Coetivy Island AF-119 NEW was one of the 11 new IOTA groups announced in Windsor for IOTA’s 50th Convention, July 2014. After this activation, only 3 of these 11 new Groups remained unactivated.
Now, Coetivy Island is 180 miles South East of Mahe, main Island Seychelles and one could say, basically 180 miles from anywhere! Coetivy is strictly controlled by the IDC – Islands Development Committee. This committee consists of several ‘high profile’ local individuals consisting of the local Lord Mayor, Minister of Tourism, Secretary of Defence etc… They have control over 14 different Islands and Coetivy has the strictest access regulations in place. In the 1990’s, Coetivy was used intensively for prawn farming….the biggest farm in the world at that time in fact. Remains of the old production plant are still clearly visible as well as the old abandoned private dwellings of the 1300 people who once lived and worked on Coetivy. Today, Coetivy still manufactures Coconut oil and Charcoal, although is mostly known as an active prison and a rehabilitation centre for drug abusers.
As all DXpeditioners and IOTA activators will confirm, plans are always in the works….there are always some ideas for a ‘Next One’ and no sooner when one DXpedition is over……plans for ‘Another One’ are never far away! This case was no different and in-between our other planned DXpeditions, we started thinking on where to go next. Different IOTAs were in mind and several applications to relevant authorities were already submitted. You could say, we were juggling different possibilities to see which would work out first.
Now, our initial application to visit Coetivy had been refused and had not been processed through the proper channels. Basically, it hadn’t reached the right person. After learning about the IDC and their projects, we decided to revisit this and perhaps try a different approach. It worked! After many nuisance phone calls and dozens of emails, we got introduced to Mr. Savy, the CEO of the IDC. After our initial correspondence, we learned that a permit to visit Coetivy could be possible and although was going to be expensive due to the access restrictions, it seemed doable! Next, we needed to educate them a little bit on what exactly Amateur Radio was all about and needed to be 100% certain, that all our antenna plans would be allowed, so there would be no confusion at a later date. Information was limited and it was difficult to get to speak to the right people. The initial quotes were outrageous and would not have been possible. We persevered, and went through a strict budgeting regime, and after a lot of negotiations, we both agreed on a figure. It was vital at this point to establish, clearly, at this stage, on what was included and what was excluded. There were so many regulations and criteria to meet. If we were going to do this, basically, we needed to book everything through the IDC. We needed to use their registered aircraft and fly the last 180 miles to Coetivy. This is the only practical means of getting to the island. Sure, if one has the available time, they can go by sea but….will be unable to land without a permit issued by…..you guessed it, the IDC. There is also a guesthouse available on the island. This is usually kept clean for whenever IDC staff wishes to visit. This guesthouse is within the exclusion zone and gets limited interaction with the inmates/prisoners. The cost of this guesthouse is high also, and again, can only be booked via the IDC. Due to flight and accommodation restrictions, only a 6 man team is allowed. We needed to calculate our overall budget and see if this whole project would be financially feasible. Sure, a bigger team would have helped offset our expenses but this just was not possible. 6, was to be the maximum.
OK, so now armed with permission and an exact budget…..we needed to find another 4 operators. We already had 2, Col MM0NDX was also part of the planning and so we needed 4 more to complete the 6 man team. Something as rare as this comes only once in a lifetime, and as 1st IOTA activations have recently proved, humongous pile-ups are assured! 6 experienced ops were needed, experienced with the hardships of intense operating with little or no sleep. Pile-ups always come first, and one has to sleep around times of poor propagation or if/when bands are closed. This team needed to be fresh and fit, and ready for whatever they may need to face. Based only on past experiences and IOTA success, a list was compiled with 20 of the most recognised names in IOTA DXpeditioning that we thought suitable. Everyone on this list had already proven themselves in this field, and therefore, were all sent an invitation to come join us in this new adventure. We also had a ‘B’ list but never got to distribute it as the response to the initial invite was so huge.
All available 4 places were filled within a few hours. The team was now complete and we could now introduce the team members to each other. No introductions were needed however, as everyone recognised each other from previous DXpedition success, and, so right from the start, this team was sure to succeed. I’m sure you’ll recognise some of these callsigns too! EA3NT, EI9FBB, MM0NDX, PA3EWP, SP5APW & VK5CE completed our 6 man team. In fact, this team had the experience of over 160 DXpeditions between them!
