During the Summer of 2011, my IOTA Expedition QSL Manager, Fred/N6AWD, asked me if I had thought about activating NA-184. I had not, but decided to do some research. Initial plans were subsequently formulated to attempt a weather-permitting trip when the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society helicopter flights resumed in November.
Unfortunately, I developed some serious lower back problems in late August which prevented me from any travel for many months. So a new revised plan was made to make an attempt in the Spring. A U.S. Government Agency only allows the SGRLPS to make one weekend trip per month between November and April of each year. Since their permit was not renewed until March, 2011 (and that trip cancelled due to bad weather), this meant only one more possibility in April or else another QRX until late 2011. For me, this would have to be either the weekend before, or weekend after the DX Convention in Visalia since I had been asked to be the "M.C." for the annual IOTA Dinner there on Friday night. (NOTE: It was great to see Martin/G3ZAY and "Dr. Dom"/M0BLF at Visalia again this year).
The trip to NA-184 would require a 900+ mile round trip drive in my SUV to Crescent City (CA), and then via VERY small helicopter out to Northwest Seal Rock and the St. George Reef Lighthouse located about 6 miles off the coast. My equipment and generator would have to be transported via a small metal basket at the end of a "sling line" below the helo before me, and after I returned to the mainland. If any problems developed near the end, all of my cargo might be stuck out on the rock for another 7 months before it could be retrieved. With other IOTA Expeditions in the works for 2011 (especially the first-time activation of NA-242 with Mike/K9AJ in July), this caused me some "anxiety" !!! Fortunately, everything worked out fine.
A week before the trip, the TV News reported that the main U.S. Highway 101 in Northern California had been closed due to a major mudslide. Fortunately, road repairs were done just in time for my trip. However, the weather people were forecasting possible rain on the weekend. Even with the possibility of the long drive to Crescent City and not being able to go by helo out to NA-184, I decided to "go for it" and left my home QTH on 7 April in time to hopefully see things all work out OK.
As part of my special "extended stay" arrangement with the wonderful folks in the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society, I would be able to use their larger portable generator during the daytime and early evening hours, and then fire up my Honda EU1000i to operate later when their generator was shut down for the night. Amazingly, the SGRLPS 5,500 watt "Champion" generator produced no on-air birdies or hash, and handled my equipment plus the power tools used by the volunteers working on the lighthouse with no problems. Indeed, a "Miracle".
I would NOT attempt such an IOTA Expedition without taking two complete stations including two computers, backups for everything (except the operator) and enough antenna components to rebuild at least 3 times in the event of any unwanted visits by "Mr. Murphy". I had initially hoped to have only 2 or 3 waterproof travel cases plus the generator, but ended up with 6 cases plus the generator, a fold-up cot for my sleeping bag, and the last minute addition of a new folding table and chair. "Oooops" - of course, I made a an additional contribution to the SGRLPS on top of our original special arrangement for an extended stay out at the lighthouse to mitigate the increased cargo. The table and chair were left at the lighthouse as an additional donation for their future use.
The primary NA-184 station would be a 200 watt TS-480HX with a 100 watt TS-480SAT as the backup rig. Two small ASUS Netbook computers loaded with TR4W and mini-Ergonomic keyboards would handle the logging, rig control and CW keying (via a dual USB to RS-232 adaptor and W1WEF serial keying interface). I also took a WKUSB unit "just-in-case". Mostly aluminum antenna components (including collapsable lightweight aluminum "Shock-Cord" whips) from Buddipole were used for the verticals, with a heavy duty "JAWS" mounting device from High-Sierra. I also took wire for dipoles/inverted vees if necessary. Instead of a traditional coax RF choke at the base of the vertical, I decided to use a Double PL-259 to directly mount a W2DU balun with SO-239 connectors on each end, and slim-line "Quick Disconnects" at the antenna base to NOT have to deal with 3/8 x 24 threads in the event of high winds (which did prevail). These worked out GREAT!!!
Pre-Configuring and Pre-Testing the computer/logging/rig control/CW keying gear, and most of the antenna component items assortment.
Although the "JAWS" mount for attaching to the lower Lighthouse railing was very heavy duty, "just-in-case" I decided to take a 2nd backup (and for possible use with a Parasitic Reflector). The separate quarter-wave radials per band were bundled together with "Quick Disconnects" to expedite changing bands (especially in the dark of night).
Full sized verticals were used on 20m and 17m, a slightly shortened vertical with BP "mini coil" center loading on 30m, and for local West Coast on 40m, a traditional shortened vertical with center loading coil. We could only speculate what mutual coupling might take place between the radial wires and/or the metal railing, but there was no practial way to try and precisely model this in advance. So the flexible plan was to trim the ends of the individual radial wires if necessary once installed. Checking the SWR before first going QRV on 17m, with an initial SWR of 1.2:1 (!!!) I decided nothing further was required. Plus, I had TWO external autotuners with me :^) My decision as to antenna components was for minimal windload, and not knowing the actual strength of the railing, to use as lightweight aluminum components as possible. In the event of high wind damage, unlike taking a commercial off-the-shelf vertical (and one or two complete extra antennas for parts), my "St. George Reef Special" approach will continue to be my primary IOTA antenna arsenal. BUT, with another configuration of 8 to 16 radials when a suitable footprint is available.
