Why I am Falling Out of Love With VHF Contesting

I have been on VHF weak signal (meaning primarily CW and SSB operation and later digital) most of the time since 1986. I took a few years off between 2007 and 2016 but have put major effort into returning since then. During my years on VHF I have been active in most of the VHF contests.

My reasons for being involved with ham radio and the activities I seek out within the hobby may be different than most. I have always been fascinated by radio and I love DXing but this is also a much needed coping mechanism and stress relief for me. I am on many bands and modes because variety is key to getting what I seek out of this.

Several things made VHF operating and contesting different from HF. First there was propagation. On VHF there are a variety of propagation mechanisms including troposcatter, tropo, meteor scatter, aurora, sporadic E and if one has a capable station, EME. Each propagation type has its own unique characteristics and may impart a variety of effects to the signal. There is the characteristic flutter of meteor scatter, the hiss of aurora, libration fading on EME. Troposcatter signals can sound perfectly normal or they may have rapid flutter or even multipath effects. I loved hearing all the unique sounds. I felt connected to a variety of fascinating phenomena that made a signal go from here to there, learned to identify each of them and how to best exploit them. It was all part of the magic and wonder of radio.

Sometimes VHF signals are very weak. I love the challenge of digging out a weak signal by ear on CW or SSB, figuring out how to best adjust the length and timing of transmissions to get that weak one in the log.

In VHF contests one would get to know the other players. Every contest there were familiar voices on SSB and “fists” on CW. Even in the heat of battle, many would take a minute to say hi and exchange a brief remark or two. Sometimes one could get information about activity or propagation conditions that proved helpful. This was a thoroughly unique and enjoyable aspect of VHF contesting for many years.

VHF contests also provided a unique opportunity to make contacts on bands above 2 meters. Generally there is little to no regular activity up there, but many VHF contest stations have more bands and of course they wanted to work others on as many of them as possible. Generally one would work a station in 2 or 6 meters and make arrangements to QSY or “run the bands” with them. This was great fun and really made having higher bands worthwhile. If it weren’t for VHF contests I probably never would have ventured above 2 meters. Sometimes the challenge for me would be to run through several bands quickly to take advantage of a short propagation peak. I am pretty far from most of the VHF activity, so making the most of propagation peaks was important.

VHF contesting has changed a lot in the last 35 years. One of the most obvious changes is the decrease in activity. Twenty or thirty years ago I could get 70 to 90 QSOs on 2 meters in a VHF contest plus a good number on any other bands I had at the time. Except perhaps for a few hours between midnight and dawn, there were always signals to be heard on 2 meters. In contrast, for the past few years I have a more capable 2 meter station than ever before but no matter how hard I work at it, 30 QSOs on 2 meters was about all I could hope for. I was lucky if I got a dozen each on 222 and 432 MHz and whatever number on 6 meters depending on long range propagation which is far more prevalent there. There were long periods of time when no signals were to be found on 2 meters. Almost all of the big stations are gone now, so QSOs around the 500 mile mark (generally the limit for CW or SSB between well equipped stations under average band conditions at 2 meters and above) have become rare. Despite the sharp decline in activity I was still enjoying VHF contests. The longer distance contacts were all the more special and exciting since there were so few to be had.

Then came FT8. This is where my love affair with VHF contesting began to fade. It’s not that I hate FT8. I have used FT8 in previous VHF contests, day to day on VHF outside contests, and on HF. It can be a lot of fun and in some ways it is a better mode for me. Just days prior to the 2022 January VHF contest I ran piles of JA and Asia on 40 meter long and short path and had fun doing it.

The VHF contest activity that used to be on SSB and CW has been shifting more and more to FT8. Mainly this is on 6 and 2 meters while there is little to nothing going on above that. FT8 has brought many newcomers to VHF and contesting. I don’t argue that more activity is a good thing, especially in light of the decline in VHF activity over the past 20 years. Unfortunately it comes at the cost of nearly eliminating activity on traditional modes. For me this has mostly killed the uniqueness and fun of VHF contesting.

