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Tales from the South Pacific

Lord Howe Island Dxpedition VK9LA

A personal account of 10 days on a small island with 15 other Amateur Radio Enthusiasts.

With apologies to James A Michener

23 March to 3 April 2009

By Chris Chapman VK3QB    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Copyright© 2009

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No part of this story may be used without prior permission from the author.  VK9LA team operators are welcome to contact Chris VK3QB at the above email address to discuss the use of this article in publications, newsletters or web-sites.

Introduction

Late in 2008 I received an email from a friend pointing me to a website which was looking for operators to travel to Lord Howe Islandin 2009 for a dxpedition.  Ever since I can remember I have wanted to go on a dxpedition; the travel, adventure, new experiences and new friends all coupled in with the fascination of the hobby of kings; Amateur Radio (late nights, antenna erections, pileups and rare DX)!  This opportunity was perfect; it lined up with my personal circumstances; timing, availability and being reasonably close to home it did not require a long-haul flight.  Also, and perhaps most importantly, the dxpedition organising group, the Oceania DX Group (ODXG) was enthusiastic to have “first timers” join some of the more experienced operators for this trip.

And so the dxpedition began to take form under the guidance of the ODXG and dxpedition leader, Bill VK4FW.  A diverse team was assembled comprising 16 operators (along with four partners) from three continents and five countries.  We also had great diversity in the skills and experience of the team members, with some being die-hard dxpeditioners, and some, like myself, being dxpedition first-timer.  We had computer experts, antennae experts and folk with extensive operational experience on our three modes of operation; SSB, CW and RTTY.  The call-sign VK9LA was already allocated to ODXG and preliminary agreements were in place for two suitable sites on the island.

It is more than fair to say that all 16 operators shared a common set of desires:

  • Have fun;
  • Work lots of DX – play lots of radio;
  • Make new friends and
  • Experience an exotic location

VK9LA promised to offer just that, and more.

This story is a brief account of this dxpedition from the eyes and ears of a first timer.  The team was made up of the following operators: Tony IZ3ESV, San K5YY, Bob N2OO, Lance N2OZ, Stan SQ8X, Peter SQ9DIE, Victoria SV2KBS, Tex VK1TX, Luke VK3HJ, John VK4IO, Catherine VK4VCH, Chris VK5CP, Jay W5SL, John VK5PO, Bill VK4FW and Chris VK3QB. 

Lord Howe Island

Lord Howe Island (LHI) is located in the South Pacific, approximately 700kms east of mainland Australia, and is widely regarded as the most beautiful island in the western south Pacific region. It is the closest island getaway from Sydneyand is less than two hours flying time from Sydney and Brisbane.  It is one of just four island groups to be inscribed on the World Heritage List for the global significance of its natural beauty and heritage.  There are approximately 350 permanent residents and no more than 400 tourists on the island at any one time.  These limitations are largely set down by the World Heritage Listing guidelines.

Flights to the island have strict baggage limitations which are governed largely by the aircraft used to service the island, the de Havilland Canada Dash-8, seating about 32 passengers and allowing only 14kgs of checked baggage per passenger.  The runway is likely the limiting factor here, as it is only 1,005 metres in length, located on the flattest section of the island which is probably only 1,100 metres wide!   The airport was constructed by Australian Army Surveyors in 1975, prior to that the island was serviced by flying boats. 

Those with some experience of dxpeditions will quickly realise that these weight limitations would have made any serious dxpedition with 16 operators a virtual impossibility.  Hence the ODXG arranged for most of the equipment to be shipped to the island one month before the event.

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Picture 3 – Location of Lord Howe Island

All power (240V AC 50Hz) is provided by diesel generators on the island, and for the most part this was stable and reliable.

The VK9LA Operation

The Arrival and Setup

The dxpedition was to officially begin on 23rdMarch 2009, but Bill VK4FW was able to fly onto LHI a couple of days earlier.  This gave me the chance to work Bill from my home QTH once he had established a basic station set-up, and I was very pleased to be the first in the log with VK9LA – both on SSB and CW on 30 metres.

