Second Time's the Charm

(The Fremont Island Expedition)

Part 2: Maybe We Can Get it Right

(Click on any image for a larger version.)

In part one we told about setting off for an island DXpedition and ending up experiencing shipwreck instead. Some days go better than others. Our next step was to try to undo the damage so we could get back to square one.

Our ill-fated trip to Fremont Island had been on a Friday. On Saturday, Ron took a plane ride with Mike Mladejovsky, WA7ARK, and looked down on the island from above. He was able to confirm that all our gear and Brett's sailboat were still there and clearly visible. (Not that we were worried someone might run off with the boat in its current state.) The weather was clear and sunny. It almost seemed as if the Friday forecast for a chance of storminess for the whole weekend had, instead, guaranteed the remainder of the weekend would be beautiful.

Sunday morning was the magic day when all the right people and equipment were available to attempt a rescue operation. In addition to the rangers and their motorboat with 400 horsepower, the all-time expert on the ways of the lake, Dave Shearer, was signed up for the party. Dave lives aboard his boat in the lake's south marina, works at a marine supplies store, and also works part-time as a ranger. He plays an important part in many of the rescues that the lake makes necessary.

Brett, Kelly, and Clint, along with Kevin Rasband, KG7AV, completed the rescue crew. The party made its way to the island first thing on Sunday morning. The first job there was to unload the top 2000 pounds or so of gear so that the boat would be light enough to have some chance of coming off the rock on which it was resting. After three maneuvers using harnesses and the rangers' boat, Brett's boat came free and slid into the water. Best of all, it seemed to be still seaworthy. An inspection of the rock where it had recently rested revealed paint that had been scraped off, but no pieces of hull. Paint removal isn't an entirely trivial matter -- bottom paint goes for about $100 a gallon. But hull damage would have been much worse news. There was even more important good news as well: there was still ice in the cooler with the steaks.

The crew now got to load all the gear back in Allegro, the party returned to the marina, and all the pieces of the DXpedition kit were returned to their owners.

Within two days of the rescue the group assembled at Ron's house to deal with the extremely important matter now before them: how to eat all the food purchased for the trip before it went bad. We had a great steak dinner and found volunteers to take home the cheesecake, the fruit, and the five pounds of Gatorade.

And, oh yes, we almost forgot about one more thing that might have been worth considering. Maybe, we thought, we should go back to Fremont Island sometime. Ah yes, going back. Maybe we could drain enough salt water from our gear to give it another try. It turned out to be impossible to accommodate the whole group on any one date in the following month, but five of the seven could go for the latter half of the Labor Day weekend. So August 31 and September 1 were declared the new target dates. Mike and Mac had to send their regrets (why were they smiling?), but Brett, N7KG; Clint, KA7OEI; Kelly, KV7V; Ron, K7RJ; and the author, K7HFV, were ready to give it another go.

Although we never had a chance to use it, a fair amount of antenna planning had preceded our first trip. After hearing the stories about Kenny Silverman, K2KW, and his famous “Team Vertical,” we couldn't help but think about a vertical for operation from the shore of the Great Salt Lake. The flat, conductive surface of the lake sounded like it should be just what a vertical would need.

It would have been nice to put up a 65-foot insulated mast to make a quarter-wave on 80 meters, but reality intervened with limitations on time, weight, space, and ambition. So Clint did a bit of modeling with some antenna software and discovered that a top-hat with a one-meter radius would do wonders for the club's telescoping vertical. Particularly on 40 meters, it would increase the radiation resistance substantially, meaning more power would be radiated and less thrown away in ground losses.

When Sunday arrived, our loading effort was somewhat less burdensome than on the first trip. We had two fewer operators, no generators, fewer backup rigs, and provisions for only one day instead of three. The time saved allowed us not only to get to the island before sunset but also to explore further north along the western coast than we had done on the first attempt. Helped a bit by information from Ron's aerial reconnisance from the week before, we found a small bay with a road leading out and a beach that was actually rock and sand rather than the lake's famous aromatic mud. Best of all, there seemed to be no darkening to the west or approaching white lines on the water.

On this trip, our five operators had been joined by Brett's nine-year-old son Nathan, who seemed the most eager of all as we started making dinghy trips to shore to unload the equipment and supplies.

Clint (l) and Kelly assemble the tophat. (Photo by Ron Jones, K7RJ)

By the time all the gear and people were ashore, it was almost dark. We attended to dinner, sunset pictures, and then remembered that we had also been planning to set up a ham station. The biggest job needing to be done before we could get on the air was probably building of the tophat. A radius of one meter didn't sound too large while we were calculating and talking on the telephone, but handling a wheel about six feet and seven inches in diameter wasn't entirely trivial, especially in the dark. The design involved heavy copperweld wire with reinforcing bamboo stakes for the spokes, and lighter copperweld for the outer ring.

Our antenna on its peninsula with Allegro in the background. (Photo by Ron Jones, K7RJ)

Our landing site provided a small peninsula -- just the right size to hold the antenna and run radials on three sides directly into the salt water. Remembering that “a vertical is only as good as its ground,” we ran plenty of radials.

At this point Brett and Nathan were ready to turn in for the night and, with Kelly, were planning to sleep aboard the sailboat. Kelly, however, wanted to see the antenna project through and do some operating. Kelly, it was decided, would go out to the boat with Brett and Nathan, then bring the dinghy back to shore.

This strategy sounded simple enough, but it turned into an unexpected adventure. The first problem was trying to find the sailboat in the dark, but the party navigated well. A stiff breeze had come up, and there was now a strong current going out from shore. This made rowing the dinghy easy -- maybe a bit too easy. While trying to maneuver into position, the party went a bit past the sailboat. Kelly started to row back toward Allegro but discovered that was easier said than done. Rowing for all he was worth, he could just barely stay put and avoid being swept out into open water. Brett, seeing the problem, added his hands to the oars, pushing while Kelly pulled. Between the two of them, with a monumental effort, they just barely made it back.