Now, we had a budget, a complete team and all necessary permissions, we needed to decide on when and how we were to announce this. This is always a risky part when planning a DXpedition. If one announces too soon, it opens the door for another different team to sneak in beforehand perhaps. Announcing too late creates its own problems too of course. Had other groups been working on this project too? Was a DXpedition going to happen before our intended dates? We had chosen the November timeframe for a number of reasons….weather, scheduled annual leave, budgeting; but mainly for best propagation possibilities into all geographical areas of the globe. Now there was a risk that some other group might get there first. The only way we could be 100% certain, was to ask the IDC if any other Amateur Radio group had been in touch re access to Coetivy. They refused to comment. We made an agreement with the IDC that if we made a definite booking and paid a sizeable deposit, we would be given the exclusive and that no permit to any other radio group would be issued until after December 2015. Selfish….perhaps but that’s the way it worked!
As each operator now had to pay the full amount immediately, we began a large sponsorship appeal. We are most thankful to all the individuals who kindly made donations before our DXpedition. This is the time when donations are really needed as deposits, fares, equipment etc. all need to be bought up front and everything being paid in full beforehand. To say thanks, we offered a ‘Free QSL’ to those who donated in advance. We felt that if we got as many DX Clubs and Foundations on board too, it would also help secure our position as often these Clubs will not give funding to the same entity twice within the same year. So, once we were 100% sure that everything had been booked and paid for, we announced our intentions.
Expressions of interest from the IOTA community was huge. Many sent private emails of support. Each operator basically had his own following, having gained confidence from one’s past operations. I think this reassured the IOTA community that this DXpedition was going to happen. Despite several operations from regular S7 earlier on in the year, by a JA group, a Polish group and several individuals, we still knew that this was going to be totally different. A first activation has never been done before and so, everyone wants at least one QSO. Most operations from S7 are only from an apartment or hotel balcony for example. Not many ever had a full beachfront at their disposal, not to mention acres of available space. This facility needed to be exploited, so, from early on, we intended to put a special empathises to North America. S7 is #55 most wanted on the West Coast and an incredible #17 on 10m! To work North America we needed to beam right over Europe, as FL to TX is exactly the same beam heading as EA, CT and IT9. This was going to be difficult as this now was not only an IOTA activation. DX hunters would be looking for us too. Propagation prediction charts showed the high bands being our most productive so we decided on a multitude of antennas. Different take off angles were needed from our antennas to maximise our QSO count and we needed the capability of 2 stations on each band at times. Prediction charts showed only 1 or 2 bands being open for several hours during daytime hours. All 6 operators came here to operate and to run pile-ups….not to be sleeping during daylight! Using Google maps imagery, we got to learn the local terrain and had an extensive antenna plan. A few years ago, a well-known Scottish group did a great operation from S7 and fulfilled the demand for many needing S7 on the low bands. Unfortunately, they did not have great propagation for the higher bands, so, we eliminated all plans of LF activity and just concentrated from 40m through 10m. Using a combination of VDAs right at the water’s edge and SP7IDX Technology Hexbeams, with verticals for 30m and 40m, completed our antenna farm. We had 11 antennas in total. By giving maximum separation between antennas and making sure to avoid nasty multiple wavelengths we knew exactly where each antenna was to go. Obviously band pass filters to be used at each radio too. We had 2 complete sets.
Our sponsorship campaign continued and many of the larger recognised DX Clubs and Foundations came forward to give us funding. We realised that this is a difficult and busy time for sponsorship requests as many other DXpeditions were already announced to rare DX locations. Despite our efforts to ship extra antennas, equipment etc. for our North American plans, every North American club declined and refused our funding requests. Each additional kilogram of equipment was adding an additional $100 to our budget. Were we just wasting our time? Were we putting additional pressure and unnecessary expense on ourselves? Why don’t the North American clubs help support IOTA? So, we decided to go down the S7 route and request funding to activate Seychelles. This is just not rare enough despite being highly wanted on the West Coast. So, we decided to hit this area and request funding from the big well known clubs in California and the West Coast. Again, all requests were refused. Why did they not want to help? Did they not have faith in the team, the location, the equipment, propagation predictions, what? We couldn’t and still can’t figure out why now. So, a few weeks later, we were only delighted when the Western Washington DX Club offered a most welcome donation. They were the only North American club to have supported us. What was reassuring though was the amount of individual DXers / IOTA chasers whose interest and words of encouragement and support kept us motivated and focused. At least some had confidence in us! The individual support was huge!