The personal connection to VHF propagation phenomena is gone. With FT8 signals are either too weak to hear, or there are several signals and it isn’t possible to hear the unique characteristics of those that are undergoing propagation curiosities. The magic and wonder of it all is gone. It isn’t possible to adapt timing, speed or length of transmissions to compensate for propagation anomalies, as all of that is locked into a fixed format. It is also common to lose contacts to QSB that I know I could have completed on SSB or CW. FT8 contacts take too much time to ride the sometimes short peaks.

For the most part the connection to people I know is gone. While it is possible to exchange a very brief remark on FT8 it is cumbersome and few do it. You need to be a lightning quick typist. It’s not the same as hearing a familiar voice or CW sending style. I find it sterile.

Making arrangements to run the bands is harder with FT8. I know some have had success with it and there is a new technique now being proposed or tried that might help somewhat. But still, I think it is much harder with FT8 than it was with SSB or CW. Also, you either need to first QSY to SSB to make arrangements, or try to run the bands on FT8. Either way takes longer than the quick, snappy band changes and QSOs one could make using traditional modes. This is not good for me. Being far away from most of the activity I often depended on running through the bands quickly to get those contacts during a short tropo peak.

I have tried to get something unique and special out of FT8 on VHF but have not succeeded. The unique feel of VHF contesting has been lost. Without that uniqueness I am losing interest. Prior to this FT8 transition, I would prioritize VHF contesting over HF contesting or DXing because it was unique and fun. Now, with what was unique and special about VHF nearly gone, I get more benefit out of chasing DX half way around the world on HF than I get from participating in a VHF contest. That is the bottom line. It may be true that at some point during a contest there is a small amount of activity on other modes, but listening to white noise for hours to catch 10 QSOs is not fun nor is it helpful to me in other ways. That is too little return on investment of my time, to say nothing of money tied up in a VHF station. After listening several times in the recent 2022 January VHF contest and hearing mainly FT8 on 6 and 2 meters and nothing on higher bands I voted with my band switch. I went to HF and worked DX half way around the world because I got more out of that than I would have working the VHF contest.

This isn’t the first time I have felt the rug had been pulled out from under me on VHF. My years of absence from VHF between 2007 and 2016 were precipitated by EME going from CW to JT65. I had spent a fortune and a great deal of time building up my EME station only to have the fun and benefits suddenly vanish. Since EME was no longer providing what I seek from the hobby I dismantled the station and sold everything off in order to build a better HF station. That was a necessary move. It took some time to regroup and begin rebuilding VHF with an emphasis on terrestrial operation and contesting. Now VHF contesting and operating in general seems forever changed by FT8.

Change is inevitable and the VHF world has moved on. Currently there is some discussion about changing VHF contest rules to encourage more SSB and CW activity. Even if changes are made, I have my doubts that it will actually revive use of those modes. There was some tinkering with EME contests after the digital revolution but did it bring back CW? For the most part, no. In the end I hope the influx of new blood brought about by digital modes proves a positive thing for ham radio, but I think we have to accept that any change which drastically alters the very nature of an activity will inevitably result in losing some, like myself, who came to and enjoyed that activity precisely because of its unique nature.

I would not presume to think of mine as a big station, though with 1500 watts on 6 and 2, 800 watts on 222 with long yagis 100 plus feet in the air it is not exactly small either. I have a high and long yagi on 432 but lack power there. If one were to consider this a big station then I guess am just the next to fall. I am not sure whether I will leave VHF altogether but one thing I do know beyond a reasonable doubt. Had I known in 2016 where we would be just five years later, I would not have made the effort to return to VHF. Building the station was a genuine hardship and involved many sacrifices. I wish I had that money back to pursue other interests where there is still something of personal value to be gained. With the changes occurring on VHF I find myself thinking about what other antennas I would have room for if I removed all of the VHF antennas from the tower. I am deeply saddened that we have come to a point where I would even consider that after all I went through to build the VHF station, but here we are.

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