NCCC NS Ladder

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 12 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 12 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 4080. 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.

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