By Jay Kobelin, W2IJ (ex-WA2FIJ)
In mid 1989, a few DX'ers (WA2FIJ, N0AFW and N7QQ) started talking DX on a non-DX VHF repeater in the Los Angeles basin. Dxpeditions became the discussion between the three of us (can't say the same for the other operators on the repeater!). After a few weeks, we actually decided to go on an expedition and had selected a place to go - Clipperton. Clipperton Island, located approximately 650 miles off the west coast of Mexico (10E 18'N - 109E 13'W), has always had an intrigue factor to many people. This factor didn't evade us either. In late 1989 we planned the steps to activate Clipperton.
During 1990, we began to search the route to obtain the necessary paperwork for permission to operate from the island. Our first round of paperwork did raise the interest of the PTT officials in Tahiti which requested a follow up letter detailing the reason for our trip. Our second letter proved successful. This letter (3 pages long) went into detail about ham radio and the reason why Clipperton was needed by the DX community. We received correspondence back not to contact any other French agency and wait. Well, 6 months later we received the paperwork with one of the callsigns we had requested - FO0CI. We were sky high and quite excited about this success. Now the real effort would begin....the planning and pulling together of the required resources and people. All was proceeding per schedule when the Persian Gulf crisis hit the headlines. One of our team members (N0AFW) was called to active duty and we decided not to proceed with the expedition unless all the original members were present. So ended the 1991 activation of Clipperton.
Upon the settling of hostilities in the Persian Gulf, we restarted our efforts in the activation of Clipperton, this time seeking operators from around the world. We sent out data packages on the plans, schedules and logistics to operators we thought would like to participate. The response was slow and showed signs that many operators wouldn't commit a year in advance. We continued to look for operators but many did not come forward. At times we had a dozen operators stating they would participate but there were times (very late in 1991) when we were down to six operators. In October 1991 the team had to make a $10,000 non-refundable down payment to hold the boat for the March, 1992 charter...it was risky since we had but six operators, a $60,000 price tag on the charter and no funding assistance! We decided to do it and hoped that a public request for operators would result with some success. In December of 1991 (during one of the highest media blasts of the recession in the USA), we went public looking for operators. What seemed obvious wasn't. We met with very few takers as a result of recession fear, the required time and the cost of the charter. With further advertising and many phone calls we finally secured 9 operators.
The key to an operation of this size and danger (surf conditions on the coral reefs surrounding the island) is planning, planning and more planning. With the help of N6IC (one of the operators from the 1978 operation), we finally came up with the manifest for the operation and also the strategy to land on the island. The landing plan was to find the lowest surf height location and then move the equipment, once on the beach, across the island to the lagoon. With all equipment on shore we would then carry a 15' boat from the ocean side to the lagoon. All equipment would then be loaded into the boat, transported across the lagoon and then be off-loaded at the proposed campsite. The use of the boat and the lagoon would be our daily method of importing/exporting people and equipment to and from the island. The campsite selected would be south of the largest coconut grove on the island on the west side of Clipperton. A plan we thought should work...or would it?
A few days before departure, with nine operators now committed (N0AFW, WA2FIJ, N7QQ, KA7CQQ, N9NS, WA6FGV, ON6TT, G0LMX AND PA3DUU), four members of our team drove the equipment to San Diego, California to the marina (H & M Landing) where our boat, the Spirit of Adventure was tied up. We arrived mid evening when we met the captain and his crew. We spent the next hour or so loading the equipment on the boat. We chatted with the crew, told them we would see them soon and departed for home late that evening.
On February 29, 1992 the team left the Los Angeles area and proceeded by car and minivan to the marina. We arrived at the marina in the morning and just after noontime we set sail for Clipperton, a 6 day sojourn. We spent time getting accustomed to our new home...88 feet long, 25 foot beam all aluminum, triple screw sport fishing boat. After settling into our rooms, we started to talk to the crew about the purpose of the expedition. Initially they thought we were crazy but by trip's end the captain was asking many questions on how to obtain a ham license!