Obtaining a license to operate from The Seychelles is a straightforward enough procedure although does take quite a long time. We had been told by other groups who had operated from here to allow up to 2 months before a license will be issued. Early on in our planning stages we submitted our application to the SLA (Seychelles Licensing Authority). Firstly we needed to get authorisation to import and operate Amateur Radio equipment, as only licensed Amateurs are allowed transmitting equipment in S7. This meant we needed makes, models & serial numbers of all equipment that would be brought with us. If anything, this also helped our planning as we also needed weights to calculate excess baggage charges and also for the last final flight to Coetivy. Different offices deal with the different parts of the license application and this is where the delay occurs most likely. Still though, after almost 4 months and several follow up phone calls we did get a confirmation letter approving our equipment and also confirming our requested callsign. S79C had been issued. The actual license is only issued for the exact stated dates and only to a specified location. This meant that we could only use S79C whilst on Coetivy Island. 2 days before our departure, we finally had the paper license in hand – phew!
Time goes remarkably fast when planning a DXpedition and soon enough, it was time to begin our packing and calculate our excess baggage fees. Packing equipment is becoming quite difficult in recent times. To keep everything safe, secure and damage free during transit, Pelican cases are ideal. These however are heavy and don’t be long using up ones limited airline baggage allowance. Everything was carefully packed and wrapped in-between personal clothing and carried in our suitcases. These days, most airlines charge excess baggage per kilo and each piece of baggage is restricted to a maximum of 32 KGs. In total over $3,000 was paid in excess baggage fees.
Right from the start the IDC made us aware that all our combined weights, both body and baggage must not exceed 925 KGs. This is the maximum. It is a 1 ton aircraft and the other 75kgs was for the pilot. 3 days before our departure, we got notification that this aircraft was not available and that the new replacement aircraft had a capacity of only 800KGs. This was not suitable and would have jeopardised our whole project. All of our antenna planning, baggage etc. was based on the 925KG allowance. There were only 2 options. 1, was to find another suitable aircraft and 2, was for the IDC to put on a second additional flight at their expense. We needed all 6 persons and equipment to reach Coetivy. Our whole operation hung in the balance of this decision. We were not to find out the outcome until the day of departure.
As all 6 team members were travelling different routes and via different airports, each made their own way to Mahe, Main Island Seychelles. Each of our flights arrived at different times and on different days in fact so now, it was time for the first of the team to begin their journey. 4 hours before Col’s departure, the horrible ISIS attacks in Paris made the Global news headlines. 130 poor souls lost their lives. All borders were closed. Col was moments before departing for his flight from Edinburgh to Paris. As if this wasn’t bad enough, he received a telephone call in the midst saying that a close family member was been rushed off to hospital by ambulance with a serious condition. We can only but imagine on what was going through his mind at this time. Coetivy was not going to happen for him after all. Charles-de-Gaulle airport remained closed as Col’s departure time passed. He was at the hospital waiting for news. Some of the team had already arrived in Mahe at this stage and were now waiting for Chris’ arrival. Jacek was the 1st to arrive from Warsaw shortly followed by Craig coming from Brisbane. Everyone else was due to arrive the following day. We had agreed to meet at the pre-booked hotel which was our rendezvous.
More bad news was to follow however. Ron, PA3EWP was transiting via Nairobi. Nairobi is a 3 hour flight from Mahe. Moments after take-off, the landing gear from his aircraft malfunctioned. The flight could not continue. The craft remained airborne whilst the emergency vehicles and fire services got into position on the cleared runway, ready for disaster. The aircraft would have to attempt an emergency landing. This must have been a hair-raising experience for all on board, but thankfully, all went well and the aircraft and all passengers landed safely. After disembarkment, they learned that there was no replacement airplane. Not only that, there were no other scheduled flights to Mahe on that day. The repairs would have to be done in Nairobi and should be completed in time for the following day’s flight, a full 24 hours later. Now, this meant that Ron would miss our scheduled departure for Coetivy. This flight could only be delayed by so much. We had already been informed that the latest departure time for Coetivy was 16:00 local, as, the small 8 seater caravan aircraft would have to be back in Mahe before sun down. Ron’s new arrival time was for 17:00, and that’s if everything went according to plan. It looked like Ron would not be joining us either unfortunately.
