ARRL@HamRadio.Fun: November Sweepstakes For the Win!
By Sterling Coffey, N0SSC
ARRL Youth Editor
November plays host to my favorite contest -- the ARRL November Sweepstakes. “Sweeps” is divided into two separate contests, CW and Phone. Ironically, the first contest I ever participated in was the 2007 CW Sweeps, using a decoder and an automatic CW keyer with my lack of CW skill. I then participated in Phone sweeps later in the month. I had a much better score in the SSB contest.
This year, the Missouri S&T Amateur Radio Club, W0EEE, took a much bigger role in Sweepstakes. In past years, we battled with noise and RFI generated from the Electrical Engineering building’s electrical systems (it is an EE building, after all). Eighty and 40 meters are pretty much unusable throughout night and day. A sharp hash pegs the signal meter to near max throughout the entirety of both bands. It’s a shame, since a good run on the low band can make or break a contest score.
Rather than fight the noise, we packed up our bags and headed to Ward Silver’s, N0AX, new home in Steelville, Missouri, located on a hilltop nearly 10 miles from a small town. The night is pitch black, with only a cell tower beacon light visible at night. Ward set up a few extended double Zepp antennas, as well as vertical antennas for 10, 40 and 80 meters. The noise environment was eerily quiet; even the lightning crashes of faraway storms were barely audible throughout the low HF bands.
How Sweepstakes Works
Since we were away from our school station, we participated in the multi-op category, which allows two radios, known as the “run” and “mult” rigs. The run radio operates high rates while calling CQ. Once QSO rates diminish, the mult station takes over and works stations using the “search and pounce” method. The operator on the mult radio tunes through the band and works running stations that haven’t been worked by the run operator. The two operators can work simultaneously, but there is an interesting limitation in the Sweepstakes rules: “Only one transmitted signal at any time is permitted for all entry categories.” This means the run and mult operators have to work together to avoid transmitting over each other. It’s an interesting challenge that encourages teamwork!
While Ward churned away making contacts, getting his fastest “Clean Sweep,” I was lost in the woods of the Mark Twain Forest helping run checkpoint communications for a 100-mile cross country foot race. Without Amateur Radio, they would be lost. Every 8 to 10 miles, aid stations are set up to replenish runners, as well as track them live via our nifty packet radio system. And yes, they run 100 miles and they do not stop. Nor do we, so for the entire weekend, I ran a 17 hour shift. I drove and set up at two different aid stations as the runners arrived. Thankfully, there were no incidents, and I got plenty of warmth from my friend’s burn barrel.
I was not joking when I said I got lost. I incidentally took my car (seen in the photos below) on a no-turning-back Jeep trail lead by Google Maps. Thank goodness I didn’t get stuck, but if I did I’m glad I had a radio with me to call for help -- there was absolutely no cell service in those woods!
After the race, I drove to Ward’s place, which was very close to my final aid station. It was 5 AM and I was seeing pink elephants, so I crashed for the night. I woke up around 3 PM, much later than I expected; however, I had an apple for breakfast and sat in front of the mult rig. I made several contacts while Ward made hundreds, and we ended up with a score of 161,684, a formidable score worthy of a certificate.
We may not all know CW well enough to contest, and that’s why there is Phone Sweepstakes. Taking place two weeks after the CW running, the Phone running is great for all levels of experience and exposes you to every bit of what an Amateur Radio contest is. Some operators are very quick, while others take their time. Working SSB Sweeps is challenging due to the thousands of operators cramming into the HF bands, but the feeling of making a run, contacting stations out of pileups and working an unexpected friend is why it’s so exhilarating.
W0EEE put on a good show for SSB Sweeps. The photos (seen below) describe it better than words. Our goal for this contest was to set up several wire antennas as far from the sources of electronic noise as we could, as well as to build and mount our HF beam. I decided on making an off-center-fed dipole (OCFD) for 80 meters, and a normal dipole for the 40 meter band. Using automatic antenna tuners, we could tune up any band to have the flexibility to switch antennas to hear other stations better. The 50-pound HF beam was also an ambitious (and impromptu) project, and required several hands just to move it.
Our hard work on the roof paid off. With the OCFD far from the HVAC noise, the 40 meter dipole oriented to best receive the east-west stations and the HF beam pointed to the hard-to-get northeastern Sections, we were able to make a Clean Sweep once again and smash our previous score of 93,700. Twenty-four hours of contesting later, we triumphed with a score of 107,900. We are eager to see how we rank with other school clubs across the nation. It sounds like the current Sweepstakes school club champions at the Stanford Amateur Radio Club, W6YX, are keeping their #1 rank!
It’s mind-blowing that some contesters walk away with more than 2000 contacts over a 24-hour period, given the harsh conditions, but the fact that their contact totals are a majority of the actual amount of entries is astonishing. I hope that next year that W0EEE will top those scores -- only if Missouri S&T turns off their air conditioning for a weekend!
Thanks for reading and 73--
--Sterling Coffey, N0SSC
Sterling Coffey, N0SSC, is a junior majoring in electrical engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. Interested in wireless communications from a young age, he welcomes e-mail from readers.