|V6Z 2015 DXpedition|
Both Keith and Chris have contributed separately to this story. You may find it interesting reading both versions, which have some overlap, but some differences.
We had 48hrs of travelling, from leaving Keith’s QTH early on Wednesday morning to arriving on site at the Blue Lagoon Resort on Chuuk on Friday afternoon. Early arrival at Aberdeen airport in case there were any issues with our six checked bags. Each bag carefully weighed to make sure the 23Kg limit not exceeded. The contents always attract attention so we now ask at check in where the X-ray machines are! This has never been any problem in many airports world wide until we encountered the dear old US TSA in transit through Guam – see below. We flew BA to London then Seoul. We had a 10 hour wait in Incheon Seoul through the day Thursday before we could check in our bags for the rest of the journey – this was uncomfortable with nowhere to go as the ‘day hotel’ was closed for refurbishment. Chris was unimpressed by signs proclaiming Incheon Seoul to be the best airport in the world! Finally we got checked in for an overnight flight to Guam, a 4 hr early morning wait then a short trip to Chuuk on United’s Island hopper. We did not appreciate the significance of the announcements informing passengers for Kosrae (next stop after Chuuk) that this stop was cancelled due to bad weather. We were met by the friendly and helpful staff of the Blue Lagoon resort after a nervous wait for our luggage to appear – last off. It took 45 mins to cover the 3 miles to the resort on the worst, pot-holed, mostly flooded road. We had arrived.
Day 1: Friday 27th March - Set Up
We had discussed our need for antenna space, two rooms and tables with Advin in advance. We arrived to find the rooms we has requested on the north end of the resort, and close to the westerly beach, were being refurbished. Advin had instead put us in the most southerly rooms. What seemed like a set back proved to be a brilliant change – this location is one of the best we have used - as long as you have plenty of coax – see photo below :
Apart from the amplifiers, our next heaviest item was 236 m of coax in various lengths and we needed every last cm to take full advantage of the location – greatly helped by a Top Ten devices remote coax switch which, after our experiences last year in A35, we swore we would bring. We also discovered, on opening our checked bags, that each had been opened and searched by the TSA in Guam, who kindly left their calling card in each. Another point, whilst on this subject was that whilst our radios, carried in our carry-on bags, attracted variable attention at airport security, my Bencher paddles were picked up and swabbed and scrutinised every single time – next time they go in the checked bags.
It was hot and very humid. The flat, tree covered peninsula extending south into the lagoon was flooded from recent rain but we rolled out our cables to get a sense of antenna positioning. First issue – no easy way to get coax out of shack. We toyed with the idea of open doors and windows. Thankfully the resort handyman had no hesitation in drilling a 5cm hole in the plywood floor of the shack – the building was on 3ft stilts. 48hrs later, open doors or windows would have been catastrophic. Mindful that the CQWPX SSB contest was about to start, in fading light we assembled, erected and tuned the 10m, 12m and 17m Moxons. We then had to rearrange furniture and get the two stations set up in one room. Chris made one QSO with ZL3TE on 17m CW but sheer exhaustion through lack of sleep for over 48hrs plus heat and work, and a need to eat, meant we went QRT for the night. Busy day tomorrow
Day 2: Saturday 28th March
Up early, made a few QSOs but our priority was to get as many antennas as possible up and working, positioning them as far apart as possible to avoid inter-station QRM, even although we had a complete set of bandpass filters. Given our ‘new’ location, there was also a possibility to have a second set of antennas for 20-17-15-12-10 out over the lagoon on the east side of the peninsula. As it turned out, these antennas were definitely better, on A-B tests, to North and South America, as well as EU long path, when compared to the Moxons over on the west side, also by the water, ‘beaming’ NNW. By the end of the daylight we had all our antennas up, apart from 160-80m. The latter antenna is often a challenge for us. It was a tough job but worked well at VK9CZ, but was a disaster at A35. This time we identified an ideal, tall coconut palm and negotiated with one of the resort handymen called E-M who had tree climbing gear to climb up and install a pulley. He would be back Sunday to do the job.
With only two of us, each with a station, our aim is always to try to keep at least one station on the air at all times. We started operating close to our sunset time and it was clear that the QTH was working well. We were mostly on 12 and 17 but ventured on to 10 and 15m CW. Chris had a handful of SSB QSOs in the CQWPX contest but we largely avoided getting drawn into that event, despite our fondness of contests. We put about 450 QSOs in the log but exhaustion again forced an early QRT. We had heard a comment that evening, that there was some ‘bad weather’ on the way but when we asked the local definition of bad weather, it sounded like a normal summers day in Scotland (some rain, 20-30 mph winds) so we thought no more of it.
