As published in CQ Magazine, November 1977
XJ3ZZ/1 (2nd) St. Paul Island DXpedition
BY YURI BLANAROVICH, VE3BMV (ex OK3BU)
(P.O. Box 292, Don Mills, Ont.,
Canada M3C 2S2 )
During one of the monthly CanaDX meetings in early '75 VE3MJ, VE3MR, VE3GMT and VE31AA, announced that they had "discovered" two new DXCC countries, St. Paul, and Sable Islands. Because they did not want to take any "luggage carriers" along, another group of four i.e., VE3BBH, VE3BMV, VE3DU, and VE3KZ, thought to ourselves, let's go and wait for them on the island. Well as it turned out we didn't do that but it was the start of serious thinking about our own expedition anyway.
Here is some of the history and justification of these new countries. In June of 1974, Jack, VE3GMT, went to Halifax N.S., on business. While there he inquired at some of the local federal government offices to see what could be found out about Sable Island. Finally he was directed to the right office and met with a high official who was in charge of Sable Island, and knew all about it.
The Administration of Sable Island was established by an Act of the Canadian Parliament, known as the Canadian Shipping Act. The Federal Department of Transport, was empowered to administer and govern Sable Island. Jack felt that this would give the island "new country status" under criteria point #1 of the ARRL standards for new countries.
On the basis of Jack's research, Mort, VE3MJ then decided to do further research into this Act and discovered that St. Paul Island, was also included in this Act. Upon checking several maps he found that Sable Island, was about 150 miles southeast off the coast of the province of Nova Scotia, and St. Paul, was about 25 miles north west off the coast of Cape Breton Island, N.S. So it followed that if Sable, was approved by the ARRL, then Cape Breton Island would be considered a foreign land mass, and St. Paul then would count as another country, criteria #3.
All necessary documentations were submitted to ARRL, who confirmed that both islands met their criteria and that as soon as any operations took place, they would be accepted as new countries on their DXCC list.
Once the, approval was received in writing, plans were then formulated by the group to proceed with the DXpedition. Considering the weather condition and the upcoming CQ WW DX contest it was decided to go to Sable Island for the CQ contest weekend for a total of 5 days, then proceed to St. Paul Island, for a similar period.
Special call signs were issued, VX9A for Sable and VY0A for St. Paul. (Lucky them!) The expedition to Sable was very successful with over 11,000 QSO's, thanks to bad weather that trapped them on Sable for another eleven days. Dirty and tired the group almost quit at this point but their ham spirit pushed them to go to St. Paul, and activate it for the first time. (There were previous operations from Sable that also count).
St. Paul, was practically unknown and very little information about the island was available. But after a dangerous landing and operation during bad weather, over 5,000 QSO's were made from VYOA.
When the group returned to Toronto and showed us the photos of the expedition, it was obvious it was not a suitcase-rig-swim suit-hotel-expedition. We knew it would be dangerous and our XYLs were apprehensive, but with careful planning we could avoid the hazards. At least we knew what to expect and would be ready for it.
We decided to reactivate St. Paul Island, mainly because: (1) it was impossible to obtain permission to land on Sable at that time, (2) propagation was bad during the VY0A operation and many DX stations missed it especially on c.w., (3) we had only about one week available, (4) cost of transportation (Sable is charter air).
From talking to our friends and studying available maps and slides we found that St. Paul, lies 18 miles northeast of the northern end of Cape Breton Island. It is small, rocky and practically desolate. The northern point is a detached pinnacle, which -appears from seaward to be joined to the main island, but it is separated by a narrow channel, about 100 ft. wide from the island. The main part of the island rises in two parallel ranges of hills, the southeast being the higher with -a summit of 485 feet. The water deepens rapidly one half mile off shore so that soundings give little warning in approaching the island in foggy weather. Although it is bold and high it has been the site for numerous marine disasters. The variable tidal streams and currents add to the danger arising from the fogs, which prevail in the southeast and move often southwest.