Over the course of the next two days the remaining 15 operators and some partners arrived on the island.  The flight from Sydneywas smooth and chatter was predominantly focused on radio matters – as almost half the passengers were the LHI dxpedition crew.  The aircraft was a 30 seater Dash-8 and I suspect that our constant banter, laughter and impending excitement provided the rest of the passengers with a curious but entertaining air-travel experience.  Abnormal people (ie. 99.9% of the population) simply do not understand or appreciate the wonders of Amateur Radio and dxpeditions!

On arrival at the island we were met by Bill VK4FW who immediately put us to work getting the towers up and beams erected at the Blue Lagoon Lodge.

The team was spread between two resorts.  The Beachcomber Lodge as located at the top of a small hill and operated the CW stations.  This became known as the “CW Camp”.   About 1 km away from the CW Camp down by the beach was the Blue Lagoon or “SSB Camp”, and this is where we ran the SSB and RTTY stations.

The CW Camp had elevated verticals for 30 and 40 metres each with 42 radials, a dipole for 80 metres, an inverted “L” for 160 metres and an R5 vertical, as well as a three element tri-bander on 20, 15 and 10 metres.  This camp was, for the most part, fully setup and operational within the first 24 hours.

The SSB Camp required more time and effort than originally planned.  First was the three element 20 metre beam.  This took longer than expected due to space constraints, so the remaining antennae were left until the following day.  The SSB Camp worked 20 metres SSB hard the first night.  The next day was spent running 20 metres SSB whilst a number of operators worked hard to get the remaining antennae up and operational (refer to the summary for a full description of the antennae complement).

The VK9LA team had more or less “taken over” these two tourist facilities so were able to get some latitude and cooperation from the respective owners.  The owner of the Beach Comber is also a licenced radio operator VK9FLHI and was extremely helpful, providing access to his utility vehicle enabling us to ferry equipment between the two camps.

Of particular interest was John, VK4IO and his “arborists tool” – really a super duper sling shot.  This device is something to see in action.  Within 20 minutes we had the 80 metre dipole up at about 25 metres with one end into a fantastic Norfolk Island Pine and the other into a Silky Oak.  Shortly thereafter the 40 metre dipole was up about 18 metres.  John then headed up to the CW Camp with Bill and got the 80 and 160 metre antennae up nice and high.

 

Operation

ODXG and the more experienced operators made the decision that this would be a very informal dxpedition, and also wanted to provide an opportunity for the less experienced of us to build our skills and confidence.  As such, we had no formal operating schedules although some rough patterns developed as the team “found their footings” and preferred bands, modes and shifts began to take form.

Tuesday night I pulled the graveyard shift – my first time on the pointy end of a pileup.  What a baptism of fire; forty metres CW.  I took over from a very experienced operator (Bob N2OO) who had been working at 30 wpm plus and I dropped to about 20wpm.  The first hour I got maybe 20 QSOs.  It was a complete zoo.  I managed to keep the pileup quite tight and as my ear tuned in the rate increased – the next five hours was a buzz.  I finished up at 4am, extremely satisfied but rather exhausted.  How does one describe this experience to the uninitiated?  It was 6 hours of constant CW “noise”, it sounded like a cacophony of Morse code music but the problem being it was almost impossible to discern individual signals.

The challenging and fun bit was taking control of the pileup – and Bob N2OO and Bill VK4FW had explained this to me in the briefing sessions (I had also read W9KNI Bob Locher’s book “The Complete DXer” prior to the trip which was most instructive and entertaining – a recommended read).  However, I did not appreciate just what this all meant until I experienced it first hand.  My first hour was spent listening and learning how to break the pileup into manageable chunks – it sounded more like RTTY or PSK31 than CW!  Coping strategies included:

  • going split up 2 or 3 Khz. (or more – sometimes up/down +/-8Khz)
  • picking the strongest signals first
  • picking signals at the top/bottom end of the pileup
  • calling for certain regions/call areas/prefixes only
  • QSYing to the other side of my calling frequency – there was always at least one guy waiting for this approach and the pileup quickly followed

By the second hour I had some confidence and had a reasonable control of the pileup – and was very happy to increase the QSO rate from about 20 QSOs in the first hour to about 50 to 60 in the 2nd and 3rdhours.  For the uninitiated this is not a fast QSO rate for a dxpedition operator – the more experienced operators were rocketing along at a much faster rate.  However, as with most endevours in life, practice makes perfect, and I found the experience to be fantastic and a load of fun.