One of the major pre-trip challenges considering the small footprint to work with, was trying to determine the best possible antenna system with a focus and primiary target being Europe. The difficulty was that due to cloud cover in Google Earth, I had now way of ascertaining the orientation of the lighthouse before I got out there. Many discussions with NA-184 Pilot Station NI6T took place, and consideration of various options and possibilities. Not knowing exactly how much space there was to work with at the lighthouse made things even more of a "best guesstimate". I ended up with "Plan A" being to hopefully mount a vertcial with 2 elevated radials per band off the upper deck of the lighthouse, "Plan B" being somewhere on the lower railing, and "Plan C" the "be flexible" remaining option. If the orientation were right, I thought about a sloper or two coming off the top deck to the the outside of the lower level platform, but that unfortunately would have obstructed the helicopter "LZ" (Landing Zone"). There was NOT much room to land out a helicopter there!
My Tahoe SUV was jam packed with cargo (including the generator, a case of water, waterproof boots and other items). Regarding the White looking object in the right rear of my SUB, I had my local sheet metal/welding guru fabricate a special lightweight aluminum "rain shelter" for my Honda EU1000i. This was the Protoype for several for use at NA-242 this Summer. The aluminum panels can be unscrewed and will fit very flat into the top of one of my new Yellow Hardigg STORM cases. A flip-top lid allows access for refueling. Several design mods will be made, but the shelter worked out very well on the "Maiden Voyage". I tied a long piece of bright Orange ribbon on all my cargo to easily identify it from all the SGRLPS volunteer's luggage, etc.
When I arrived in Crescent City after the long 450 long drive shortly before 8PM local on 7 April, I had been referred to "The Lighthouse Inn" as a nice place to stay. It turned out to be more than nice. Very clean and exceptional service. If you are ever in this part of California, I highly recommend it! A most unusual Manikin will great you in the front entry :^)
Early Friday morning was "Showtime" at the airport. Although it looked as if the The RavenII helicopter would be delayed several hours due to "frost mitigation" work over in the Redding area, I arrived at the airport to find it was on-site as scheduled. There were some delays while air was put into the "floats" and then all the cargo including the SGRLPS generator and power tools had to go out to the rock in multiple "sling load" trips before I could be transported. Watching my equipment fly off in that little metal basket gave me "anxiety" !!!
We finally took off for NA-184 and the adrenalin started flowing QRQ as the St. George Reef Lighthouse on Northwest Seal Rock (with the VERY small landing zone) drew closer and closer :^)
"THE EAGLE HAS LANDED" (what I sent via Twitter once I had arrived on the rock).
Then came the long climb up the many steps to the top of the lighthouse to survey the antenna mounting possibilities off the upper deck (just below the top). And, of course, ascertain the exact azimuth for Europe. When I walked out on that deck, the wind was blowing so hard I thought I would go over the side. As I considered having to climb the many steps at night and go out on the deck in the wind and possibly rain to change antenna (bands), I immediately decided that "Plan A" would be to dangerous (especially if the winds were really blowing strong), and retreated down to the lower level to take GPS/compass reads and proceed with "Plan B". Note the new sling load just delivered by the helo before it landed briefly in the below photo (taken from the upper deck).
So here's how things finally played out according to the annotated photo of the NA-184 staton layout below. A clear shot to Europe, Africa, North America, South America and The Pacific. Although the lighthouse structure helped mitigate the strong winds primarily from the NorthWest, over 250 of our JA IOTA friends managed to creatively "bend their signals" around the lighthouse for QSOs in the log :^) After going through the adjacent door to the inside of the lighthouse, I only had to walk up and down several steps to get into the shack which was nice - especially each time I went to change antenna bands.
The 17m antenna is showing in the above right photo. As the winds shifted a bit, the taller full size 20m vertical version almost touched the lighthouse but still worked fine. Although propagation varied, it was quite rewarding to get some signal reports like S9+45dB (!!!) from W7SW on one band, S9+20dB from the East Coast and "Real" 5NN (LOUD) reports from Europe especially on Saturday evening (local). I just wish 20m would have stayed open longer. 30m had disappointing progation, and 40m had an absence of activity. The final "CQ Meter" showed EXACTLY 1 CQ for every QSO made. Strange, but true.
The upper section of a window between the outside and the "shack" was missing, which worked nicely for routing coax and generator cables. Unfortunately, as the sun went down the cold wind blowing through the window was most uncomfortable, until one of the SGRLPS volunteer workers managed to unstick both outside shutters and wired them shut for me except with just enough room for the cables. My "Quick Disconnects" on the radials worked great, as did the QD for the vertical antenna component. The heavy salt-laden air and spray was so strong Friday night, that next morning the base of the JAWS mount looked like a Margarita glass with a ring of salt around it!!!
