By Michael Goode, N9NS
Clipperton Island is a barren, ring-shaped coral atoll located 1630 miles south-southeast of San Diego, California. The only atoll in the East Pacific, it completly surrounds its stagnent fresh-water lagoon and serves as home for thousands of sea birds and millions of land crabs. Discovered by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 and named for an English pirate, Clipperton was first occupied by American guano miners (followed closely by the Mexican military) in the late 1800's. For such an isolated, uninviting place it has a rather bizarre history complete with pirates, shipwrecks, insanity, drownings, starvation, rape, murder, and international intrigue. Between 1914 and 1917 seventeen people starved to death there and three were murdered. In the 1930's it was visited twice by President Franklin D. Roosevelt who wanted it to become an American possession for use as a trans-pacific air base, and in 1944 he ordered the navy to occupy the island in one of the most secret US operations of WW II. After the war it was abandoned, and has since only been visited by the French Navy and an occasional scientific or amateur radio expedition.
The first amateur radio expedition to Clipperton was in 1954 when Robert W. Dennison organized a trip there. After many hardships his group reached the island on April 25th and in 18 hours of operation as FO8AJ made 1,108 contacts.
Besides a couple very brief operations in 1958 the next DXpedition to Clipperton was in March 1978 when the Clipperton DX Club made 29,000 QSO's in a seven day operation. At that time Clipperton was #1 on almost every "countries wanted" list published! Two more expeditions were organized, one in 1985 and another in 1986.
In mid 1989 a few DXers in the Los Angeles area (WA2FIJ, N0AFW, and N7QQ) decided it was time for another DXpedition to Clipperton. At first flying to the island in a seaplane was considered but soon that idea was dismissed for 3 reasons 1) The questionable safety of landing in the lagoon, 2) An airplane could not carry the required amount of equipment, 3) High cost. So the obvious alternative was to find a boat. After several months a couple of vessels were found that could do the job. Concurrently with finding transportation, landing permission and a license had to be obtained from the French PTT in Tahiti. Pete/N0AFW called, wrote, and FAXed many times to the PTT and had to explain in detail about ham radio and the reason why we wanted to go to Clipperton. After six months, in the summer of 1990 the permission and license for the call FO0CI arrived! Planning for a March 1991 operation was in high gear when the Persian Gulf Crisis hit the news. Pete was called to active duty in the Air Force and the decision was made not to go unless all the original members were present.
Upon the settling of hostilities in the Gulf, efforts were restarted for a trip in early 1992, this time seeking operators from around the world. Data packages with plans, schedules and logistics were sent to operators who might be interested but the response was slow. Also almost all requests for backing that were sent to various equipment manufacturers and DX groups were declined! The total charter cost for the ship was $60,000 with a $10,000 non-refundable deposit due in October 1991 to hold the ship for a March 1992 charter. With only six operators committed to the trip and no outside backing we decided to "go for it", hoping that a public request would bring in additional operators or support. By January 1992 a small amount of support had appeared and three more operators had joined in. These nine operators agreed to split the cost and the 1992 Clipperton DXpedition was a go!
The crew, consisting of Pete/N0AFW, Jay/WA2FIJ, Charlie/N7QQ, John/KA7CQQ, Vincent/G0LMX-F1MBO, Peter/ON6TT, Mike/N9NS, Arie/PA3DUU and Ron/WA6FGV met in Los Angeles on leap year day, February 29th and motored to San Diego where we were welcomed aboard the MV "Spirit of Adventure", a beautiful 88-ft. aluminum hulled sport fishing ship that could carry up to forty passengers on shorter trips. It has three 385 HP diesel engines and cruises at 11 knots (at 30 gallons per hour fuel consumption the captain told us, that's about 3 gallons per mile!). Just after noon we "set sail" for the 1600 mile six-day trip to Clipperton. As we proceeded south along the Baja coast we decided to put a station on the air. A TS-950 and Dentron DTR-2000 amplifier were hooked up to a Butternut vertical stuck over the stern and soon N7QQ/mm was working a big pile-up! Everyone wanted to wish us luck because of an article just published in CQ Magazine describing the troubles of all previous expeditions and labelling Clipperton as "ham radio's hard luck island." We thanked all for their kind words and crossed our fingers!!! N7QQ/mm made over 5900 QSO's on the way to Clipperton.
