Radio Contesting

If it moves, people will find a way to race it...   
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People compete.  It is fun, personally satisfying, character building and occasionally remunerative.  Competition in business, games and sports is excellent training for life and beats the heck out of wars and "reality" television. The pansies who would deny children the right to compete are wrong.  Let the games go on!

My Favorite Radio Contests

North American Sprint CW sponsored by NCJ

CQ WW DX CW sponsored by CQ Magazine

The first 12 hours of ARRL Sweepstakes CW

California QSO Party sponsored by NCCC

Field Day (an emergency communications exercise; "not a contest")

Some Links

Northern CA Contest Club

ZS1AN's Contesting FAQ


Wikipedia on Contesting 

WRTC Winners

1990 Seattle: John Dorr K1AR + Doug Grant  K1DG (also placed 3rd in 2000)

1996 San Francisco: Jeff Steinman KR0Y + Dan Street K1TO

2000 Slovenia: Steinman (by then N5TJ) + Street again

2002 Helsinki: Steinman + Street again

2006 Brazil:  John Sluymer VE3EJ + James Roberts VE7ZO

2010 Moscow: Vladimir Aksenov RW1AC + Alexey Mikhailov RA1AIP (25th place: K6XX and me!)

Some highlights of my own contesting career:

2010 WRTC Moscow as teammate to K6XX operating R31A - 25th place, missing Top Half by one QSO. Not a great placing except considering the competition! See my blog entries.

2004 & 2005 CQ WW CW as a team member at multi-single P40L (Aruba) - 1st place world

2003 CQ WPX CW as a team member at multi-two HC8N (Galapagos) - 1st place world

2002 CQ WPX CW as a team member at multi-multi "Team Vertical" 6Y2A (Jamaica) - 2nd place, world

2002 ARRL DX CW with N6NT at multi-single ZF2NT (Little Cayman) - 2nd place world

1983 CQ Worldwide CW, Single-op, all band, high power at N6XI/4X (Israel) - 7th place world, 1st place Asia

by Rick Tavan N6XI 

When I tell friends that I enjoy amateur radio contesting, their reaction is usually a quizzical stare.  "What's that?"  It is hard to explain in the span of a cocktail conversation, so here is the answer:

Amateur radio is licensed use of radio communication for personal satisfaction and public service. It has its own unique form of competition.  Radio contesting, or "radiosport" as it is known by some, offers an opportunity to demonstrate skills in station building, operating tactics, physical endurance and strategy. Although strongly contested by thousands of enthusiasts and casual participants, typical prizes are just plaques, certificates, published score listings and the occasional bottle of wine.  We do it more for personal satisfaction, the excitement of the chase and the admiration of our peers than for any more tangible reward. 

In a radio contest, a sponsoring organization designates a time period ranging from a few hours to a full weekend during which amateurs in various geographic areas will attempt to contact each other.  Each contact is worth one or more points which are multiplied by the number of different places contacted.  The highest scores in each of several entry categories win.

Each contest defines these "multiplier" places differently.  For example, in the ARRL Sweepstakes a place is one of 80 "sections" of the US and Canada, each section being all or part of a state, province or territory.  In most worldwide contests, each country is considered a unique multiplier.  There are fascinating strategies for deciding when to seek new multipliers and when to make more contacts as quickly as possible.

Each contact is very brief, with the communicating stations exchanging only a few prescribed tidbits of information.  Some contests allow multiple contacts between the same pair of stations, provided each contact is on a different frequency "band."  This makes sense because the different bands often have dramatically different signal propagation characteristics. (Consider, for example, the familiar AM and FM broadcast bands in commercial radio. The FM band is purely local but at night you can hear signals on the AM band from a thousand miles away.)  It is not uncommon for a contestant to make several thousand contacts in the course of a weekend contest.  There is nothing like the thrill of having station after station respond to your calls, pushing your "rate" up to several hundred contacts per hour.  Nothing, that is, except the equal thrill of hearing a rare multiplier come back to you through a "pileup" of a hundred or more stations.

The sponsor also defines different categories of competition.  The sine qua non is Single Operator, All Band, often separated into High Power and Low Power divisions, and these categories usually attract the largest numbers of entrants. Some operate from their own home stations while others operate as guests at other stations.  However, there are usually other categories including various multi-operator team arrangements in which two or more amateurs share operating responsibilities.  In the larger contests (those with the most participants) there also may be Single-Band categories.  Some contest rules stipulate voice contacts only while others are for Morse code or various digital communication modes.  Some involve multiple modes at the same time.  All competitors contact each other during the contest period, regardless of their categories, but the results segregate efforts in different categories and award prizes accordingly.  It is somewhat like age, gender and distance categories in citizen races.  

