CLIPPERTON: AMATEUR RADIOS HARD LUCK ISLAND
By Chod Harris, VP2ML - CQ Magazine March 1992
A 12 member team will operate from FO0CI Clipperton Island in the Pacific early this month, if all goes well. Clipperton, however, it seldom goes well. Clipperton holds a special place in DX as one of the hardest-luck Dxpedition destinations. The FO0CI crew will do well to avoid problems on their one-week operation.
Clipperton first gained its reputation as a difficult destination in 1954, when Bob Dennison, now W0DX, attempted on of the very first dedicated island Dxpeditions. His story is every bit as timely today as it was 38 years ago; ask you library for the July 1954 issue of QST for the complete story. Some highlights: On their way to the remote, hard-to-see island, the navigator of their diesel boat tripped over their rig and broke their only sextant. The operators asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for help with directions finding, and they managed to get close enough to Clipperton to see shore-nesting birds. Unable to find the island, the group shut down their engine and returned to Acapulco.
The next try, the wind and rain forced them to call for help. The Mexican navy responded with a tow to the island that Mexico hand once claimed (see below). While getting to Clipperton proved difficult, the worst was yet to come. The wide fringing reef and normally heavy surf makes landing on the island treacherous. The landing boat overturned in the surf on one attempt to ferry Dxpeditioners and equipment ashore.
Once on the island, the problems continued. Propagation was typical of the dead bottom of the sunspot cycle, and QSOs with FO8AJ were few and far between. Then the generator ran out of oil and stopped. In the end, the 22-day trip netted 1108 QSOs.
Small as this number was, it was a major portion of all QSOs from Clipperton until 1978. There were some brief operations in 1944, 1945, and 1958, but usually as part of a scientific team and not as a dedicated Dxpedition. Npg0 (SP), FS8PR, and FO8AT didnt make much of a dent in the DX demand for Clipperton. Danny Weil, VP2VP, brought the third Yasme sailing boat to Clipperton. (Given his record of losing boats, and Clippertons checkered history, its remarkable that he didnt sink Yasme III
In the mid-1970s Clipperton ranked third on the Most Wanted countries list, with nearly 99% of respondents needing a Clipperton contact. Finally, in 1978 a French team using callsigns in the FO0XA-H range made 29,000 contacts, helping to usher in the era of multi-operator, multi-thousand-dollar Dxpeditions.
As can be seen from the accompanying graph (fig. 1) NOT INCLUDED, the 1978 operation at least removed the island from the exalted ranks of the perpetually Most Wanted. The gradual increase in demand, as the DX bug bites more amateurs, pushed Clipperton to the Top Twenty Most Wanted in 1984. A multi-national group decided it was time to reactivate the atoll. Fourteen operators waited almost a week in Manzanillo, Mexico for their chartered ship. It never appeared.
By the following year Clipperton had worked its way back up into Top Ten Most Wanted. The same group decided to brave the hex of Clipperton again, this time from San Diego. They teamed up with some fishermen of another sort for a luxury cruise in air-conditioned comfort aboard the Royal Polaris, all the way to the atoll, 2500 miles from San Diego. While the transportation cooperated, the surf didnt.
The 1985 Clipperton DX crew spent days watching the surf batter the usual landing spot. Some Dxpeditioners seriously considered swimming ashore, but a few circling sharks discouraged the attempt. They finally struggled ashore, and began assembling station in the 90-plus degree heat and 10-40 mph winds. They endured hungry crabs, birds that twisted their antennas, connections that arced in the moist salt air, and sun that burned right through SPF-15, to keep the FO0XX callsign on the air.
The capped came a few days into the operation when a small helicopter circled in and started dropping what appeared to be bombs on the atoll. Visions of pirates and murders on Palmyra raced through the Dxpeditioners minds. Fortunately, the "bombs" turned out to be firecrackers, dropped by the helicopter to move the friendly booby birds from under the blades. The scare ended well: on the helicopter, which was from a Mexican fishing vessel, was a ham. Don Pedro fully understood the purpose of the Dxpedition, and even returned later from his ship with a case of cold beer.
The FO0XX operators succeeded in their major goal: making the most QSOs ever from Clipperton. Their 31,000 QSOs were divided 2:1 SSB to CW, plus a handful of RTTY and satellite QSOs. Then getting off the island proved as difficult and frustrating as landing. Because they might have to evacuate quickly in case of a break in the surf, the team had to pull down the stations well in advance of their possible departure. As it turned out, they were stuck on the island almost three days, waiting for the chance to get through the surf.