As we proceeded south from San Diego along Mexico we decided to put a station on the air. We gathered up a TS-950, a Dentron DTR-2000 amplifier and our Butternut vertical. In less than an hour N7QQ/MM2 was on the air with a pileup. We couldn't understand the demand but everyone was wishing us lots of luck...why? And then it hit us. An article about Clipperton Island had just appeared in one of the ham journals describing the problems encountered by other expeditions to Clipperton. The article labelled the island as the "hardluck island" and we guess a lot of folks had read the article and wanted to wish us their best. We thanked all for their kind words. Our maritime mobile operation to Clipperton resulted in almost 5900 QSO's.
By March 5th we were getting (1) edgy, (2) excited and (3) pretty sick of the sea!! At approximately 10AM, the radar equipment from the boat's bridge brought us the first reflection of the island which brought out a great cheer. The reflection looked just like the map we had been studying for 2 years and, right in front of us, was our first contact with Clipperton. The excitement was in the air. We scrambled for our cameras to record the first sighting. At approximately 1PM, we saw Clipperton Rock (about 60 to 80 feet high). As we got closer to the island, we spotted the few coconut trees scattered along the perimeter of the island. When we were within a mile of the island, many dolphins joined us and raced our boat jumping out of the water as if they were greeting us to their home.
We proceeded south along the east side of the island looking for a landing spot. We had French documents that indicated a good spot for landing was just east of Clipperton rock. Well, that was not to be as the surf appeared to be about 4-6 foot in height. Though the height might not seem to be a major problem, it should be understood that the waves crash directly on a coral reef that encircles the island. Passing to the west of Clipperton rock, a large section of the reef juts out into the Pacific. It too did not show any possibility for a safe approach. As the boat began to head north along the west side of the island, a series of low waves were observed. The boat dropped anchor adjacent to this area and lowered one of the flat bottomed aluminum skiffs to investigate that part of the reef structure. After an hour's investigation of the surf and the coral reef (with a second crew member following in a second skiff for safety), the captain returned and indicated he had spotted a 6 foot wide opening in the reef. He returned to the spot and placed a buoy at the opening in the reef. The captain then went ashore to check out the landing spot for coral heads and any other dangerous obstacles that could upright a boat or injure anybody after passing through the opening in the reef. By late afternoon, after verifying that passage through the reef was safe, the Spirit of Adventure's crew returned to the boat and started taking members of the team and tents, generators and cots ashore. With the surf building and the sun beginning to set, the captain decided no more equipment could safely be brought ashore until the following day. Seven of the nine members of the team were on shore carrying equipment approximately 1 mile to the projected campsite. The landing spot, we decided, was no place to establish the site as (1) no trees were around to provide some shade and a block to the incessant wind (2) the ground was comprised of millions of loose coral "rocks" (3) not enough trees for our wire antennas and (4) it wasn't in our plan. After a couple of hours and many trips back and forth to the campsite through the coral rock, crabs and noisy sea birds (most notably the "boobies"), we began to assemble a tent in the dark with the aid of many flashlights. We finally got the tent up (in a manner of speaking), placed the cots inside and straightened out the site the best we could. With adrenalin flowing, the thought of sleep escaped two operators (WA2FIJ and ON6TT). The two took a walk, with flashlights, around the island but stayed "close to home". WA2FIJ got the surprise of his life when a boobie attempted to fly away from the two walkers and, in its attempt to become airborne, crashed into the side of his head.
