Tuesday, March 10, 2015

K1N - The ham stuff was easy

I'm not a big gun DXer at all. My HF station consists of a KX3 and a windom up 40 feet in the trees. But when Craig, K9CT and Jerry, WB9Z from the K1N Navassa Island DXpedition came to town I made sure to clear my calendar. I was fortunate enough to work them on ssb from KE9UA's house and then again on CW with 10W when my replacement KX3 arrived. Meeting them in person was a treat, and hearing about their adventure was inspiring.

There were just under 40 hams in attendance at the local steakhouse in Normal, IL last night, ready to swap stories and hear all about K1N. I knew we were in for fun when Craig started the evening with audio from their side of the pile-up. I'd listened to some audio from DXpeditions before...but nothing like this. It was just a wall of noise...and every once and a while a few letters could be heard. CW was just as bad - like a continuous tone with a few blips - nothing sounded like letters to me. 

Craig and Jerry talked about how they would look for any kind of opening between QSOs to begin working stations. Knowing that the pileup would soon begin, they were careful to pick big swaths of open space. In the end, it didn't matter - the pileup would start up 5kc, then jump to 10, 20 and finally all the way to the band edge. 

What was clear from listening to the audio was that a DX chaser should find a quiet space and stay there while the operator scanned over them for stations. While not quite as bad as the lottery, if both you and the operator are moving, it's a bit harder for things to line up. 

One of the hams asked about DQRM. Jerry and Craig laughed in unison - they clearly enjoyed thwarting those that dared cause problems. K1N was known to use some unique ideas, both in technology and in operator prowess. In the end, it was clear to them when they were being jammed by the changes that occurred in the pile (silence when there shouldn't be silence) and by changes on their spectrum displays (panadapters). 

Antennas were hung from the old lighthouse, and some SteppIR beams were on short tower sections. Coax everywhere, a unique homebrew coax patch panel, and Elecraft radios rounded out the technical side of the operation.

But what was most interesting for me and for most everyone else at the dinner was the logistics. After all of the talk about radios and antennas, the ham stuff was easy. There were years of lobbying, $304,000USD up front before anyone set foot on the island, and then all of this came together in under 3 months after they received authorization. And then add in a Bell 212 (like a Huey) helicopter, and a yacht and a dingy in the bay for transportation. Plan A didn't work...Plan B kinda worked...and Plan C was executed. 

Everything hauled in had to be hauled out. Few warm meals...air temperatures at 117F. No drinking water was found on the island - It's just a bunch of bird droppings and coral. The operators were not alone....there were 5 armed USFWS officers there for protection. There were Haitian and Cuban fishermen in the bay and scaling the 30 foot cliffs to wander the island. 

In the end, the results were phenomenal: 140,000 QSOs; Craig said that if they would have stayed two more weeks the pileups would still have been there. And their goals? Mostly all met - they wanted at least 100,000 QSOs, maximize ATNO contacts, plan the bands, create great memories, have fun, and be flexible.

If you're thinking you want to be an operator, take a look at what the DXpedition was looking for in their volunteers: High QSO rates, a sense of humor, tri-lingual (CW, SSB, RTTY), good listening skills, team players, and multiple skills - just being a radio guy wasn't enough. 

If you're like me, you're probably hungry for more information. Jerry shot some really neat video using a GoPro camera, and I'd expect to see a few more presentations from the operators in the coming months. These guys were in it for fun, and through all of the sweat and hard work they found time to help others. Those Haitian and Cuban fisherman were left with gas cans, MREs, clothes - even Craig's hat. The pilots, while paid, lived a very modest life. They were rewarded with two prized positions - the microwave and ice machine.

I've already got the fixed and rotary wing pilot experiences, firefighting abilities, project management skills - and a sense of humor! One day I plan to get my CW skills up to the level where I would be a valuable DXpedition member. One day....hopefully soon!

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