About 11 AM on March 5th Clipperton finally appeared on the horizon! After six days of being seasick (except me) everyone was ready to walk on water to get on solid land!!! Actually we were all very excited about the trip and anxious to get on the air. After waiting patiently while the captain circled the island and went out in a small boat to reconoiter the reef, we finally found a safe spot to land and we began to unload about 2 PM. The first boat ashore carried Pete/N0AFW who worked hardest at putting the trip together, and Vincent/F1MBO our erstwhile Frenchman. By dusk it was obvious we would not get everything ashore, so Charlie/N7QQ and myself stayed on the boat and the others made a makeshift camp on the island, spending the night with no lights, no food, and millions of land crabs crawling around them for company! That evening while chatting with friends on 20 meters someone broke in and said FO0CI was running a pileup on 15 CW. This startled Charlie and me greatly as we knew the fellows on the island had no generator and could not possibly be on the air. After verifying this by calling them on 2 meters (thus N7QQ/mm became the first QSO for FO0CI) I went to 15 to check myself and sure enough, there was FO0CI about 5-7, unfortunately all the keyers were on the island so we couldn't work the pirate! But it was amusing.
The next morning the remaining crew and equipment were transported to the island, everything reaching shore without mishap. Landing on Clipperton is no easy task, I should point out. The reef rises abruptly from considerable depth, so the waves build up and break very quickly at the seaward edge of the reef, over a distance of less than 50 feet! The first trick of a safe landing is to time your last rush to the reef between waves so they don't dump you over or break on top of you, the second trick is to find a suitable gap in the reef edge to shoot through so you don't slam into the coral, and lastly you must pick your way around the coral heads across 50-75 yards of reef to the beach, while being bounced about by the smaller waves that come across from the reef front. All very simple, right?
After the equipment was landed on the beach there was still a lot to do. Our intended campsite was where the old navy camp had been, next to the largest coconut palm grove on the island. The landing place we picked was about 3/4 of a mile down the beach from camp. We decided the easiest way to transport all the gear would be by boat in the lagoon. Accordingly, a launch was hauled the 100 yards across the island over the hard, sharp (and hot!) coral fragments that make up most of Clipperton to the lagoon. Then the gear was carried across and loaded into the launch. The lagoon by-the-way, has its own boating perils. The "shore" was actually a steep cliff 4-5 feet high made entirely of sharp jagged coral loosly cemented together. It was difficult to scramble up and down when carrying gear and someone had to hold the boat off lest it bang up against a sharp piece and have a hole punched in it. Also, one did not wade in the water very long as there were millions of "little swimmy things" (isopods, related to the common "pill bugs") in the water that had a very painful sting! The lagoon is only a few feet deep in most places and is a solid mat of tough wiry seaweed. We had to pick our way carefully to stay in deep water and at least once on each trip to the campsite the outboard motor would foul with weeds and have to be untangled.
After six hours of hot backbreaking labor everything reached the campsite and things slowly began to take shape. When we got the first generator running, we hooked the TS-950 to a vertical, and while sitting outside on a cot we were ready for our first QSO! Pete picked a spot on 10 meters and asked "is the frequency in use?". "No!" came back the response, Pete asked "QRZ?" The other station didn't give a call but said we could use the frequency, Pete responded "well, if you want to use it, its OK, what's your call?" The other op asked "what's YOUR call?" Neither of us knew who the other station was but eventually a QSO resulted and at 1812 GMT on March 6th Lyle/N4QH was our first contact from Clipperton. Pete told Lyle we were on Clipperton Island and he said "Oh, that's nice, where's that?" After an explanation he got excited and was very glad he had worked us! We announced we would be QRV in about two hours and shut down to finish assembling our camp.