Day 3: Sunday 29th March
Chris was up first and started before sunrise on 30m then 20m CW. It was breezy and wet. Keith did a little 17m then went to eat breakfast while Chris kept going. Wind was really picking up quickly from the north, with heavy rain and it was definitely worse than a Scottish summer! By the time Keith was eating his breakfast, some of the stoutly built sun shelters out by the lagoon were listing and he saw two huge palm trees and the 15m Moxon blowing over………hmmmm. Then it got worse. We kept operating but by mid-morning took the decision to QRT and lower the Moxon antennas to try to preserve them. 700 QSOs. It was dangerous being outside on account of falling debris. The sun shelters were now gone – into the lagoon, and bits of roof were missing all over the resort.
Then, around midday, it fell flat calm, and we went outside to assess the damage. All Moxons were trashed except 12m, two fishing poles were broken and the east side vertical dipoles were all wrecked. 40m was QRT by a fallen tree. 30m lived on. The ground was covered in debris but our coax was OK, although submerged in water. Then, faster than it fell calm, the wind and rain suddenly picked up from the opposite direction, south, to which our site and shack were completely exposed on three sides. We had to run for cover. Chris opened the shack door, and the glass door at the back of the room blew out, as did some of our paperwork and a bag of tye wraps and tape, never to be seen again. Since Chris had to slam the shack door, I made it to the sleeping room next door and struggled to get the door shut. Water was blowing under the door, through the walls (yes, really), and through the ceiling. Chris had to move radios and amps which were getting wet. The rooms were flooded. We were trapped in the rooms for about 6 hours by the most ferocious storm either of us had ever experienced. The building shook, water poured in, the noise was incredible and the sight of all manner of stuff screaming past the window was terrifying. Check out the short video Chris took.
It was after dark when we emerged to see immense damage, flooding and lots of people wandering about the resort looking dazed and sullen. Apart from the two of us, all the other guests were at Blue Lagoon for diving. Out beyond Chuuk lagoon is reputed to be the best wreck diving in the world. Three big dive boats due to take many guests out for several days diving had been wrecked on the reef. The crew had abandoned ship, some in a life boat but others went overboard. That night we heard much shouting outside and discovered the crew from the lifeboats being reunited with the guys who went overboard and were presumed lost. Great relief. The guys had been blown ashore in their life vests and had somehow managed to find their way overland to the resort – quite amazing. The injured skipper was patched up by a paramedic from one of the other dive crews. The resort now had rather more residents than it had expected and many of the diving plans were in ruins. We wondered what tomorrow would bring, and if our expedition was about to end, before it got started. Cyclone Maysak had certainly left its mark. We slept.
Day 4: Monday 30th March
Chris worked some 30m through sunrise on our only functional antenna but stopped when it got light. The scene outside was just awful. The whole resort was covered in debris, there was extensive building damage though miraculously ours was intact bar the missing window in the shack. We spent several hours trying to help clear up the mess. Huge trees blown over or ripped apart, branches, palm fronds, coconuts, timber from smashed buildings and resort amenities blown into the lagoon then blown ashore. Lots of the low sea wall on the west side of our peninsula was gone and huge boulders had been washed several metres inland and dropped into the Moxons which were well and truly out of action. Our east side vertical dipoles were at the bottom of the lagoon with their feeders. We shifted tons of debris into heaps ready for removal. We were also mindful of the possibility of others clearing up the area where our antennas and cables were lying and causing yet more damage.
Miraculously the feeders not submerged in the lagoon were intact and we set about stripping down and repairing the Moxons, their fibreglass supports, the 40m vertical and the sunken antennas. Chris got QRV around the middle of the day while Keith finished the rebuild of the verticals out over the lagoon – amazingly, the coax was OK after a little trimming and some RF! Gradually things came together and about two hours after sunset we were actually both QRV…………only three days after getting there!
Our routine has evolved over the years with two stations going until late evening when Chris sleeps for 4 hours and rises before dawn, when Keith takes his 4 hour sleep. We now had about 2000 QSOs in the log. It was another day or so before we got into our established routine.
Day 5: Tuesday 31st March
We were underway, trying to have two stations on the air as much as possible. Around the middle of the day Chris appeared in the shack after a short break, and announced ‘we have to evacuate the resort immediately’. I was on 15m CW. ‘Why?’ ‘Tsunami warning. Earthquake in P29. 7.5 on Richter scale. Everybody has to evacuate the resort immediately!’ ‘You’re kidding’. ‘Nope’. What the ### was going to happen next. Abandon 15m CW, the shack and the resort for 2-3 hours. Thankfully no Tsunami came. Back to the shack.
