Notes and Observations:
This was intended to be a simple “personal”
DXpedition that would be combined with
and spear-fishing. Equipment was chosen as the minimum required
meaningful low band operation.
The budget was also moderate, relatively speaking.
Willis Islets are located around 16.5 degrees S and
150 degrees E, off the East Coast of Australia, about 500 km east of
Cairns. The group contains three islets: South Islet, Mid Islet and North
Cay. There is a meteorological station on South Islet, which is manned
by four weather observers.. This is by far the most easily accessible
islet. Mid Islet is located 7 km north of South Islet and is about 300
meters across and is covered with low, scrubby vegetation. North Cay,
which is a low sand cay about 1.5 km long and 300 m wide, is located 8
kilometers further to the north of Mid Islet.
We decided to locate the station on North Cay. As far as we know,
nobody has operated from North Cay before and the cay appeared large enough
for a sizable Beverage with an east-west orientation.
Access to North Cay is difficult because of the surrounding coral
reefs, which at low tide uncover. We were able to find a wide enough channel
in the coral (about 1.5 m wide and winding!) for the dingy at the west
end of the cay. Through this channel we ferried the gear ashore, which was
off loaded on a narrow sand spit at the western end of the cay. This is
where we set up the station: on the western tip of the cay, just where
the sand spit joins it.
Willis – especially the North Cay – is a tough place to operate from.
There is nothing on the island, except birds. No hotels, no water, no power,
not even a tree! You can not keep a boat on station nearby because of
the rough conditions. You are on your own.
Our equipment consisted
of an Icom IC-746 PRO, an SG-500 solid state 500W amplifier, an SG-235
auto tuner, and an MFJ manual tuner. All equipment was powered from four
12V car batteries which were charged by two 30 A chargers powered by a 1.5
kW Honda generator. Logging was done on a lap-top, which was also connected
to the rig. (A must for efficient DXpedition operation and subsequent QSL-ing!)
We also had an Icom IC-706 with an AH-4 tuner as a back-up. Not a “big-gun”
expedition set up!
We had a single tent with a tarp for awning, under which we placed
the operating table with all the gear piled on it, and under it. We had
minimal amenities. (We did not have hordes of hired laborers to set up
a tent city, and antenna farm.) Fuel for the generator was carefully
calculated at 100 liters, although Tomi was constantly worried about
us running out of fuel, we have finished up with about 20 liters left
– enough for a day’s of operation. We did not have internet access, although
we had a satellite phone, which worked about 5% of the time. For communications
we had Amateur Radio!
We operated under some difficult conditions: the tent was cramped
and was constantly flapping in the brisk breeze that never seemed to let
up. This caused serious QRN! We had difficulty copying weak stations on
160 even with noise cancelling head-phones on. For an entire day and night
we’ve endured a storm that almost flattened the tent: we used driftwood
to shore it up. Making regular trips to the generator – which was sited
about 150 meters away for reasons of noise – was no fun either in the blowing
rain. It appeared that we had technical problems, but really we were just
very busy; the two of us had to keep things going and operating at the
There was one technical problem that hampered
our operation. Our PA, a 10 year old SG-500, had a slow T/R switch, which
cut off the first dot of a call off when operating high speed CW, causing
many repeats and the need to reduce sending speed.
For antennas we
had one 12 and one 20 meter SpiderBeam fiber-glass pole, with home made
galvanized-steel bases. We set up the 20 meter pole on the sand spit, with
an inverted L that was cut for 1.825 MHz., with the “horizontal” wire
being held by the 12 meter pole which was set up on the island about 100
meters to the east. The wire could be lowered for 80 m operation. We added
12 elevated radials of between 10 and 30 meters long and about 0.7 meters
above the sand, with some extending into the water. We have also added
a 2 meter long ground rod; the sand appeared to be wet here at all times,
so it may have done some good. At high tide the entire sand spit, including
the base of the antenna, was under water. We believe that the location of
this antenna was about as good as it could get: surrounded on all sides
by sea water, or standing in sea water at high tide. Looking at the EZNEC
model of this antenna one would think that on the higher bands the antenna
would perform poorly, with too much high angle radiation, but the log proved
otherwise. Sea water seems to make vertical antennas work very well – or
at least does not make them work poorly.
