by Mike AD5A with Michael AB5EB and Jake KB5SKN
This is “Hotel 74 Charlie” from Little Corn Island, North America 13, QRZ? And so our expedition began, the culmination of 4 years of speculation and a few months of planning. This expedition was conceived not long after the highly successful H75A operation from Islade Venado, NA-209 when 2 Buzz’s, N5UR and N5FTR and 2 Mike’s, AD5A and AB5EB activated this unnumbered, uninhabited island, off the east coast of Nicaragua, near the city of Bluefields in 1998. During that expedition we spent 3 days living in tents, enduring torrential downpours en route to nearly 7,000 QSO’s. It was that expedition and a growing familiarity with Nicaragua that caused us look for other island adventures in this developing country.
This expedition to Little Corn Island would be a father and sons affair. My two sons, Michael AB5EB and Jake KB5SKN and myself would make up the H74C team. During the fall of 1999, Michael in search of an expedition to do upon completion of medical school decided to do a little research on Corn Island, NA-013, because he needed that island group for IOTA credit. (For the uninitiated, in the IOTA program you get credit for any islands that you activate). Additionally, there are daily flights to Corn Island so getting there would be easy. During his research he stumbled upon the website of a hotel on Little Corn Island, which is 10 miles from Corn Island, that offered comfortable accommodations at a reasonable price. We both determined that Little Corn would be a great place to do an expedition, however we believed someone would put the island on the air before his graduation rolled around, in May of 2003. Fast-forward to the spring of 2003 and NA013 had seen no additional activity. In fact the last operation from there was in 1992 when a group of US hams put YN0YN on the air. This island group had also moved up into the top 10% on the IOTA most needed list. Needless to say, in our minds at least, Little Corn Island would be the perfect DX-pedition destination as a celebratory expedition for AB5EB, M.D. Jake, KB5SKN, while not an avid DXer, is a willing Dxpeditioner. He had been on the XF3 expedition to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, NA045, in 2001 with Michael, and was easily enlisted to round out the team as an SSB operator
Once the decision was made to pursue the project the planning stage was initiated. Obviously the first step was to get the license from TelCor, the Nicaraguan amateur licensing authority. The forms required to apply for the license are available on the ARRL website. These forms are in Spanish, however, I used http://www.freetranslation.com to translate the forms. The application asks the questions you would expect, i.e., copy of US license, copy of passport, model and serial numbers of the equipment you will be taking, etc. After each of us completed our application, I then faxed the forms and documentation to Managua and had my wife, who speaks Spanish, follow up with a phone call to ensure that everything had been received and was in proper order. This follow-up took a little time because it was tough to catch the appropriate officials in the office. After several attempts, we were informed that all was in order and we were assured that we could use H74C as the callsign for our operation.
The next planning step was to work out the transportation details. Fortunately, Continental Airlines has a daily non-stop flight from Houston to Managua. The flight lands in Managua at 7:30pm local time. From Managua, there are two regional airlines that fly to Corn Island, La Costena and Atlantic Air. The flights cannot be booked in advance from the US so you take a chance that seats will be available. Usually they are.
After getting the travel arrangements squared away, we next focused on the scope of the operation. My goal is to travel as light as possible and to be able to carry all of the equipment needed for the expedition within the luggage limitations that the airlines impose. In that spirit we began to layout our station requirements. After some discussion we decided on two stations. This would be tough to maintain with only 3 operators, but we preferred the flexibility that having two stations offered. Obviously we wanted to operate SSB and CW, but additionally we wanted to do some digital and 6 meter operating. We had an ICOM 706, a Yaesu FT 817 and two homebrew solid-state amplifiers that would put out 300 – 400 watts with 20 watts input. With the 5 watts input from the 817, we still would get 120 watts out. The amplifiers required 40 amps of power, so we used two MFJ-4245MV switching power supplies that are relatively light given the need for 40 amps. This would be a light, but effective set-up.
The antenna discussions led us to a decision to use verticals. Based on what has been written on the subject of verticals being used over salt water and our own experience on previous expeditions we felt this was the best choice. We would use a Cushcraft R-6000, 20m – 6m, for the main station and the DK9SQ folded vertical, 80m – 10m used in tandem with a 33 ft. tall fiberglass push up pole, for the second station.