Our main compound consisted of a "crab fence" forming a 60 ft. diameter circle that enclosed four tents - two for sleeping and two for operating. This fence was our answer to the problems other expeditions had had with the millions of land crabs. The crabs eat almost anything, food, paper, cloth, clothes, etc. They would eat the bottoms out of the tents and were constantly underfoot pinching the unwary expeditioner. The fence consisted of an 8 inch high strip of sheet metal very similar to lawn edging. When carefully erected they could not climb over it or crawl under it. The crabs hid in the shade of the coconut palm grove next to our camp during the day and it was an erie sight every evening as the crabs came out to forage. It was like a huge orange army slowly advancing toward our camp and milling about outside the fence. We visualized them piling up against it until it collapsed and they could rush in to devour us... the thing science fiction films are made about! Fortunately the fence held up and was about 99% effective, every hour or two someone would have to go around and toss out two or three crabs but they were not a big problem. As far as I know I was the only casualty - late one night while I was running JA's on 30 meters I got nipped on the little toe!
Outside the compound were the generators and antennas (inedible, although the crabs did nip on the coax a little bit). To me the funniest incident of the trip happened as we were first putting together the antennas outside the fence. I had been helping Arie/PA3DUU assemble the satellite antennas. These had been disassmbled and carefully packed in shipping tubes with instructions for reassembly giving the dimensions in metric units, and we did not have a metric ruler in the camp! I had been running around looking for one when Arie rushed up to me all excited and said "look, look what the crabs did"...he had left the instructions lying on the ground while busy elsewhere and the 8-1/2 x 11 inch sheets were now about 6 x 8....the crabs had eaten nearly an inch off all the way around the sheets! And they had carried off some of the nuts and screws! Fortunately we were still able to complete the assembly and make 700 QSO's on satellite. We eventually had four HF beams plus assorted wires and verticals hooked up with 6 HF and 2 VHF stations. Interference between the stations was minimal so we often had 5 HF rigs going at once, occasionally two on the same band! It was very grueling for nine operators to keep all those stations going and I doubt anyone got more than 5 hours sleep any day we were there, I know I didn't! Just imagine a serious contest going on for ten days, not just a weekend! When we left we never wanted to see a radio again and seriously discussed throwing the rigs in the water!
All of us did find time to take a walk around the island. As I have mentioned, Clipperton is ring-shaped, somewhat oblong actually, measuring about 2-1/2 miles by 1-1/2 miles. That makes the circumference about 6-1/2 miles and it took me 8 hours to hike the distance. The ring is about 1000 feet across at the widest point and at the narrowest about 25, with an average width of around 300 feet, and other than Clipperton Rock, is no more than 11 feet above sea level ("the rock" is a mass of volcanic lava about 320 feet long, 120 feet wide and 69 feet high). Surprisingly there is a lot to catch your interest. The nesting birds (boobies) were not timid and could be approched closely, even petted at the risk of getting nipped! Clipperton Rock is grotesquely eroded into many narrow passages, grottos and caves that could be explored and I managed to climb to its summit. The beaches are covered with flotsam washed up by the waves. Besides the usual driftwood I think every kind of debris created by mankind (that floats) could be found there! This included numerous fishing floats, a perfectly good soccer ball, broken toys, shoes and thousands of bottles. In fact this would be a bottle collectors paradise, everything from shampoo bottles to a whisky jug (I looked for messages but found none).
The major hazard of hiking on the island is, putting it politely, "bird dew". I calculated there are at least 33,000 birds there, mostly boobies which are the size of a duck. At any time about half of them are flying or roosting in a tree and one could not walk outside very long without getting "misted" by a fine spray of milky-white fluid! However we got used to it, by the third day we found it would dry in a few minutes and you just brushed it off and went about your business. I estimated about 33% of the surface of our tents was white when we packed up, that means every spot on the island gets hit about once a month!
Food and drink were not a problem, the boat provided 3 meals a day and we ate like kings! The only cooking apparatus in the camp was a Mr. Coffee. The boat's crew made two trips in per day, in the morning with a hot breakfast and cold lunch, and in the evening with a hot supper. They also brought lots of ice and drinks to keep our three big coolers filled. The daytime temperature was hot, around 88F but a constant 12-18 MPH trade wind kept it comfortable outside, in the tents though it was about 95 in the daytime and in ten days the nine of us went through 42 cases of beer and soft drinks!
