CY9M: The Day Lady Luck Smiled

Reviewing the Summer 2012 DX travelogue, one can’t avoid talking about CY9M. This expedition, undertaken by a ten member international team, took place from 26 July to 1 August, from Saint-Paul Island (NA-094 – loc. FN97). The island, known as the “Graveyard of the Gulf”(due to the fact it lies at the entrance of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on Canada’s east coast) was a Top 40 most sought after DXCC entity, something that made it a natural target for a team that included many experienced IOTA operators (including “our” Simon IZ7ATN), represented as part of this interview with Col McGowan, MM0NDX. So, straight to the Q&A…

When operating in a not so easy environment (and Saint-Paul, for various reasons, surely counts as such), this becomes a major issue leading to success or failure. I’m sure this was a consideration. With that in mind, I’d like to ask how the CY9M team was formed.
The CY9M team was formed through friends of friends. For example, George EA2TA, Christian EA3NT, Simon IZ7ATN, Bjorn SM0MDG and I had all been on previous IOTA adventures as MS0INT. In addition, Vicky SV2KBS knew Bjorn from the JX5O expedition, so that led to her joining. I knew Mike, AB5EB and invited him along. Kevin, VE3EN I knew through our websites (Solar Ham.com and Dx World.net) and it was he who invited Steve, VA3FM. When a last minute cancellation occurred we decided to look for an experienced and high profile operator – Bill N2WB fitted that description.

Due to the island being somewhat of a refuge of sorts, was it difficult to obtain the licence to put CY9M on the air? Did you have to accept any particular considerations from a logistical standpoint?

We had to obtain landing permits for the island from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans at the Canadian Coast Guard Base in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Obviously a stipulation was to the leave the island the way we found it, and we duly did. In truth, it was not too difficult to gain official access to St Paul Island. A fee is required.

Was it hard to find someone willing to ferry you to the island? How was the news of going QRT a day early for weather reasons accepted by the team? Was this a source of disappointment?
After a few general enquiries, we found a skipper willing to take and collect us. He was based in Bay St Lawrence, just a few miles from the jetty where we’d leave for the island.
The day we left early was a mixture of despondency and probably some relief. When word filtered through that the skipper wanted us to leave early due to forecast poor weather, we were confused as the skies were glorious that day, with no hint of bad weather. We had also got into a real operating routine and for the first time all bands/modes/antennas were being used. Then, it became clear, if the weather was supposed to breakdown with the skipper unable to collect us, the team’s marooned with failing food and water supplies. Connecting flights home were also an issue. In the end, we had a team meeting, decided to break camp and leave 24 hours early.

You knew that one of the not so easy parts of the DXpedition would have been to unload equipment and transfer it to the island. How much this affected your selection of gear? What did everybody finally decide on?
We arrived at St. Paul Island in pretty choppy seas. Indeed, the skipper thought a landing would not happen that day. After some time he managed to get a feel for the swell and tide and deemed a landing would actually be possible, albeit not easy. With time all 10 of us landed, but the biggest hurdle was the amount of equipment and gear we had taken, and to get that all ashore, then haul up a cliff-face with falling rocks. How nobody was injured in this operation, I will never know. Lady Luck did smile that day. Just one injury and I think CY9M would not have happened.
The gear selection was not really altered for the landing and hauling process. In fact, near the end of planning for the expedition, we were given the option of using two 85kg generators loaned to us by Source Atlantic. Of course, this saved quite a lot of money, but in hindsight, these heavy machines were a true nightmare to hoist. The actual CY9M story explains more on the generator issues we had.

Propagation-wise, one would expect things to work from St. Paul like from Canada/North America. Is that true or did being on an island changed the situation even more?
Propagation was quite decent if truth be told. Because of the location of the island, both EU and NA could be worked easily, even on the back of HF beams. The pileups were often mixed with strong signals from these areas. We did focus on areas where the path to/from CY9 is difficult, ie, JA, VK, ZL and were quite happy with the QSO tally for these regions. The 30m band was always going strong and I believe we made most QSOs there. Unfortunately, 6m never opened to EU. 10, 12, 15, 17, 20 always made for good fun. 40m had some terrific pileups, again with EU/NA simultaneously, while 80 and 160 were challenging, even though we made many happy with new slots on these bands. The toughest path was to SE Asia and it’s clear looking at Club Log we just did not have good propagation to there.

