The Story: VK9MAV Marion Reef Isl. & Whitsundays Isl. [Part 1]
by Andy VK5MAV/VK9MAV
Coral Sea Adventure
First of all – I want to express my deepest appreciation to all who did help to make the expedition happen.
Sponsors – clubs and companies:
German DX Foundation and Most Wanted DX site – their donations have been granted when they need much – before the expedition
CDXC and RSGB Expedition Fund – their donations have been granted as soon as the expedition started on air
IREF and Clipperton DX Club – their donations will be granted after article provision to cover costs
And even more important – support of hams from over the world, 31 countries in total, especially American, Japanese and Russian hams. I really appreciate your support – and donations are still coming.
Part 1. “It was smooth on paper – but forgot about ravines”
The Marion Reef attracted my attention as the goal of a possible next expedition around May 2016, between the return from Breaksea Island OC-243 and the difficult expedition to Viney Island OC-266. By the way, I constantly have 2-3 islands in my plans. And now I… but I would better keep silence, for a while.
A slow gathering of information began, which, due to the remoteness of the reef and its location away from the main shipping routes, was surprisingly small.
First, of course, there were two questions – how to get there and how, after arrival camp there for several days legally?
The first results provided by Google, pleased – at least 10 different tours to Marion – for anglers, divers. But a more detailed study and numerous phone calls showed that everything is not easy at all. The vast majority of sites contained outdated information – in fact, the companies advertised were carried out last tour to Marion 5-7-10 years ago and new ones were not planned.
Realizing that there are no options, I began to work out options for delivery by helicopter or seaplane. However, I realized from the very beginning the cost will be very high – and was wrong. Real cost were 5-6 times more than expected, so this option has disappeared after 3-4 phone calls. There were no options at all (in my price category, because if I could pay $ 30-40K, It’s not a problem to charter a ship).
At the same time, I walked a bit in the bureaucratic loops, trying to understand which government department is responsible for managing Marion. After several repeatable loops, around October 2016, the situation cleared up, I’ve got application papers. As usual with one “but” – the application must include the name and data of the vessel.
After that, the search for the vessel began with a tripled energy (all this during the preparation/operation of OC-266 and after it). Unfortunately, everything was in vain. There were no tours … Until then, from hopelessness, I did start to pay attention to unloved Internet resources. It was right decision.
Facebook and registration in all sorts of local groups around Queensland Coast, from where even theoretically ships may go the area, brought the result. Bingo! The local people told me that there is a ship called “Norval”, which specializes in trips to Marion mainly. They provided me with the site’ URL (then it was somewhere on the 7-8 page of Google search results, but thanks to me, I believe, moved much higher now). Inspired, I contacted Ron Murphy, the owner of the ship, and he confirmed everything. My happiness was great. It was possible to begin filing an application for access and stay at Marion Reef.
And so, on December 19, 2016, just before Christmas, the long-awaited permission arrived to my mailbox electronically and week later as paperwork. And in it, although I asked for Marion only, Diamond Islands were too (thank you, personally unknown to me, officer of the department)! The permit was containing another Island as well, but it was not in plans. The permit was issued by the end of June (important).
We agreed with Ron Murphy that the best time for my trip is the end of May – June 2017.
When Christmas and New Year Holidays passed by, I started technical preparation for the expedition. The transceiver was sent to the ICOM (Melbourne) office to repair everything that theoretically could break and for tuning/adjustments. Antennas have been installed in the backyard, tested and packed – 3 el VDA for 20 m, and GP for 40 m. Pelican boxes for transportation have been purchased. The Honda EU-20i generator has been purchased and severely tested. The N1MM + software, all sorts of equipment manuals, prpagation forecasts and so on are copied to a laptop. All software is separately recorded on a flash drive. Annual leave had been requested and approved. From now – just wait…
But it was extremely difficult to wait. On March 26th, all news channels were filled up with forecasts that Debby cyclone (the strongest in the last 2 years, officially the category 4 out of 5, the wind speed reached 300 km / h) was born just in the Marion Reef area and instead of vanish peacefully over the ocean, it intensifies and goes to the coast of Queensland.
The cyclone was slowly approaching and, according to all forecasts, prepared to reach the coast near the town of Airlie Beach, where Norval stood at local marina. Finally, on March 28th, the cyclone reached the continent. Forecasts of meteorologists, alas, were real. The cyclone came in with a front about 200 km from the center situated exactly at Airlie Beach. Huge part of Airlie Beach was swiped out and ruined. No infor came from Norval owner and I wasn’t able to contact him – in the vicinity there were no electricity, communication, water, no access – roads were destroyed and flooded.
