Several months ago one of our club members excitedly told us that he had been selected as a member of the ZL9HR Campbell Island DXpedition slated for December 2012. The following is Glenn’s first hand account of a trip of a lifetime.
ZL9HR Campbell Island DXpedition 2012:
A DXer’s Dream Come True!
In 1975, at the young age of twelve, I entered the world of amateur radio when I received my Amateur Novice Class License. Shortly after getting “on the air,” I was completely fascinated with the ability to communicate all over the continental U.S. with such ease. As my antennas, radio equipment, and operating skills began to slowly improve, I was now hearing and easily working stations all over the globe. As time progressed, I was learning more about propagation, pile-ups, QSL-ing, and the finer points of being a DXer. At the ripe old age of fifteen, I was now thoroughly bitten by the DX bug! Forward some thirty-four years later, I am still enthralled with the joy of making a contact with someone on the other side of the globe! Almost daily, I am reading or browsing through the latest DX news available on the Internet, or digesting one of the many bulletins that I subscribe.
Over the last several years, I have viewed several professionally produced videos that profiled some of the larger DXpeditions of the last two decades. As I watched prominent DXers activate many of those rare DXCC entities, I began to feel a growing desire to be one of those operators on the other side of the pile-up. I often asked and wondered:
How is one invited on such a venture?
By what means do you make it known that you are sincerely interested in being a team member of a future DXpedition?
As I searched answers to those two questions, I was sorely disappointed to find out that most DXpedition teams are comprised of folks that know each other well, or comprised of some very prominent DXers with a long and distinguished expedition resume. Very seldom did I read open invitations for even the not-so-rare locations that are activated every other year or so. Although this seemed a slow path, I could do nothing else except stay on top of the latest DX news and visit the prominent DX websites on a regular basis to keep abreast of any new announcement.
In March of 2012, I received an email from a close friend regarding an upcoming activation of ZL9 Campbell Island NZ (OC-037). The intriguing aspect of the email was that the leaders of the project were actively seeking operators to fill the nine positions available for the operation. Having viewed the ZL9CI Campbell Island (1999) video more times than I wish to admit, I was quite familiar with the much-wanted DXCC entity. It was one of those DXCC entities that I often dreamed of traveling to one day, and while watching the video, could only hope that I too could someday be part of major DX operation to some place similar.
Having received the email while I was at work, I did not do much research on how high the entity placed on the DXCC “most wanted” list, but readily knew that any operation to Campbell would be a major undertaking. I quickly responded to the email address provided in the release and kept my fingers crossed. As days went by with no response, I began to dismiss the notion that I would receive even the least bit of consideration for this operation because I had no prior dxpedition experience to provide as qualifications of my radio “experience.”
As I recall, it was just a week or two later I received an email requesting information should I still be interested in being a member of the ZL9 team. Following a day or two of anxious waiting, the email(s) arrived stating that I was now an official member of the 2012 Campbell Island DXpedition! I was very pleased to learn that three other team members were also from the U.S. After some emails and phone calls with the other U.S. ops, it was set that the four of us would meet in mid-May at the 2012 Dayton Hamvention and begin that all-important team bonding process.
From April through November, the ZL9HR DXpedition was a central focus of all my non-work related activities. Everyone on the team became active in some fashion with helping the project proceed forward. I volunteered for the tasks of creating the Facebook and Twitter pages that were very useful in disseminating information regarding the status of the operation. There were weekly teleconference calls scheduled for the team, and the stream of emails between all of us seemed to be endless. Gene K5GS and I volunteered for the task of creating a safety plan required by the NZ Department of Conservation. This safety plan was a required element to comply with terms of the DoC island entry permit.
With fall quickly approaching, the operation was moving into high gear. All of the team members participated in the promotion of the project by contacting major DX clubs and foundations, visiting popular Internet DX forums, speaking to local clubs, etc… The ZL9HR web page was also very active, with updates regarding the operation posted via the Internet on a weekly basis.
As mid-November finally arrived, it became time for all of the team to begin the process of assembling in New Zealand. On November 19, I began the much-anticipated journey from Kentucky to Auckland New Zealand. I was fortunate to be able to meet Dave K3EL and Les W2LK in San Francisco, California for the long overnight flight. Upon arrival in Auckland, Jacky ZL3CW offered up his home for overnight stays to four of us prior to proceeding towards Invercargill where the complete team would then assemble for the first time to complete several necessary tasks. I cannot say enough about the hospitality that Jacky and Sue Calvo offered to Don VE7DS, Dave K3EL, Les W2LK, and me. They were great hosts, treating all of us as though we were family. We cannot thank them enough for the generosity they showed during our short stay.