There are two lighthouses on St. Paul, one on the detached rock forming its northern extreme, and another on it's southern point. The north point light is exhibited from a white light house 50 feet high. An automated light is exhibited from a red circular tower 40 feet high on the south point. The island holds three houses, a boat house and generator house with tanks that hold the fuel for the island. Three people live on the island full time. Wilf, the lighthouse keeper with his wife and assistant lighthouse keeper Paul. There is also one dog and occasional birds. On the large island there are two abandoned life-saving station buildings. The area is rich with lobster traps during the season. The only access to the small island is through the channel separating both islands and only by small boat. Wooden platforms and walkways abound over the island. It is very difficult to walk on the island during bad weather as the rocks are slippery and dangerous, but walkways connect all buildings on the island. One thing was clear, the expedition was not what you would call a pleasure trip, but hard work and a good team with a variety of skills, would ensure success.
Our team consisted of Paul Hicks, VE3BBH, salesmen, Yuri Blanarovich, VE3BMV, engineer, Cy Lewis,, VE3DU, businessman, and Bob Nash, VE3KZ, professor. We all expressed serious interest and committed ourselves to the trip. Then the work and the preparation started.
Cy, took care of all the paper work, started inquires about the landing permits, license and transportation arrangements. Phone calls were made, letters exchanged and as a result we had permission to land, but could not obtain a special call sign (such as VY0B or VY0). We made our calculations, which included the feelings in our bones, and we planned for a 15th of May assault. Propagation looked better than average. Permission was issued to land on the island on May 6th to 17th. We planned to be operational for about 4 to 5 days. We were watching propagation conditions 56 and 28 days before that time period. We were still in the waiting mode, discussing equipment selection and of course food and other important things.
Cy, VE3DU, was checking the situation in Nova Scotia, and we were pleased to find out that the ice had moved away the northern Cape Breton coastline and we could use the fishing boat from Lance Cook of Dingwall. Permission to land on the island was already secured but a special license was not available. Cy, tried every possible channel to obtain VY0 call sign or at least the prefix for a portable operation. We could not obtain support from our Canadian ARRL, director Ron Hessler, VE1SH, neither did he recommend or support our application to the Department of Communication. It seemed to us very strange that a case like this with a new, or different country for DXCC we would not qualify for a special prefix when it seemed that a 25th anniversary of a local fire hall could obtain a special prefix. We were all hoping until our departure that we would be allowed to use VY0 again after the first expedition.
The dates for the expedition were set for May 13 to 17 and final transportation was arranged including the fishing boat from Dingwall N.S., to St. Paul Island.
Bob, VE3KZ and I took care of the antennas and equipment selection and their preparation and testing. Antenna selection and design was critical for a successful St. Paul DXpedition with it's gale force winds and rocky surface. Our situation was analyzed and selections were made. Antenna #1. Cubical quad, two elements, for 20 meter band. Because of poor ground on the island, pure rock, the quad seemed to be the best solution in that it provided
a lower angle of radiation and more gain than a three element Yagi at lower heights. The quad was tested in our backyard on a 20 foot tower. Feeding the loop was the VE3BMV special, i.e., fed in the bottom corner of the driven element in a square configuration. The antenna was tuned for the middle of the 20 meter band, and the test showed surprising results. It was about the same as a TH6 at 70 feet. The important discovery was that the signal was more stable and indicated no QSB, which was very noticeable on the TH6. This was very encouraging. (Spacing was 8 ft. no balun was used, s.w.r. at resonant frequency 1.2 : 1. The braid of the coax was connected to the bottom horizontal side, and center conductor to the vertical side.) The quad was disassembled, marked and carefully packaged. Antenna #2 was a TH3 back-up for 20, 15 and 10 meters, in case of good band openings. Antenna #3, a 18AVT/WB vertical mainly for 40 meters and as a back up for all bands and to be the first antenna to be installed upon our arrival. The vertical was tested and adjusted in our backyard using 12 radials for 20, 15, and 10 meters. Settings were marked and this antenna was disassembled and packed. Antenna #4 inverted Vee's for 80 and 160 meters, good old performers, tested many times in contests were just packed. Antenna #5 assorted LW and a matchbox. We also had a mobile antenna which was used for our mobile operation on the way to and from the island. To support the antennas we included a 50 ft. heavy TV tower, 2 10 ft. masts, and a Ham-M rotator and assorted guy wires, ropes and cables.
