The Story of VK9CZ 2019  -  by Keith Kerr GM4YXI / GM5X (some photos will be added a.s.a.p.)

Our decision to return to VK9C for a third time might seem somewhat unadventurous but with expected poor high band propagation, interesting possibilities on the low bands, a great location and the CQWWCW contest, it still seemed like a reasonable choice.

We needed six flights (Aberdeen, Scotland – London – Singapore – Sydney – Perth – Christmas Island – Cocos Keeling) to get there. Singapore direct to Perth would have been more efficient but there was no availability within budget! This trip involved an overnight in Perth, WA on the way out. We were met at the airport by an old friend of Chris’, Roddy VK6MH. Roddy graciously transported us with our 7 x 23Kg checked luggage (including two 1.6m long ski-bags stuffed with fibreglass poles, coax etc) and four carry-on bags to our overnight hotel. Later that evening we met up with Steve VK6VZ, who gave some useful insights into the low bands from zone 29.

We arrived in Cocos (Keeling) on Tuesday evening 12th November and were totally exhausted. Our accommodation was the same as before, at the optimistically name Cocos Beach Resort. Room 28 is the well known spot – last room in a collection of beach side blocks of rooms more in the style of a military barracks – which afforded access to a bit of beach side space for antennas without compromising movement of vehicles and people. We had booked and confirmed rooms 27 & 28 back in February. On arrival we were not being given those rooms but after some persuading, we managed at least to get room 28 for the shack. Second shock was learning that the rates quoted to us were not what we were being charged. In essence our accommodation cost us twice what we expected and about 110% more than two years ago. We unpacked and rearranged the shack room with our gear and had the stations more or less ready before collapsing into sleep.

Our next unwelcome surprise came the following morning when a recce of the area revealed a dramatic change to the coastal strip due to erosion – much more than we could have expected in 2 years. I reckon this strip of land has receded 6-10 feet (in places, even more) since 2013. Knock on effects from this and changes in neighbouring properties, whose beach side land was previously accessible, meant we has less space for antennas. In turn this meant that we were not able to separate our antennas as well as before and did suffer interstation QRM with some band combos.

The antenna installation period at the start of a DXpedition is always tough, because we are tired on arrival after a gruelling journey, we are not adjusted to either the extreme temperatures (every day of our trip saw outside temps of 35C+ in the shade and we barely saw a cloud. It has not rained in Cocos Keeling since April), or the time zone, and we were having to rethink our plans and adapt. Thankfully we had taken enough coax! We did install two remote coax switches but these were abandoned since we worried they might have been responsible for some RF-in-the-shack issues we suffered once we got started (see later). In future we might save some luggage weight and use our tried and tested coax barrel connectors. Apart from the early battles with dehydration and sunburn, Chris fell on day two and sustained a nasty foot injury. This really limited his mobility and it got much worse as the inevitable foot swelling, that we both suffer from anyway as we sit for hours at our radios, set it. It was really only on our way home that he regained full mobility.

We put up the easy antennas on Wednesday (15, 17, 20, 30, 40) such as our energy would allow, the Moxons are really easy to erect and we have learnt all the tricks to ensure a decent match. The 160m antenna went up the following morning after a lot of work in an area of boulders on the beach which made walking about very difficult and hazardous. The prep and installation took all morning and a chunk of the afternoon. Even laying the earth mat in this terrain was tricky. The high tide mark passed the base of the antenna. We were unable to access the site for the 80m vertical until Friday morning and after some negotiation with occupants of a rental house opening onto that part of the beach. In the early morning it went up relatively easily – again the base of the vertical was wet at high tide and had to be very secure. 160 and 80m were based on our excellent 18m Spiderbeam poles. We have learned how to create a secure ‘hinged base’ using rope. By routing the wire around the top guys, a ‘full sized’ 80m vertical is easy. Using the same design with an added top T-loading section gave us a good 160m antenna.

The QTH was electrically noisy. Of course the atmospheric noise was substantial but there seemed to be a lot of man-made stuff too. We suspect at least some originated from a large new solar panel array and LED multi-floodlight installation at a neighbouring property. Our low band Rx antennas (K9AY, FO0AAA and even an attempt at a BOG) were of no help at all, despite good test performance at home.