The next morning the remaining two members and equipment started arriving via our lagoon's delivery service. Tents began popping up (four total) and the crab fence was erected around the entire site. The crab fence, constructed of 7" high sheet metal and supported by ground stakes every 5 feet or so, managed to keep the tens of thousands of the fist-size crabs out of our campsite. By expedition's end we estimated that less than 100 crabs breached our security fence! The site was slowly beginning to take shape. With one generator running, a vertical quickly installed and a TS950 sitting on one of the cots, FOfCI was ready for its first QSO. We went to 10 meters and asked "Is the frequency in use?". A station responded "No" and we asked him for his call. He didn't respond with his call immediately but said we could use the frequency which was followed (from us) by "Well, if you want to use it, its OK". He still had no idea who we were nor did we know who he was !! We finally got a QSO going and at 1812 GMT on March 6, 1992 FO0CI had logged its first QSO with Lyle, N4QH. We announced that we would be QRV in about 2 hours and went QRT to get a beam up and get more equipment on-line. Soon antennas were sprouting all around the campsite. The 1500 feet of coax we brought along was needed to configure the site, one of the longest lengths feeding our WARC beam on a 40 foot crank-up tower (we believe the first amateur crank-up tower at Clipperton) which was floated ashore with aid of four large buoys. When the site was finally configured, the following antennas were up: (1) three 10-15-20 Yagis, (2) a WARC beam, (3) a 6 meter beam, (4) a Mode B antenna setup for satellite (during the assembly of the satellite antennas, Arie (PA3DUU) stepped away for a few minutes and when he returned his instructions were almost devoured by the crabs!) (5) a sloper for 160, 80 and 40 (7) a 75/40 inverted vee (6) an 80 meter inverted vee and (7) a vertical used for 10 meters (for 6 meter opening announcements) and 40 CW when the wire antennas were in use.
Three gas generators were brought on shore, one planned for a backup. The plan called for the 5KW and one 4KW to be running 24 hours per day with a spare 4KW. After a few hours of running the 5KW generator, purchased one week prior to expedition, emitted a loud pop accompanied with a white puff of smoke. The gas engine on the generator continued to run. A couple of the operators came running out of one of the tents yelling over the generator noise that power to their tent was gone. We shut down the generator and brought it into the campsite. After N7QQ and KA7CQQ had removed the generator portion of the unit, it was apparent what had happened. An electrolytic capacitor, used in what appeared to be a regulating area of the generator, self-destructed. Where does one find a 130uf/100VDC capacitor on Clipperton? All our radios (except the TS520) were solid state and scavenging a transceiver would probably result in not finding a capacitor of this value. An amplifier, a Collins 30L1 not yet configured at the site, was removed from its box. Two electrolytic capacitors were removed from its 1600VDC supply. The generator was re-assembled with two wires coming out the side of the generator where we were to attach the two capacitors. With the capacitors connected via two jumper leads, the generator was started. A DMM was plugged in but showed no AC voltage....had we lost 5KW of power? A desk lamp was then plugged into the generator and the bulb glowed with 60 beautiful watts of light! The generator was fixed but why didn't we see the voltage on the DMM? As it turned out the test probes weren't long enough to test the AC receptacle on the generator. We taped up the capacitors, tie wrapped them to the generator housing and had no other problems with that generator for the remaining time on the island. The generators, about 75 feet away from the site, were refueled every 6 to 8 hours. The reason for such a long time is that we had modified a 5 gallon gas can by installing two gasoline petcock valves along the bottom of the can. Fifteen feet of gasoline hose (used to separate the fuel source from the generators) was then connected to the petcock valves and run to the generators. Gasoline was then drawn through the hose to eliminate air pockets and then connected directly to the generator's carburetor (bypassing the small tanks found on many generators). This gravity feed system had four positive results: (1) safety, (2) long run time (with the ability to "slosh feed" the modified five gallon can with fuel, the danger of spilling gasoline on a hot, running generator was completely eliminated) (3) elimination of the need to shut down equipment every time a generator required refueling and (4) eliminated the problems of restarting a very hot generator.
With the site operational, we started to piece together propagation conditions, especially to Europe. Europe has never had its appetite fulfilled of Clipperton, so our attention (from the start) was to study the conditions to Europe and then use all our assets in an attempt to satisfy Europe's need for the island. The biggest surprise was 10 meters. Ten meters remained opened from the early AM hours to well after sunset, allowing us to work both Europe and other regions of the world. We attempted to coordinate our activity to coincide with normal, working hours of the Europeans. North, Central and South America could be worked at any time but the path to Europe had to be exercised the best we could. Our attention to Europe even affected our total expedition time as we extended the operation from one weekend to two weekends a few weeks prior to departure. Europe did prove a bit hard to work at times. Four QSO's could be made with North America per minute but for Europe (and Japan) the Q rate, at times, dropped to one per minute. It is our guess that language could be the problem. When specific directions were given, it appeared as though the directions were not understood. Three of the operators, all from Europe, tried ever so hard to explain the directions but many didn't understand or wouldn't listen. Those that did listen, and understood, probably have Clipperton in their log. The team's intention to work Europe was planned and put into action. Our estimate is that 1 of every 4 QSO was European - well exceeding our original plans.