The next day I managed to get some intermittent internet access and I couldn't help but check the DX-cluster to see the usual barrage of helpful comments and advice.... here are just a few that appeared about the time I took over operation:

  • Joke!!  QRSSSSSSSSSSS. No QSO.
  • Fake. Change in operator style.
  • FINALLY REAL SIGNAL REPORTS!!

There is a lesson to be learned here for those posting spots on the cluster; and also an interesting observation of how a change of operator can be interpreted by those “chasing the DX”.  I found it most insightful.

By Wednesday morning (25thMarch) we had all antennae up with full coverage from 160 metres and all seven stations working at full capacity.  Conditions were woeful from late Wednesday afternoon. I did graveyard shift and managed to work only 37 QSOs in 4 hours.  It was very hard work and frustrating; I imagine for both ends of the pileups – or lack thereof.  Most of the other stations did not do much better. These conditions persisted for most of the night and into the next day, and did not start to improve until late Thursday.  Dull conditions put a real dent in our ability to get the QSO rate up and put the pressure on for the rest of the trip.

It is worth noting at this point that this dxpedition was arguably held at the absolute sunspot minima, with only 0.7 sunspots (ie. Not even one!) being observed for the entire month of March.  This would largely have accounted for the lack of propagation and activity on the higher bands.  It should also be noted that LHI is 12,000 kilometres from North America, 9,500 kilometres from Japan and 16,500 kilometres from Central Europe, (all requiring multiple multi-hop propagation on short path) further exacerbating the impact of these poor conditions on our QSO rates into NA, JA and EU on the higher bands. 

It would be entirely remiss of me not to make mention of John, VK5PO who almost single-handedly ran the RTTY station and handed out VK9LA to over 2,000 stations. A number of operators who had never worked RTTY before took the opportunity to look over John’s shoulder and watch the signals “magically appear” on the computer screen.  Here was a perfect example of an operator fueled on caffeine and RTTY adrenaline!  

On the Friday (27thMarch) Chris VK5CP and I hiked up to Malabar, a hill about 210 metres above sea level on the southern point of the island.  We both took the opportunity to work VK9LA as VK3QB/9 and VK5CP/9 respectively on 146.225 FM from the top of Malabar.  Most of the remaining team members made the walk over the course of the weekend – well worthwhile a great view from the southern tip of the island up to the north.  The adventurous EU guys took a guided tour up the 875 metre Mt Gower, regarded as one of the world’s best day walks.

Some of the team entered into the CQ WPX SSB Contest; Multi Two All Band Category.  Despite poor conditions we managed a score of 1,884,168 points.  This put the VK9LA team in 39th place (or 2nd place for VK – with congrats to VK4KW), which I think the team can be very proud of considering the bulk of our effort and energy was being placed on the DX side of things rather than the contest.

After the first few days we had all settled into a casual routine, and it was very nice not to be pressured, knowing that there would always be some-one willing to take over the station when fatigue and/or frustration became overwhelming.  Equally so, there was always some-one willing to hand the controls over to a fresh operator. 

On the Monday evening (30thMarch) I wandered up to the CW Camp about 11pm and took over from Jay W5SL on 80 metres.  Stateside was coming in consistently and after 2 hours propagation started to drop out and I moved onto the JAs. This will come as no surprise to many, but it's not possible to clear a pileup with JA.  However, the JAs are very well mannered and the QSO rate was relatively high for a newcomer.  I was very pleased to be averaging about 50-60 QSOs per hour.  Propagation moved across HL, UA0 and very slowly into northern EU.  I worked quite a few OM and OH but no southern EU was heard. Again, I finished up about 4am and headed back to the SSB Camp after checking in with fellow operators Tony IZ3ESV on 40 metres CW, and Stan SQ8X on 30 metres CW.

About this time LHI was getting hit by the tail end of a cyclone that had been battering northern Australiaand we all shared concerns for the Mellish Reef team (George, AA7JV and Tamas HA7RY) who were on-route at that stage to operate VK9GWM.  The Mellish Reef team were almost 1,600 kilometres due north of our position which would have made a noticeable difference to both their weather and also propagation paths into JA, EU and NA.  Thankfully they made it safely and we heard them on many occasions towards the end of our trip.  The winds did cause some concern for our “tower and antenna man” John, VK4IO who made regular outdoor ventures to double/triple check the guys and general condition of the towers and antennae. 