For equipment we decided to use two sets of reliable Drake B lines. They would be used as main stations with their split frequency and c.w. capabilities. We expected a minimum of two stations at all times. Also two SB200s were selected to give us added punch. Two Atlas 210 transceivers were chosen to be back-up rigs and for operation on the lower bands. An Atlas was also used as a mobile rig. Matchbox, keyers, s.w.r. bridge and a tape recorder were complimenting the rigs. Spare tubes and limited spare parts-(very limited) were added with tools and other necessary things. Two of each would guarantee a parts supply in case of rig failure. Two generators, one 1200 watt and one 1500 watt were chosen to supply the power and we had canisters to hold about 50 gallons of gasoline.
Tuesday night was set as the departure date and the last weekend before our departure saw all the stuff carefully wrapped in plastic (mostly garbage type) bags and packed in the boxes. Paul, VE3BBH, took care of the packaging operation, transportation and food. One more meeting with Martin and Truus, VE3MR, and VE3IAA, (now VE3MRS) was arranged so as to give us a FINAL look at St. Paul from their slides. They also gave us valuable advice and lifted our spirits. The special prefix or call sign was not coming and it did not look like it will ever come. Martin offered us the VE3ZZ and we decided to use it as XJ3ZZ/1, in order to make it at least a little bit different and more attractive. I also prepared log sheet with 120 QSO's per page and we had enough sheets for over 10K QSO'S. Separate logs were also kept for each band and mode.
We decided to drive to N.S. in Bob's station wagon with a U-haul trailer. Cy would fly to Sydney N.S. where we were supposed to pick him up at the airport. Everything looked good and promising. On Tuesday afternoon, Toronto was hit by a bad storm and heavy rain, which did not stop. All the stuff was loaded in the pouring rain. Rigs were in the station wagon, other equipment was in the trailer, antennas and towers on the top of the station wagon. Mobile antennas for h.f. and v.h.f. were installed on the top of the 50 foot tower. Last check and we were saying good-bye to our XYLs and kids. We left Toronto around 10 p.m. in the pouring rain. Best wishes from the members of our Toronto DX Cub were with us when we got out of range of VE3TDX repeater.
We planned to drive to Sydney, 1500 miles non stop. Bob, was the first at the wheel, driving was very dangerous with the heavy rains and high winds. We were hoping that the storm would eventually stop and leave us alone, but there was no indication that this would happen. When we talked to stations behind us and ahead of us, they were saying that the weather was good and even sunny. So it looked like the storm was traveling with us.
A flat tire near Montreal didn't help us much either and the worst part of the drive was in VE1 land. We interpreted the weather as a warning for us to return home. The storm, delayed us 24 hrs. and instead of being in Sydney N.S., we were still in N.B., fighting heavy rain and fog. In some spots we could not see the front of the car, we were driving about ten miles per hour. Thanks to help from friends on local repeaters we managed to find our way out of the fog and detours. We were very nearly exhausted but after midnight we finally entered Nova Scotia. We found that the easiest way to travel at reasonable speeds was to tail gate the truckers who seemed to see better than we could. Otherwise we could average no more than 30 m.p.h. in the fog and darkness of the winding roads.
Lucky Cy, was at this time already in Sydney enjoying hospitality of our friend Bud, VE1VR and his XYL Anna, VE1WF. Bud, was very kind and helpful to us. He stayed up and when we finally got into range of the Sydney repeater, he gave us instructions on how to find his QTH, and our fourth partner who missed all the 'excitement' of our torturous trip.
Finally we arrived at our first stop on the trip, VE1VR's QTH. Was it ever good to stretch our bones and enjoy Bud's hospitality. What a time for visitors to arrive 4 o'clock in the morning. It was still dark and the rain was pouring continuously. We had some delicious refreshments and some 'fire water' which brought us back to life. At this point the good old question-"why are we doing all this?" came back to our mind. Bad weather was not helping either. If it continues like this, we could be stuck here for a few days and blow our holiday.
Bud, gave us a tour of his radio shack where we had the first opportunity to hear how 20 sounds in N.S. To us it was like being next door to Europe. The band was alive and Europeans were boiling in at 5 a.m. It looked like we were getting the 'ordered' propagation, and here we are, maybe chained in at Cape Breton, just some 20 miles from our destination - St. Paul.
