9M4SLL: Limited Gear – Off the Charts Performance!

Reviewing the summer of 2012 from a DX perspective requires us to talk about the 9M4SLL DXpedition to Pulau Layang Layang, Spratly Islands (AS-051) between August 7th and 13th. It hasn’t been the only activation from that archipelago this year, but the light or “limited” formula chosen for this “radioadventure” consists of two operators (John, 9M6XRO, and Steve, 9M6DXX) with one station each and only vertical antennas –making it, along with the results achieved, a natural subject for discussion in the DX community. So, once the starring characters of 9M4SLL were back home, we chatted with Steve Telenius-Lowe, 9M6DXX, about the operations from the South China Sea. Guess what… once again, the need for a big antenna was overshadowed by the facts.

Since 1965,  the year of the very first activation, you were the 25th team of OMs who have   activated the Spratly Islands. Only 23 have succeeded in this undertaking and it doesn’t look like an easy feat. How did your idea of activating Spratly see the the light of day, and what –in particular- made it a reality?

It is true that in the past it has been difficult and even dangerous to activate the Spratly Islands. The situation became easier in the early 1990s, when Malaysia opened a dive resort on the Layang Layang Island (formerly called Swallow Reef). Most of the operations from the Spratly group since then have been from Layang Layang.

As two Malaysia licensed OMs, I think it wouldn’t have been too difficult to obtain authorizations and licensing, or is this wrong?

Licensing is relatively easy. Although both John, 9M6XRO, and I already had valid Malaysian licences, for this operation we wanted a separate licence document which had “Pulau Layang Layang” written on it so that there could be no doubt at all by the ARRL DXCC desk that we were properly licensed to operate from this particular island. Here we would like to thank BARC, the Borneo Amateur Radio Club, of which John and I are both Life Members, and in particular BARC President, Hamid, 9W6MID, who applied for a group special event licence for this operation. We were granted the callsign 9M4SLL.

However, because Layang Layang is governed under the Malaysian Protected Area and Protected Places Act of 1959, in addition to the amateur radio licence it is also necessary to get separate operating permission from the Malaysian government, and this can be more difficult to obtain.

You decided for a “limited equipment solution: vertical antennas only and two 400 watt stations. Was this imposed due to the logistical situation or was this a deliberate choice?

There is a weight restriction on the aircraft that fly between Kota Kinabalu (9M6) and Layang Layang. Depending on the number of passengers, sometimes a small plane such a Twin Otter is used, so we planned to take the minimum amount of equipment while still having two stations, each with linears.

The choice of vertical antennas was deliberate. For a location where it is possible to mount the antennas very close to the ocean it is now becoming accepted that a simple vertical antenna will work much better than any horizontal beam, unless the beam is mounted very high above ground, which is usually impossible for a portable DXpedition.

One area where we saved on weight was with the coaxial cable we used. A 100m roll of ‘Aircell 5’ coax weighs only 3.8kg, yet it has lower loss than RG-58 or even RG-8X. A new roll of ‘Aircell 5’ was cut into lengths of 30m and 70m and this is what we used to feed the two verticals.

While heading to Spratly, did you happen to think about our colleagues who, in 1983, lost their lives while trying to reach the Archipelago?

Yes, we have talked about this. In fact I met one of the survivors of that tragedy a year or two after the event and he was able to describe his experiences personally to me, so I have never forgotten it. However, the situation these days is very different as there are charter flights directly to Layang Layang island, and a comfortable resort there when you arrive.

You already have been a member of the 9M0C team, which operated from Layang Layang in 1998. What main differences do you see between your two experiences on Spratly and which of those two gave you the most intense feelings, from a radio and strictly personal standpoint?

The island itself has changed since 1998! More land has been reclaimed from the sea and the aircraft runway has been extended to allow larger planes to land. Trees that had only recently been planted in 1998 are now mature and in some cases quite tall. In 1998 there were millions of sea birds nesting on the island; today there are very few. A ‘bird island’ has been created in the lagoon to allow the birds to nest and roost without being disturbed by the planes landing and taking off several times a week.

The two DXpeditions were also quite different. 9M0C was a bigger group and made 65,524 QSOs, the largest number from a single operation from Spratly (a record that still stands). Because there were more operators, there was more relaxation time and a chance to get a good night’s sleep unless you were operating during the night shift, in which case you could sleep during the day. The 9M4SLL operation was much more intense: with just two operators and two stations we tried to keep both stations on the air for as long as possible each day. Both expeditions were equally enjoyable though!

Now, to DXpedition results: 18,227 QSOs is your final number. Did this figure meet your expectations?

It more than met our expectations. I have always reckoned that 1000 QSOs per station per day is a good target for a DXpedition. But on this trip, thanks to a combination of an almost perfect antenna location with some good propagation – and putting in some long operating hours! – we exceeded that target by almost 50%. The 18,227 QSOs were made in 6 days and 7 hours of operating, although by the first night we only had one antenna working, so we did not have two stations on the air until well into the second day of operations.

Which part of the world experienced a better window from Layang Layang? I guess that anyone reading your stats can’t explain the only 75 contacts with South America. Was that hard to achieve from there? For example, Brazil is a country where we know there are a lot of DXers.