We had had a chat with the resort manager about a tree climber after we heard that some guys were coming to clean up and make safe a lot of the tall palms around the resort so we were turning to thoughts to getting 160 and 80m QRV. Operated on two bands for a while then the shack door opens and our handyman friend E-M is standing there with his climbing gear. QRT for 4 hours whilst we help E-M climb a tall (and quite mobile) palm tree right at the southern tip of our site and install a pulley and halyard up about 15m, just underneath the canopy of fronds. Spirits rise. E-M was a great guy and neither of us envied him as he clambered up and down the tree. I think even he was a bit scared. He earned his very good tip. Afterwards he told us his house had lost its roof in the cyclone and he, his wife and kids were sleeping in the local church. He then apologised for not coming earlier to climb the tree……..humbling and puts things in to perspective. Please think of E-M and his family when you either curse us for a missed 160-80m QSO or admire your QSL if you made it.
The 80m top T-loaded vertical (about 16m of vertical radiator) was installed. The single radial was strung out over the salt water lagoon. Excellent match on 3515 without any need for adjustment. Keith made our first 80m QSOs at sunset – mostly JA, VK, ZL but W2RS, N8MZ and NO3M made it too. This antenna converts into a 160m inverted L with relative ease in about 15-20 mins but this is a job that needs plenty of space and daylight. This is why we operate one night on 80, next night on 160, next one on 80m etc. The radial is extended for 160m and its entire length was also over salt water.
That night, conditions were hopeless in all high bands and we decided to QRT to sleep and got up very early when things seemed to improve. Chris had a reasonable opening into EU on 80m at our sunrise.
Day 6: Wednesday 1st April
Perhaps some ‘routine’ was now possible. The east side antennas – simple vertical dipoles for 17&12, 20&15 and 10m – suspended from a catenary rope slung over several palms which overhung the lagoon water, even at low tide – worked really well to the Americas over the short path. We also discovered they were extremely effective on 20-17-15 over a very reliable long path opening into Europe during our late afternoon, when signal strengths were just astonishing, especially on 20m.
Our first 160m QSOs were made after our sunset, just as sunset crossed JA. Signals were good strength and a few VK were also worked. Encouraging. This was probably the first ‘normal’ night of operating we had had. Chris would close down a little after local midnight and I would go on until maybe 4-5am local, usually on the highest band open and mixing SSB and CW. As I get tired, SSB is easier. 5700 QSOs when I went QRT.
Day 7: Thursday 2nd April
Chris was on 40m CW shortly after, then-30-20-17. Several visits to 160m before and up to our sunrise produced nothing.
During the day, Chris made the trip into town courtesy of Advin, to find a place with working internet. When we arrived at the Blue Lagoon, the internet was chronically slow and almost unusable. After the cyclone it was QRT – and was so for the rest of our trip. The road to the airport had been closed for several days, as was the airport. All power lines were down but the resort had its own generators each of which ran for about 6 hours at a time, before a change-over. We thus had regular power outages at roughly predictable times: 00-06-12-18 local approx. Chris managed to find internet working at the Truk Stop hotel, site of Bob’s V63ZM operation, and uploaded a log to ClubLog. On his return, Chris reported the devastation to the island’s infrastructure and its plantations. We heard 5 people had lost their lives.
Another excellent opening on 17 and 20m during our late afternoon on LP to EU. That evening we worked a few USA stations, a few PY and loads of JA after our sunset on 80m. We both operated 80/30 then 10/12m until well after local midnight. Then usual sleep in shifts. 10m not as good as day before. 15m continues to be the ‘star’ band. A few visits to 80m between high band sessions are not productive but I make a few 80m QSOs before QRT.
Day 8: Friday 3rd April
Chris has his usual dawn shift. Conditions to the USA are very good on 12 and 10m. These simple verticals over the water are really doing well. We are able to use the 10m antenna and either of the 17-12 or 20-15 antennas on the east side at the same time even although they are quite close, though 10 and 12m do give some problems together. That can be solved by using the 12m Moxon, but it does not do so well to the NE/E.
Lack of sleep is catching up on us and we both need an hour or so at some point each afternoon, simply to survive. I am also struggling to keep going all the way through to 4am or so. We manage to borrow a kettle from the resort kitchen. We also discover there is a store close to the resort but the shelves are virtually empty. There are a few basics like rice, vegetables, and loads of cleaning products, tins of sardines but almost nothing else. I found some coffee. It was drinkable and definitely helped me keep going.
