The Founding of ZL3X


It all started innocently enough.  I’d had a lot of fun in the BERU contest operating from home as part of the “ZL3 Earthquake Survivors” team in February 2012, when I asked if there was any interest in a serious multi-op effort in the CQ WW RTTY contest coming up in September. The answer was “yes!” and “The Quake Contesters” were born.

Starting from scratch presented some challenges.

Although we had all dabbled none of us were serious regular contesters and we were not blessed with acres of land to build a super station.  K3LR or W3LPL this clearly wasn’t going to be!

ZL in general and ZL3 in particular is not exactly flush with contesters or contest groups (ZM1A and ZM4T in the North Is being the only regular groups currently operating and there are probably less than a dozen other operators in the whole country who regularly enter any of the international contests) and we were going to need more operators than we had.

Location: Based in Christchurch, we wanted a quiet site which ruled out the local amateur radio clubs as they had stations in residential areas.  Then we had to find somewhere that hadn’t been damaged in the earthquakes we had in 2010 and 2011.

After an initial search for somewhere by the sea proved unsuccessful, I was out for a run one day pondering our options when the Port Hills, the rim of an extinct volcano at the southern end of the town, drew my gaze.  Then it hit me.  The local city council had buildings up there and I wondered if they would let us use one?  I called the council and as luck would have it, I ended talking to a guy I went to school with many years before!  “No problem” he said when I outlined what I wanted and he offered us a sheep shearing shed with a kitchen and power which was 300m above sea level and with views from the west through north to the south-east, perfect for where we needed to aim the antennas. We had our site.

Next we needed to start planning for the day so in that time honoured ZL tradition we went to the pub. There we identified some other ops to approach and set out a list of gear and antennas.  We all agreed that as this was a serious effort the first item on the list had to be a kettle for making tea and coffee!  Other than that our goal was to call CQ at the start of the contest so we determined we would strictly adhere to the KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid) principle.  Normally callsigns in New Zealand are issued with two or three letter suffixes. We decided we needed a callsign with a one letter suffix which you are allowed to request for use for special events and contests.  When we had a look at the options ZL3X stood out as the obvious candidate.

We decided to enter the Multi-Single low power category for two reasons:

1. We had major concerns about interference between stations with RTTY being a full duty mode as we had no band pass filters and the rigs were to be set up quite close together; and

2. If we managed to get it going, the “Mult” station as a search and pounce station meant that being inexperienced our ops were not under any pressure on that station to run and thereby deal with pile ups.

Come the day we were ready (or thought we were). The contest stated at 12 midday Saturday New Zealand time so the team of Phil Holliday ZL3PAH, Andrew Barron ZL3DW, Don McDonald ZL3DMC, Graeme Kerr ZL3GK and I headed up the hill at 9am.  Amazingly the Port Hills were bathed in sunshine except for the part we were going to be operating from! When we got up there visibility was down to about 30m but as Don ZL3DMC noted, “…at least we are not an astronomy club”. (Lesson one:  Conditions on a hill may materially differ from those on the flat.  Always bring warm clothes).

Now we would have loved stacked yagis and four squares but following the KISS principle we took a more modest approach.  Our antennas consisted of a hex beam on a 5 metre pole for 20-15-10m and a fan dipole on an 11m aluminium pole covering 40-20-15m.  It was supposed to do 10m as well but after we put it up we could not get it to load on 10m. (Lesson two: Always check your antennas before you leave home). The rigs used were a Kenwood TS2000 and an Elecraft K3.

Once the antennas were up we had an hour before the contest to set up the radios and N1MM on the two laptops.  (Lesson three: Never leave it until an hour before a contest to set up radios and network two laptops).  After much frustration we could get N1MM networked and logging from both radios but we could not get the cluster going or show accurate info for each laptop.  We never did figure either issue out. (Lesson four: Set up a fully functioning network in the days leading up to the contest and write all your settings down).

Because of our interference fears we put toroids on all our leads.  We even put toroid on toroids!  The rest of the lads drew the line when I started eyeing up their shoelaces and some passing sheep.  Despite that we were still worried but to our major surprise we had no interference issues.

After a “wee dram” to set us on our way we were off.  We then immediately hit a problem.  If one station was transmitting the other one couldn’t.  We couldn’t figure it out until we looked at the network set up and somewhat sheepishly noticed that the software interlock was on.  Problem solved! (Lesson five:  Read up on the software you are using before the contest).

We all had a blast as did the wind at times.  Although watertight the shed was hardly airtight with a slat floor in parts and louvres on the windows so it got pretty cold, not to mention noisy with the wind rattling the roof quite dramatically at times. After driving up the hill for the Saturday night shift and with visibility down to about 20m due to the mist, I did seriously wonder what on earth I was doing up there.  I did that shift in a sleeping bag.

From a receive perspective the site was amazing.  There was no local noise as the nearest houses were over a kilometre away and even with our low, basic antennas we managed great copy.  I will never forget seeing an Italian station signing /QRP all perfect print.

However transmit was a different story.  QST Contributing Editor Ward Silver N0AX once told me he did a study of which DXCC entities were, on average, the farthest away from all the others. The trio of ZL/ZL7/ZL8 “won” that competition going away (in case you are wondering Croatia 9A was the least distant).  From Christchurch the nearest amateur population of any substance is VK2 which is 2,100 km away or approximately the same distance as Los Angeles to Dallas.  Los Angeles to Christchurch is five and a half times further!  We realised just how far we were from the action by the number of stations whom we could read perfectly but who could not see us.  A combination of low power and the fact that many of these stations were clearly not beaming our way meant we (and they) missed out on a number of QSOs and in the case of the DX station more than likely a multiplier.  And it wasn’t just us.  Many times we saw VK’s in the same position especially in the last four or five hours of the contest.  (Lesson six – for you this time: Turn your beam when you are not busy, you never know who might be lurking off the back).

By the end of the contest and in what turned out to be the first ever multi-op effort in the CQ WW RTTY contest from ZL, we had 519 QSOs and a claimed score of 417,439 points.  We were pretty happy and as Phil ZL3PAH noted, “… contesting is a lot more fun when you do it as a team”.

Quotes of the weekend:

Don ZL3DMC “This K3 is broken”.  We later realised the Hexbeam was facing 180 deg from the direction we thought it was. (Lesson seven.  Hexbeams have a great F/B ratio).

Family friend who was staying at my house on the Saturday night:  “Why don’t you just use Skype?”

PostScript: The Quake Contesters entered the 2012 CQ WW SSB as a Multi two entry and put a lot of the things we had learnt into practice.  We had a second beam higher up, bandpass filters, more power, a reliable cluster connection and more operators.  This lead to a significant increase in our score with 2227 QSOs and over 1.9m points claimed and we had fun.  We plan to enter many of the big contests in the future.

73, Mark Sullivan ZL3AB    

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