In the rush to get on the air, I did not worry about "dressing" the various cables. As it got progressively cold at night, even though the window shutters were mostly closed, I kept putting on clothes to keep warm. The "shack" was also my sleeping quarters at night, with my sleeping bag on a low cot partway under the operating table. Just behind the chair was the door to one of the "Public Restrooms". This resulted in some "Local QRM" at times.
Before making the trip up to NA-184, I had been informed that the wife of one of the volunteers would be cooking meals for everyone staying at the lighthouse. WOW ... I certainly was not expecting a complete fried chicken dinner on Friday Night, a big eggs, bacon and pancakes breakfast on Saturday morning or all the other goodies. Marilyn did an excellent job with the food, and NA-184 worked to be "LOCUST PARADISE" :^)
In the lower level of the support structure for the lighthouse were some very interesting pieces of history including 3 old diesel generators and a massive power distribution panel that somewhat resembled an old 50KW commercial broadcast transmitter. The original power at the lighthouse was by coal.
Sadly, the time came to leave early Sunday morning and all my gear (except the Honda generator) was staged in what had been the shack to "hopefully" return by helo sling load later in the afternoon. I would have preferred to travel much "lighter", but felt it was prudent to have two complete stations and other backup items in case of a "Murphy Strike". When the helo left, I was fortunate to have a front seat this time and a great view of my return to the mainland. That little RavenII helicopter has a very cool cockpit.
After spending two nights in a sleeping bag on the lighthouse floor, it felt GREAT to return again to a nice room with a big bed in a warm room at the Lighthouse Inn. After checking in, I walked over to the restaurant bar next door and had a nice "Jack Daniels on the Rocks" to celebrate my safe return from the rock. Then, I continued the celebration with an excellent cheeseburger and fries with a cold beer. No, I didn't spill on myself - I had tried to wash off the mustard stain on my sweatshirt from previous QLF at the lighthouse :^)
I am hoping to go back to NA-184 again maybe next year when we have more sunspots for propagation to Europe especially on 15m. Next time, I will probably use a Parasitic Reflector for more antenna gain on 20/17/15m, and take a Honda EU2000i along with my new Elecraft KPA500 amp for more RF power.
This IOTA NA-184 trip would not have been possible without the cooperation of the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society, and especially Guy & Alice Towers, Terry & Fran McNamara, and all the dedicated SGRLPS volunteers I was privileged to spend time with out at the lighthouse on Northwest Seal Rock. These nice folks all made me feel like a part of their family. Major Kudos to Marilyn for her excellent cooking, and to Dave the skilled Raven II helicopter pilot for getting myself and all my equipment safely to and from the St. George Reef Lighthouse.
Additional Special Thanks to:
* RSGB IOTA – Roger/G3KMA, Martin/G3ZAY & “Dr. Dom”/M0BLF
* The Lighthouse Inn Staff for the Exceptional Service
* Fred, N6AWD - NA-184 IOTA Expedition QSL Manager
* Garry, NI6T - NA-184 Pilot Station (“El Pilote”)
* Frank & Frank, Jr. at Frank’s Auto Service
* CalTrans – For clearing the slide on US101 up North
* All the nice folks who made packet cluster spots to alert IOTA enthusiasts World Wide needing an NA-184 QSO
* Everyone who worked K6VVA/6 at NA-184
* Those who made unsolicited donations with QSLs to help offset exenses
The total cost of this NA-184 activation trip (including a major donation to the SGRLPS, but NOT including several SGRLPS gift items purchased) and QSL printing was $1,449.24 (USD). In my limited 19 hours of operation, the result was 1,300 QSOs (and 1,300 CQ's sent). There were periods of pileups, and other times of unanswered CQ's. Approximately 55% of total QSOs were with EUROPE and ASIA/JA (33% EU, 19.6% ASIA). I sincerely hope these were "New IOTA" QSOs for many.
I invite you to visit the SGRLPS website at: http://www.stgeorgereeflighthouse.us for more information about the restoration work this fine group of volunteers is doing. Any and all donations directly to them would certainly be most welcome. A Google search for the St. George Reef Lighthouse will also yield various articles about the amazing history and building of this lighthouse in the late 1800's.
At the Lighthouse Inn the night before the helo flight out to the rock, I was feeling somewhat "anxious" about the next day. Opening the Gideon Bible in the nightstand I read: “He shall set me high upon a rock.” (Psalms 27:5), in which I found great comfort and assurance that things would indeed go well. When I arrived safely at NA-184, climbed the lighthouse stairs and walked out on the upper deck looking straight down at the "rock" way below, I said: "Hallelujah, Praise The Lord, Thank You Jesus!!!":^)
Several short iPHONE4 videos converted to .wmv files from the trip: (May take a while to buffer/load)
* Cargo sling load leaving the airport for NA-184
* My arrival via helicopter at NA-184
* Sling load being lowered by helo at NA-184
* Leaving NA-184 in the helicopter
Rick, K6VVA * The Locust
NCCC Co-Founding Member
FOC, A1 Op, CWops
DXCC, WAZ, et.al.