My first ARRL VHF Contest

I have participated in several ham radio contests over the past couple of years. I have a modest station, so I don’t achieve high scores. My goal is to learn and improve my operating skills with each contest. Wikipedia explains amateur radio contesting as:

Contesting (also known as radiosport) is a competitive activity pursued by amateur radio operators. In a contest, an amateur radio station, which may be operated by an individual or a team, seeks to contact as many other amateur radio stations as possible in a given period of time and exchange information.

There are lots of contests throughout the year sponsored by various organizations. This weekend, I participated in the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) June VHF Contest. The goal for this contest is to complete successful contacts with as many stations in as many different 2 degrees x 1 degree Maidenhead grid squares as possible using authorized frequencies above 50 MHz. The contest ran from 4:00 PM Eastern on Saturday through 10:59 PM Eastern on Sunday (or 1800 UTC Saturday, June 13th through 0259 UTC Monday, June 15th). I only participated for a few hours on Sunday.

For this contest, participants are allowed to make contacts via SSB (phone), CW (Morse Code), or various digital modes. I chose to use the FT8 digital mode on the 6 meter ham band (discussed in my previous post – “I’m hooked on 6 meters!”). The 6 meter band is known by hams as “the magic band”. Although it is located in the lower portion of the VHF band, it sometimes has propagation characteristics similar to the HF bands. That means long-distance communications are sometimes possible on the band. During the late Spring and early Summer months, there are frequent band openings from Sporadic E propagation. Under normal conditions, the band is limited to local, line-of-sight communications. When there is a Sporadic E opening, communication becomes possible over much longer distances – hundreds and occasionally thousands of miles. It can be hit or miss, and the openings can last from seconds to more than a day. That’s the magic of the band, and the challenge is to be at the radio when the band opens.

This weekend, hams in many parts of the U.S. were in luck. There were several Sporadic E openings on Saturday and Sunday, so high scores were possible! I only participated casually on Sunday. During the early morning, there was no Sporadic E, so I was only able to contact stations within an approximately 150-mile radius from grid EM83 (where I’m located). Later in the morning, we had Sporadic E openings from the Southeast to New England and southeastern Canada, and eventually to the Midwest and Texas. The band openings lasted into the evening, with several lulls. The map below shows all of the stations that received and decoded my FT8 signals. I did not complete contacts with all of them, but at some point during the day lots of stations east of the Rockies were receiving me.

PSKReporter map of FT8 signals received from N1ADM on June 14th, 2020
This map from shows the 6 meter band opening during the early evening on June 14th.

I finished the day with 106 contacts, and a score of 6,360. The score is calculated by multiplying the number of contacts (106) by the number of multipliers (60). Multipliers are determined by the number of unique gird squares worked. This will not be a competitive score, but this was my first time in this particular contest. I’ll try to improve next year if the magic happens again. I would also like to try my hand at CW for this contest. In a few months, ARRL will publish the contest results, and I can see how my scores compares to others.

Screenshot from my ARRL June VHF Contest log. I use N3FJP logging software.

I’m hooked on 6 meters!

I’ve had my ham radio license since 2016, but I haven’t made any serious effort on 6 meters until this year. That’s mostly because I did not have an antenna for the band. I was sometimes able to get my tuner to begrudgingly match my end-fed wire antenna or Eagle One vertical, and was able to make just a few phone contacts during band openings in years past.

I have a Cushcraft AR-6 Ringo vertical and a Max-Gain Systems 38-foot fiberglass push-up mast that I had intended to use to talk on our local 6m repeater. I decided to tune it for the low end of the band to see if I could use it for FT8 contacts on 6m. That was a bit tricky, but with some trial and error I finally got it down to 1.5:1. I have an Elecraft KPA500 amp, but due to my uncertainty about the antenna I have not used it, and I run 80-90 watts out of an IC-7610.

On April 5th, I had my first 6m FT8 QSO with a local station. The vertical antenna works fairly well for Sporadic-E propagation to distant stations, but it’s not great for working closer stations with horizontally polarized antennas via ground wave or tropospheric propagation in nearby grids.

AR-6 Ringo on a fiberglass push-up mast. The mast is attached to the corner fence post with heavy-duty zip-ties.
Looking up at the AR-6 from the base of the push-up mast.

