Monday, December 10, 2007

The E51A, E51MMM, E51NNN Story

The E51A, E51MMM, E51NNN Story

Faraway places with strange sounding names like Rarotonga called Ron Feutz, KK9K, and me, George Wagner, K5KG, for the CQWW CW Contest this past November. Rarotonga is the main island of the South Cook Islands, and we were there from November 12 to December 1, 2007. Not only had we gone there for the contest and to have fun running DX pile ups, but it turned out to be a more exciting and challenging experience than we expected.

Overall Experience
First of all, setting up and maintaining antennas on the beach proved to be exhausting. Getting to the beach proved to be difficult; the way down was steep, slippery, and over layers of volcanic boulders and loose coral that had accumulated over the millennia. It took us a full 5 days to get everything set up. When we arrived, and for several days to follow, the weather was mild and the sea was calm. Under these conditions, we placed our vertical antennas close to the water line; a mistake that would cost us dearly.

Second, about half way through our three-week visit, the weather turned nasty. A low pressure system put in causing gale force winds and hard rains for days on end — something that we were not expecting, and were definitely not prepared for. At one point, we did not see the sun for over a week. And lastly, getting acquainted with the local hams and learning about the Cook Island’s Maori culture proved to be both enjoyable and interesting. This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

We had planned this trip since our last dxpedition to Dominica, J7, in February 2007. Over a few 807s in J7, Ron and I decided that a more distant location was what we wanted to try. Ron, being a low-band DXer, sought a location that was especially rare on 160M. Over the ensuing months, we considered a number of South Pacific locations for our trip, but settled on Rarotonga after consulting with Kenny, K2KW, and his web site. Kenny had had a successful operation at the Kii Kii Motel in Rarotonga several years before, and we were intrigued by the thought of vertical antennas on a north-facing beach in the Southern Hemisphere. We also spoke with Bob, W7YAQ, and Bill, N7OU who had operated from Rarotonga over the past couple of years. Although warning us that the beach at the Kii Kii was rocky and that we would have problems with corrosion due to salt spray, Kenny, Bob and Bill failed to warn us about the treacherousness of the beach during howling winds, crashing surf and driving rain storms!

The Shack and Equipment
Ron used his Elecraft K2 transceiver, and George used his IC 7000. Each station was equipped with an Acom 1010 amp, a Dunestar bandpass filter, a MicroHam CW Keyer, and a laptop running Win-Test logging software. Acom accommodated a last minute failure of two of our amps by loaning us an Acom 1010. Due to the humidity in the non-air conditioned motel room, none of our equipment was ever turned off. Electrical power at the motel was stable and reliable. All of the radio equipment and Win-Test performed without any failures.

We successfully installed 6 monoband verticals on the beach — 160M, 80M, 40M, 20M, 15M and 10M plus a low sloping dipole for 30M & 17M. We also installed two receiving antennas, a 300 foot Beverage and a pennant, both pointing northeast which worked very well. All of the verticals were easily within a few feet of high tide. At high tide some of the verticals were even in the surf, which later proved to be a mistake due to the rough weather. Performance wise, the verticals were fantastic, and we generally got excellent signal reports on all bands. However, once the weather turned bad, the winds, pounding surf and salt spray took their toll on the antennas!

Ingenuity at its best
Some days into the operation, our multi-band Sigma 5 vertical failed. Salt spray took its toll, and an arc developed across its relay-switching/coil board, rendering it unusable. Ron reasoned that the antenna without its coils would be self-resonant on 10M, so we simply removed the burned board and reassembled the antenna. It turned out to be self-resonant at 32 mHz, so we added 10” wire extensions to each of the horizontal aluminum elements, thereby bringing its resonance down to 28 mHz. (Walla, a 10M antenna that would ultimately yield 476 QSOs!)

The failure of the Sigma 5 left us without antennas for 17M, 15M and 12M. Ron, being the antenna wizard that he is, did two things: he added 17M elements to our 30M dipole and built a 15M dipole. For the 15M dipole he used a Foster’s beer bottle as the coil form for a balun which he wound with RG-58/U coax. We then taped the element wires to an MFJ telescoping pole and mounted it vertically on the beach. This was one of our best performing antennas that did not fail even during the strongest winds.