Bill VK4FW and I had a fun and challenging late evening/early morning working 160 meters into North America (Stateside) and Canada.  It was hard work but we had two sets of headphones and “shared the joy” of pulling the signals out of the mud.  It was particularly interesting to note that our own individual “internal DSPs” (ie. our brains) would be tuning in on different signals in the receiver’s bandpass; probably also a result of a difference in hearing bandwidth (tone deafness I think is the common parlance!).  At one stage I swore I had copied a K6 station and Bill was chastising me for not logging the WA7 station – strangely, we were both correct.  The 160 metre DX bug has definitely bitten.

As we entered the final couple of days of the dxpedition everyone was well into a routine and enjoying themselves.  The weather was unfortunately still windy and overcast.  I was operating on irregular intervals and with varied sleep patterns, waking up at all hours buzzing from the pileups the previous night.  Various sessions were spent doing some 17 metre SSB work with very good (although sporadic) openings into W, VE and PY, but we had to contend with very heavy QSB and QRM from the CW station up the hill.

As we neared the end of the dxpedition I became more aware of the need for sleep if I was to operate the graveyard shifts.  So, in good amateur tradition, I dragged Chris VK5CP to the local bar for a beer or 2 on more than one occasion – a surefire recipe to get some more sleep.

On the last evening the whole team took some time out and went out for dinner.  A good meal of locally caught fish was enjoyed by all.  It also presented an ideal opportunity for a debriefing of the operation to date with all team members agreeing the experience had been thoroughly rewarding and enjoyable.

The “take-down and pack up”

Due to the general concern about the weather a team decision was made to commence the “take-down” one day earlier than originally planned – this began on Wednesday 1stApril.  It was still windy and overcast, but very mild – around 24°c.

Given the windy conditions and requirement to have all the gear FULLY packed and sealed by nightfall on Thursday it was necessary to play on the safe side and get the towers and beams packed away.  The bulk of the morning and early afternoon was spent taking down the towers and beams.

The afternoon was spent in the SSB shack listening to the operators work some 15 metres and later in the day 40 metres – as usual EU stations started coming in around 5pm local time.

At 8pm I wandered to the CW Camp where we ran the VK/ZL night and worked a bunch of locals on SSB and CW.  It was great to hear so many familiar call-signs and receive greetings from many VKs who knew various team members. 

Then I listened with Bill on the 160 metres gray line to stateside.  We worked 12 stations or so with varying signals and a few JAs and VEs thrown in for good measure.  The antenna did quite a good job considering it was a ¼ wave inverted 'L' at 20 metres with 12 radials and it proved itself to be a good performer.  I spent a lot time listening on 160 metres on this trip with the more experienced operators and am looking forward to getting a similar antenna up at my home location.

The final day prior to departure (Thursday 2nd April) was spent mostly dismantling the remaining antennae and equipment and getting it packed securely onto the pallets for return shipping to Brisbane.

The final day, Friday 3rd April was spent packing our personal luggage and relaxing prior to the flight back to Sydney.  From memory I think that the flight was full and about 70% of the passengers were the VK9LA team; a good representation of a fine dxpedition.

Summary

Many people do not realize just how much planning, effort and cost goes into putting on a dxpedition.  Our dxpedition leader Bill VK4FW spent countless days planning the event, contacting people, organising freight, sponsors, coordinating and generally making sure that the event was able to proceed.  John VK4IO provided extensive assistance performing a three day dry-run of the antennae complement with Bill some weeks prior to the event.  Once the antennae (and towers) were configured, tuned and tested they were fastidiously packed and prepared ready with the rest of the equipment for shipping to LHI.

Without individual airfares (for the non-VK operators) taken into account I would estimate this Dxpedition cost in the order of $50,000; with additional significant cost not being accounted for as much of the equipment was provided either by the operators, ODXG or our sponsors.  Below are some details to give an insight into just what goes into a dxpedition of this size.

Arguably, this dxpedition occurred at the sunspot minima with virtually no sunspots for the 30 days preceding the dxpedition and the SFI not exceeding 68.  This is reflected in the lack of QSOs on the higher bands.