The final statistics for our DXpeditions, in terms of QSOs number and percentage, are as follows:

Africa                         121     0.7%

Asia                            5839   32.0%

Europe                       9609    52.7%

North America          2281    12.5%

Oceania                       302      1.7%

South America           75        0.4%

Totals                        18,227 100%

At first this low figure for South America might seem surprising, but it can be explained. The antipodes of Layang Layang are in Brazil and often the PY / PT stations had good signals, but other South American countries were heard only very infrequently. But as we were using omnidirectional vertical antennas we cannot be accused of never beaming to South America!

But look now at the figure for Oceania. We made only 302 QSOs with Oceania (almost all VK, ZL or KH6). Australia is approximately the same distance from Spratly as is Japan, and we made over 5800 QSOs with Asia (mainly JA), so where were all the VK DXers? Given that it is an easy path to VK, but a very difficult one to South America, it is perhaps not really surprising that there are so few QSOs with that continent.

How hard was it, being just two operators, to manage “extended operational shifts, such as the ones you completed during the seven day period for 9M4SLL?

We had some sleepless nights. Most days we would operate through the night, until at least 3.00am or 4.00am local time. On one occasion John, 9M6XRO, operated all day and then operated the whole night, until after sunrise, with short breaks only for food. We were lucky with propagation, with 12m and 15m staying open until 2.00am local time (1800UTC), 17m staying open till 4.00am (2000UTC), and 20m sometimes open the whole night. Against that, though, all the bands were very quiet from about an hour after sunrise until about 4.00pm (0800UTC). It was still possible to work JA, HL etc on 17m and 15m during these daylight hours, but the rates were slow and so after a couple of days of late nights operating we tended to sleep late during the morning and start operating seriously after lunch time.

1190 QSOs make up your “score” on RTTY, which, in my opinion, is not bad. If you were going to do Layang Layang again, would you consider operating PSK, along with other digital modes?

Probably not. PSK counts the same as RTTY for DXCC but is much slower, so we would probably just stay with RTTY. Of course if we had an operator who was particularly keen on using PSK we would not rule it out, but it is not really a major DXpedition mode.

Was there a QSO or band opening during this DXpedition which you feel particularly impressive making the whole experience “worth the travel? What stands out in your mind the most from this experience?

Yes, there was. I can’t speak for John, but for me it was a great 12m SSB opening one night. Don, N1DG, had alerted me to the fact that there was sometimes a 12m long-path opening from the East Coast of USA and Canada to South-East Asia, late at night local time when you might have thought the band was ‘dead’.

I had previously been on 12m during the day, but the band apparently died around 0945UTC (just before sunset). I went back on 12m at 1515UTC (11.15pm local time) and was surprised to find it wide open to Europe. And I mean wide open – some of the European signals were S9+20dB. The pile-up was just enormous.

The first North American – KK9DX – came though at 1556UTC, but although I regularly took a stand-by for North or South America there was nothing (except S9+ Europeans!) for almost another hour, when PS8CC made it through the pile-up at 1650UTC. A little later the band opened to the East Coast, and some W1s and VE1s, including N1DG, were worked between 1710 and 1815.

The long-path North Americans were mostly extremely weak, not even S1, whereas many of the Europeans were still S9, so I was grateful that the European pile-up was generally well-behaved and allowed me to listen for, and work, the very weak North Americans without breaking in on top. Later still the opening moved to W2, W3, and W4 before the band finally faded out at 1845UTC (2.45am local time!).

In three and a half hours I worked 560 QSOs and although the overall rate of 160 Q/hr was not particularly high I was pleased because the European pile-up was enormous (which actually slows down the rate), and yet it was still possible to work many weak North Americans over a very difficult path.

John went on 12m CW the following night to try to work more North Americans, but although he also had very good propagation to Europe he did not work a single North American on that night – I was just very lucky with conditions the previous night.

Do you think that DXpeditioning could offer an interesting base for the formation of younger operators? From that perspective, do you think organizationss or radio clubs should encourage more (even financially) young operators to engage in DXpeditions, maybe at first not to the most sought after entities, but certainly to some of the more interesting ones?

Yes indeed, and this is already being done. I am a founder member of the UK-based ‘Five Star DXers Association’ (which incidentally was formed after the 1998 9M0C Spratly DXpedition). Our next big DXpedition was D68C (Comoros, 2001) in which we sponsored Mark, M0DXR, to join us on the DXpedition. Mark has gone on to do a number of DXpeditions of his own and has become one of the UK’s top contest operators on both SSB and CW. I know other major DXpeditions have also sponsored young operators in a similar way.

But young operators in Europe are fortunate as there are many interesting DX locations which are easy to get to and which need not be expensive. For example, from the UK, GD, GJ and GU are all within easy reach, while from France or Italy there are 3A, TK, IS0 and perhaps even places like T7, HV and 1A which are relatively inexpensive to visit. And then there are also numerous IOTA locations all over the world which make interesting DXpedition locations. So I would encourage young operators to organise their own DXpeditions to places such as these, with or without more experienced (i.e. older!) operators, and gain experience that way.

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One Response to "9M4SLL: Limited Gear – Off the Charts Performance!"

  1. Grady Dean w4try says:

    A very good Dxped. This should be an example to others. These guys were very good operators. THANKS , 73, Grady , W4TRY.

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