The group returned to the US in time for the International DX Convention in Visalia, California, complete with sunburns, a Clipperton coconut, and other souvenirs of the trip. All swore they would never set foot on the atoll again. "I wont go back there in 20 years, " proclaimed Bob Vallio, W6RGG.
Such is DX resolve that less than 13 months later Bob would once again be on the Royal Polaris, circling Clipperton, waiting for a break in the surf to land. Four member of the 1985 Clipperton team- Kip Edwards, W6SZN, Rusty Epps, W6OAT, Bob Vallio, W6RGG, and Wayne Mills, N7NG- were joined by Carl Cook, Al6V, for the 1986 attempt. Their specific purpose was to work Europeans and amateurs in other parts of the world who had missed out on contacts with the 1985 crew. While Clipperton was dead last in the US in the 1986 Most Wanted survey, it was much higher on the European list. Besides, the Royal Polaris was going back there anyway, looking for prize tuna.
The 1986 team encountered the Clipperton Curse. Once again the pounding waves forced the crew to delay any landing attempt, cutting into possible operating time. Once ashore, the ionosphere dealt a crushing blow, as a major solar flare produced an ionospheric storm, essentially shutting down the bands. Propagation was particularly bad across the North Pole, to Europe. Stations on the East Coast could hear FO0XX calling for Europeans, and the Europeans calling Clipperton, but they couldnt hear each other. Such a strong flare within a month of the sunspot cycle minimum is extremely rare; such is Clipperton luck. Five days later, the crew packed up and left the hard-luck island.
Fortunately for DXers, the combination of two Clipperton operations made a considerable dent in DX demand. Clipperton once again fell off the bottom of the Most Wanted chart, except in Europe. As the graph shows, (not included) the influx of new DXers has once again propelled Clipperton into the Top Thirty, and up to ninth spot in Europe.
The 1992 operation at least has the sun spots on their side. Propagation, barring major solar storms, should be much better this year than at the bottom of the sunspot cycle in the mid-1980s. The team will be able to operate on the new bands, helping to spread out the pile-ups, and allow several simultaneous stations to seek European contacts.
Stateside operators should have no trouble making Clipperton contacts on all bands. The island lies due south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and should be an easy shot for even the littlest DX pistol. Dont miss this opportunity to make a Clipperton contact; there is no telling when the next group will decide to brave the Clipperton Curse.
NOT JUST AMATEUR RADIO
The political history of the atoll is as checkered as its amateur radio history. The island was discovered in the early 16th century by Spanish explorers. However, it was almost 200 years before anyone made use of the island. John Clipperton, a British mutineer turned pirate, used the island as a base to raid West Coast shipping. He gave his name as well as an unsavory reputation to the atoll. The United States claimed the island under the 1856 Guano Act, under which we also laid claim to most of the Eastern Pacific. However, the US didnt occupy the island until WWII, as part of the defense of the Panama Canal. France annexed the island, along with French Polynesia, thousands of miles to the southwest. Mexico also staked a claim, and established a small post in 1887. (check this date). Disaster was on the horizon.
Mexico maintained a regular series of supply ships, bringing food and rotating crew. However, Clipperton fell through the cracks at the outbreak of WWI. Somehow, Mexico simply forgot about the small atoll, and its stranded inhabitants. Lacking food supplies, disease and starvation began to take their toll on the Mexicans. After a year of abandonment, some men took a desperate chance to take a small boat after a passing ship. The captain of the post, and two others, disappeared in the heavy surf, within sight of the shore.
It was fully two years later, in 1917, that the Yorktown, a US ship, arrived at the island. Meanwhile, the lighthouse keeper Alvarez had taken advantage of the dwindling numbers of men on the island. Alvarez killed the remaining men, and enslaved the women. After months of abuse, the three remaining women overpowered Alvarez and killed him with a hammer. The next day the Yorktown arrived.
Pirates, murders, abandonment, and tragedy have plagued Clipperton through out history. Difficult landings, bad propagation, and frustration have dogged amateur radio operations aimed at the island. Lets all wish the FO0CI crew a problem free operation.
This article originally appeared in the March 1992 issue of CQ Magazine, published by CQ-Communications,