Luckily word came from Col that he would be joining us after all and the patient was now in a stable condition and making good recovery. He had booked an alternative flight via Abu Dhabi and would be arriving the following morning a few hours before our scheduled departure for Coetivy. Just in time! Now, we were still a man down. We needed to try to reschedule this final flight no matter what. Each time we weighed up the pros and cons on what is better? A 6 man team for 5 days, or, a 5 man team for 6 days. Each time, the 6 man team always came out on top. A decision was made to shorten our DXpedition by one whole day and to come with the original 6 man team as planned. We needed all 6 guys to do what we needed to do. This was an easy choice in the end. No one was getting left behind. So, swallowing our pride, we requested that our flight be rescheduled to the following day. Our representative in the IDC obliged and thankfully facilitated us.
I don’t think that any of us slept that night in anticipation that everything would go well. At 05:30am Chris EA3NT drove to the airport in our hire van to collect Col. He had made it. 5 of the team were now together. After breakfast, the following hours were spent repacking of all luggage and final last minute shopping to gather the last few supplies that needed to be sourced locally. After a trip of the island in our hire van, it was now time to collect Ron from the airport. His plane had landed. Finally, all 6 team members were now all together for the first time. A celebratory drink was called for. It was all coming together at last. We had plans for a nice group ’Departure dinner’ that evening which we all enjoyed, all 6 of us! The stories of woe and wisdom continued into the small hours of the night and at first daylight, after a quick breakfast, we loaded as much of the baggage into the van as possible to make the 1st trip to the IDC hangar. Several trips would be needed; there was that much baggage. Each piece of baggage had to be individually weighed and labelled. Each person had to be weighed also. Remember, we were still restricted in our weights but not quite as much as we thought. By delaying the flight a day, a different aircraft was now available which had a slightly higher capacity. Our combined weights of baggage and persons exceeded the aircraft limit though. It was now time to make rash decisions and leave some baggage/equipment behind. We needed to shave off as many KGs as possible. What or who would we leave behind? Some of us had doubled up on necessities and therefore one MFJ analyser was enough for example. Our water and drinks were left behind too. In total 70 KGs of excess was shaved off in minutes. This was still not enough and the IDC insisted that we were still overweight. There was nothing else that we could leave behind though. Everything that we had now was needed. Suddenly a thought came to mind. This new aircraft was a 10 seater airplane. There were 6 of us. We made them remove the last 2 rows of seats to comply with the weight restrictions. They obliged! Our 12:00 noon departure was delayed almost an hour because of this, but, by 12:50, all baggage was now loaded and we were being called for boarding. It feels strange being seated in amongst suitcases and large antenna bags in an airplane! This was to be a short flight, taking just one hour flying time. One could feel the excitement when we got the first glimpse of Coetivy. The island seemed much bigger than we expected having an area of 10 square kilometres. Within minutes, it was time to touchdown on the short airstrip and to let this adventure begin.
We had only spoken to Michael the island manager, once, by telephone. He seemed friendly and most importantly, helpful. He realised that we had paid a lot of money to come here to do a project and he intended to assist us every step of the way! He did need to know though, on what would be going where. After all, he did have 140 inmates to watch out for! He needed to brief us on the security and for our welfare. We were advised to keep within the exclusion zone. Sure, it’s OK to walk around the island but….just not during hours of darkness. Why, you’ll soon find out! During the planning stages, we studied Google maps in detail. Our antenna farm had already been agreed. We needed to gain access to another building close to the beach to reduce the amount of stations operating from within the guesthouse. About 500 – 600 meters away, a suitable building was made available. We set up 2 shacks, one here, and the other back in the Guesthouse. Whoever was in the other shack after dark, had to stay there until sunrise. Anyone caught moving around the island during darkness is likely to be shot! There are 3 Rangers on the island and these keep the prisoners under control. Any unauthorised landings get to deal with these guys. We would not be introduced to these Rangers. They are independent and seem to have little or no communication with the island manager.