When you decided to go there, St. Paul was a top 40 DXCC entity. It’s normal, before boarding for such an adventure, to set goals, both team and individual ones. Can you tell me what yours were?
Yes, it was a top 40 entity and I don’t think many people realised that the year before, CY9 was the highest mover in the most wanted DXCC charts. From # 78 to # 47 in 12 months. For sure, that helped us decide we’d go on expedition to St Paul Island.
Did we have individual goals / targets? Yes, 6m and 160m were a focus as both those bands were badly needed by DXers. We knew JA would be tough on all bands and also focused on them. A QSO target was never really mentioned, but we were pleased with the 33K QSOs in under 140 hours. I suspect, if we had stayed a full seven days, 50K would have been achievable.

Do the 33,267 QSOs you ended up with in the log match up with the expectations you had?
I think we did not expect such a high number for 4.5 days operating, particularly as we started off on 20m only. It wasn’t until the second day that more stations came on air. Looking at the log since returning home we also note that a decent amount of QSOs were not dupes! I really do wish ops would listen more before becoming a duplicate, although to be fair, some of the pileups were huge!

You also included PSK (and even 63F) to the digital modes activated by CY9M. Usually, DXpeditions consider RTTY as the most they can do on the digi side. You ended up with more than 800 QSOs on PSK worldwide (and 705 on RTTY). What do you have to say about the result?
The decision to use PSK initially instead of RTTY was due to the fact we were running barefoot on the digital modes station. Under these conditions RTTY is much less efficient than PSK – in fact after 300 QSOs on PSK we did try RTTY but with very low return ratio since our signals were too weak and the pile-up had problems to copy our 5NN, so we decided to revert back to the previous mode which was running a far better ratio.
We have to keep mind that now most of the awards (including LoTW) accept any kind of digital mode, not only RTTY.  Also most of the software is able to make RTTY or PSK simply selecting it on a menu.
In order to please the RTTY demand we installed a HVLA-700 power amplifier loaned to us by Italian company RF Power. Then it was possible to be on the air with enough power to perform RTTY operations.
We’d also like to take the opportunity to highlight the steel poles by Mondosat (our thanks go, in particular, to its owner Bruno Di Blasio), which supported our three MW0JZE Hexbeam antennas, and have been transported as plane luggage, thanks to their lightweight.

How has it been working 6 meters from St. Paul? The season should have been pretty good, on the propagation side of the band, but 433 QSOs rank as the lowest figure in your final log, even less than the number of contacts you achieved on 160 meters, being a very demanding band in terms of equipment…
6m was very sporadic. We took a dedicated 6m op (VE3EN) with us in the hope that band would become Magic, but in the end, we were a bit disappointed with propagation on six. There is not a lot you can do when solar conditions aren’t conducive to 50Mhz, even with a top of the range beam antenna. We knew EU needed CY9 badly on 6m and regularly checked openings. I believe a couple of CT3 made the log on six, but even they are not EU !

Your best and worst moments on St. Paul, both from a radio and from a strictly human point of view…
Best moment? I guess we all have different thoughts on this. Certainly landing on a top 40 entity was pretty special, and some of the pileups were so huge, that impressed me too! Worst moment without doubt was loading and hauling the gear up the cliff edge. It took a big toll on the team, especially those who heaved and pulled for over six hours.

How do you feel being in a place where the only noise you hear in 24 hours are natural ones (sea, birds and so on…)?
Surprisingly for an island there is no bird life. We did not see one single bird, except a lone Hawk high above which was looking for food, and quickly realised CY9 is no haven for rich pickings! Crashing of waves was soon replaced by the constant noise of the generator.

DXpeditions are starting to be evaluated not only for the operating part, but also for the web/online log/social network support they offer to hams around the world. You made all the efforts to give CY9M a significant presence on the web…
With the help of DxCoffee, we decided to have a website from an early stage. This a good strategy in getting word out, showing plans, releasing news bulletins/updates, displaying sponsors/donors etc. I think we did a decent PR exercise for CY9M as the interest showed. Using Twitter and Facebook also helped. I personally would use the same tactic next time.

Will we see this team in action again? Any plans for the future?
Let’s just say I’m already making tentative plans for 2013. Sorry, no clues yet, but I’d be happy to see familiar faces join again!

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