We set up a second vertical on the 12 meter pole for the higher bands,
but as it turned out, we kept using the larger antenna on the other bands
out of convenience. This pole, however, turned out to be very useful
for the Pennant receiving antenna we have erected later.
One goal of the
operation was to activate VK9W on 160 meters. During the short planning
phase we sought the advice of experienced 160 m operators and previous
DXpedition members regarding receiving antennas for the low bands. Interestingly,
the advice fell into two distinct categories, almost evenly divided. One
group stated that on a remote location like Willis there was would be no
need for separate receiving antennas because of the absence of man made
noise. The other group stated that receiving antennas are a must because
of likely noise from tropical thunderstorms and the Chinese “Dragon” HF
over-the-horizon radar, which has one of its operating frequencies in the
160 m band. As it turned out, both groups were right. On some nights the
TX antenna worked fine, on other nights the lightning crashes made listening
on the TX antenna painful. More on this later in the Operation section.
During the course of our ten day operation, we have erected two receiving
antennas. A pair of Pennant Antennas were loaned by W8UVZ. One of
these, aimed at North America, was installed on the second day. For supports
it used the 12 meter SpiderBeam pole and a newly erected driftwood bamboo
pole. The center of the antenna was about 5 meters above ground. It worked
fine for the NA direction, drastically cutting noise of lightning crashes.
Still, the antenna produced very weak signals, even with a K9AY pre-amplifier
(which was loaned by Gary, K9AY). On the fourth day we have built a 140
m long Beverage antenna, laying in a 80 degree direction (EENE); not perfect
for North America, but that was the best we could do given the shape of
the island the desire to say far from the salt-water. The Beverage worked
so well that a couple of days later we cannibalized wire from the short
vertical and extended the Beverage to 220 meters. A strange thing occurred
at that time. The antenna, which in its shorter form did not pick up noise
from the our generator, which was about 60 meters to its side, now was picking
up generator noise. (Beware of these new generators with “inverters”!)
The generator was located about 100 meters from the operating position
and about 200 meters from the main antenna. Its power cord was curled into
chokes at several points and it was grounded. This configuration eliminated
some early noise pickup. The extended Beverage, however, was now picking
up generator noise, but it also produced much better signals, especially
on 160 m, and the noise was easily removed by the receiver’s noise blanker,
so we decided to stay with this new configuration. The Beverage worked
very well for us for the rest of the operation. It was very good on 160
meters and it was superb on 80 meters. Its directivity was so sharp that
on 160 meters we could switch between working Japanese and North American
stations just by switching antennas and doing away with the need to listen
up 5 kHz to get away from the large number of Japanese stations calling!
The Beverage just simply cut them off, except for the very loud ones. (I’ve
missed KL7FG calling several times, until I switched to the vertical, on
which he was S9!) For Europe, which started coming in the early morning
hours, we removed the loading resistor, turning the Beverage into a bi-directional
Beverage, which, despite its poor orientation, was still much better than
the Pennant or the main antenna. An interesting point to make here: Beverage
antennas rely on poor ground and are reputed not to work on small islands
or close to the sea. Our Beverage was running parallel to the shore about
30 meters from the high tide water line and over sand that was about 3 meters
above the high tide sea level (5 m at low tide). The sand was dry in that
area and very likely a poor conductor.
being a “private” DXpedition, we did not start out with any major goals,
except to work on 160 meters and to make as many QSO-s as possible. Tomi,
HA7RY, did most of the high band operation, and I, AA7JV, did most
of the low band operations.
