DX-Operating on the Low Bands III
ON4UN, John Devoldere
8. THE DXPEDITION—BEING RARE DX
You don’t have to be on a DXpedition to be a rare one. There are still dozens of countries where the number of licensed radio amateurs can be counted on one hand. Operat ing as a resident or temporary resident from such much wanted country is very similar to working from a DXpedition. The required expertise to make Low Band DXing a success is the same as required from top notch DXpeditioners.
8.1. DXpeditions and the Low Bands
Thirty years ago it was rare to have a DXpedition show up on 80 meters and 160 meters was out of the question. That was just the “Gentlemen’s Band” for daytime rag chews. Fortunately there has been positive change over the years, and for most expeditions 80 or 160 meters has become just another band. During the lower parts of the sunspot cycle they are definitely capable of bringing in a lot more DX than 21 or 28 MHz! The 5-Band DXCC, 5- Band WAS, and 5-Band WAZ awards have also greatly promoted low-band DXing. So have the single-band scores and record listings in DX contests.
Until a few years ago some DXpeditioners would only appear on the low bands in the last one or two days of operation. Staying on bands with the best QSO rates will not result in many Top-Band QSOs. But logic tells you to tackle 160 and 80 meters from the first day, as there may not be low-band openings every day. WØCD writes in his survey reply: “DXpeditions going to new countries should give more time to 160 to be sure there is decent propagation. Not just a few hours the last night. ”
A DXpedition should prepare well for the low bands. They should ask an experienced low-band DXer to determine band openings for the low bands. But fortunately, most of the well-organized DXpeditions now include at least one low band expert. Nothing is more frustrating than to hear a Far- East station working Europe on 80 or 160, during the 10-minute window that this path is open to the US East coast. Joerg, YB1AQS, from the famous ZL7DK team said it so well, “As we’ve found all the years—the 160 meter antenna has, if possible, to be the first one up and the last one down.”
8.2. DXpedition Frequencies
On 80 and 40 meters, typical DXpedition frequen cies are in the bottom 10 kHz of the bands for CW, usually listening 5 to 10 kHz up, or sometimes operating around the 25-kHz mark. On phone frequencies are usually in the 3795 to 3805 window for 80, or on 40 meters anywhere between 7040 and 7100 kHz. DXpeditions should specify a listening frequency out side the DX windows!
On 160 CW the range from 1823 to 1826 kHz (with 1825 as a focal point) is widely used by DXpeditions, with QSX 1830 to 1835 for areas where these frequencies are available.
A DXpedition should announce its frequencies well beforehand. The Internet is the ideal place to do this. It’s
also a good idea to publish several “escape frequencies” in case of QRM, intentional or not. Stick to the published frequencies, otherwise your credibility may suffer. When leaving one band, always announce where you are going and repeat the information several times (not too fast on CW!).
8.3. Split Frequency
DXpeditions usually operate split frequency, both on CW and SSB. The advantage of split-frequency operation on the low bands is even more outstanding than on the higher bands, because the openings are much shorter and signals can be much weaker than on the higher bands. Working split makes it easier for calling stations to hear the DX. Otherwise, the strong pileup of callers will inevitably cover up the DX station, resulting in a very low QSO rate.
Sometimes we hear DXpeditions spreading the pileups over too wide a portion of the band. This is not generally advantageous for the QSO rate, and most of all, is very inconsiderate to other users of the band. It is also common for two DXpeditions to be on at the same time, both listening in the same part of the band. The net result of this is maximum confusion and frustration for everyone involved. There will inevitably be many “not-in-log” QSOs, where people ended up in the wrong log.
Calling by call areas seems to have become the standard approach to handle a pileup that’s become too big to be handled without instructions. This is a fine procedure, provided you don’t stay with the same call area for, say, more than five QSOs. Otherwise you might lose propagation to certain areas before going around all call areas. Even at a 2 -QSO-per minute rate (which is high for the low bands), it takes almost half an hour to go through the 10 US call areas! In fact, when working the US on 160 meters it makes no sense to work by call areas, since the propagation usually is very area-selective anyway. Do not call by country. This inevitably
leads to frustration. Why did he call for Holland and not for Belgium? Holland is only 20 km from here; why do they get a chance and not me?