As time went on, the propagation began to be clear and predictable. We were able to say "Well, twenty should be good for a European opening right about now". It does take time to gather all real propagation characteristics. The predictions from the computer printouts were marginal but had some weak parallels to the actual propagation we witnessed. When an expedition is on the air, don't be too quick to run to the prediction charts but rather allow the expedition time to gather data as they hear it so that they can maximize the paths. It took us about 48 hours to figure all the HF bands after which we made use of the propagation.
With up to seven stations on the air at once (5 HF, a Mode B satellite station and 6 meter kilowatt station), the time and manpower required for meal preparation could consume the total time of an operator. We never had to face this extra burden. Our plan, from the onset, was to have the crew prepare and deliver the meals to us. The plan became a reality as the crew successfully delivered meals which were prepared on the boat, placed in chests and brought to our site via our lagoon service. Only once in nine days did we miss a meal because the crew couldn't return to the boat in the afternoon due to surf conditions. Dinner that night was beer, crackers and cookies! Always present was a chest full of ice, soda, milk and beer. Another chest always had some snack - fruit, cookies and crackers. Drinking water (from the boat's desalinization equipment) was used to freshen up when required. Also present was an electric coffee machine used to get our internal engines going in the morning (along with caffeine loaded soda for those wee hours in the AM on 40 CW!). Our goal was to provide all the amenities that could make daily life acceptable since the number of Qs could be hindered seriously if the operators were not comfortable. Our thoughts in the planning process was operator satisfaction. In the end, we couldn't find an area in the manifest that we would have changed.
Life on the island became quite acceptable. Everyone put in their share of time and effort on the air. On the air occurrences was always a discussion during our meals especially the daily pileups. Pileup handling, always an area of differing opinions with Dxers, presented a challenge but we had some goals that were discussed prior to our departure and also during the trip to Clipperton. Our goal was to keep the spreads to 15 KHZ maximum. On all but one occasion we stuck to our plans. During the first 24 hours of operation a spread of 20 KHZ was used once for a short time on SSB. For the remaining hours of operation the spread seldom exceeded 15 KHZ, most of the time averaging between 5 to 10 KHZ. Pileup management can be handled in different ways but one technique used by some of our operators primarily for stateside kept the pileup manageable resulting in an average rate of 4 Qs per minute. Besides working by districts, working the district by the first letter of the prefix (A, K, N, and W) was very efficient during the first few days of operation. "Five number 8's beginning with A only", "Five number 8's beginning with K only", not only kept the exchanges fast but let everyone know when to call. The math proves it: by running districts, the number of stations calling is reduced by 90%. Further defining within the district (by prefix, as described above) results in an additional 75% reduction of the remaining 10%. The net result is (1) a reduction of the pileup size by 97.5%, which allows for more Qs per minute (2) a more efficient overall operation for both the DXpedition members and those looking to work them and (3) the reduction in the size of the spread.
Life on the air and off the air became easier as the tension of the first few days wore off. Many members of the team actually walked the entire perimeter of the island (approximately a 3 to 4 hour walk). Items noticed during the walk were quite amusing - enough shoes to open a store, about 35,000 squawking sea birds, a few intact florescent bulbs, toilet seats, 2 golf clubs, basketball nets, an old French weather station, an ammunition dump from WWII, HF beams from previous expeditions, empty 55 gallon fuel drums from Cousteau's visit and many bottles. After the 2 hour walk to Clipperton Rock, we saw the outline of a small rock fence at the base of the Rock where the infamous lighthouse keeper probaly lived. The history of Clipperton Island is rich in politics, intrigue, rape and murder with the lighthouse keeper as one of the key players. It was an eerie feeling to be standing on the spot where, in the early 1900's, rape and murder were committed. We scaled the Rock but could not get to the top since a large rock, covered in slippery bird guano, blocked the path to the top . We decided not to attempt to reach the top and returned to the base of the Rock. After the 4 hour walk, with the ever present squawking boobies at every other footstep, it was a pleasure to return to humanity - the campsite and the sound of the humming generators.