Most worldwide contest communication is in English. However, the required vocabulary is very small, under 100 words, so most amateurs in the world are quite capable of competing without a significant language barrier. This is even more the case when using Morse code.

Skill in radiosport comprises several factors.  Most notable is operating ability - knowing where to tune the radio, when to solicit callers, when to seek out others who are soliciting calls.  This requires a knowledge of radio propagation, "good ears" for separating multiple conflicting signals that are often weak or compromised by atmospheric noise and fading, experience with the dynamics of each contest and excellent hand-eye-ear coordination to move quickly around the frequency spectrum, record contacts in a log, send Morse code or type or speak clearly and rapidly and so on.  Some contests last as long as 48 hours and become endurance sports.  The skills are demanding and hard to maintain over such a long period with little or no rest.  The most serious contesters, like athletes, train diligently between events.  Although physical strength is not a factor, most of the other attributes of athletics come very strongly into play. 

As in car, boat or airplane racing, skills are not the only factors determining a winning effort.  Equipment and location are also  very important.  In a radio contest, it is common for several competitors to call the same station at once.  Although timing is important in determining who gets through first, the most important thing is to have the loudest signal.  This requires a good radio, the maximum power allowed under the rules and, above all else, effective antennas.  Different types of antennas work best in specific locations and some locations, say at the bottom of a deep canyon, are just hopeless for radio work.  A winning station is well equipped, well maintained and endowed with a variety of good antennas in a location that helps them to work well.

Modern contest stations include extensive computer automation. Computers maintain the "log" of contacts which is submitted at the end to the sponsoring organization for adjudication. That includes checking accuracy and eliminating contacts recorded in error. Computers also check call signs to help prevent duplicates during the contest, help to control the radios, send contest exchanges without the need for speaking or manual sending and interface with world-wide "spotting" networks that report the frequencies currently in use by various participants. Modern contesting has been described as "the ultimate, highly-distributed, multi-player computer game." Recent developments now make it possible to follow some participants' scores in real-time during a contest, potentially turning radio contesting into a spectator sport, albeit of interest mainly to hams.

Most participants in contests, like citizen racers, have no expectation of winning.  They operate from modest stations in unexceptional locations for only a fraction of the contest period.  Yet the thousands of them who get on the air for only a few hours of fun and practice make the sport exciting for the hundreds who operate around the clock seeking a personal best or a victory in their categories and locations. 

Finally, I need to confess the deep, dark, secret shame of radio contesting as a "sport."  There is no "level playing field."  Because of the physics of radio signal propagation and the demographics of the world, competitors in some locations can have a huge advantage over those elsewhere.  A degree of skill and effort that makes 1000 contacts from California might well result in 4000 contacts from an identically equipped station on a Caribbean island.  Simple rule changes can not "fix" this.  For this reason, most contest sponsors recognize winners in different geographic areas such as the entire world, each continent, each country, state or artificial section or zone.  This helps competitors to compare their results with peers who are on a roughly equal geographic footing, without denying that someone indeed "won the world."  It is far from perfect but it helps a lot.  It keeps the competition interesting and the inequities have not discouraged thousands of amateurs from participating enthusiastically.  In fact, some enjoy traveling to exotic locations which offer an advantage as much as others enjoy building capable stations and antennas at home.  A "contest expedition" is the highlight of many contesters' year.  See the sidebar for some of my own international radiosport adventures.

In an attempt to level the playing field and answer the urgent question "Who is the best contester?" several groups have sponsored World Radiosport Team Championships, a contest within a contest.  Each time, about 50 designated two-person teams gather in one city to operate from very similar stations in the 24 hour worldwide IARU Radiosport contest.  Stations are assigned to teams by lot and all have the same types of antennas and comparable locations. The 2010 event in Russia will have all stations set up on a single (large) piece of flat land. This approach evens things out substantially and there have been some notable repeat winners and high place scorers, confirming what we all knew - that contesting is a game of knowledge, skill and stamina and that some competitors stand head and shoulders above the rest.  See the sidebar.

Contesting is not for everyone and some hams eschew it as raucous and annoying.  But to those who pursue it, contesting is the biggest challenge there is in amateur radio.  And those who do it well tend also to succeed in other areas of their hobby and in life itself.  If you are a non-contester ham, give it a try.  If you are not a ham, consider becoming one in order to pursue the excitement and challenge of radiosport.