After our arrival to Invercargill, the team was required to meet representatives of the NZ Department of Conservation. The DoC is the agency responsible for issuing the entry permits and regulating the access to the protected New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands. (I would encourage everyone to research the Internet regarding Campbell Island. The island is a unique place and has the status as a World Heritage Site as designated by U.N.E.S.C.O.)The DoC permit issued to the ZL9HR team regulated all of our activities for the stay on the island. The permit covered such basic areas as: Off-limit areas, Pre-determined locations where antennas could be placed, Sea lion precautions, Expected behaviors around protected wildlife, Prohibited activities, and Fire precautions
The DoC required an inspection and “quarantine” of all our equipment and personal gear to insure that no foreign seeds, plant matter, insects, or rodents were inadvertently carried to the island and introduced into the recovering eco-system.
All gear was unpacked from the shipping crates during the inspection process.Individual containers, boxes, radio cases, and tubs were opened for inspection by the DoC staff, and then once inspected were repackaged and sealed by use of plastic tubs or large plastic bags. All tubular antenna pieces were cleared by a blast from a high-pressure air hose, then all ends sealed for transport to the island.
Even the gen-sets were bagged or wrapped in a shrink-wrap style of plastic film for transport to the island. Since we did not sail for two more days, the team kept just enough clothes and personal items out of our luggage so that the larger duffels and suitcases could remain in the quarantine area until loaded for transport to the port city of Bluff.On November 26, the team left for Campbell Island from the port city of Bluff. The expedition yacht EVOHE was the vessel chartered for this trip. Having never sailed in the open ocean, I was not sure what to expect on the 25m length vessel. Having heard so much about the dreaded seasickness, I was hoping that the 400-mile journey across open seas would not be something that I would come to regret. It was comical to hear all of us speak about the use of “patches” and “pills” to ward off the dreaded retching and other activities that may require the use of a bucket! I never became ill, but I will readily admit that I remained quite attached to my bunk for the journey to and from the island.
Prior to leaving the wharf at Bluff, EVOHE Captain Steve Kafka was receiving the latest updates of the weather and sea conditions between Bluff and Campbell Island. It was determined that with conditions of 50mph pluswinds, and nine to eleven meter seas, we would travel no further than the southern edge of Stewart Island and weather the storm in the safety of a large embayment. The team was extremely disappointed with this turn of events, but realized that safety was the primary concern. After approximately two and half days, we were again sailing towards Campbell. Captain Steve warned us that the seas were still very rough and that we could expect a very bumpy ride while plying through the remnants of the major storm. The swells were expected to be quite severe, with the worst being five to six meters. We were instructed to limit our movements on the vessel and were strongly encouraged to remain in our bunks except for “necessary trips.”
On the morning of November 30 Campbell Island materialized out of the mist. The excitement throughout the team was palpable, with everyone grabbing cameras to capture those first moments of our arrival. As we approached Beeman Point, the abandoned MET Station came into full view. For those of us that were familiar with this site, we knew that we had truly arrived! Following the EVOHE dropping anchor in Perseverance Harbor, the zodiac was lowered to the water and the first wave of team members were headed to the wharf. In typical Campbell Island fashion, the weather was cloudy, windy, misty, and with a chill that cut you to the bone. On this day, foul weather gear was an absolute must. I am so glad I had invested in my extreme weather parka and bibs for this trip. We had all anticipated the weather to be as we had encountered, we just hoped that we could start the set up process without there being a constant rain.
As the first hours at the island passed, the process of transferring the equipment from the boat was safely accomplished. With the aid of the EVOHE crew, we were able to move the equipment up the hill quickly and in the general area of the Beeman Cove Hostel. Slowly, the antennas were coming on-line, with the team dividing themselves into small units to tackle the simplest antennas first, then moving on to the more complex process of building the Spiderbeams. The EVOHE crew once again provided extra hands for completing these time consuming tasks.Our goal was to get one or two stations on the air as quickly as possible and then bring other stations on-line as the setup continued.
The first QSO in the log: 12/1/2012 04:25z ZL2BBU 40m SSB The SSB and CW operations each had their designated location inside the hostel, with the SSB stations located in the old recreation room of the MET building, and the CW stations located in the old dining area off the kitchen. It was just enough distance so that the CW ops were not hearing the chatter from the SSB operators.