A down side of the resort, from our perspective at least, was that it was the only place to get food. There were no other restaurants or places to buy anything, and we had no cooking facilities. We had to eat in shifts because it took ages to get served an order even when quiet, and the restaurant was very busy with all the extra guests who were still around. Eventually, when the airport re-opened, United put on extra ‘emergency evacuation’ flights to help get stranded divers off the island. Our Pilipino dive boat crew also left us.
160m is hopeless this evening. 40m on the other hand is great to the Americas again. The 40m vertical is, after the cyclone, right on the lagoon edge with its radials out over the water. This spot was inaccessible when we arrived but paradoxically the cyclone had destroyed a beautiful, huge frangipani tree and created the space.
Interspersed with spells on other bands, I try to follow sunrise across the US on 160m but only manage to work W5UN and W5XZ. It is 0230 local when Chris goes QRT on 20m and sleeps. I am late to the high bands, 10 is empty and 12 is not great. 15 is terrific again, 17m too. 10,000 QSO courtesy of IK4TVP on 17SSB. I track sunset across EU on 160m. RA1AOB and RV3LO make it, but nil else.
Day 9: Saturday 4th April
Chris has taken over. 160m only produces some JAs, RA7T but no more EU.
We have a good day with at least one station on the air all the time. It is slow from time to time but we do well enough to NA and SA on the vertical dipoles on 10-12-15 to offset the mid-day absorption.
80m tonight. W2RS at our sunset but nil else. We spend most of the night on 40, 30 and 80m. Many USA stations work us on 80m. To EU, 10 is closed again, and 12m is patchy. 15m reliable as ever.
Day 10: Sunday 5th April
Chris works a deal of EU on 80m before our sunrise, as well as many stations on 30m. The rest of the day follows our familiar routine. No real LP opening to EU today.
We have had lots of request for 160m – like always. We decide during the day that I will spend more time on 160m tonight. At our sunset JA and NO3M are worked. Later, before sunrise crosses the US, I work more US stations as well as many JA. The noise levels are brutal and we have not used the Rx antenna. Every noise reduction option is deployed on my FT450D!! I stayed on, after Chris came back, but no QSOs on 160m after 1300z and nil to EU again. We pass the 15k QSO mark.
Day 11: Monday 6th April
Another day – more pile ups! LP to EU better this afternoon. We work a lot on 40 and 80m in the evening. 40m SSB is rarely something we have done much of in the past but this trip it is excellent across the Pacific to North, Central and South America. 10m and 12m are better tonight with terrific signals from Scandinavia.
Day 12: Tuesday 7th April
Not much on 80m from EU. 30m is very good yet again, at this time. EU signals very strong. Familiar routine with decent openings to the East across the Pacific keeping at least one station busy through the day. 17 and 20m open well to the east, followed by good LP signals.
After some reasonable success two nights before, on 160m, we decide to give the band a big effort tonight. JA and KL7 at sunset. We are on 30m and 40m then around 1000z I start on 160m and do my best to follow sunrise across NA. We know from high band QSOs during the day that many guys are looking for us. Our luck was in – loads of North American make it, as well as many JAs. I had to ask the JAs to QRX at times. Some of the QSOs were pretty hard going and I sense we are not that loud, but East Coast of NA is a long way away and we are running 400W at best and the antenna is a compromise but seems to be doing remarkably well! Of course, for these several hours the rate is very low. I take a 20 minute break from the S9+20 static crashes and work the relative peace of 40m SSB (never thought I’d ever say that!). More JA and NA on 160m but the W6’s that are looking for us don’t seem to have favourable propagation.
Once NA is all in daylight its back to the high bands. It is late for 10 but 12 and 15m deliver. 17m too. Nothing to EU on 160m again.
Day 13: Wednesday 8th April
Our last full day. We break 20k QSOs before sunrise. The day operating is much as before. 10m good to NA, EU LP opened up nicely on 20m late pm. 80m was not much good at our sunset but a couple of hours later we started to work many East Coast NA on 80m and 40m was exceptionally good also. By 1700z Chris was back on 80m and I stayed on 15m SSB. Conditions were very good. As EU faded, 15m opened into the Eastern US – the band was open to all continents. Our last night so I had stayed up.
Day 14: Thursday 9th April
We broke 22K QSOs. 80m was in good shape to EU, for once with low noise levels. I had to sleep for about an hour but was back to hear Chris make our last QSO (LA7DFA on 80m, close to our sunrise.)
Our QSO total was 22617.
We were due to leave at 1300 so had to take down and pack away all the antennas, roll up coax and dismantle the stations. We were both utterly exhausted but elated. After a very difficult start, and the effective loss of most of our first 5 days, we had made a decent effort. Conditions had been very variable but were not so bad. 10 and 12m were not as good as last year from A35 but we had nothing to complain about and this year, we made many, many more QSOs on 80m and 160m.
