I developed an interest in contesting at Field Day 1982 just a few months after getting licensed. Between myself and another Novice, we were able to make about a dozen contacts during the entire 24 hours of Field Day. Not a very impressive showing, but I'll never forget watching Bob Spindel, K1GN, at the "Big Station", knock off one CW contact after another with flawless manual keying and 100% copy the first time around, even with the wind blowing papers around on the outdoor setup he was running. I said to myself, "I want to be that good some day..."
So I slowly began to build my code speed over the next few months, eventually passing the Extra Class 20WPM telegraphy test at the Custom House in Boston. I operated in a few different types of contests besides Field Day to see what I liked, and settled on November Sweepstakes.
The deciding factor was that the contacts in Sweepstakes are involved, and require the exchange of QSO-specific details in the form of a serial number, and other unique information regarding the operator at the other end. You don't just exchange a superficial "599, thanks, QRZ?" It becomes a game of persistence, patience, and skill. It amplifies the benefits of accurate copy, and magnifies the loss of time if you fail to close the deal on an exchange, miss the copy, or fail to recognize the duplicates. The rules provide for a maximum of 24 hours of operating, but they are allowed to fall inside a 30-hour window. This forces the operator to choose carefully which hours they will and will not operate, requiring an understanding of the current propagation conditions and activity levels to achieve the best results. Lastly, one additional objective is to cover the North American continent and any other US possessions by contacting specific geographic areas, known as Sections; if you contact them all, you have made a "Clean Sweep."
Contesting drives the participant to critically and honestly
examine their station's deficiencies in relation to the objectives of a
given event. If they are determined to improve their results, they will take
appropriate steps to remedy those deficiencies, and most especially, the
deficiencies in their own skills. The experiences gained in higher levels
of effort in many types of contests is invaluable training for the rigors
of emergency operations when shifts are long, quality of copy is vital,
and there are genuine issues of need at stake. Here are the highlights
of my progress at that time:
As of the end of 2002, the record score from EMA for high power CW in Sweepstakes of 170,000 was set by K1AR in 1978. While my score for SSB in 1991 is substantially higher than the CW scores, it nonetheless was only enough to place third in the section that year; the winning EMA score that year was just over 202,000 points. Along with efforts by other members of FARA, our combined scores took us to 5th place nationwide in the Local Club category for 1991. Most satisfying for me in these efforts was the degree of progress I was able to make in my rate. There were few changes in the equipment I used and the primary improvement was in my efficiency of operating. My 1991 CW score would be enough to take first place in any of the years 1998-2002. Unfortunately, I don't have all of the same antennas at my disposal to try to outdo my previous personal best. No triband beam, only a diploe now.
The record score from EMA for SSB in Sweepstakes of 258,704 was turned in by Dean Straw, N6BV in 1988, and continues to stand as of 2002. It has been my privilege to work a multioperator effort with Dean during the 1992 June VHF QSO party at K5MA/1, where we took 4th place nationwide and set a record for the New England Division in the Limited Multioperator category. Other participants in that effort included Jan, K5MA; Mitch, WA1YKN; and Shawn, N1HOQ.
The choice of how one participates in a given contest or event may be dictated solely by an individual's needs or objectives; while I chose to pursue a higher score, others might choose to challenge themselves in another way, such as finding a particular state, section, county or grid square to finish off an award, to learn more about propagation under various conditions, or something else completely unrelated to the offered objectives of a given contest or operating event. The key things are participation and progress.