Campbell Island, and nearby Auckland Island, have been instrumental in the restoration and return of the Hooker’s Sea Lion populations. It is one of the rarest sea lions on earth, having nearly been hunted to extinction by sealers throughout the last two centuries. With adult males weighing in at 350-450 kg (roughly 900 pounds), we were constantly on the watch for their sudden appearance. I personally found their behavior intimidating, with the some of the juvenile males closely investigating our activities every chance they had. I was extremely surprised on how mobile the animals were while on the land. They could cover ground very quickly and often blocked the path to and from the wharf area.
As we settled into a routine, our dependence on the great crew of the EVOHE was quite clear. The meals provided were highly anticipated, with the crew providing excellent service to our team. The EVOHE crew was so helpful in many ways, it would be difficult to list every area they assisted our team in accomplishing our daily tasks. Suffice it to say, the EVOHE was a big part of the success of the ZL9HR team!
We reluctantly decided to reduce the station positions from six to four for the lasttwenty-four hours of the operation. This decision based on the weather updates received by the EVOHE, with the forecasts showing another major storm traveling in our direction. Should we tarry too long on the island, it was possible to delay our return to Bluff and possibly interfere with those that had tight travel arrangements and required a timely return. The other consideration, and probably more important, was to avoid another replay of traveling through extremely rough sea conditions…something several of team did not want to experience again!
On 12/08/2012 at 16:04 UTC, the 17m SSB QSO of K9UQN became the last QSO for the ZL9HR DXpedition. As the dawn progressed, we quickly began the final chores of lowering the remaining antennas, packing the remaining HF gear, and performed the dreadedtask of re-spooling the thousands of feet of RG-213 coax. It took approximately four hours to remove the equipment from the island and complete our last sweeps for any items inadvertently mislaid or overlooked.
It was now time to take a deep breath, consider our accomplishment, and get ready for the long journey back to our respective homes.
With this being my first DXpedition, I was quite apprehensive about whether or not my skills would closely match those of other members of this team. I was in the presence of some very good ops, such as ZL3CW and 9M6XRO, which have been part of many major DXpeditions in the past. In short,…I wanted to perform well!
As I sat down for the first time to start calling “QRZ,” I could feel the rush of adrenaline and the see the trembling in my hands as they rested over the computer keyboard. The SSB pileups were much more personable, with names and states sometimes relayed during the QSO. I quickly developed a style of handling the pileups based on my years of hearing experienced DXers work the massive pileups I may have been trying to break through myself. The CW pileups each had their own distinct personalities, and after a couple of days, I was able to realize what my goals should be for dealing with each. The pileups with no one signal being stronger than any other, and with all signals seemingly on the weak side, were certainly a challenge to quickly go from one caller to the next. One issue that slowed this process considerably was the constant calling over stations attempting to provide their complete call after initiating the QSO with only a partial call. At times, three or more attempts were required to obtain the complete call over the QRM. On the flip side, when there were many strong signals being heard up and down the spread, best described as that one signal that just “pops” out over the rest, the QSO rate just seemed to explode, and I had a great feeling of satisfaction for quickly working those wanting that much-needed CW contact.
As far as the pile-ups were concerned, they were usually very large and mostly well behaved. I prepared myself for the onslaught of callers by doing a fair amount of reading from the likes of N7NG and G3SXW. Their writings, which can be found easily on the Internet, describe exactly the proper QSO mechanics and pileup management that is necessary to efficiently work as many callers you can in the time allowed. By doing some research, I was able to grasp many of the basic concepts of pileup management prior to even stepping foot on the island. While traveling to Campbell, I used every opportunity I could to speak with the more experienced ops to get their own insights on ways to cope with the large pileups. The largest SSB pile I commanded was twenty kilohertz wide at its widest, and the CW pile-ups were generally no larger than ten to fifteen kilohertz at most. A great learning experience and I sincerely hope to build on that experience again in the future!
Being part of this radio expedition is certainly one of the standout moments of my life. Campbell Island is a unique place on our earth….a place that not many people get an opportunity to go. To couple that with being a team member to a top twenty most wanted DXCC entity is still hard for me to put my arms around. As I reflect on the experience, I feel so very blessed to have had this opportunity offered to me. It truly was…
…a dream come true!