We opted for lightweight RG-8 Coax. This is the first time I have used the lighter weight coax and will never go back to the heavier stuff for this type of expedition. Unlike the last time we operated from Nicaragua, we decided on computer logging. During the H75A operation we were staying in tents in a relatively hostile weather environment and felt that keeping the computers dry might be a worry we could do without. After 3 days of rain, we were happy with that decision. The environment for this operation however, would be different. We would be operating inside a nice cabin, so the computers would be low maintenance and give us the computer capability we needed for the digital modes. Additionally, I have always had a fear that the hard drive might crash and we would lose the logs. To remedy that concern we would simply back-up the logs periodically to a floppy to ensure that the logs would be safe.
The last concern was power. We first thought that the cabins where we would be staying had sufficient power to handle our needs. We were wrong on that assumption. The electrical system on Little Corn Island is a delicate one and is supported by batteries charged with a wind-powered generator. So we arranged to rent a generator that was available on the island for our main station power needs. I also purchased a Honda EU1000 hand carried generator that produces 1000 watts for the second station. These little generators are ideal for lightweight expeditioning. While we were decided on the scope of the operation, the configurations that we laid out resulted in some gaps in the equipment needed to execute our plan. Fortunately, a trip to Dayton was on our schedule, just two weeks prior to our departure. On the need list was a digital modem, a second laptop, 12v fans to keep the amps cool and a couple of padded carrying cases to use in lieu of the hard plastic, unpadded ones that we had. We descended on the Hamvention with a purpose. As you might expect we found everything we needed. I was especially happy with the deals I found on the laptop computer (IBM Thinkpad, $175) and the two hard side padded containers ($22.50 each). I see lots of expeditions taking the latest in laptop computers to do their logging, but the reality is that logging programs need very little computer capability to work to their full potential, so for ham radio applications a clean, old computer works well.
So we had our license, transportation and the equipment to support our operational plans. We were ready to go. The Departure Jacob and I live in New Braunfels, Texas, which is 175 miles west of Houston. We were to meet Michael at his house in Galveston, 40 miles south of Houston, to do a final review of our equipment checklists before departing for the airport. Jake and I arrived in Galveston just in time for lunch.
After going through our luggage, we lightened our load a little by eliminating duplicate items that each of us had packed like toothpaste, camera bags, etc. We made sure that we each had two checked items and two carry-ons. We packed all of the radio gear, with the exception of the transceivers, in the two hard-sided cases. We packed the antennas and some fishing gear into three PVC tubes, which were taped together to form one checked item. We also carried the Honda EU1000 generator in a sealed box. The transceivers and computers were carried on the plane. Personal clothing etc. rounded out the balance of our luggage. We were concerned that the hard-sided cases might exceed the 70 lb. limit and we would have to pay some excess weight charges. After ensuring that we had everything we loaded the luggage into my truck and we were on our way to Nicaragua.
Our flight to Managua departed from Houston at 5:30 p.m. with arrival in Managua scheduled for 7:20 p.m. They are one hour behind CDT, as they do not move their clocks forward for the summer. I wanted to get to the airport by 3:30 p.m. to make sure we would have time to deal with any possible security issues. The check-in process went relatively smooth. One of the hard-sided cases weighed 67lbs and the other, 72lbs. A quick transfer of a roll of coax balanced the load with both coming in just under the 70 lb limit. We were told however that the PVC tubes exceeded the allowable length and that we would have to pay some excess baggage charges. As it turned out the gate agent never asked us to pay for the excess. So far, so good, we were checked in with time to spare.
The flight to Managua was uneventful. We arrived on time to the hot and humid tropical climate of Nicaragua. We were pleasantly surprised upon our arrival that the airport had been remodelled since our last trip on 1998. They had done a fantastic job modernizing the airport that was as nice as any US airport I have been through. You must pay a $5.00 fee upon entry into the country, which we happily paid. We collected our luggage, which thankfully had all arrived intact. Another potential problem averted. We had a lengthy wait to pass through customs as the Nicaraguan customs officials were inspecting every bag through only one checkpoint. When our turn arrived, we had some minor difficulty explaining our cadre of luggage. However, after a half-hearted attempt at explaining with our poor Spanish what we were doing in Nicaragua with radio equipment and antennas, I guess we wore them down and they finally let us through.
The hotel where we would be staying in Managua, Hotel Mercedes, was just across the street from the airport. We loaded our luggage in the hotel van and proceeded to the hotel. As we walked into the hotel lobby we were greeted with a pleasant surprise. Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference Finals was on the TV in the lobby. Jake and I were both San Antonio Spurs fans and they were playing the Dallas Mavericks for the Western Conference championship. We were both certain we would have to wait until we were on the air the next day to find out the score, because I was sure that no-one in Nicaragua would be interested in the NBA playoffs. I was wrong. We were able to watch the 4th quarter from the hotel bar in which the Spurs made a great come back to win the game and the series. Our luck was holding up.