As daylight broke so did our hopes brighten. The rain and winds started to abate and we could even see some blue spots in the low hanging clouds. This improved our mood a little bit and we decided to give it a try. There was another torturous 3 hr. drive to Dingwall, through winding roads up and down in and out of the heavy fog. As time progressed the weather became more friendly and more blue spots appeared in the sky. The winds were dying off and our hopes were getting higher.
When we arrived at Dingwall, which is a little cute fishing village, our boat captain was not there. Fortunately he was not too far and when he appeared he didn't have much encouragement that we should try to go. But it looked like the heavens were trying to reward us for all the suffering, and the sky became clear and the winds were almost gone. So after a short discussion, Lance, decided to give it a try and see how the open sea will treat us. Loading started. It looked to the natives like we were going on a binge with an entire liquor store. Boxes of whisky, rum and exotic wines, looked impressive but actually they contained our precious black boxes and other important items necessary for our stay on the isolated island. Gasoline was pumped into our containers, tower sections and antennas tied to the boat and finally the four musketeers with various expressions on their faces boarded the fishing boat. The passage in the bay was so peaceful and everything looked encouraging until we hit the open sea.
I was punished for trying to stay away from the wonders of modern medicine and emptied my already empty stomach in the sea. Cy, was sleeping, Bob and Paul, were having fun watching me go through changes in color. It was getting rough but according to Lance, not bad enough to turn back.
So we kept on going. Finally there was St. Paul, in it's full beauty. A clear sky broke and a cloud of fog shrouded the top of the large island, it looked like Mt. Fuji. We were passing by the large island towards the channel separating it from the small island - our destination. The sea was very rough and the waves foamed and cracked, and it didn't look like it would improve. As we were approaching the channel, waves were smashing against the rocks. Lance, decided that we try to attempt a landing. It took him a while to anchor the boat. A little dingy was lowered on the water. It was scary to see the little dingy go up and down like a nut shell. The first "crew" was Lance's helper who was doing the rowing, Paul, BBH and myself. With the help of others we managed not to miss the boat. When I sat down a wave came from behind and splashed against the boat, my back, and the rear part of my pants. There it was St. Paul's, welcome. It seemed like ages while we managed to make it to the landing strip. The wooden platform came right down to the water. Paul got out and was holding the boat. When I was getting out I slipped on a rock which was covered by a wave and promptly filled my boots with water. Fortunately, it was not raining, so I was only wet from the hips down.
It took about 9 trips to unload all the stuff. On the last trip our friend said he was glad we didn't bring the kitchen sink with us. So there we were with all the cargo. Slavery was just about to start. We had to carry everything up hill on the wooden walkways. Terribly tired, with help from Wilf, the lighthouse keeper and his assistant Paul, we moved the most important things.
Then according to our plan we were trying to install the tower and quad. We abandoned that quickly in order to avoid any accidents. Bob, was so tired he could not even check the rotor cable after the failure to get the rotor working. Next thing was to install the 18AVT vertical and one of the rigs to let our families and friends know that we were on the island safe and sound. The Drake line was installed, antenna hooked up, a generator started and what a relief, it worked. Paul, called "CQ Toronto" with a VE3BBH/1 call, and who comes back - Martin, VE3MR. It was a nice feeling to hear voices from down there. Phone calls were made to our XYLs and it was quite a relief for them too.
The bands started to boil, stations were breaking in. We announced that we would start a little later on c.w. Our last hope, to get VY0 prefix was gone after Martin told that all efforts were unsuccessful. In order to make the call sign stand out better, we used the call of the club station. The Olympic prefix was added and as a result we came up with XJ3ZZ/1.
We had to get the important boxes and gear inside. We were allowed to use one of the unused houses for a shack and Paul was very kind to let us sleep and cook in his house.