That’s what the harbor looked like before and after the cyclone.
Finally in the first days of April, Ron wrote on Facebook that just the day before the cyclone hit, he managed to take the ship to Gladstone. Although the cyclone also hit it well, a dinghy was torn off and carried away, the electric and communication equipment flooded with water and other, smaller problems.
And again – waiting.
In late May, skipper Pete on the phone confirmed that we leave on June 9th. Suddenly, quite by accident, it turns out in the conversation that I do not need to fly to Gladstone, but to Mackay, where the ship was again overtaken to. I book tickets for Mackay on 8/06 and back for 19/06, overnight stay at the hotel on the way there and back, insurance for the trip, sent a generator and Pelican ca with antennas to Mackay to the hotel address via courier, gor approval of annual leave at work.
In the first days of June, Norval made a test trip to Marion. Again a failure did happen, one more dinghy was lost, a remote beam was torn off, and an anchor was lost – a storm. And the most unpleasant issue was that the problems with the gearbox started – it’s warming up, chasing the oil, not all gears can be switched to. The gearbox needs a replacement.
Ron called me and notified that the trip is postponed to June 16. Immediately, with fines I re-booked flights and the hotel – the administrator kindly agreed to keep my boxes. I did hardly explain the situation to my boss at work with annual leave dates moved again.
I perfectly understand that my calls wouldn’t help at all, but I wasn’t able to stop myself – I did call Ron every 3 days.
OK, now it seems to be all right, I’m flying out on the 15th early morning. But the night before the flight Ron wrote short message on his page – not addressed directly to me, but it didn’t let me sleep well before flight – the ship is not ready and fix will take a few more days.
In mixed feelings and anxiety at 6 am I was flying out of Adelaide on 15th of June. 2.5 hours flight to Brisbane, where another flight to Mackay was waiting. At Brisbane stopover (1.5 hours), I’ve decided to go out for a smoke. I turn on the phone – a voice message from the Norval skipper was sent to me 40 mins ago. The ship is not ready, how many days it will take – it’s not known. I call Pete, the skipper, he said he doesn’t have a clue – call Ron. Ron’s phone is off. In complete confusion I get back to the airport to pass security – and suddenly get stuck. The young security girl started to ask questions about purpose of the iambic paddle. Ham radio and Morse code didn’t tell her anything and she took it away somewhere. However, the transceiver and numerous cables in the same backpack did not attract any interest. After 15 minutes I was let to go – but, as I understand, somewhere in the security system the “bell” rang. But I understood it only afterwards. In the meantime, another 1.5 hours of flight to Mackay, full of thoughts about revenge …
Mackay Airport, taxi, hotel, Ron’s phone is still unavailable. I’m in the fuse, throwing things in the room and starting to call and run around for any boat companies and the marina administration in search of at least some kind of replacement or passing boat. Everything is in vain … Closer to the evening, Ron’s phone finally responded and he confirms that everything has been fixed and we still leave on the 16th at about lunch time. Exhausted, I finally took a shower and fall asleep.
On the next morning Ron explained where Norval is moored at the marina.
I find the boat easily, get acquainted, agreed when they take my boxes from the hotel. Pete, the skipper, who didn’t want to answer my questions, it turns out, was already fired at that moment. Instead of him – Chris. For me – it was a huge luck. Thanks to his tips, huge help and participation it everything – he did make the expedition real.
During this time, Norval moved to another pier to fill fuel tanks. At the same time, I bought jerry cans and filled them with 120 litres of petrol for the generator. Then, on the way, they throw me into a shopping center, where I buy water, food, cigarettes and folding chair/table. At the same time work on Norval is still going on – in particular, attaching a new anchor. On the left is Ron Murphy, the owner of Norval.
We leave closer to the evening. After about 4 hours (the cruising speed of Norval is 20 knots) we are at the first of many Whitsundays Islands OC-160. Guys quickly throw me ashore, did help to install the dipole and I tried to start working. Only light source I used to have was a headlamp flashlight.