QSO Statistics

Band

Total QSOs

CW

SSB

RTTY

160

627

627

0

0

80

3,347

1,496

1,851

0

40

9,111

6,001

3,110

0

30

4,458

3,857

1

601

20

6,714

3,084

1,194

1,194

17

3,579

2,377

1,202

0

15

2,158

1,235

660

263

12

161

160

1

10

5

5

0

0

6

0

0

0

Total

30,160

18,842

9,261

2,057

Table 1 – Summary of QSOs

  • Shortest DX: 100 metres to VK9FLHI – Des. the owner of the Blue Lagoon Lodge
  • Rarest DX: TL0Z on 40mtrs
  • Total DX Entities worked: 149
  • Total entities on CW: 119
  • Total entities on SSB: 125
  • Total entities on RTTY: 60

Station Statistics

  • 2 pallets and a crate totaling about 900kgs of equipment sent via ship
  • 4 towers
  • 10 laptops
  • 6 ICOM 7000 radios – with thanks to ICOM America
  • 1 Elecraft K3
  • 1 TS480HX
  • 2 ACOM amplifiers
  • 2 811 amplifiers
  • 2 IC-2KL amplifiers
  • Heil headsets for all operators.

SSB Camp Antennae

  • 3 element beam on 20 metres
  • 4 element beam on 15 metres
  • 3 element beam on the WARC bands
  • 40 metre dipole
  • 80 metre dipole

CW Camp Antennae

  • 3 element tri-bander
  • elevated vertical on 30mtrs with 42 radials
  • elevated vertical on 40mtrs with 42 radials
  • R5 vertical
  • 160mtr ¼ wave 'L'
  • 80mtr dipole
  • 6mtr vertical

Epilogue....

I particularly want to thank the more experienced operators who mentored and advised me on how to handle the CW pileups – it was an invaluable learning experience – so thanks for all the support and encouragement to San K5YY, Bob N2OO and Bill VK4FW with an extra big thanks to ODXG and Bill, our dxpedition leader who made this trip possible.  And it goes without saying that I extend my thanks to the rest of the team members who all helped make VK9LA a fantastic experience.  This won't be my last dxpedition, but like so many experiences in life, the first is something special and will always be remembered.  In fact, since this trip I have combined a holiday with a mini-dxpedition to Vanuatu as YJ0QB.

Thanks are also extended to our many sponsors, DX Associations and individual amateurs who supported this dxpedition.  The larger sponsors are listed below, but every single organisation and individual who donated their time, money or equipment is gratefully acknowledged.

  • ICOM America
  • INDEXA
  • NCDXF
  • GDXF
  • Heil Sound
  • ACOM
  • TET-Emtron

If you have ever wondered about a dxpedition and get the opportunity to join one, jump at it.  Chances are you will have a truly memorable experience and become a far better radio operator, not to mention all the fun and enjoyment of spending time with like-minded people in a rare and exotic location.  And the pile-ups can only be described as challenging, rewarding, satisfying and a bucket load of fun.


(The following should be considered as a sidebar when publishing this article.

Comments on the Sunspot Cycle

April 1, 2009: The sunspot cycle is behaving a little like the stock market. Just when you think it has hit bottom, it goes even lower.

2008 was a bear. There were no sunspots observed on 266 of the year's 366 days (73%). To find a year with more blank suns, you have to go all the way back to 1913, which had 311 spotless days: plot. Prompted by these numbers, some observers suggested that the solar cycle had hit bottom in 2008.

Maybe not. Sunspot counts for 2009 have dropped even lower. As of March 31st, there were no sunspots on 78 of the year's 90 days (87%).   It adds up to one inescapable conclusion: "We're experiencing a very deep

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Picture 10 – Sunspot from 1995 to present: Refer note below

 

solar minimum," says solar physicist Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center.     "This is the quietest sun we've seen in almost a century," agrees sunspot expert David Hathaway of the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Picture 9: The sunspot cycle from 1995 to the present. The jagged curve traces actual sunspot counts. Smooth curves are fits to the data and one forecaster's predictions of future activity. Credit: David Hathaway, NASA/MSFC.

Last Updated on Sunday, 07 November 2010 16:25