We were all packed up remarkably quickly and had time for some last minute photos before leaving for the airport.
The journey home
The trip back up to the airport showed how much damage from the cyclone there was to buildings, trees and so on. It will take them a long time to recover. Chuuk airport is fairly basic. It is relatively efficient but there are few facilities. The Island Hopper arrived on time after its journey from KH6 – via a couple of stops in V7 and at least one in V6 before us. We have a 12 hour layover in Guam and there was some debate about our baggage but we manage to check it through to Seoul and in the end, we did not have to pick it up and recheck it in Guam. The TSA did their work again however.
Overnight in Guam was relaxing, different food, my first beer for 2 weeks and a longer sleep. I failed to set my alarm correctly and had a mad dash to the taxi with Chris waiting. We get to Guam airport just in time. Not the way to start a day. Just as well we did not have our luggage to deal with.
The 5 hours flight to Seoul passes quickly and we are back in Incheon. We help some folks from Chuuk, on their way to the US, navigate through transfers in Seoul. For two of them, this is their first time off the island of Chuuk – what an experience. We see the BA service back to London push back from its stand, as we pass through arrivals. Annoying but no way we could have made the connection. We get to our hotel by the airport. Internet, email, modern technology………. Shattered, sleep, and we are ready the next day to fly back to London then, on a delayed flight, on to Aberdeen. It is really, really cold when we get back home.
Our planning procedures are quite detailed, but no different from many other DXpeditions. We never think of our efforts as ‘holiday-style’ DXpeditions – if we are spending money and time travelling long distances, we want to cram as much operating as possible into the time that we are at the DXpedition location. We also have a different approach to what antennas we use compared to some other small DXpeditions. We would never consider using any traps, linear loading etc. or any ATUs. This inevitably means we spend more time installing and tuning resonant (single-band) antennas, but we know this is time well spent and that these antennas will give us the best possible results. We also make a detailed Inventory of what we intend to take with us – a total of about 125kg of luggage – 6 bags, 2 of which attracted significant extra baggage costs on the last 2 United Airlines flights to Micronesia.
Deciding where to go for a DXpedition is quite a difficult task in 2015. More disposable income for some people, more retired people and flights to many places means that there are DXpeditions active almost every weekend from somewhere which might be considered ‘rare’. The ‘Most wanted’ lists (ClubLog, N4AA, etc) provide useful information, but the reality is that almost any DXCC entity will attract a pile-up nowadays, given that there are a new generation of enthusiastic DXers appearing every year or two.
We decided on V6 for this year, after looking at it briefly before we decided on A35 in 2014. We had previously asked Bob 5B4AGN/G3ZEM who had operated as V63ZM in February 2013, so we knew a little about the island of Chuuk. (The Federated States of Micronesia are made up of 4 states, of which only 3 have airports) Once the flights have been booked, you realise that the DXpedition is actually going ahead and things start to get interesting and busy. As well as the obvious things like finding and booking suitable accommodation and obtaining the licence/callsign, there are many peripheral, but vital, items which are best organised in advance e.g. QSL manager (we are lucky to have Steve N3SL and his daughter Kim as our QSL managers), a website, the loan of some items of equipment, an LoTW Certificate, open a ClubLog account, post information on QRZ.com, advertise your DXpedition on DXWorld.net, with Bernie W3UR, with OPDX and 425 DX news, apply for Sponsorship if required, etc etc.
When we investigated suitable short callsigns, we were surprised to find that many of them had been previously issued, mostly to JA operators e.g. V6A, V6B, V6T etc. We were pleased to be issued with the callsign V6Z, after a fairly straightforward application procedure conducted via e-mail with the Communications dept. on the island of Pohnpei.
Finding suitable accommodation is also often a difficult task - for any tropical island DXpedition these are the main criteria : a secure environment, good take-offs (ideally open sea) to Europe and the USA, reliable AC supplies, close enough to a beach to install antennas on the beach (ideally not a beach which has members of the public on it), air-conditioned accommodation, 'radio-friendly' owners of the accommodation, etc. After studying Trip Advisor and other websites, we decided that the Blue Lagoon Resort was the best option. It is located at the extreme South end of the island of Chuuk and from a close look at Google Earth, seemed to fit many of the above criteria. The resort owner (Mr Advin Aisek) was very helpful when we explained our plans, so a booking was made for 2 rooms - he agreed to install two 6-foot tables in the 'radio' room - a big improvement in operating comfort over the tiny square glass or wicker-work tables we have been forced to use on previous DXpeditions.