Another station and antenna was installed. It was the second Drake line, SB200, matchbox and about a 600 ft. long wire. While I was loading up on 40 meters, the smell of burning wood was coming from behind the rig. A closer look and there it was, the window frame was ignited by the long wire. We went to lower power, but it did not work too well. Later, after trying more long wires we came to the conclusion, that they needed a good ground and the same with 18AVT on 40 and 80 meters. We had 12 radials for 20, 15 and 10, but none for 40. After four radials were installed the vertical behaved the same way as in our backyard back home, during the tests and presetting. So we confirmed that rocks are a very poor ground. So much for the long wire too.
After we had the two stations ready, we all went to the "sleeping" house to have something to eat. Cy and Bob, decided to take over the sleeping bags on the floor. Paul and I returned to the operating house and fired up on c.w. The first c.w. contact made was with WB8EUN on 20. Propagation was very good, log pages were being filled very quickly. It was nice to hear old friends and some of the 'big guns' that you normally don't hear. We operated until 0400Z and then gave up. We went to our "sleeping house" and just folded on the floor. No sleeping bags or mattresses, just our coats and jackets. It did not matter. We slept like stones.
We woke up at 0900Z, and it was cold! Bob, fired up one rig, while the rest of us were unpacking the things and getting them ready for installation. The most important thing was the quad and the 40 foot tower to be assembled. Help was secured and up it went. The tower was up, so was the quad. It was very windy and a big relief seeing the octopus up and hearing signals boiling in. The rest of the rigs and antennas were installed. Two stations were operating simultaneously and the rest of the installation was being completed. After a while rigs were set up as follows: (1) Drake B-line, SB200, quad for 20, inverted vee's for 80 and 160 and 4 keyers. (2) Drake B line, SB200 and an 18AVT. (3) Two Atlas 210Xs, matchbox and longwire.
We were capable of running four stations simultaneously, but found that it was not necessary. Propagation was so good on 20 that everybody was there. There were almost no takers on the other bands. Most of the time two rigs were run, one or 20 c.w. the other on 20 phone.
Our rotor refused to work so the armstrong method was used to turn the quad with a piece of tubing and rope. At times we let the quad loose and the wind did the turning. It did not matter much, all corners of the world were coming in. When it opened to JA it sounded like everybody from there was on. What a pile up!
I found, it was much faster and easier to work c.w. than phone. On c.w. one can better separate the stations, less QRM (no splatter), and c.w. operators are better operators than some of those with big mouths and no ears, on phone.
Trying to stick to the rule, work them faster than they are coming, it was possible to operate split by only 3 kHz and eventually on our own frequency. During good hours we were logging 150 contacts an hour on c.w.
On phone it was a pleasure to work the JA's with their disciplined pile-up. The opposite was experienced from our "I" friends. They were trying to prove that our hearing was not working, that it was not DJ9 or G3 but-Italy 8 ... So what do you do? Work them first, or QSY to c.w.
Things were going along just fine, we were getting some rest and taking turns operating. The weather was miserable, rain, fog and wind. Then came our first BCI (or CBI?) complaint from Wilf. We were getting into his CB set. TV was clean, we were using low pass filters. One of the group was trying to convince Wilf how poorly designed his CB set was. It almost ended with broken diplomatic relations. Two of us went over to investigate the complaint. We had a tuning unit and coax stubs. We managed to reopen the embassies and after filtering on the CB set was installed, we were clean! What a relief. The weather was getting worse and the winds were up to 60 mph, a heavy fog rolled in and Wilf, came rushing in with the news ... that a fishing boat and it's crew were lost and there was an emergency. We had to stop transmitting for about 10 hours until the "clowns", as Wilf called them, were found.
Another surprise was when the automatic fog warning horn came on. Beside the proper tone it was also announcing our call sign. R.f. was getting into the tone generator and we were modulating it. We had to operate barefoot and beam away from the crazy fog horn. What next? Well, the next was the quad spreader, it broke. After "fighting" for the privilege to go up the tower in the freezing rain and 40 m.p.h. wind, I was the "lucky" one. The others hung onto the guy wires. With shaking knees we managed to succeed. The operation was successful and the patient (quad survived). Back to the pileups.