Very cold, very humid, windy weather. 5 minutes – and all boxes are covered with a layer of water – I had to cover myself and the equipment with a big piece of plastic. I was very much afraid that there would be a short circuit and the expedition would end there. Ano propagation on 40 or 20 m band. Nowhere. Nothing. Nada. After roughly 40 minutes of CQ with ne responce, I hardly manage to make the first (and the only one in this attempt) QSO with A65CA. His CW signal was below noise level but we both confirmed the QSO. Again, long CQ with no response for another hour. The air was crackling, hissing, and I even can’t hear usual Chinese broadcasters or fishermen. Suddenly a dinghy from Norval came out of darkness – we forgot two more fishermen in Mackay, belatedly with arrival, and we return. The night sleep at the boat passed with no dreams.
The early morning begins unexpectedly – a call to Ron, after which he beckons me with the words “here someone is interested in your hobby.” I took the phone and … remember the “bell” at the airport security ? “Good morning, this is the police sergeant at Mackay … we have information that you brought the communication equipment to Mackay and are going to Marion … Please confirm your name and date of birth … and why … why … VK9MAV – is it your callsign? Here I am on your page … no. It’s all right. I’ll probably come up. Where is the boat at the marina?” But he did not come – and I do not regret.
As Ron later told me, similar things did happen to Norval a couple of years ago, but everything was more serious. It was under surveillance. As it turned out, Marion was (and, probably, still is) one of the famous drug trafficking points to Australia. And that’s why everyone who shows interest in Marion Reef attracts attention himself.
In the morning I also meet the crew. The skipper is Chris. Cook and deck sailor – Frostie. Surprisingly bright personality, very friendly, helping and just a nice hippie. Immediately, a conversation is fastened (or rather his monologue about the Nibiru planet, secrets of Egyptian civilization, Armageddon and the survival of mankind …)
An additional turmoil begins. Additional food delivered. It turned out that they didn’t take enough beer. Fixed.
Well, it seems like all done finally – and we left the marina closer to 6 pm, June 17, Saturday. 12 anglers of all ages and physical conditions, I, Ron – owner, Chris – skipper, Frostie – cook/deck sailor and another sailor – alas, the name has faded from memory. Anglers began to celebrate the beginning of the tour with free beer immediately
From the moment of sailing I was sitting at the Norval’s bow, imagining how I will work, planning and dreaming. So almost 2 hours passed, the night was completely dark, Mackay’s lights disappeared, only a light spot over the horizon could still be seen.
Suddenly I noticed that people began to somehow randomly move around the ship, and it itself slowed down very much and began to somehow uncertainly scour the course.
As it turned out, the already repaired gearbox began to heat up again, spitting with oil. And besides, we started taking water a little by little. A slight panic – but, unfortunately, the consequences for me personally were not so easy. In the chaotic movement of passengers on the ship, my backpack, in which the headset was located, was dropped and repeatedly passed through it. As a result, ALL QSOs from both islands, all 4.5 thousand, were made to the internal speaker-pincher of the transceiver. It was not easy in the pileups, especially with constant wind noise. I would never have believed that this is possible – I tried to work loke that a couple of times before. It’s a perversion.
However, everything ended more or less well. Particularly nervous passengers were offered the evacuation to Mackay on 2 dinghy attached to the stern, but all refused. Slowly and hesitantly, at a speed of 5 knots, we reached Mackay well over midnight.
This entire time situation on the ship was uneasy. A large amount of already consumed beer, collapsed plans and incurred costs almost provoked the riots, but more reasoned cold minds helped to cope with this. All that time I was sitting again at the bow and repeating one phrase “That’s all …”. I didn’t have any other thoughts on my mind. There was no anger, just a cold calm.
In Mackay Norval moored back at the same place where he left a few hours ago, anglers fell asleep in the cabins. Only me, Ron and Chris with Frostie wandered about the ship in anguish. However, Chris and Frostie on the motorboat gone to a bar, they persistently invited me to go with them. But I try not to drink at all in expeditions and refused. Tried to go to bed – it was useless, sleep did not come.
After 2 hours, Chris and Frostie returned, reasoning sensibly that everything is expensive at a bar, and Norval has beer reserves almost untouched. And since the trip is canceled – no one needs them. They invited me again – there was nothing else to do, and we came upstairs to a small upper deck, sat down there.
This was a good remedy for melancholy – drinking beer, Frostie played acoustic guitar (he writes lyrics and music himself, quite professionally), we shouted songs to the whole harbor, spoke for life. I didn’t have a jam-session with a live guitar for last 30 years.
The guys asked me again and again about ham radio, there were some relatives and friends who also have the same hobby. They tried to understand how important it is for me to have plans of the expedition totally crashed. And so, when time came closer to dawn, Chris asked me a simple and obvious question that changed everything …
To be continued…