What equipment and antennas we take has been refined over our various DXpeditions. Some readers may question why we take a Yaesu FT-450D. This is regarded as a basic radio, whose RX performance figures do not even feature in Rob Sherwood's measurements - http://www.sherweng.com/table.html. In real life however, the FT-450D actually handles pile-up conditions reasonably well - yes it is not as good as some other radios, but it is compact and reasonably light-weight, so ideal for a small DXpedition. FT-450Ds certainly worked fairly well to make 213000 QSOs at T32C in October 2011.
We knew in advance that the AC supply on Chuuk was nominally 110V AC, so we had to test all the power supplies we were taking at that lower voltage, using a large Variac. We had to buy some U.S. 3-pin plugs to fit to our 4-way UK socket boards and also change the fuses in our 2 Tokyo Hi-Power amplifiers from 8A to 15A. We borrowed a very neat and compact 13.8V DC switched-mode PSU from Gavin GM0GAV - this was the PowerWerx SS-30DV which weighs only 1.32kg. Keith bought a second one of these on a trip to the U.S.A. about 2 weeks before our DXpedition.
Chapter 2 - the journey and setting up the antennas and stations
Our journey to Micronesia was long and tiring. As has happened before, we were tired before we left and exhausted when we arrived on Friday the 27th March, at about 1000 local time. Keith had been suffering from a virus which made him cough constantly, and an added complication for me (Chris) was that about 10 days before we were due to leave the UK, I suffered an arm injury. For an hour or two I was uncertain as to whether I could go on the DXpedition or not. I was winding my 80' crank-up tower down onto its 'catcher plate' when the Fulton K2550 winch broke - I normally hold the winch handle quite firmly, but was surprised at what happened and let go of the handle - it spun only 4 or 5 times as the tower dropped about 4 inches onto the catcher plate (thankfully) but the rapidly spinning winch handle hit my right arm and I fell to the ground in pain. I drove to the small local hospital where they X-rayed my arm and told me 'neither your radius nor your ulna are broken' - hurrah - but I had a nasty gash which became infected a few days later. Our local health centre gave me some strong antibiotics, but it was not until the second week of the DXpedition that the cut finally healed up. I was worried about going to a tropical climate with an open wound of course.
Our journey took us from Aberdeen to Heathrow, Heathrow to Incheon in South Korea, then to Guam in the Marianas, then to Chuuk. GM->G->HL->KH2->V6. 4 flights in total, spread over about 48 hours (the main flight LHR-ICN was about 11 hours), so we had quite a lot of waiting in airports to do. As we came into land at Incheon airport, we could see the clouds over North Korea - we had the radio gear and antennas with us and were ready to fill the bands completely from one end to the other with pile-ups for P5Z ! Incheon airport proudly displays signs proclaiming 'Voted the world's best airport 10 years in a row' - I suspect it was only the airport management who voted ;-)
The journey by minibus from Chuuk airport to the resort is less than 10km, but takes 30 minutes or so because of the poor condition of the main road, which is under construction. The minibus has to negotiate dozens of potholes and construction sites. On arrival at the resort we only had enough energy left to survey the possible antenna locations and run out some feeder cables. A common problem in a tropical location is that the rooms are usually sealed against mosquitoes - the Blue Lagoon Resort was no exception. We were very grateful when one of the resort maintenance men fetched an electric drill and a hole cutter and made a hole in the wooden floor about 3 inches across for our coax and other cables to exit.
Chapter 3 - Some technical info
You may (or may not!) be interested in some of the technical issues which are vital on a small DXpedition. Firstly, let me describe our computer logging set-up. We like to use networked PCs, for several reasons - we can see what the other operator is working, we have a reliable back-up of the whole logfile if one PC suddenly fails, we can compare QSO rates when both stations are working pile-ups simultaneously (sadly this was rare on this DXpedition). We use basic Lenovo S10-2 netbook PCs, with XP SP3 as the OS and WinTest 4.15.0 logging software, in 'DXpedition HF+50MHz' configuration for SSB and CW.
I do not like the extra layer of software, hardware complexity and possible unreliability that MicroHam or similar devices bring to a DXpedition. It is completely unnecessary to use this sort of device, despite what 'advantages' the manufacturer might try to convince you about. We use a lightweight Belkin F5U407 4-port USB 2.0 'ultra-mini' hub, with 3 USB to RS-232 converters (with the FTDI chipset - hurrah for a Scottish design company), with simple 2N2222 homebrew interfaces for CW and PTT. CAT control interfaces are built-in on both the K3 and the FT-450D. On RTTY, we use the K3's built-in audio interfaces, connected via screened audio cables to the netbook audio in and audio out sockets, with N1MM Classic as the logging software and FLdigi as the digital modes software. A clip-on ferrite at the K3 audio IN socket end sorts any possible RF pickup on RTTY transmit.