It became quickly apparent that our main antenna was working very
well. We were often able to work with only 100 watts and still remain in
control of the pile-ups. North American stations, especially on 80 meters,
were also strong, well into the early morning hours.
It did not take long to find out that we were being sought after.
The pile-ups, especially on 40, 30 and 17 meters, were big. Being close
to Japan, the Japanese stations were numerous and loud. Fortunately, they
were also well disciplined, which allowed for a reasonable QSO rate. The
same can not be said for the rest. While the US stations were relatively
well behaved, many European stations were unruly. It is worth pointing out
that the QSO rates were much higher when propagation was mostly to Japan.
This was largely due to the more disciplined operators, who instead of
causing QRM waited their turn and timed their calls correctly.
Worse than undisciplined operators were those who could not hear
us at all, but kept calling regardless. The DX station can quickly tell
when somebody can not hear him and is just calling based on DX Cluster
data. Such an operator not only makes a fool of himself but also causes
substantial QRM to the detriment of everybody. Essentially he denies the
DX to others while he is unable to get it for himself! This is one area
where national organizations could do a lot more to educate operators.
Although it is important to call a DX persistently, it is important
to time the calls well and to listen between calls. In fact listening is
the most important part of getting a rare DX station. To know when the
DX is listening, it is important to discern his operating pattern. Calling
him when he is transmitting, or when working somebody else, will not get
you anywhere. We could instantly identify the experienced operators who
were often able to get through on their first call, which was well timed
and on a well chosen frequency. You can do that only by listening for a while
and learning the pattern of the DX! Big antennas and multiple kilowatts
will not do that (although they help).
we have arrived on Willis our first impression was that the bands were
dead. North American or European stations can not imagine how dead the
bands be so far from civilization. One could have easily thought that there
was no propagation. Once we have sent a few CQ-s, however, first a few
stations would appear, and then when we were spotted on one of the DX clusters,
all hell would break lose, and suddenly a previously dead band would be
boiling with calls from many areas. Suddenly, propagation would go from
zero to excellent (despite the bottom of the sunspot cycle).
The First Night:
arrived at North Cay during the early afternoon of September 22. After
we have ferried the gear ashore, we set up the tent and one antenna mast.
We were planning to complete setting up next day, to be ready by the evening
of Sep 23 for Top Band. Tomi, keen to get going, spent the first night on
the island, operating with a temporary set-up.
(I believe that he was also keen to get off the boat which was rocking
and rolling widely in the large unprotected waters south of North Cay.)
Tomi was using a piece of sloping wire tied to the tip of the 12 meter
SpiderBeam pole, fed via a manual tuner, running 100 watts off a 12 V
car battery. Logging by hand on pieces of cardboard (he has left his computer
on board), he was able to make 450 QSO-s, working through the night, mainly
on 40 meters. As it turned out, this was a much welcomed part of the operation,
as later we were concentrating on 160 and 80 meters at night.
We have spent Sep 23’rd setting
up the station. The inverted L went up, we have installed radials, got
the generator going (and moved it to get rid of its noise) and set up the
logging computer, alongside a myriad of other small things. We were ready
by 6:30 PM local time and tuned the radio for 160 meters. It was going
to be one of those magic nights that probably occur once in a life-time.
Our first CQ was answered by JA7FUJ at 0838. A long string of JA
and North American stations followed. At one point we had to listen 5
and 6 kHz up to hear the North American stations. The first European station
was UA4DX, two hours ahead of any other European. (I have repeatedly copied
him as VA4DX – not wanting to believe that the band would already be open
to Europe.) The North American stations started to fade out after their
sunrise at 1400 and European stations started to come in long strings. Altogether
we made 430 QSO-s on top band that night.
Signals from both North America and Europe were strong and clear,
with little QRN. We did not have a receiving antenna up yet; we were using
the inverted L for receiving. The Dragon was also quiet. Indeed, 160
meters had the feel of 80 meters on a very good night. At that point I
was convinced that those who suggested that there was no need for a separate
receiving antenna were right and thing will be easy. The next night proved
the need for separate receiving antennas: in the early evening hours
lightning crashes were so strong that they were painful through the headphones.