On long haul paths on 160 meters skip is very often area selective and moving around. The secret to success on Top Band is to keep things simple. Simple instructions like, USA 5/10 UP or EU 7 UP are okay. More complicated instructions will inevitably lead to chaos on 160. However, do not just send UP. This will result in people calling less than 1 kHz from your frequency. Instead, specify QSX 5, or UP 5/10. If the pile is not too big, specify a single frequency (rather than a range) on which to listen.
On the other hand, if your pileup grows too big you can eliminate those that copy you from those that “pretend” to copy you by suddenly changing your QSX and then quickly working the ones who really are copying you! During the preparation phase of a DXpedition, it is a good idea to ask DXers in different parts of the world for their best low-band receiving frequencies. This way they can avoid trying to hear on a frequency where there is always a carrier or where every few minutes a commercial station pops up.
8.4. Controlling the Pileup
Sometimes, you hear a beautifully smooth pileup. A dream! A pleasure to listen to! Pure music! Sometimes, it’s pure chaos. Let me be blunt: It is the DXpeditioner who’s responsible for either situation. Here are a few hints on how to control a pileup:
• Avoid frustrating your public.
• Avoid sounding frustrated; inspire confidence.
• Show authority, but not temper.
• Keep your instructions simple.
• Stick to your instructions yourself. Never make any “out of-turn” QSOs.
• Change the QSX frequency if the pileup grows too big. Those that copy you well will immediately follow. I saw BQ9P (October, 2003) doing this with Europe on 160 and it was very effective and efficient.
• Avoid copying half calls, this just slows down the QSO rate (especially on 160 where slow and deep fading is commonplace). Working with half-calls only works with JA stations, certainly not with a European pileup!
• Always repeat the full call to tell the DX station that he’s in the log, so he won’t call you again for an insurance QSO.
• On 160 and 80 meters when paths are very marginal, send the call of the station you are replying to several times. After sending the report, send his call again and use a standard way of ending each QSO (TU, 73, etc). This is the signal for the crowd to start calling.
• Do not change your way of operating. Have a well thought out strategy and rhythm, and stick to it. This will inspire confidence rather than frustration in your public.
• From time to time ask if your frequency is still OK (especially if your rate suddenly drops).
• Ask your audience to look for a new transmit frequency for you.
8.5. Calling the DX Station
Before calling a DX station, make sure you hear that station. Often we see guys calling a DX station as soon as it’s been announced on the DX cluster, often without even having heard the station. Such a caller is just making a fool of himself.
Another thing you need to do before calling is to listen to his pitch on CW and to his rhythm. Take the time to tune the receiver for best copy and select your best receiving antenna. When it’s time to call, never give half of your call. Chances are that when the DX station comes back with “ABC?” you’ll find there are a couple of “ABC” stations on the frequency.
If the DX station does not work spit, you’re in for a nerve wracking session. Give your call two or three times and listen. If there are other stations still calling, don’t start calling again—Maybe the DX has already called you. Don’t call endlessly! Throw in short calls every now and then. Stay relaxed, be patient and pray that eventually the DX station will go split.
If the DX station is working split, first determine where he is listening. Listen in the pileup, and see what his operating strategy is: Does he stay on the same frequency; does he move up or down a small amount; or is he really jumping around? Don’t start calling him unless you know what he’s doing. In such a pileup it’s good to listen more to the calling “mob” than to the DX station! And under no circumstances make any comments about the rude behavior of some other people. Bite off your fingernails instead.
8.6. Calling CQ on a Seemingly Dead Band
We frequently hear that every wise DXer spends all his time listening, and only transmits when he’s sure to make a contact. He never calls CQ DX; he just listens all the timeand grabs the DX before someone else does. This rule for sure applies to the DXer, to the “hunter.”