Operating Results
In total, for our 20 days on Rarotonga, we amassed a total of 12,797 QSOs, excluding 545 dupes. (Too much antenna maintenance due to bad weather prevented us from having more QSOs.) With the exception of a handful of SSB QSOs, all QSOs were in CW, reflecting our undying love of running CW pile ups. (All QSLs for these contacts should go directly to K5KG with an s.a.s.e. NOTE: There is no QSL Bureau in the Cook Islands!)


















































Our daily operating routine was to get on the air about 3 am local (1300z), and work 40M & 80M thru sunrise, and then switch to 20M and later to 15M. Conditions at these times were excellent. By mid-day, however, the bands would drop out, and that is when we would do antenna work and catch up on sleep. Then late afternoon, around 4 pm (0200z), the bands would pick up, and we then operate up until about 1000z for the night. Unfortunately we missed many the East Coast sunrises due to our sleep cycle.

North and South America and the Pacific were easy to work. Europe, on the other hand, was most difficult. We got the best European openings on 40M, but they were sparse. The JAs were usually always present, and it was fun accumulating them on the various bands. The biggest operating problem we had was the relentless “Chinese Dragon” —said to be an over-the-ground radar from BY-land. It was especially bothersome on 40M where, at times, it would blanket the entire band, and be nearly impossible to work through. Fortunately, it was quiet at times, and then 40M was like a dream.

We enjoyed the hospitality of the local hams, all two of them! Victor, E51CG, Victor’s YL, Eleanor, and Jim, E51JD, were very cordial, and made us feel right at home. In advance of our arrival, Victor obtained our E51MMM and E51NNN licenses and assisted us with logistics. Victor met us at the plane when we arrived at 6 am and helped us greatly by transporting us and our excessive luggage to the motel. After that, we would often find ourselves at Victor’s QTH scrounging one thing or another. (Two days before the CQWW CW Contest, we requested a contest-only call sign, E51A, which was courteously granted without question by the Telecom licensing chief. According to Victor and Jim, this was the first single-letter call sign issued in the Cook Islands!)

I have been on many DX operations, but one thing distinguished this one from the others – the Internet. We did not have access to the Internet at the motel, but we could buy access time at the local Telecom office. Since this broadband service was both slow and expensive, we did not take time to answer all the incoming emails. We were, however, able to arrange several 160M contacts by coordinating times and frequencies with the zealous 160M ops in JA-land.

With no availability of the Internet at the shack we, of course, did not have access to a Telnet DX cluster. This proved to be a limitation in the CQWW CW contest, and relegated us to being two “run” stations with little time for “searching and pouncing”. In addition, we did not have a third “multiplier” station or a third operator to run it. We used our back up radio, an IC706, to listen for 10M openings by monitoring W6, KH6 and JA beacons on 28.2 mHz.

I mentioned earlier that locating our antennas too close to the water line would cost us dearly. In advance of the contest, the weather turned bad, and we had increasingly strong winds and hard rains throughout the contest week end. On Monday morning after the contest, four of the verticals had either been blown down or knocked down by the surf. Two nights later the wind reached its peak around 3 am, and the two 60 ft. fiberglass poles supporting the 80M and 160M antennas snapped in two like pretzels! Fortunately, everything held up during the contest.

Our 15M vertical dipole built on an MFJ mast held up through the roughest winds because it was very lightweight and, therefore, presented little wind resistance. We will consider more of these lightweight antennas on our next venture. Not only are they lightweight, they are inexpensive, easy to transport, and save on excess baggage charges.

In conclusion, we declared the trip a raging success. How could we not? We made in excess of 12 thousand QSOs, scored well in CQWW CW, made life-long friends, enjoyed the beautiful Maori culture, and came away without a scratch! Now we are asking ourselves, where to next?

73, George Wagner - E51MMM / K5KG