Eventually we gave up on top band for a while and QSY-ed onto 40 meters
for a couple of hours. A couple of hours later top band quieted down (the
thunderstorms must have dissipated) and we had a decent night of operation.
Next day, we installed the Pennant, which then proved its value during the
next two nights, after which the Beverage took over and we rarely used the
Pennant any more.
Altogether we made 1200 QSO-s on top band.
A couple observations are due. When calling a DX on 160 meters, unless
you are very confident of your full size array and kilowatts, you should
send your call-sign two or three times. Due to noise, weak signals and
QRM it is common that the operator picks up only part of a call-sign each
time it is sent. A lot of time was wasted by repeatedly asking stations
to resend their call-signs. Sending speed should be between 12 and 25 WPM,
neither faster, nor slower! The problem with slow speed is, in this part
of the Pacific anyway, that there are a number of beacons that can be heard
across the 160 m band and these beacons transmit at about 5 WPM. I believe
them to be long-line fishing beacons, as they constantly change, drifting
with the currents and are removed at intervals. They are easy to separate
from calls provided the calls are at higher speeds. Speeds faster then 25
WPM are difficult to copy due to lighting noise or the Chinese “ Dragon”
triggering the noise blanker, which in turn can obliterate high speed dots.
Again, if you can not hear the DX don’t call!
This is especially true for 160 meters, where the above mentioned problems
are compounded by the QRM of out-of-synch calls launched at random.
One misconception about 160 meters is that a station should focus
on its ability to receive. This is only partially true: You must able to
head the DX, but one station’s TX signal is the other station’s RX signal
and when you start out with a weak TX signal, you will simply not be heard.
If you want to do DX on low band, you have to have a decent TX set-up,
in addition to the ability to hear. It is simply a matter of signal-to-noise
ratio and the noise is a given.
Operations on Other Bands:
was a strong and reliable band for us. Both North American and European
stations were loud, and of course, so were the Asian stations. The Beverage
proved to be very useful on 80 meters, as this band was also effected by
40 meters was dominated by the Japanese, as well as the European
stations most of the time. The Chinese “Dragon”, however, seems to be
centered over the CW portion of the band and creates very substantial
interference. A good noise blanker seems to be able to deal with it, but
signals get degraded.
30 and 20 meters performed as expected.
17 meters was the most reliable day-time band! It was often open
to Japan, Europe and North America at the same time.
15 meters opened at times to Japan, with a few Europeans mixed in.
12 meters had a few surprise openings to Asia, when station were
10 meters: no QSO-s. Hey, you can only do so much with a single station.
HF Over-The-Horizon (OTH) radar, called Dragon, is a real menace to HF
amateur radio! It degrades the 160 and 40 meters substantially. It also
appears that its main transmission frequencies are intentionally centered
on amateur bands; perhaps these bands are seen as the least important and
poorly defended. Hopefully, they are still in a testing phase and once they
are operational they will use it less frequently. We also hope that the
practice does not spread to other under-developed military hopefuls, who
may see HF OTH radar as a cheap alternative to AWACS!
Final QSO Count:
Total QSO: 10895
that the totals do NOT include duplicate QSO-s, of which we had a lot
We would like to thank all those
who’ve contacted us. We also appreciate the efforts of those who tried
but did not make it into the log. We know that a lot of people wanted more
40 operation, digital modes, etc. Please understand that we tried to be
even handed, but with a single station, and two people doing everything,
you can not make everybody happy.
Overall we are content
with our operations. We are especially happy with our 160 m results. They
show that when receiving conditions are good, and the interest is there,
a relatively modest station can do a lot on Top Band.
Downloading the Story of Expedition:
QSL Cards via HA7RY