Finally on March 14th it was time to pack up and begin our departure. In the afternoon we began taking antennas down and packing away non-essential gear. That night only two stations were still on, Peter on the low bands and me on 20 CW. It seemed the pileup was the biggest ever that night! Our technique was to not spread the pileup out more than 10-20 KHz. and to try to repeat the call of the station we were working twice. This kept us from taking up too much band and assured we had the call right. In the wee hours I was getting so sleepy it was very hard to pick calls out and my QSO rate was down to 50 an hour. Finally around 3 AM I dozed off at the key, only to jerk awake a few minutes later with the pileup still roaring along! I said 73 to all and headed for bed. As I walked out Peter was working Europeans at the remaining station, gesticulating wildly and shouting "listen to me, listen to me!" (in several languages) as he usually did when working Europe.
I awoke the next morning to a loud shout "hey we have company!" Stumbling outside I saw everyone was pointing out to sea. Anchored off the reef was a large formidable-looking warship! Our captain radioed that the French Navy had just boarded his boat and wanted to talk with us! Shortly afterward we saw a dozen men in uniform coming down the beach, several of them carrying machine-guns! Talk about getting nervous, our hearts came up in our throats and were beating triple-time! The thoughts that raced through our heads....we have permission to be here, what could be wrong? isn't our paperwork in order? what have we done? With visions of spending our remaining years in some obscure French prison, we watched as the soldiers formed a circle around our compound, then one of them walked forward and asked "can we help you? Do you need anything?" With a huge sigh of relief we realized they had not come to haul us away but just as a friendly check on how we were. After a pleasant hour's visit they raised the French flag on a nearby flagpole, gave us two bottles of French wine and left! It seems they visit Clipperton once or twice a year just to raise the flag and assert French ownership. Their ship cruises regularly between Tahiti and Acapulco, talk about a rough life! After sitting down for a few minutes while our hearts slowed down and our knees stopped shaking, we resumed breaking camp. Finally at noon Pete shut down the last generator and the final FO0CI QSO was made at 1900 GMT on March 15th.
The rest of the day we spent hauling gear back to the landing site and just before dark everything was safely aboard the Spirit of Adventure with only one near-accident. Have you ever done a power-stall in a motorboat? On my trip out the captain mis-judged the incoming waves and just as we reached the edge of the reef a wave suddenly built up and the boat was trying to climb a nearly vertical wall of water. Fortunately just as we seemed about to flip over the wave broke out from under us and we dropped about six feet back into the water. The drop really smacked our bottoms but we were otherwise dry and unhurt. Those on the 'Spirit claimed they could see the entire bottom of our 12-foot launch as the wave broke under us and we "floated in air" for a moment!
Once aboard, we all took a l-o-n-g hot shower, ate and then crashed for our first good nights rest in twelve days. The boat stayed at anchor until after supper then we headed north for Mexico. Most of the crew slept much of the 4-1/2 day cruise to Cabo San Lucas on the tip of Baja. We did manage to sort through the logs and determine we had made about 48,000 QSO's! That's about 3.3 per minute for ten days. I got my rig out and put the vertical back over the stern to get on as N9NS/mm. You should have seen the dirty looks and growls (havn't you gotten your fill of that yet?!!!) I got! Eventually we reached Cabo and caught our airplane (Alaska Airlines!) back to Los Angeles.
So the adventure was over. Was it fun? Was it worth it? At its conclusion all of us were sick of desert islands, boobies, crabs, radios and pileups! When I got home I told my friend Joe/K8JP "if I ever mention going on a DXpedition again PLEASE talk me out of it, break my legs to stop me if you have to!" Now I find the farther the adventure fades into the past the more it seemed like fun. I am glad I went and am sure all those that worked Clipperton would agree it was worth it! The proof is that we are now planning another wild trip for 1993!
PS A book titled "Clipperton, a History of the Island the World Forgot" by Jimmy M. Skaggs (1989, Walker & Co., N. Y.) makes fascinating reading for someone interested in learning more about Clipperton. It even includes a lengthly description of Robert Dennison's 1954 DXpedition. Also the Cousteau Oddysey Series video "Clipperton, the Island Time Forgot" which aired originally in 1980 on the Public Broadcasting System is available in the video section of some libraries and at many video rental stores.
This article originally appeared in the 256 Group Newsletter