However, this rule does not apply to the DXpedition (the “hunted”). If the golden rule for a DXer is to “LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN,” then the golden rule for the DXpedition should be “CALL, CALL AND KEEP CALLING CQ!” And please, don’t give up after just a few minutes. DXpeditions should call CQ, even on a seemingly dead band, at the times they publish. You can be assured that there are hundreds of faithful low-band DXers digging for your signal.
And don’t go away after just one or two contacts, even if there are no replies for a while. You probably will be announced on the DX Cluster, but it takes some time before the news gets out.
The ZL7DK guys said it so well: “During our stay we got at least one good opening in all possible directions, but on average not more than two per destination. The openings in the critical directions (mostly the polar paths) have to have absolute priority. The paths are open maybe 5 or 10 minutes a day, if they are open. If you are dedicated to work stations on these difficult bands and difficult paths, you must be there every day (to call CQ) in order not to miss any opening.”
8.7. Pilot Stations: Information Support for DXpeditions
After a rather tentative attempt during the AH1A expedition in 1993, the Pilot-Station concept was first introduced on a larger scale during the 3YØPI expedition in 1994. (Mark, ON4WW, seems to have the honor of being the very first Pilot Station.) Three years later the famous VKØIR expedition in January, 1997, set the standard for how excel lent logistics and a smoothly working Pilot Station can help a difficult DXpedition be a huge success. Both these expedi tions were led by Bob, KK6EK.
In the past, DXpedition feedback and information had to be forwarded on-the-air during prime operation time. As a consequence information flow was minimal. Well-organized expeditions can use Pacsat (packet radio via satellite) or HF digital communications to establish a solid link between the rare spot and its home base. They can also use Internet e-mail, if available, perhaps with a satellite-telephone system. The only limitation is that this kind of communication link is likely not to be continuously available. Nowadays, however, DXpeditions can use wideband com mercial communication networks from even the most remote spots on earth.
The DXpedition pilot takes care of all the information flow to and from the DXpedition via one of these links. He organizes himself to have a maximum of information from the “public” and to feed a maximum of information from the rare spot back to the public. He is the DXpedition’s spokes man, the public-relations man, dealing with:
• What does the DXpedition hear during the low-band openings; what are the problems; what are the schedules (times and frequencies)?
• What, and when, is the public hearing the DXpedition, and are there suggestions for improvement?
• Making the log available in (almost) real-time. The first two items are there to optimize the results and to
create confidence that all is being done to “make” it. The real-time logs are important to avoid stations from making a “back-up” contact (I’m not 100% sure my first QSO was a good one.). I once missed a country (Malpelo) on 160 by not making a backup QSO, so I really cannot blame anyone for doing so if not 100% sure about the first try. Having the logs available on the Internet avoids this situation.
We should never forget that a DXpedition must be there for the DXers (the public) in the first place. To successfully add value to the DXpedition the Pilots must have a high esteem from the DXpedition leadership and must be fully integrated with the team. The Pilots should be part of the decision-making process and not just the poor in-between guy, who takes a beating from both sides. Some examples of bad attitude and bad answers from a pilot are:
• “You are all complaining about the same thing.” (In other words, leave me alone.)
• “I report what the operators tell me they will do.” (Which means I’m just the in-between guy and I am far from sure that they will do what they say.)
• “We are making every effort to have a CW operator work from Eastern Europe across the Continent and across the United States on 80 CW at your sunrises.” (This is an empty phrase with no message. A message with real content might be: “They will be on 3502, from 0300 to 0500Z on Feb 10.”)
• “I have discussed the problem with the leader and while we are trying we cannot promise anything.” (I other words, don’t count on it.)
• “Alert: they will try 160 tonight. Time unknown.” (There is no useful message here. We expect them on 160 and 80 every day anyhow!)
• “Golly ,it’s easier to criticize an operation than it is to put a rare one on the air.” (A pilot must expect to receive criticism. That is part of his role. Criticism is only expressed when one thinks something is wrong. It’s the role of the pilot to analyze the criticism, and to do something about it, to provide a solution, or at least an explanation.)
These are not fictitious situations. They were heard during a 2003 DXpedition that lead to great frustration from many low-band DXers.
