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CW Contesting (Part 2): Making QSOs for Real and Tips on Better Scores

In Part 1 of our series on CW Contesting, we looked at some of the basics of getting started. Today, we’ll delve further into making QSOs and tips on improving your scores.

Listen and Practice

Before you make a single QSO, take some time to listen. Find a CQing station that is coming in clearly and not so fast that it’s impossible for you to copy. They’ll take the part of W1AW in the contact we just described. Take your time and be sure of the station’s call sign. Tune them in so their tone matches your most comfortable pitch.

Listen to how they CQ and how the calling stations (that’s known as search and pouncing or just S&P) answer them. Get a feel for the rhythm and timing—it’s almost musical! You’ll need to copy the CQing station’s call sign and their exchange. Listen over and over until you’re sure you’ve got it right.

Now practice a bit. Make sure your transmitter is disabled (turn off the VOX system, perhaps?) and “play along” with the contact. Set the speed to something close to that of the CQing station, even if it’s faster than you are comfortable with. Practice sending your call (off the air) in response to the station’s CQ by using F4 in the example list. If some other station calls, keep going and send your exchange when they do. 

If one of the stations misses some information in the contest QSO, you’ll hear a short message like “AGN?” or “NAME?” or “ST?” (meaning “State?”) with the other station resending the exchange or just the requested information.

Keep at it until you feel like you have it about right. Write the CQing station’s information on a piece of paper or, better yet, enter it in the windows provided by your logging software.

Making QSOs For Real

The next step is to make a QSO live, so turn the transmitter back on and get ready. Just as when you were listening, wait for the end of a CQ and press the F4 key with your call. If the CQing station answers you, congratulations and follow the next steps. If not, get ready to try again.

CQing:   CQ CQ N0AX N0AX

You:       F4 (sends your call)

CQing:   Your call – WARD MO

You:       F2 (sends your exchange)

CQing:   TU N0AX

If the CQer doesn’t have your call sign right, instead of sending the exchange, send your call, F4, again.  When the CQer sends your call correctly with the exchange, respond with your exchange in message F2. If you hear the question mark (ditty-dum-dum-ditty) coming back to you, just resend the exchange, F2, and see if they get it OK.  If not, repeat it once each time and eventually you’ll get through. If you find that the CQing station is just going too fast, send “QRS” at a more comfortable speed and they will usually slow down if there are no other full-speed callers.

Congratulations—you made a contest contact! Now don’t forget to log the contact in the excitement.  Be sure the information is entered correctly and the contact shows up as logged in your software. Tune to the next station and repeat the process. Don’t worry about how many contacts you’re making, just get the information right and have fun. Big total scores will come later!

Ten Tips for Better Scores

After a little practice, your code speed will be improving and you’ll find yourself copying all the exchange information right away. It’s time to “up your game” by trying some of these useful strategies for little pistols as they strive to become a medium gun.

  1. Learn to tune quickly from station to station so you spend as much time as possible engaging in a QSO.
  2. Use VFO A and VFO B to store the frequencies of two pileups and switch between them. This can almost double your QSO rate on a busy band!
  3. If you call a station and don’t get through right away, note the frequency and come back later.  There will probably be fewer callers.
  4. If you are watching the spotting networks and jumping from station to station, be sure of the call sign and exchange information so you don’t get a log checking penalty for mistakes.
  5. Tune downward in frequency from the top of the band where there is less noise and crowding.
  6. If a pileup is really big, you can often work several other stations more quickly, including multipliers.
  7. If you hear other stations calling at the same time you do (remember to use semi- or full break-in so you can hear them) and the CQing station doesn’t answer anyone, quickly send your call a second time when it might be in the clear.
  8. Set your logging software to send CW faster than the external keyer. This gives you a “fast gear” and a “slow gear” without having to change speeds manually.
  9. Use the widest filter bandwidth you can manage so you can hear what nearby stations are doing and be ready to call them.
  10. Finally, if you are tuning around and find a clear frequency, call CQ yourself! Just call at a speed you think you can reliably copy and see if you get a run going. This often works best at the higher end of the band and in the later stages of the contest when the “Big Guns” are looking for new stations to work.

Does this sound doable? You bet it is—and that’s the way a lot of today’s top CW contesters started out, as well. You can get a lot more advice and guidance from the contesters themselves. Use the ARRL’s Club Search service, enter “contest” in the Tag window, and pick your region. You may find a whole new community of friends!

In my experience, there is no substitute for getting on the air and practicing the craft of CW contests. You’ll find your code speed getting faster, your ability to copy error-free getting better, and you’ll be able to tolerate noise and interference. All of these are the marks of a good operator, whether in a contest or when performing public service.

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