On April 10th, I had my first 6m DX QSOs with stations in Belize and Mexico. Over the next several days, there were some more band openings, and I was able to make lots of QSOs across the continental U.S., as well as in South America and the Caribbean. I wasn’t as focused on grids as I was states for WAS and countries for DXCC. I noticed in early May that I was starting to get close to 100 grids, so I started a more serious effort. On May 11th, I reached 100 confirmed grids for 6m, and applied for my first VUCC award.

I had enough grids confirmed on May 11th to apply for my first VUCC award!

There were even better 6m openings in May, and a few times I saw on PSKReporter that my signal was being received in the Azores and Spain. On May 26th, I completed my first trans-Atlantic 6m QSOs with two stations in Spain. Good conditions continued through the month, allowing me to confirm more grids.

My signal was received in the Azores and Spain on May 11th, but I wasn’t able to complete a QSO.
PSKReporter map of an excellent 6m band opening on May 30th.

Band conditions have improved even more in June. On June 3rd, I decoded several stations from Japan during a brief but strong multi-hop Sporadic E opening across the Pacific. I saw the big gun U.S. stations working them, but figured there was no way my low-power station would reach Japan. Much to my surprise, JA0RUG returned my call and we completed the QSO! Just moments later, the JA stations faded out. That was some lucky timing for me. Magic band indeed!

On June 9th, I reached 200 grids confirmed in LoTW for 6m. I’ve continued to add some grids, states and DX since then. As of June 12th, I have confirmed 24 countries, 46 states, and 216 grids. No records are being broken, as these statistics are nothing compared to more capable 6m stations, but I’ve had fun and learned a lot about low VHF band propagation while working 6 meters this season!

By June 9th, I had 200 grids confirmed in LoTW for 6m!

So far this season, I have used FT8 exclusively, but I am planning to start using CW as well. I am hooked, and planning to improve my station for the remainder of this Sporadic E season and future seasons.

The main point of this post is that, even with a very modest station, you can enjoy some great success on 6 meters. The key is to be at the radio when the band opens. If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll give it a try!

This is a Gridmaster map with my confirmed grids in the lower 48 states for 50 MHz VUCC. There are still lots of them left to work!
A map showing my 6M QSOs as of June 12th, 2020

Here’s the equipment and resources I am using to operate on 6 meters:

Radio: Icom IC-761o
Tuner: LDG AT-1000ProII
Antenna: Cushcraft AR-6 Ringo
Software (Windows 10): WSJT-X v2.2.0, JTAlert v. 2.16.7, GridMaster Map v2.3
Web pages: Logbook of the World, PSKReporter, DXMaps

I ordered and I am anxiously awaiting to receive a PAR Electronics SM-50 Stressed Moxon Antenna. I anticipate a much better SWR match with that antenna, and will probably start using the amplifier when chasing DX.

A New Weather Station For My QTH

Weather is a topic that comes up frequently in ham radio QSOs. Like most other hams, I’m interested in weather. For several years, I’ve used an AcuRite personal weather station that records basic weather measurements and feeds data to Weather Underground. The WU page for my AcuRite Station is KGAGROVE14. Update: The wind direction vane on the Acurite station broke, so I took the station offline in October 2020.

Earlier this week, I received a new Tempest Weatherflow station. I supported the project on Kickstarter, and waited anxiously for several months for the team to produce and ship the product. This station uses different technology, with electronic rather than mechanical sensors for wind speed/direction and precipitation. It also has sensors for lightning detection, ambient light, solar radiation and UV. I have it mounted on top of a 15-foot push-up fiberglass mast that I got from DX engineering. Setting up the weather station and getting it online was a very easy project.

The Tempest station sends current data to a phone/tablet app and a public web page, as well as feeding the weather widget in the right menu bar of this web site. It also sends data to Weather Underground. The WU page for my Tempest station is KGAGROVE47. I am planning to leave both feeds running for a while to compare the results. I’m especially interested to compare the results for rain measurements. Update: The Weather Underground feed for the Acurite station is no longer online as of October 2020, but the Tempest station is still up!

New Tempest weather station at the back of my yard. It’s mounted about 15 feet high in an open area.
The venerable Acurite station. I’ve had it for a few years, but it’s not in a great location. The mast next to it is for my 6m antenna, and was installed after the weather station was mounted.