Early in the morning on the last day of operation (March 15, 1992), as we were breaking down the campsite, we received a call from the captain of our boat on the VHF marine handhelds. He asked "Where is the French paperwork?" We responded "In the bridge where the maps are located. Why?". He responded by telling us the French Navy just bordered his boat and that he was going through a friendly interrogation. We walked to the edge of the island and there it was - a 500 foot French Destroyer dwarfing our boat! With all our paperwork in place, smoke poured from the French vessel as it turned and began to leave Clipperton waters. We returned to the campsite to continue to break down the site. About 30 minutes later, while working on the campsite, we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by French Navy personnel brandishing automatic assault weapons. The medical officer stepped forward, said good morning in broken English and asked us if any of us needed any medical. Our first reaction was to say if you use those weapons we'll surely need some medical attention but restraint was in the air! After a short discussion, G0LMX and ON6TT (who both speak French) were summoned from the tents to chat with the French personnel. They finally told us that their main purpose for being landing on the island was to place the French flag on a monument just north of our campsite. After chatting with us, we brought some of their landing party into one of the tents for a demonstration. We got on the air and called "QRZ France only" and started a QSO with a French station. The officers was amazed. After 2 hours the navy personnel left the site for the monument, raised the flag and departed the island. They had a very rough time getting off the island.
The scheduled time for leaving the island, based on the tide levels, was now delayed. After our last QSO at 1553GMT with KB9BIB, we continued to break down the campsite and transport all material and personnel to the beach via our lagoon service. We were now stuck on the beach waiting for the tide to rise. After a few hours of eating spaghetti and drinking warm beer, the captain was able to get all the team members and equipment on the boat, safe and dry. On that beautiful late afternoon we departed the waters of Clipperton happy to be back on the boat. There was a touch of melancholy leaving that afternoon...the two years of planning and the nine days of operation had come to end. We now only had to look forward to the voyage home.
Our return trip home was uneventful with some maritime mobile operation (N9NS/MM2). After four days, eight of the nine team members departed the Spirit of Adventure in Los Cabos, Mexico for a flight back to Los Angeles. One team member (KA7CQQ, John) enjoyed the voyage back to the home port of San Diego where he coordinated the return of our equipment.
The results of the Dxpedition were more than we had expected. We logged 48,000 QSO's in 213 hours. The percentile distribution by bands are shown in Figure 1.
We had gone to Clipperton to operate but, for some of us, it was an opportunity of a lifetime. The dream of landing at Clipperton, figuring out how to get on/off the island, outsmarting the crabs, firing up the generators for the first contact, being told ".... great operation. Thanks for the new one", working 7 year old novices on 15CW, good European openings and being scared out of our pants by the French Navy resulted in an adventure this team will never forget.
We would like to dedicate this Dxpedition to the memory of Joel Paladino, N6AMG, who recently became a SK, for his total effort in setting up our VHF operation. We also would like thank the following who played a key role prior to our departure: (1) Mr. Pierre Simon of the PTT in Tahiti (2) Mr. and Mrs. Charles Adler for the last minute loan (3) the Southern California DX Club (4) AMSAT (5) the National Wire and Cable Company and (6) the Hoosier Club. Further, we would like to thank the following for their support after the expedition: (1) the Clipperton DX Club (2) EUDXF (3) INDXA and (4) the 256 DX Group. We also would like to thank all the amateurs throughout the world who assisted us with their individual efforts and support. Finally, our team would like to congratulate the crew of the Spirit of Adventure, led by Captain Mike Keating. The crew provided the greatest day by day support any team could ever imagine......thanks Captain Mike, Hardluck Island has been defeated!
This article originally appeared in the March/April 1993 issue of The DX magazine, printed by the DX Publishing, Inc.