Up until a couple years ago, I had assumed that working Europe on 160M via QRP CW was probably not in the cards for me. What I didn’t realize at that time was that some groundwork was being laid that would significantly increase the odds that my goal of working EU would be realized.
For most of the past decade, I considered my 160M dipole (up 75′) to be the best performing Top Band antenna that I would possibly be able to muster. I could work lots of stateside stations with the dipole and could usually work the nearby Caribbean island stations as well. I had heard quite a few Europeans, but none had ever heard me.
New insights were gained when a friend invited me to attend a local meeting of the PVRC (Potomac Valley Radio Club). Many of those guys were way ahead of me in terms of operating skill and contest experience, and they kick started me into a trajectory that helped me become a much better operator. I learned basic principles, from computer logging to rapid fire cw exposure during major contests. That was a great confidence booster.
During this time, another friend introduced me to QRP contester Gene Bowman, WB4MSG, at the Winston-Salem Hamfest. Gene invited me to his QTH to look at his 160M vertical loop. I didn’t realize it at that time, but that visit was a pivotal point in my ham career. That story is presented here. Gene became my 160M QRP mentor, offering advice based on his hard earned experience.
I decided that I was going to build a vertical loop similar to Gene’s in order to see if I could realize any improvement in Top Band station performance. I was disappointed to witness that the ground around my property (rocky red clay) was a poor RF conductor. Ground losses with the new vertical loop were excessive, even after installing more than 40 long ground radials. A careful reading on ON4UN’s Low Band DXing suggested that an elevated counterpoise might be the answer to lowering ground losses.
The picture below was taken during an ice storm in Jan 2016. Each counterpoise wire is a little over 80 feet long. Full details on the complete antenna, along with an EZNEC antenna file, can be found here.
Elevated Counterpoise Reduces Ground Losses
Having increased my operating skills, along with the addition of an efficient 160M antenna, it became apparent that my odds of working Europe on 160M with QRP power were significantly improving.
The first break through occurred in late January, 2016, when CS2C (Portugal) and CR2X (Azores) were worked during CQ160CW 2016.
During the Dec 2016 Stew Perry Contest, an unusually good opening added several more new EU countries to the 160M log: 9A5W (Croatia), DP5A (Germany), S57DX (Slovenia), F5NTV (France), OQ5M (Belgium), EI2CN (Ireland), and G3RJ (England).
Two additional EU countries were added in Jan 2017 during CQ160CW: OM7M (Slovak Republic) and PI4DX (Netherlands). In addition, I was pleasantly surprised to be called by CN2AA in Morocco, for my first African Top Band QSO.
The map below provides a pretty good indication of what can be done with QRP power on 160M with the right antenna and basic knowledge of 160M propagation.
Some of the countries worked by AA4XX QRP on 160M
To work the EU stations from the US East Coast with QRP, you need to understand gray line propagation; Basically, stations that are located in the transitional zone between night and day (both dawn and dusk) experience a substantial boost in both tx and rx signal strength. The signal strength enhancement that occurs during this time period affords low power US East Coast operators their best chance to make themselves heard in EU.
95% of the EU stations I have worked on Top Band were during the grayline period whereby the EU stations were transitioning from darkness to daylight. This translates to the hours between 11:30PM-1:30 AM local time East Coast US, or 0430-0630 UTC. It is interesting to observe the grayline propagation effect as it marches across EU from east to west.
There are many gray line calculators available on the internet. The following gray line utiilty, which updates every five minutes, is available here.
As can be seen on the map above, the grayline has both an eastern and a western terminator. The period during which the eastern grayline terminator approaches the US East Coast is dawn, and during this time it is common to hear signals from the Western US and Hawaii peak substantially. I have worked HI many times on Topband QRP from 6:30-7:30 local time, or 1130-1230 UTC.
This video shows what it’s like to work Hawaii on Top Band with QRP during grayline propagation. The op is my friend Dick, N4HAY as he and I were participating in the CQ160CW Contest at WQ4RP during Jan, 2016.
In conclusion, three keys to working EU with QRP power levels from the US are to take advantage of the grayline propagation boost, to choose an efficient vertical radiator, and to minimize losses throughout your antenna system.