In the future we will see further improvements in Pilot Stations. Before too long I expect to see real-time logs on the Internet and maybe even the actual logging screens of the DXpedition stations as they work people. A web camera “in situ” could make DXpeditioning a spectator’s sport. Almost real-time spectating was introduced during WRTC 2002, where everybody could follow the scores of all 52 WRTC competitors
on the Web in 1-hour increments.
8.8. DXA—Beyond the Pilot Station
Bob Schmieder, KK6EK, of 3YØPI, VKØHI and XRØY/ Z fame, has recently introduced the concept of DXA (DX and Extended Access), which takes DXing a giant step further. The DXA Website will go far beyond mere presentation of information. It will be highly interactive, dynamic and fast. DXA will use a central computer to maintain a database updated directly from the DXpedition site. This database supports a variety of users, including casual visitors, logged on visitors, subscribers and other users.
Depending on the user’s status, his Web browser will display real-time status of the DXpedition, plus pre generated streamed content and near-real-time display of his own log status. DXA will have the ability to talk to the radio through a data interface, where the radio processes RF signals and the computer processes information, both to/from the radio and to/from the Internet. Merging of the two technologies will provide an exciting, qualitative advance for the radio amateur!
9. CW ON THE NOISY LOW BANDS
There’s no doubt about it. CW is superior to Phone when it comes to making a QSO under marginal condi
tions. CW can use a much narrower bandwidth, which means a better Signal-to-Noise ratio. I typically use a 250-Hz bandwidth on CW, versus 2.1 kHz on SSB, so the advantage is obvious.
What about PSK31? It is a fact that a well-trained CW operator can copy weaker signals in low-band noise much better than PS31 does. This is because the decoder (the operator’s brain) is vastly superior to the PSK demodulator/ software. But I must admit, PSK31 comes close.
One of the situations that makes copying signals very difficult is QRN. It appears there are two families of QRN: high-latitude QRN and tropical QRN. The difference is that crashes of tropical QRN generally last much longer than those generated by high-latitude QRN. With higher-latitude QRN the pauses between crashes usually last longer.
If you want your call to make it through high-latitude QRN, high-speed CW can sometimes be a solution. Dan, K8RN, who operated VK9LX on Top Band said: “…QRN was very bad even with Beverages for receiving. It seemed to me that if the stations calling sent their call fast, they had a better chance of making it through (between) the static crashes. If the speed was too low nothing made it through.” But high speed CW is no good at all to pierce through tropical QRN.
Rolf, SM5MX and XV7SW, recently commented on the Top Band reflector: “In this kind of tropical QRN, each QRN bang often lasts long enough to mask a call sign completely. From the DX end you may just understand that somebody is there and call QRZ?, but the same thing will happen again at the next bang, the next one—and the next and so on, if the speed is too high. So I found it tremendously helpful when people reduced the speed. Once you are able to pick out a letter here and there, you may be able to paste together a full call sign and eventually make it.”
Referring to another issue regarding high-speed CW on the low bands, Tom, N4KG, commented “High-speed CW on the low bands by DX stations contributes to confusion and disorderly conduct in the pile-ups. Half of the callers can’t copy anything but their own call signs, even with a good signal on a quiet band.”
The DX station should determine the CW speed. His sending speed should be the speed he expects replaying sta tions to use. Tom, N4KG, added: “DX stations sending above 30 WPM on the low bands actually reduce their rate and promote more broken calls. 25 to 28 WPM seems to work well for most cases. On long polar routes, with weak signals, QSB, and QRN, high speed is counterproductive. Sending a call twice at 25 WPM takes less time than three times at 30 WPM and is more readily copied.
Joerg YB1AQS formulated it as follows: “Even if you can hear everybody crystal clear—don’t shoot at them in CW with 35 WPM! 22 WPM on 160 m and 28 WPM on 80 meters are enough. Repeat their call sign two times before the report and at least once at the end.”