And so we got QRV – our first QSOs were on FT8 on 30m, interleaved with prep work on Wednesday 13th. We later learned we had been pirated on 160 and 40m even before we had our antennas up. Conditions on the high bands were pretty poor in general as we expected. We worked relatively little on 12m and even 15m was really tough. On the latter, the JA opening was short and not necessarily strong. On 17m the noise levels were very high and my amplifier was unusable on this band due to false high SWR sensing – a known fault as we discovered. 20m was solid and reliable. One thing that was very noticeable on this trip was the very deep and rapid QSB that dogged us virtually all the time, making for a lot of lost and incomplete QSOs. Another thing we noticed was the very patchy propagation we had into Europe, especially on 15m – a real spotlight effect which varied hour by hour and day by day but seemed to favour regions which had not long passed sunrise into daylight, especially in more Northerly latitudes. We would have huge signals from OH, YL, ES, LY but nil else, or SM and OZ, or just the UK. As always, EA was usually easy to work, and from time to time Italy was romping in but this was not a given. It seemed that central and Eastern Europe often had no propagation at all. We suspect that high band conditions were best in the days after we arrived and slowly deteriorated – we were not hanging out there all the time to find out and probably missed the best opportunities for 15 and 17m into EU.

On this trip, the low bands had priority – our previous trips to VK9C had coincided with high SFI and good high band propagation. The Americas were also a priority – in these continents, the need for a VK9C QSO is much greater and the paths are far more challenging. The VK9C antipodes is in the Caribbean. Our sunset grey line coincided with peak 15m time into EU but also SR in NA – oh, and also with the only time we could get hot food in the ‘canteen’! Low band grey line was prioritised. Our first two nights on 160m seemed to us to be by far the best and after this it was really tough on CW, but we were able to keep making FT8 QSOs with NA. We had learned in previous visits that the long path into Eastern/Mid NA around our SR could be great on 80 and 40m especially, and so it was again, although it varied greatly from day to day. Over most evenings after our SS, we tracked SR over NA and were QRV on 160 or 80m or both. We had some very good nights on 80m in particular. All this meant, of course, that we were not somewhere else, like 30m or high bands for EU. We could have made a lot more QSOs in total, but our aim was quality, not necessarily quantity (see later).

Come the contest weekend, we were more than half way through our DXpedition, consequently we were fairly exhausted at the start of the event, but it did provide us with a great excuse NOT to be on FT8! The Friday daytime before the event was spent replacing the 12m vertical Moxon with our 10m version, and making and erecting a second 40m vertical to give us options to help with interstation QRM problems. All this effort meant we could operate on any two of the contest bands simultaneously, but did sap remaining energy levels. With only two of us (and neither of us are in our first flush of youth), an expedition focussing on low bands is a tough challenge, as is an attempt at the multi-two category. But we are both contest nuts and love operating!

The contest began for us an hour after our sunrise. One station ran on 20m for about 15 hours with rare visits to 10m whilst the other did some multiplier hunting on 40m before running 15m. First day pile ups were intense from JA and then EU, even through the normally dead zone a couple of hours either side of our local midday. As 15m died that station moved to 40m whilst the 20m seat did some time on 80m and 160m. During the preceding days we had very good long path opening to North and South America on 80m and 40m around our sunrise and so it was for our first SR during the contest – several East Coast NA, VE and mid West plus several LUs worked on 80m. Lots more on 40m including many Caribbean mults. Many of these Caribbean stations were very close to our antipodes – a long way from VK9C – but had excellent signals. Mostly we got through the pile-ups and some guys had incredible ears when they were no so loud with us. Some, however, missed out, despite many calls from us.