In the photo above, the Belkin hub is connected to, left to right - K3 CAT cable, K3 CW keying cable (with parallel line socket input from keyer + paddle, K3 PTT cable (with parallel input from footswitch via the 4-way phono socket panel with 1N4007 diodes) Why not just use one COM port to control all 3 functions? Well if the COM port or the USB to RS232 adaptor failed, you have lost all 3 functions, whereas with the set-up above you would not lose them all.
AC power – 230V please ! Another issue we had to consider in advance was the fact that we were told the AC supply on Chuuk is 110V AC, rather than the 230V AC we have at home in Scotland or had on previous DXpeditions. As it turned out, the supply was nearer to 120V AC – that extra 10V might not seem too important, but actually is. Firstly, this meant fitting US-style 3 pin plugs to our UK 4-way socket boards. As a general statement, the US mains plugs you can buy in the UK are poorly engineered and don’t give much confidence about reliability or safety. However, Keith bought some high quality ones on his trip to the USA and they turned out to be 100% OK. We also had to check that all our switched-mode power supplies would work at 100-120VAC. Most of them were marked ‘Input 100-250V AC’ but we did not just assume that they would work, we tested them all carefully with a Variac set to 100V AC.
Next we had to change all the fuses in any power supply that had a fuse – for example the two Tokyo HyPower amps we were taking each had two 8A fuses in the AC supply – these were changed to 15A rating. I also moved the mains transformer taps on the 1.2kFx amp to the 115V positions from their default 120V AC positions. We also picked the thickest IEC mains cables that we had in our stock.
Did we encounter problems because of the AC supply being 120V? In theory it should make no real difference, but in practice I would say ‘yes’. The THP amps only delivered about 400W each, rather than the 500-600W they easily deliver when fed with 230V. The 1.2kFx version, which is heavier because of its linear power supply, seemed to be particularly unhappy with only 120V input – the nominal +55V DC feed to the four SD2933 MOSFETs was dropping to about +40V on voice peaks – hopefully our IMD products were well down by the time they reached other continents! I am going to look at the circuit diagram and see if the regulation of the +55V line could be improved using modern high-current devices. We did not have time to check how much voltage drop on the 120V line there was on-load, or the quality of the wiring.
Another problem we encountered a couple of times was that the room circuit breaker would trip and we would lose power to both stations. The circuit breaker was only rated at 10A, so when both amps were being used and we foolishly switched on the electric kettle, the circuit breaker tripped.
The Blue Lagoon Resort has 4 large diesel generators, so is independent of the island’s AC supply. This turned out to be a crucial factor after the Typhoon, when the overhead power lines to the area were all brought down by falling trees and branches. However, they switched off the resort AC power twice each day, to change over to a different generator to equalise the hours of running. Despite noting the times, which were fairly predictable each day, we were almost always taken by surprise when the radios suddenly went dead!
One occasional problem I noticed with the K3 was that the RF power control seemed to stop working and despite being set at say, 40W, the RF output was zero. Turning the power down to deselect the internal 100W PA then turning it back up seemed to fix the problem. At first I thought it was a problem with the pins on the PA module, but mine has the gold-plated pins. This problem has not been noticed when the K3 is back in my home shack, so it occurs to me that it might have been that the +13.8V DC from the switched mode PSU, when running on 110V approx., was dropping below the threshold for everything on the K3 to work as per normal, but without shutting the radio down as happens when the +13.8V drops to too low a value. On arriving home, we had to make sure we switched everything carefully back to the 230V AC setting.
Networking, logging and the internet. In 2015, most DXers expect DXpeditions to be connected to the internet (even from places like Heard Island) and to give daily updates and, ideally, daily LoTW and ClubLog updates. After winning two awards from the DXCoffee team (thanks guys) for ‘Best Communication’ with our VK9CZ and A35V/A35X websites, we had hoped to do the same from V6Z, but that proved impossible. As soon as we arrived and surveyed the site, we found that our ‘shack’ was about 100m from the resort wi-fi router antennas. Not a big deal normally, but it turned out that even when right beside the routers, the signal was not as strong as expected, and the internet speed was either slow or non-existent. We had taken with us an effective Edimax wi-fi extender/router but unfortunately it could not overcome the poor local wi-fi situation. With the Edimax mounted outside at the end of a 10m Ethernet cable, 100m range should be easy, but the resort kitchen, with its walls and metal machinery, was between our shack and the feeble wi-fi antennas. So – no internet in the shack and no internet anywhere in the resort after the Typhoon struck on our 3rd day there.