If they had drifted another ten feet, they likely would not have made it. What would have happened then? Surprisingly, they had no radio with them and no other means of signaling. Even if they had gotten the shore party's attention, there may have been nothing that group could do. The group in the dinghy might well have been miles away by sunrise and the group on shore would have been puzzled by their disappearance. Perhaps this segment of the lake would have become known as “The Wouff Hong Triangle.”

Back on shore, radials, feedlines, tuners, and SWR bridges were being connected up. Someone commented,

“I wonder why Kelly didn't come back? Maybe he decided he was tired too.”

The vertical was up, but the tuner was not tuned, and no one was quite sure if the antenna was functional at all. Clint hooked up his Yaesu FT-817 and heard strong signals on 40 meters. When W6NL called CQ, it was just too tempting not to try answering. Clint called him back and almost immediately the first QSO from Fremont Island was underway. It was 11:20 P.M. and the operator, Dave, in the San Francisco area, gave us a good signal report. We had no sooner finished that QSO when Gene, XE2EEQ, called us from Rosarita Beach in Baja California. We already had one of our two required DX contacts and we were running QRP on an untuned antenna!

Finally things quieted down sufficiently that we could tune the antenna using the tuner at the base and master the necessary incantations to get an IC-706 on the right band. The 706 was initially troubled by terribly distorted receive audio. Brett, the owner, wasn't available to ask if this was normal or if the speaker had suffered salt water damage. Finally, Clint discovered an external speaker in the box with 706-related gear and concluded he wasn't the first person to notice an audio problem. As soon as the speaker was connected, operating became a lot more pleasant. The extra power and tuned antenna had resulted in better signal reports as well.

The author gave up and went to bed at this point, but Clint and Ron kept on working stations and trying the antenna on new bands until about 4 A.M. The antenna worked acceptably on 80 and 20 meters, but conditions favored 40 which continued to deliver contact after contact. One of the contacts was a VK who appeared to be operating outside the portion of 40 given to his region. Not having a copy of the Australian rules handy, they logged him and went on.

It seems that neither Ron nor Clint had or could find a pencil, so they did their logging with a piece of solder. Solder does, I found out, make faint lines that can be read easily using some of the ultraviolet techniques developed by those who decipher ancient papyrus scrolls.

One other problem was that none of the operators they worked were actually involved in the US Islands Award (USIA) program or were looking for a rare island. Nevertheless, the contacts kept coming. (If we do this again, we must remember to write down the spot frequencies for USIA!)

I returned to the scene a bit after 6 A.M. hoping there would be a chance to work some JA's on 40 CW. The JA's were there, but we lost a battle with the 706's menu system and were not able to transmit. The 817 went on CW with no problem, but didn't quite have enough power to get back to the stations we could hear. Finally, Brett came on two meters from the boat and gave us the secret code to get the 706 into CW transmit mode (“Hold the F2 button with your left elbow...”), but by that time conditions had changed and we had to settle for some QSOs with W6's.

Nathan prepares the morning hashbrowns while the rest of the crew operates. (Photo by Ron Jones, K7RJ)

As the sun got higher, 20 came to life and we took advantage of it. This was the one band for which we actually knew the location of the USIA frequency segment. Before long we had genuine pileups calling us including some folks looking for USIA contacts. The fierce outbound water current of the night before had subsided, so Brett, Kelly, and Nathan were able to join us. (After spending a night on the boat, Kelly still swears it's haunted.)

Everyone got some time to operate. Some went at it ragchew style, while others zipped through stations at two or more a minute. We worked at least two other notable stations on USIA-recognized islands. One was on Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, and the other was on Battersby Island in the St. Lawrence River.

Clint operates the station.   (Photo by Ron Jones, K7RJ)

Just before we shut down, we worked three UARC members: Mark, AC7XR; his son Mike, KD7UUB; and finally Linda, N7HVF.

We'd have been happy to keep going, but Brett, who had been keeping his eye on winds and waves, suggested we had a window when we could ferry gear back out to the sailboat, and there was no guarantee we would have another. By this time we had learned to pay attention to such pronouncements from Brett, so we started tearing down. Altogether we had worked a little over 100 contacts in about 12 hours. That doesn't compare well with, say, the Bouvet DXpedition, but at least we had a comfortable margin over the 25 contacts required to activate an island.

Just before taking it down, we tried measuring our antenna's impedance on different bands. We measured with an MFJ analyzer and with a noise bridge. We learned that the man with one measuring device knows the characteristics of his antenna, but the one with two is never sure, except on 40 meters.

Finally, we and most of our gear were on the boat, we had lifted anchor (it was still attached this time), and there was a breeze worthy of flying sails. Soon we were actually sailing. It was a great feeling to glide quietly over the lake's surface, powered by mother nature. But there seems to be some law that states when sails appear, wind dies. After the first mile or two we found that we had ground to a halt and no amount of trimming seemed to improve things a great deal, so we gave up and started the engine.

Having read about what DXpeditions were supposed to be like, we knew we still had one duty to perform: serve the caviar. Soon, the delicacy had been passed to everyone with comments like,

“Now you're going to eat this and enjoy it, no matter how much you hate it.”

So there we were, relaxing, reflecting, and returning, enjoying sunshine and calm waters. The lake presented an entirely different personality than the one it had shown us a week earlier. It seemed as if all the trouble and been worthwhile. Now, if we could only figure out why we missed the palm trees and the dancing girls.

Typical Fremont Island sunset. (Photo by Ron Jones, K7RJ)