When we hit the dead zone on day two rest was needed. We had kept at least one station, and usually two, going for over 25 hours but we had to stop for a little over 3 hours but figured in terms of the contest at least, there was relatively little to miss at this time. The restart saw the same running on 20 and 15 whilst keeping an eye on 10m. Eventually we decided to try a few CQs on 10m and were rewarded with 5T0AA and D4C amongst others. 40m was again good into NA at our sunset. We spent more time on 80m over out last night and picked up some good multipliers like KH6, AH2, ZL and KL7 as their sunrise approached. JT5DX took a long time to raise. 160m was also a little better for us that second night into EU. 40m was again good into the Caribbean and East/Mid US prior to our sunrise but on 80m, with the notable exception of ZF9CW who was not loud and actually took me by surprise when he answered my call, there was nothing like the LP opening we had the morning before. 20 and 40m were both running until the end. Finished with 4324 scoring QSOs for a little over 7.6M points. Hopefully we had made a lot of ops happy with a cool multiplier.

The contest finished about an hour after SR on our Monday morning but it was late afternoon before we emerged from sleep and operated some before needing more sleep. In the last few days on the trip we tried to find a bit more high band time, did more SSB on 40, 20 and 17 (even some on 80m) but were frustrated by the poor propagation. On our last morning, with one station and most of our antennas packed up, the long path NA opening on 40m SSB was outstanding.

We had to phase the tear down of antennas and reduce band options over a couple of days (ten antennas, two stations, 1.5 mobile operators). In addition, our departure flight was brought forward by several hours which meant we had little or no time on the morning of departure to do very much. 80 and 160 could not be left to last – that honour went to 40m.

Overall we were happy with the outcome – total QSOs (16K) were way down on previous trips – a combined effect of poor high bands, low band focus and FT8. Our proportion of QSOs on low bands and with NA was high – so we achieved our stated aims to some extent at least. Overall the trip was very enjoyable and reminded us of how much of a buzz it is to be at the DX end of a pile up and the fun of giving out new ones. We also really enjoyed the contest, making many more QSOs and points that we had managed in CQWWSSB two years before when high bands conditions were much, much better.

Our two flights back to Perth were delayed but we were delighted to see Roddy again and are really grateful for his taxi and baggage handling service – THANKS RODDY!!! The rest of the trip home was a grind, with another overnight in Sydney, but we got back to a cold and wet Scotland on Monday 2nd December safe and well and with all our bags.

Some observations ......

For a two man, two station DXpedition, a focus on low bands and trying to maximize 160m time is very hard. We are completely aware of the time investment needed to be successful on 160m in particular, but that means a proportionately large sacrifice of other band presence and QSOs for a trip like ours. It is also MUCH harder physically CQing and not working stations or digging in the noise, when compared to easy, loud high band pile ups! This takes a toll.

In the same vein, FT8 is deeply boring at the DXpedition end of this communication between computers. Yes, it did mean we could make ‘QSO’s on bands that would not support even CW QSOs, but insatiable, uncompromising and somewhat selfish demand for FT8 on bands that were wide open and would support many times more CW or SSB QSOs in the same time was quite hard for us to accept. We get that the masses were looking to fill digital band slots.

You cannot please everyone. It did not seem to matter what we did - low bands, high bands, CW, SSB, FT8. There was always a bunch moaning we were doing the wrong thing, but this is usual on a DXpedition. Again, a totally selfish attitude. The guys in NA we worked on 80 and 160 after our SS probably thought we were doing the right thing, unlike those who thought we should be doing FT8 into EU on 15, 17 or 20 during this same time – QSO rates probably about the same!

As already mentioned, the demand for VK9C is much greater in NA and on low bands. So yes, we spent a lot of time pleading with the pile up to allow us to listen for those weak NA signals – to give those guys a chance. EU DXers like it when Pacific DXpeditions call for EU, right? Sadly, the respect for our requests was often lacking, and it only takes one or two EU or Asian stations to ignore our requests, for it to be impossible to work the weak guys. Many NA stations missed their ATNO due to selfish EU or Asian operators. If we ask for a particular area and you are not in it, don’t call – we won’t work you, and we might not hear you when we go back to working your area. This is good DXpedition operating – being aware of the demand and the difficult openings. It has nothing to do with $$$$$$$$$ as some EU guys seem to think when they are not being favoured.

Some of our Italian friends in particular seemed to drop the first dit when they are calling on CW. We heard a lot of ‘EK8xxx’ or ‘EZ6xxx’ and so on – made for some confusion, and was compounded by the previously mentioned QSB as well as the usual QRM and QRN.