Having no internet at all on a DXpedition has 2 (or possibly more) effects. Firstly, I felt that there were more Dupes in the log than on previous DXpeditions and secondly we felt that we could concentrate more on working stations, rather than spending operating time on writing daily blogs or uploads. About half-way through the DXpedition, to help reduce ‘insurance QSOs’ I travelled by car to the High Tide Hotel (only about 3km away but the journey took 20 mins because of the Typhoon damage and the poor state of the main road) where they had a reliable internet connection with reasonable speed. I then did the second LoTW and ClubLog uploads – about 12000 QSOs. I was only there for about 20 minutes, so had no time to check e-mails etc.
Our logging software was WinTest version 4.15.0 with ‘DXpedition HF+50MHz’,’ Multi-Multi’ mode selected. About 3 weeks before we were due to leave on the DXpedition, WT version 4.16.0 was released, but as always with a new release, we do not upgrade right away in case there are any unexpected bugs. Having said that, WinTest is very stable and any bugs are likely to be minor, but when you are far away without a predictable internet connection, you have to make sure the logging software is going to work as expected. Before we left, I networked the 3 netbook PCs (all running old faithful XP Pro SP3) and checked that the logging network worked reliably. In 2014 on our A35V/A35X DXpedition, we could not network the PCs (because of the 2 different callsigns) so there was always a (slight) worry that we might lose QSOs from one or other logfile.
One advantage of networked PCs is that you can watch what the other operator is logging and at what rate – Keith and I are fairly competitive and would subconsciously watch the WinTest logging window, which displays the 10 most recent QSOs made, and try to ‘out QSO’ each other by logging all the 10 QSOs on one station or the other! Unfortunately, because of our operating patterns and the relatively average propagation that V6Z experienced, there were not too many opportunities for this friendly rivalry (which can only help the final DXpedition QSO total, hi)
WinTest has several advantages over the more popular N1MM (now N1MM+) I have never liked N1MM – yes it is well supported and the team are very responsive, but I have never liked the ‘look’ of it and some of its many features do not seem to me to be ‘intuitive’. I guess this is because I started in the world of computer logging with K1EA’s CT running under DOS on a 386 PC with 1MB of RAM. Sometimes you would be warned that no more QSOs could be stored on that logfile - about 2000 with only 1MB of RAM if I remember correctly. WinTest suited me because when I first saw it I thought ‘wah - this is a modern CT with nice colours’ One main advantage, in my opinion, is how quickly and easily you can correct a logged callsign with WinTest – this is crucial when you have a big impatient pile-up.
Antennas and feeders. Keith and I share an obsession with antennas. All antennas have to be as efficient as possible, which immediately eliminates any antenna which is multi-band, or uses traps or linear loading. We view SteppIR antennas with suspicion as well, although on paper they seem to be reasonably efficient. At our home stations, we also use Heliax feeder everywhere possible, including feeding 160m antennas. Every decibel counts. The downside of this is that we have to carry loads of wire antennas, fibreglass poles and coax feeders on every DXpedition – we think this is very worthwhile effort which makes it easier for us and those trying to work our DXpeditions. One positive side is that we don't need to carry any ATUs or similar power-wasting devices.
This year for V6Z we took with us a Top Ten Devices 6-way remote antenna switch . We only had 36m of 6-way alarm cable (very lightweight) so that limited how far from the shack the switch could be. I built a very lightweight switch box, made of plastic rather than the heavier RF-proof aluminium diecast boxes which we favour. We could only have 5 antenna positions available with our 6-way cable. The 6th core carries +13.8V DC to the remote antenna switch, and the other 5 cores are earthed one at a time to select that antenna socket 1 to 5. Generally speaking, this antenna switch saved us some time, but would have been more useful further from the shack probably. We could really have used it well at A35V / A35X last year !
The AirCell7 feeder we used (plus some shorter lengths of AirCell5 on loan - thanks Clive GM3POI) seems ideal for any DXpedition - not too heavy and reasonably low-loss. On the low bands we had to use a 60m length of RG-58U which is not ideal but being able to position the 160/80 antenna where we wanted to, outweighed any slight additional feeder losses.
At first I was sceptical when Keith announced 'I am installing more antennas on the East shoreline' - I thought 'Gawd - more mosquito bites and even more exhaustion in this heat' but he proved me wrong. These simple vertical dipoles (a pair of dipoles sharing a common feedpoint - more like two quarter-wave verticals each with a single elevated radial, suspended over the water) performed really well. They allowed us to work many different combinations of bands, which the Moxons alone would not have done, especially with the coax length restrictions that restricted completely free choice of any Moxon antenna. We ended up with 14 different antennas (10 separate antennas covering 14 different band options) - a lot for a 2-man DXpedition.