Asking “Is the frequency in use?” (QRL? in Morse code) before calling CQ is the right thing to do, whether you’re in a contest or not.

    If a Morse code contact is ongoing, the response to your query may be a dit (meaning “Yes, it’s busy”) if the other operator is in the middle of trying to copy an exchange from a different station.

    When you’re participating in a contest, keep a minimum of 1.5 kHz between you and adjacent contest contacts on phone and 400 Hz on CW or radioteletype (RTTY). Don’t expect a perfectly clear channel. Contesters should tune higher in the band to find less-congested frequencies and give noncontest QSOs a wider margin.

  • Avoid major net frequencies. Examples include the Maritime Service Net on 14.300 MHz. Also, be aware of any emergency communications declarations or locations where regional emergency nets meet, and give those frequencies a wide berth. Those frequencies are often busy with noncontest activity.

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