Having been a big fan of the Northern California Contest Club’s Sprint series of contests (four and twelve hour domestic contests, 100 watts tops, great operators), I became interested in my contest club participation in the Ladder series. The NS Ladder is a weekly 1⁄2 hour CW sprint of great fun and intense difficulty.
The deal: You exchange serial number, name and state with as many people on CW as possible for a full half hour. Dupes are allowed as long as you log an intervening QSO. If you initiate a contact via CQ, you are required to abandon the frequency – QSY 1 KC before you can call again. Those answering CQs typically will inherit the CQers frequency. Madhouse!
The typical strategy of lagging on frequency after you answer a CQ – typical CW sweepstakes strategy to validate you copy everything correctly (a bad contesting habit) – just doesn’t work here! The point to this contest is not just speed but also accuracy! You need to get the exchange correct on the first try, or not be afraid of asking for fills. N1MM logger (or similar) help if you have previous contests logged in the call database, but often the participants will adopt another name on a whim or as tribute to a SK. Thus, get it right the first time.
My first run at the Ladder sprint two weeks ago was totally intimidating. Due to the CW rates and intense activity I froze. It was if I forgot CW! And I thought myself a pretty decent CW operator…totally humbling. My second attempt last Thursday night was much better in comparison to the previous week, though still ranking at the bottom of the list. Caveat, I am not able to change bands currently because my tuner serial port is dead. I am stuck on 40M until I get around to fixing/replacing my tuner. I would imagine my score would have doubled if given the chance to QSY between 40 and 80. My initial rate was a a couple QSO per minute, but dropped off as others changed bands. I averaged a little under 1 QSO per minute over the duration, and logged 11 different mults (states, in this case). Pure conjecture on my part, but if I were to achieve similar QSO numbers and mults on 80, I might have a score in the upper 50 percentile of the participants.
The obvious key to my increased performance this session was due to getting my N1MM macros setup better, along with playing in the “slow” practice “net” one half hour prior to the start of the contest. Also, knowing was was coming was important to helping me relax…normal learning curve stuff. I also learned to trust my initial copy better. I had only one busted name and call this time…yes, the rates during the ladder sprints are quite high…post-sprint forensics indicate that even if I think I copied it wrong, chances are I got it correctly the first time. Where needed, the fills and allowable duplicate contacts helped me self-correct during the contest period.
In answering the question “How does one become a better contester”, I think MY answer is to continue participating in the NS Ladder. It is a contest of skill primarily, and station engineering second. A great equalizer is the 100W power limit. In just two 1⁄2 hour periods I have generated quite a punch list of improvements to my station and operating. Top on my list:
1. Code practice! Nothing fancy, just code groups in increasing WPM. I have a 35 WPM endorsement from the ARRL, but I haven’t operated that fast in decades. I am pretty solid to 20WPM, but start loosing it any higher. By the way, just because an op may have trouble at rag-chewing to 15WPM doesn’t mean you will have trouble in CW contests at much higher rates – the exchanges are predictable and of limited duration. I have found I start at lower speeds and by the end of the contest have increased 15WPM over my start!
2. Quick QSY between 40⁄80. I will be able to fix this once I replace my tuner. I am also considering a better constructed doublet as my current ghetto-fabulous G5RV is a disaster and relies mostly upon luck to hold together.
3. Contest logger macro tweaking. I am still trying to understand the darker corners of N1MM macros. The few tweaks I have done help. The better I understand the tool, the better I am able log. By the way, I have a K1EL keyer that works fantastically with N1MM – highly recommended over any other solution.
4. CAT Frequency control. I have not been able to CAT control my rig since the last time I accidently let the blue smoke out of my station. Having the ability to hit a key on my logger to auto-QSY would have been very useful.
Ultimately increasing the quality of RX, and having So2R would be very strategic. That said, just addressing the items above will net me increase in QSO rate and multiplier. Also, everyone I have met thus far have been very encouraging and happy to share their experience. The NS Ladder has some of the best domestic operators so I am pleased to be able to learn from the Masters.