Cooking was no problem. Almost everybody had their specialties along. Cy, was with his Chinese kitchen in the can, Bob and Paul, with regular Canadian food, and I was well equipped with sausages and good kobassa. My theory was that I can survive on sausage, pickles and vodka. But because there was no Vodka, sausages were out of the menu very quickly and I still can't stand them. I managed to save a bottle of wine and we celebrated my birthday. It was so nice to hear my XYL and my 2 year old junior operator wish me a happy birthday over a phone patch.
Udo, VE3FFA was our link with our families and thanks to his phone patch we were in constant contact with them during our stay on the island and the trip.
As far as equipment-goes, we were trying to have two of each, in case one goes, there is the other one. In case both go, you can always make one work out of the two that aren't. Cy is known to have a black cloud hanging over him and rumors are that at anything he touches goes wrong or burns. By she sheer coincidence the T4XB did not take the loading procedure an burned resistors in the cathode and meter shunt while Cy was operating. Next thing Cy touched was the SB200 on the last day of our stay. Several resistors went up in smoke. This one we did not bother fixing.
Our compliments to our quad. It was a terrific performer, and it felt just like sitting at home with the big antennas and tower. We were getting very good reports from all over the world even barefoot. The problem with installation was overcome by having the spider in two pieces. Each loop was installed separately and it was easy to handle it. A problem with the feed line halted us for a while. Apparently the salt air and water got into one of the splices. Insulation in the female to female connector up on the tower were burned out and caused almost a dead short. What fun it was to fix this one in 50 m.p.h. winds.
Over the last night of our stay, the 160 meter antenna was erected and we spent about 4 hours of calling with the results being 9 contacts and the only DX was HB9RM.
(actually r. to l., picture is reversed)
All together we made 1822 QSOs on s.s.b. and 2478 on c.w. Considering the amount of operating time we had available we consider our efforts successful. Many comments and compliments were received regarding our operation were ample reward for us.
Early Monday morning the boat was supposed to come and pick us up. The weather did not look too promising and it looked like we would have to stay for a few more days. But just in case we started to take all the antennas down, except the 20 meter quad. Rigs and all other things were packed and we were getting ready for our departure. I bet that the local population was glad that the "interferers" that invaded their peaceful island, were going to leave.
We went to sleep around 2 a.m. The weather was still bad and we did not know what was waiting for us in the morning. Sunrise was very surprising. The sea was dead calm, no winds and the sky was clear. There was no doubt that we would still have to leave.
The last of our belongings and the last station plus the quad were disassembled and packed just as the boat arrived. This time they had an outboard motor and a bigger dinghy. It was much easier to load the cargo, it was all down hill, the sea was calm with low winds. It also took only four trips. It was cold and there was frost on the ground. We said good-bye to our hosts and boarded the boat. The last view of the island, with it's rocks was just beautiful and rewarding for all the suffering, we underwent.
Lance took us around the other side of the large island. We picked some lobster traps and two lobsters joined us on the voyage. One of them did not like Bob's coat and was holding on to it for a while.
We finally arrived back in Dingwall. All the stuff was unloaded from the boat and Lance made some fresh lobsters which were super delicious. On the way back we dropped Cy off in Sydney at the airport, and the three of us continued by car to Toronto. The trip was smooth and after 28 hours we were home safe, tired and happy.
QSL cards were already pouring in. After a special QSL card was printed, we got together and QSL'ed all the contacts we made. All direct QSL's were answered direct, the rest via the bureau and unclaimed card will be sent via the bureau after one year. It was a pleasure to QSL those with accurate data on the QSL, s.a.s.e. and sufficient return postage. Many thanks to all of you. Others gave us some detective exercises to find them. Some people do not hesitate to make insurance contacts up to three on the same band and mode, which is very poor operating practice. They are depriving other stations of contacts and in the future there will be no QSLs for them. If you need insurance, try it on another band or mode. For those who did not get a card they are still available via VE3BMV, Box 292, Don Mills, Ont.
At the end we would like to express our thanks to our wives and families. Our thanks to all those who helped with equipment. VE3GSU, VE3UR, VE3MR, VE3GPO and special thanks to VE3FFA for letting us keep in touch with our families via phone patch.
We hope to see you from another rare spot, and give us a call and points if you hear us in the contests!
On the cover is VE3BBH, Paul Hicks, now also VE3ZT