Still though, Michael was very obliging. We needed our coax to pass over a frequently used road. We were afraid of damaging this with the passing traffic. No problem….20 minutes and 4 inmates later, the road had been dug and a 4” pipe buried to enable us to pass our coax cables through underneath. Likewise, the second shack needed to run their coax through dense vegetation. Not an issue, 2 inmates and a machete later, a channel had been cut through this vast undergrowth to run coax lengths directly to the beach. Everyone worked very well together and erected enough antennas on the first day – enough for all 6 stations to operate throughout the first night. It was great arriving to a location and already being familiar with the local terrain. We had studied this in detail before our departure. Different teams were formed, each with their own area of expertise. We needed to complete all the external outdoor work before sundown. All VDAs were placed right at the water’s edge. During high tide, the bases of these fiberpoles would be submerged with salt water. These rocked! Our SP7IDX Hexbeams were placed further inland and as close to the shacks as possible. These were on 10m masts and were our only directional antennas. These worked a treat and were brilliant performers. One hour set up from box to mast. It’s no wonder why these antennas are becoming so popular with DXpeditions. After dark, everyone met for a quick dinner and here we discussed our plans. We agreed on what bands/modes would be used. Initial tests showed everything to be set up correctly and we had absolutely no inter-station interference. The rest of the indoor set up was completed, and as arranged, at 22:00 local (18:00 UTC), all 6 stations CQed at the same time. S79C hit the DX clusters and skimmers and immediately the pile-ups began. Each of the 6 operators had this strange, weird look of content on their faces….and the bigger their pile-up…..the weirder they looked! This is when we remember why we do DXpeditions! Clive 3B8CW was the first into our log on 17m SSB. Propagation was on our side….the bands were alive. Within the first 15 QSOs, 6 continents were worked. Running 6 stations at the same time clocks up the QSO count pretty quickly and in little under 2 hours, the required 1,000 QSOs had been worked as had Antarctica. AF119/p was not provisional anymore. The pile-ups continued throughout the night and we only slept when our band closed.
Each day would bring something new and after breakfast, we always began to improve our stations. Antennas were tweaked, coax runs were shortened, stations perfected and new plans of strategy were thought out. At this time of day, 2 stations were all that was QRV as 12m was the only band open. We set up our 6m antenna and put our beacon running. The SLA gave us special exemption on our license to allow us 6m privileges. According to Clublog, it has been 13 years since the last QSO from S7 took place. We were hopeful and thanks to support from the UKSMG. With 6m, one never knows when the band is going to open – that’s why it’s called the magic band! Ultra low loss coax was brought and even 6m EME was attempted. This is much more difficult these days without an internet connection. We’ve all become so dependent on chatrooms/skeds for this. Despite our efforts, no one heard our CQs off the moon. Chris, EA3NT and Ron PA3EWP were our 2 main 6m enthusiasts. Many hours were spent CQing during likely times beaming into different directions. They tried for South EU, JA, AS and even for local African stations. The best they managed was to copy a ‘4X’ beacon for a few minutes. No QSOs were made however the beacon remained operational for the entire duration of our stay. It was not for the want of trying that’s for sure – these 2 gave it their best.
Due to the distance between our stations, our laptops were not networked. During this day-time lull, logs were collected from each computer and analysed. Using this information, we could see the areas that needed attention for the next 24 hour period. This dictated our operating plan and as to which operator would do which band/mode. This was looked at daily and really helped to maximise our overall total. All geographical areas got a fair chance to work us and often, we would call specifically for each area. All 6 stations were QRV as much as possible and no band went unattended. It was evident though, the number of band slot chasers that are still trying to work each DXpedition on every possible band/mode slot. Deliberately, we disabled this feature on Clublog, just as an experiment. This is an area that has got much debate in recent times. I can honestly tell you, it made no difference. A few days after our return, we enabled the leaderboard feature again to get better statistics and were amazed by the number who had worked us on multiple bands. We always knew that we would have no internet on the island. From the start, it was made clear that our logs would be uploaded after the DXpedition. This would likely lead to more dupes and reassurance contacts. To maximise the amount of uniques, we kept at least one station QRV 24/7. The only band we worked RTTY was on 15m. We limited our operating to 12 available band/mode slots and scrapped the idea of 40m as this would just open a whole new window and doubtful to log anyone new. Each day’s stats would dictate the following days operating plan.
