Yesterday I got home from work around 6:30pm and flipped on the radio, as I usually do. The combination of later sunset relative to local time and (I assume) the improving solar cycle is keeping 20m open much later in the evening. It was hopping as usual, but I only heard US stations. Looking at the DX map I saw a couple of spots on 17 and 15 meters, so I switched upwards to see if I could hear anything. 17 seemed dead, but there were a few faint signals on 15, so I decided to stay and watch.
I've noticed that sometimes a band opening lasts only for a few minutes, so if you see a handful of spots on a band it can be worth it to "camp out" for awhile and see what you get. In this case, after a little while I saw Luis, CO6LE, from Cuba calling CQ and easily copyable. It took me a couple of tries but eventually he heard me and we had a short QSO. My first one with Cuba! I have heard other Cuban stations in the past but haven't been able to work them.
Just a couple of minutes later I heard a Brazillian station calling CQ. He called for several minutes, and I repeatedly tried to QSO with him, but he never heard me and as far as I could tell never QSO'd with anyone else either. There followed a longer period of quiet after this, and then I saw another faint trace and put my cursor on it. It took a couple of minutes before I could get a definite copy of his call, and when I did I almost fell out of my chair – it was Ernie, VK3FM, from Melbourne, Australia!
For those of you who don't know, my wife is Australian, from Melbourne, so one of my goals since getting licensed has been to work a VK station. Of course the odds of me working Ernie on 5 watts of PSK31 with my antenna were pretty slim. He was over 7,500 miles from my QTH, and my record distance is only 5,300 miles. As predicted, although he called CQ for about 10 minutes, he never heard me (or anyone else apparently).
Even though I only got 1 out 3 attempted DX QSOs during this session, I was pleased to hear two new countries. I hear Mexico and Canada frequently of course, but any other DX has so far been a relative rarity for me.
Although there's no hope of any improvement of my antenna setup while I'm living at my current QTH, I'm hoping to build an external amplifier for my K2 this summer. Elecraft recommends that you limit yourself to 5 watts on the K2 when running high duty-cycle modes like PSK31, so I've done that in order to ensure a clean signal and the long life of my finals. I could buy the Elecraft 100w integrated amp, but I would rather have something I can use with other rigs, or easily leave behind when operating mobile, etc. Also, I think it would be instructive for me to home brew something and try to learn some more about electronics design. Rob and Nick (AK6L and N1UBZ) are up for helping me, and there are some rough kits available already for the amp and BPF modules. The rest will be an exercise in integration and adding some other features (SWR meter? Auto band-switching?). I made a deal with my wife that if I get an A+ in the Java class I'm taking, which ends in 3 weeks, I can start working on the amp. Wish me luck!