Operating Approach

By Roger Western G3SXW and John Warburton G4IRN 

CQ Zone Map

Winning the CQWW CW contest doesn’t happen by fluke. It’s the result of lots of experience, preparation, focus and commitment. Over the years, the Voodoo group found the ingredients for the winning formula:

  •  Be in a rare country multiplier (so everyone wants to work us);
  • Ensure a good shot to the high ham-population areas of Europe, USA and Asia to maximise 3 point QSOs – (South America and Africa are the other two continents which fit the bill);
  • Preferably a QTH adjacent to the sea, with a clear path to the above areas;
  • A hotel with stable and high-availability power;
  • A hotel management willing to put up with us;
  • Great operators that have an ear for a new multiplier in the pile-up;
  • Good communication within the team (for passing multipliers);
  • Great antennas, with the HF antennas as high as possible;
  • A hotel with several (at least 3 or 4) storeys and a large flat roof;
  • Not too big a team – the larger the team, the less the cohesion;
  • Organisation: roles and responsibilities divided out and clearly understood, scheduled operating times during the contest;
  • Lots of jokes, leg pulling and laughs;
  • A determination to win.

The Shack

In a Multi-Multi contest the aim was always to get a hotel room that would host all seven stations (160 to 10m plus a multiplier station) together – this made it easy to communicate, pass multipliers between stations and give a sense of camaraderie within the team. This wasn’t always possible; several times the LF and HF stations had to be separated into different, albeit adjacent, rooms. Air-conditioning is a must: temperatures even at night only drop to only about 80F (27C). With those linear amplifiers the temperature in the shack can get unbearable – at very least we needed big fans.

XT2DX Shack

XT2DX Shack

Lay-out was ideal at XT2DX: a large conference room (almost too well air-conditioned!) where seven stations sat in a U shape with their backs to each other so that they could look over the shoulder at the frequency of all other stations. TZ5A was similarly laid out. Of course these days with a reliable network and CAT-controlled radios we see all the frequencies on screen so this is less important.

Typical operating position

Typical operating position

Each station consisted of a radio (Kenwood TS930s, moving to Elecraft K2 or K3 in later years), Alpha amplifier, rotator control box (HF) or receive antenna switch (LF), laptop with CAT connection to the radio, K1EL Winkey unit and CW paddle.

The Operating Schedule

Operator schedule (5U5Z 2003)

Operator schedule (5U5Z 2003)

We all always preferred to have a fixed rota which we all stuck to. Almost never did an operator not show up on time for his shift: he was excited to do his operating but also for the good of the team and the score it was important to keep every chair filled the whole time. This task always fell to G3SXW even in the odd couple of years when he couldn’t join the team. The objective was to give each operator the same amount of time as all the others – including equal hours on Run versus Mult station, equal time on ‘hot’ hours, equal time Day versus Night. This was always extremely difficult to get right and entirely fair. We also tried to meet preferences for bands, someone liking 20 metres for example, or another being expert on 160 metres. When there was an even number of operators, for example six or eight, it was much easier than with seven or nine. There was also the requirement for one significant rest period of several consecutive hours.

The Schedule ended up looking like a patch-work quilt, all colour-coded. Copies were pinned to the wall at each operating position and each operator had a copy in his bedroom. We also pinned a large sign with our call-sign right in front of each operator: when over-tired you can sometimes forget your own call-sign!

 Operating Style

Every station was set up identically, including stored messages, making it easy for a fresh operator to sit down for his session and immediately home in. We had all agreed on the content of messages before the contest. CW speed however could be varied to suit the circumstances, but usually never more than 35wpm which we concluded was counter-productive. Depending on the availability of a Multiplier Operator each operator would also decided whether to Run or to chase Mults. By far the majority of the time it was Running, to log just as many contacts as possible, only stopping to chase Mults when the DX Cluster had supplied enough needed Mults in the Bandmap window.

However, a major priority was given to accuracy. The three times penalty meant that each Busted call would cost four QSOs (and possibly a Mult) so it was more efficient to query a dubious call-sign rather than rushing on, in the hope that we had guessed right. When checking UBN reports almost all errors were of the ‘one dot’ variety. We also noted that more errors were made at the very beginning of a new operating-shift, presumably before concentration and focus had built. We used to slow the CW speed and expect a lower QSO rate for the first few minutes.

Targets

Tracking targets (5U5Z 2003)

Tracking targets (5U5Z 2003)

It can be highly motivational to measure progress against pre-set Targets. It also generates enthusiasm to have operators updating the progress sheet on the wall, so that they pay attention to progress rather than just occasionally glancing at a graphic on screen.

The Voodoos, of course, have built an in-depth knowledge of how the contest unfolds so can estimate with some accuracy how different the year may be, according to whether we have fewer or more operators than last year, fewer or more stations and antennas, height of antennas etc. We seldom were far off the target at the end of the contest.

Of course, as any business manager will tell you, targets can also be dangerous. They can just easily demotivate when we fall too far behind expected progress or when we are so far ahead that we take our feet off the pedal. Building up several years of hourly QSO rates we were able to set ambitious yet achievable targets. For example, we just knew that the first night (6-7 hours) on 40 metres should yield at least 800 QSOs. The difficulty was always ten metres, when predicted sunspots influenced the score so massively.

Propagation

Another way in which the team benefitted from building experience over the years was in understanding propagation openings on the various bands at various times. We lived through nearly two whole sunspot cycles in West Africa so could ‘feel’ the bands. The famous case of working JA on ten metres long-path by beaming South-West across South America in the middle of the night was legendary. Also, we learned that our best time on 160 metres was on the last evening. We understood that the multi-KW CQ machines in Europe had begun chasing Multipliers instead allowing us to be heard. Another good example was working Far East multipliers on 40 metres just before our sunset – again this worked far better on Sunday than on Saturday, but regularly every year, providing several juicy double multipliers.

Always unpredictable was KL7. In low sunspot years we could work them on 20m and 40m around our midnight but in high sunspot years we sometimes never heard one! Again, in low sunspot years we knew to keep CQing on 80 metres until 30-40 minutes after our sunrise to milk the band dry but also because we would sometimes work the occasional rare Pacific multiplier.

It is always fascinating to operate in a strange part of the globe because the bands sound so different. From West Africa of course South American signals were always LOUD! However, after operating on that coast 2-3 times we had become experts at finding the unusual openings. This undoubtedly helped our score, several times even helping us to to place first in the Multi-Operator category.