There are hams without a radio station in their homes, who are active only from portable stations, in shacks for rent or doing DXpeditions. Such cases are normally a consequence of poor radio conditions in the domestic area (maybe due to heavy urban QRM), or of logistic troubles (small apartments, not allowing space for a set-up). This may look somewhat paradoxical in nature, but manyoperators are actually living them – considering they’re are occasionally forced to concentrate their passion in somewhat predetermined amounts – such operators have learned to get the maximum from their “field” stations and have terrific stories to tell. One of those hams is Bill Vanderheide, N7OU, who, in the last six years, activated a relevant series of top notch entities in the Pacific Ocean. We contacted him, to better understand how one can end up activating Western Kiribati without as much as a shack at home!
Bill, let’s start from the very beginning. You’ve been licensed since 1959. What led you to the world of ham radio?
When I was 11 years old, I received a crystal radio kit for Christmas and that began my lifelong fascination with radio communication. I had a little space in the basement of our house where I experimented with electricity, learned to solder, and built a regenerative shortwave receiver. A couple years later I took an amateur licensing class with a local radio club and learned the code off an Army machine that used perforated paper tape. I think my love of CW has a lot to do with my early training on those army tapes.
When and why did DXpeditioning become one of your main points of interest?
I’ve always had a keen interest in portable operation. I’ve always loved Field Day and any operation that involves setting up a radio and antenna in a temporary location. After retiring from teaching in 2002, I made a number of long-distance hikes in North America and Europe, always packing my little Elecraft KX1 transceiver and fishing pole antenna. I also made contest trips to the Dominican Republic and Bermuda.
Eventually I decided to give up a home station altogether and concentrate on the portable and DX operating that I enjoyed the most. Since 2005 I’ve lived in a high-rise condominium building in a downtown area of Portland, Oregon, and all of my operating has been away from home, most of it from the South Pacific, where I’ve logged over 140,000 DX-style QSOs.
Many of those QSOs have been in the company of my friend Bob Norin, W7YAQ. We’re both members of the Willamette Valley DX Club. After many Field Day operations together we started talking about doing a DXpedition. Both of us are CW guys, hard core contesters, and enjoy the challenge of operating with low power and simple antennas. Maybe most important, we’re both retired and have flexible schedules. In 2006 we made our first Pacific DXpedition to the South Cooks, Fiji, and Rotuma Island. Since then, we’ve mounted two-man operations from the North Cooks, Eastern Kiribati, Tuvalu, Samoa, Tokelau, and Western Kiribati.
From 2006 to 2012 you activated a number of islands in the Pacific Area. Why this particular interest in that part of the World?
I think initially we headed toward the Pacific because for us air access was easy and the cost reasonable; it had a lot of Most Wanted entities, and because it’s such an attractive place to visit.
In 2006, during our first stop on Rarotonga, South Cooks, we happened to stay at the same motel as a group from Global Volunteers, an organization helping out in schools. Being a retired teacher, this looked like something I would like to do too, so later that year I went back and did a volunteer stint of my own. It’s become an annual month-long trip for me and I’ve done it six years in a row, operating as E51NOU in my spare time. Before my volunteer service in 2009, I operated by myself on Chatham Island, New Zealand, and after serving in 2011 I flew up to Manihiki, North Cooks, for a 3 week solo operation as E51MAN.
Which one of your DXpeditions gave you the most satisfaction, in terms of results on the air?
They’ve all been fun, but I think my last DXpedition to Manihiki, North Cooks, was the most satisfying radio-wise. For most of my stay the solar flux was above 150, opening up the higher bands and giving many ops a new one or at least a new band-country. For the first 11 days I met my target of 1000 QSOs a day, slacking off to 800 a day during my last week. About a third of my QSOs were with Europe, and a high percentage of those were with western Europe, on the other side of the world. For me, a QSO along a difficult path within a narrow grayline window is the most fun.
Operating so often from rare entities, you should be used to handling the huge pile-ups. Do you have any comment, from this particular standpoint, regarding the quality of foreign operators?
I think in general the quality of operating on CW is high. Pile-ups are a challenge for all of us–I know that sometimes my signal can be weak or not in the clear. When I have multiple callers, I can usually average 2 or 3 QSOs a minute, so most of us are doing something right. Stations who are good listeners, who figure out where I’m tuning and how I like to operate, are usually the ones who get through first. Being in the clear is more important than how loud you are.
There will always be a few lids among us. I think the best way to handle deliberate interference is to ignore it or work around it.
How does the pile-up situation change (if it changes) when you operate CW? How would you judge the “health” of telegraphy, after having been dropped from the examination process nearly seven years ago?
I’m frankly amazed that CW continues to be so popular. Our ham population is not getting any younger!
I’m a CW guy and rarely use SSB or RTTY. These other modes don’t interest me so I don’t use them on DXpedition.
You’re involved not only in DXpeditioning, but in contesting too. Do you think the latter can be seen as a good place to start from, in becoming a good and reliable DXpeditionner?