Chris, ZS6EZ made an important remark along the same lines: “Never, never, NEVER screw up the spacing in your call. If you use standard Morse spacing, the receiving station can often recover dits that are inaudible, by listening to the timing of the characters. For some reason, some people think the call is easier to copy if they leave exaggerated spaces between letters.” Well it simply does not work that way. The rhythm is very important!
One more piece of advice: Send your full call sign,not just part of it, like “XYZ k”, expecting the DX
to know that it’s you. If the DX has to ask “XYZ?”—and several times at that—you are wasting everybody’s time, including your own. In addition identifying like this is an illegal practice in many countries. Now, if the DX station comes back with one letter wrong in your call (he sends ON4UM, then I go back to him as ON4UN UN UN UN pse cfm k. But as a rule, let’s avoid half calls. They are just a waste of time.
10. NETS AND LIST OPERATIONS
The use of lists, which occur daily on the HF bands, started with net operations on the HF-bands in the 1960s. In most of these nets, a “master of ceremonies” (MC) will check in both the DX and the non-DX stations, usually by area. After completing the check-in procedure, the MC directs the non- DX stations—one at a time, in turn—to call and work the DX station. In most cases the non-DX station has indeed worked
the DX station, but there was no competition, no challenge, no know-how involved. Some write the MC a letter, or send him an e-mail message or even call him on the telephone to get on his list!
What satisfaction can you derive from such a QSO? Yes, it gives the QRP operator a better chance to work the DX station, and the only thing you have to do is copy your report—and even that may be relayed to you. When it’s your turn, the MC will call you and invite you to make a call. Doing so, he has used your call so the DX station already knows your call sign. And if the DX station is a DXpedition, there is a good chance that he will give everyone a 59 report, so it becomes even simpler. Just like shooting fish in a barrel, in my opinion. Fortunately, lists have never made it on CW.
A list cannot be used if the DX station refuses to take part. Fortunately, we rarely see a DXpedition worthy of the name doing this. I remember hearing stations asking Carl, WB4ZNH, operating as 3C1BG on 80 meters, if they could run a list for him. Carl was insulted by the proposition.
If a DX station is involved in a list operation, it generally means he cannot cope with the situation. The ability to cope with a pileup is part of the game for rare DX stations. There should definitely be no excuse for such things to happen on DXpeditions. If you are not a good enough operator to handle the situation yourself, you should not go on a DXpedition.
In almost all cases, list operation can be avoided by working split frequency. I think it is always a poor solution. Because there will always be a number of poor operators, as well as newcomers, it is likely that we will have to accept lists every now and then.
11. ARRANGING SKEDS FOR THE LOW BANDS
Once you work your way up the DXCC ladder, you will inevitably come to a point where you will start asking stations on the higher bands for skeds on the low bands. You will often be asked to specify the best time for the schedule. Remember that you asking for a favor, so try a time that is not in the middle of his night. Rather, get yourself up in the middle of the night! Also, don’t go by a single schedule. Arrange a mini mum of three skeds, or maybe a week’s skeds, to hit the day with the right propagation. Tell the other party that the band may be okay only one day out of three or one day out of five. Find out how much power he runs on 160 and what antenna he is using, so that you know what signal to expect. Don’t forget to have your sunrise and sunset information ready at all times. Most computer logging programs nowadays include it.
Tell your sked that you will call him. Don’t give his full call; just his suffix when you call. Or just call CQ DX at the sked time exactly on the agreed frequency. You don’t want to give away your sked to strangers. If you work split, don’t give away your listening frequency before you’ve worked him! Spot him after you make your QSO.
12. GETTING THE RARE ONES
Working the first 100 countries on 80 or 40 meters is fairly easy. Well-equipped stations have done it in one contest weekend. Anyone with a good station should be able to do it easily within a year and a growing number of stations have achieved DXCC on 160 meters. The major DX contests (CQ Worldwide DX, ARRL International DX, WAE, All Asia, CQ Worldwide 160-Meter, ARRL 160 Meter, etc) are excellent opportunities to increase low-band scores. A good time to look for semi rare ones, by the way, is just before and after a contest, since that may actually be an easier time to work them due to less QRM.
ON4UN, John Devoldere