Life was comfortable on this island. We had a cook who kept us well-nourished and refreshed and a maid who kept our surroundings clean and tidy. It was the first time that many of the team operated from an air-conditioned shack! In the humid 35 degree environment, a cold shower was most welcome. On the downside, we experienced daily electricity outages. Thankfully these were not for very long but were still too frequent and an inconvenience. We had to go QRT erratically due to interaction with the prisoners and inmates. We found the inmates to be friendly but opportunists! Once they thought that the island manager was not around, they would try to interact with us. Michael had a motorbike and got around the island quickly. The inmates often ran and left in mid conversation once they could hear the faint sound of a motorbike engine, terrified of being caught. Many are serving lengthy sentences, up to 16 years in one case. One evening we invited Michael to have dinner with us. This was cut short as some of the inmates had learned how to make alcohol from coconuts. Alcohol is banned and is strictly controlled. Only IDC staff is allowed alcohol and even then, it’s limited to 7 bottles of beer a week. So Michael had to leave and go gather up some drunken prisoners from around the island. For this though they needed to be punished. Once found, they were put into an open cell without any food, water, insect repellent or air-con. Here they would be kept overnight on a bed of concrete until daylight when they would need to leave for work. Each prisoner/inmate works 5 hours a day until noon, and all have different jobs/tasks. Some farm the animals, gather coconuts and grow vegetables. Those who have trades are mechanics, carpenters, fishermen, electricians and maintain the islands infrastructure. It takes 140 men 12 months to keep the island clean and functional.
The pile-ups continued. 30m was kept till the last 2 days of operation. In fact, 30m propagation was not all that good earlier in the week. All operators noticed excellent pile-up behaviour, from all continents. Everyone respected our requests and we noticed no signs of DQRM. We stayed focused, as we had a clear vision on our goals. We were amazed with the amount of South American stations worked. All too soon, it was time to begin our departure plan. We aimed to keep as many stations QRV right until the last minute. This final night saw a decline in band conditions. We had timed it just right. We went QRT at 02:19 on 22nd November 2015 on 30m CW with AA4BQ being the last in the log. At first daylight, teams were formed again and began dismantling the stations. We skipped breakfast that day and after a few hours, all equipment had been removed. All that was left were footprints in the sand! Everything had to be carefully packed away again. The packed bags now need to be inspected, weighed and labelled and we would not see these bags again until loaded on the airplane. Now that the DXpedition was over, any excess, unnecessary equipment could now be left behind thus reducing any further baggage weights. After an early lunch, the truck arrived to bring us to the airfield to prepare for our departure. Sure, we were feeling lonesome. We were leaving this island that had been our home for the past 5 nights.
Still though, we achieved what we set out to do, and that was to activate this New IOTA for the first time. Despite having one day less on the island, we beat our estimated target of 20,000 QSOs and logged 21,541 QSOs in 146 DXCCs. From these, there were 9,808 unique callsigns with an amazing 6,606 North Americans netting 31% of all QSOs. West Coast stations were logged from 30m through to 10m where S7 is #17 on the most wanted list. Our antenna plans had paid off and we hope to think that we gave many a new band / mode point in addition to a new IOTA. Signal reports of 5/9 +20dB were not uncommon. After our short one hour return flight to Mahe, we settled into our accommodation for the final night and sent our complete log to Charles M0OXO our QSL manager. Here he uploaded it immediately to Clublog and opened our OQRS pages. The following hours were spent reading emails of support and notes of thanks from the DX / IOTA community.
We would like to thank GMDX, CDXC, WWDXC, Nippon, Clipperton DX Club, SDXF, UKSMG, GDXF, Mediterraneo DX Club, IRTS, DX-World and IREF who supported us and to the many individuals who donated to our cause from early on. Thanks for your confidence – it would not have been possible without you. Your help is what made our success! Also thanks to our corporate sponsors and to those who gave us discounts when purchasing our equipment. Logs have already been uploaded to LoTW and our QSL card is currently being designed. Tnx to LZ3HI for sponsoring our QSL cards. See http://af119new.com for latest news.