I’ve always enjoyed contesting. I think the idea is the same as DXpeditioning: you’re trying to operate as efficiently as possible in a set period of time. In addition to improving your operating skills, making many things second nature, contesting also improves your concentration and stamina.
My ideas for DXpeditions come out of reading periodicals like QST and The DX Magazine, more general reading about history and travel, conversations with other hams, the Most Wanted List, and my experiences in other places. If I’m partnering with Bob, once we’ve decided on a destination we do a lot of research on-line about air routes, places to stay and licensing. We like to get information from other hams who have been to a place recently. Licensing can usually be handled by e-mail. Sometimes you can use Google Earth to check out a QTH in detail and plan your antenna layout. And you have to figure out what gear you’re going to take and the best way to pack it.
What’s the most difficult part of setting-up a DXpedition?
When I’m working with Bob, we divide up the tasks such as air travel, lodging, gear, and licensing, and that lightens the load. Sometimes it’s hard finding contact information for a particular lodging or licensing authority.
Besides radio operating, what of your travel experiences have truly been etched in your memory?
For the last six years I’ve enjoyed my volunteer teaching in the Cook Islands very much. Children there are not much different from the ones I taught at home except that they go to school barefoot and are called in from recess with a drum. Mostly I helped one-on-one with reading and math, but sometimes I read stories aloud, gave hands-on lessons about magnetism and electricity, or built bookshelves and painted classrooms. My favorite time to operate was before school, just after dawn, when I listened extra hard for European signals coming across the Pole. On days off I enjoyed having lunch with a friend I met there, Jim Ditchburn, E51JD.
What are some challenges to operating in the Pacific?
When you’re dealing with small planes, boats and vast distances between islands, it’s good to have a flexible schedule because travel delays are common. On Rotuma we were at the airstrip waiting for our plane to take us back to Fiji when the phone rang and we were told that the plane hadn’t taken off and wouldn’t be coming that day because of a “mechanical problem.” We didn’t argue! Our host felt bad about what turned into a 2 day delay and took us on an octopus hunt. He caught a big one and shared it with the rest of the village. In 2010 we spent three extra weeks on Samoa because our boat passage to Tokelau was delayed by storms. Likewise, on my last trip from Rarotonga to Manihiki, North Cooks, my flight was 8 days late because there wasn’t enough aviation fuel on Manihiki for the plane’s return flight. Of course, with ham radio you can put that waiting time to good use and get on the air.
Sometimes you can get another kind of surprise. In 2006 a small plane was supposed to take us from Rarotonga to Penrhyn, North Cooks, at 7 AM. At 1 AM I was awakened by a call from the plane’s crew wondering where we were–they were ready to take off! Somehow they changed the schedule the day before without notifying us. A pick-up truck came out from the airport to get us, and we got the last two seats on the seven passenger plane.
We’re talking remote areas of the world: have you ever been in risky situations or felt in danger?
On Samoa in February, 2010, the host of our tourist cabin pounded on the door at 4 AM and told us a tsunami was headed our way from the big earthquake in Chile. Civil defense sirens began to wail in the darkness. Our host packed us and the rest of his guests into an SUV and we hurried up to the neighborhood’s designated tsunami assembly area, on high ground near a cemetery. Hundreds of people were already there, sitting on the curb or lying on mats alongside the road. When the wave came in, about 6 hours later, it was no more than a foot high, but the Samoans were not taking any chances. Just five months before, a tsumami had slammed into their southern coast and 200 people perished.
You‘ve been into radio for over 53 years! How would you judge the DX scene nowadays? Hasn’t, this hobby, lost a bit of its human touch? If so, is this attributed to computers and modern technologies making their way into the ham world?
For my part, I love our new computers and technology. I don’t miss the boat-anchor gear of my youth and all its limitations. I enjoy amateur radio more than ever.
What kind of gear do you usually take on DXpedition?
For the last several years I’ve been using an Elecraft K3. It’s small and light, and it has excellent selectivity. I have the 500 Hz and 250 Hz CW filters installed. For back-up I take along my Elecraft K2/100. I use an Astron SS-25 power supply and have a back-up for that as well. On my trip to E51 last year I brought a new Elecraft KPA-500 amplifier.
Usually I use a Butternut HF9V multi-band vertical with about 32 ground radials, each nine meters long. Sometimes I use DK9SQ 10 meter fiberglass poles for monoband verticals and vertical Moxons.
How do you carry your gear?
I have a hard shell golf club case for my HF9V and fiberglass poles. My K3 fits in a laptop bag that I carry on the plane and put under the seat in front of me. On my last trip to E51 I also carried on the KPA-500 amplifier in a small daypack and stowed it in the overhead bin.
What advice would you give to a young ham wanting to be a DXpeditioner?
If you have the chance, go for it. It’s a great way to enjoy our hobby, experience distant places and have a sense of purpose while you’re there.
Thanks to Mark Kelley, W0BG, for his kind assist!