The first flight to Corn Island departed at 6:30 a.m. the next morning. We had previously arranged with Marvin Ibarra, the person responsible for amateur radio licensing in Nicaragua, to deliver our license to the hotel. Because of the flight schedules to Corn Island we would not have time to pick-up our licenses, unless we took the 2:30 p.m. flight, which would seriously delay the start of our operation. Marvin arrived around 10:00 pm with licenses in hand. We thanked him profusely. With all of the equipment “in country” and licenses in hand we nodded off to sleep dreaming of pile-ups.
We arose early on Friday, May 29 and began the transfer of our equipment from the otel to the La Costeña, (www.flylacostena.com), airline terminal. We purchased our roundtrip tickets to Corn Island for the equivalent of $100 each. We did have to pay excess baggage charges for this trip, the equivalent of $30.00. The plane we boarded was a relatively old Short SD3 60, which is a twin-engine propeller driven plane with a capacity of 70 passengers and 4 crewmembers.
The flight to Corn Island across the width of Nicaragua is an interesting flight. You get a first hand look at the un-developed countryside and the settlements of hardworking Nicaraguans trying to make a living off of the land. We had a brief stopover in Bluefields, our destination in 1998 when we activated Isla Venado, NA-209, for the first time. Our arrival on Corn Island put us in a completely different environment then what we had left behind in Managua. Corn Island has the Caribbean feel to it. Reggae music blares in the streets and most residents speak English that is very similar to the Jamaican dialect. The runway is simply a fenced-in length of pavement that is freely transgressed by the locals when there are no airplanes on approach. Upon deplaning, passengers exit to the street that runs in front of the terminal.
Our first order of business was to negotiate with a cab driver to get our equipment transported to the water taxi that would take us to our ultimate destination, Isla Maiz del Pequeña or Little Corn Island. The cabs were compact cars. Our equipment completely filled one taxi, leaving only room for the driver. A second cab carried the three of us to the water taxi that would take us the remaining 10 miles across the Caribbean to Little Corn.
The water taxi ride was a blast. For $5.00 each we rode on a 20-foot long panga that had two 200 horsepower Mercury engines pushing it through the water. We made the trip in 20 minutes across the open water of the Caribbean.
Walking onshore at Little Corn Island is to take a step back in time before pristine Caribbean islands were commercially developed. There are no roads on this island, no motorized vehicles and no streetlights. Your two feet are your transportation and you follow footpaths to your destination. The white sand beaches were beautiful against the crystal clear water and coral reefs of the Caribbean. The native population earns their living primarily from lobster fishing and lives primarily along the southern side of the island.
A native Little Corn Islander, who had a wheelbarrow in tow to help us get our equipment and luggage to our accommodations at Casa Iguana, greeted us on the beach. Casa Iguana has several cabins or “casitas” that provide wonderful accommodations while on an island like Little Corn. The casitas are clean and comfortable, have an indoor toilet and outdoor shower. The views are fantastic and the prices are reasonable. Visit their website at http://www.casaiguana.net.
After the 10-minute walk from the southern part of the island to the eastern shoreline where we would be staying we were all drenched in sweat. However, no one seemed to mind as we immediately began surveying the area around our casita for a suitable antenna site. Once we settled on a satisfactory site, we begin the process of building up the antennas and assembling the stations. The main station would have a beautiful view of the beach and a nice sea breeze off the Caribbean. The second station would be on the other side of the room facing away from the view, not an ideal location but then again, you can’t have everything.
By 1945z on May 30, we were ready to get on the air. We turned on the radio after connecting the antenna and much to our dismay we had S6 noise. Our primary antenna location turned out to be within a few yards of a trio of wind-powered generators that charged the batteries used by Casa Iguana. We checked all the bands and found the noise was the same on all bands. We called CQ anyway and at 2000z, Don, W9DC was the first call in the log. He mentioned QRN and that the bands were in bad shape. Well maybe we had used up all of our luck! Quickly following Don into the log was Fred, N6AWD, our QSL manager and the first station in the log from H75A, NA209. After Fred’s QSO and Don’s spot on the cluster, the floodgates opened and the QSO’s were coming hot and heavy. We made 108 QSO’s in the first hour of “bad conditions”. The R-6000 performed wonderfully throughout the expedition.
Despite the success of the main station, the second station was experiencing technical difficulties. We did not have enough space between antennas and the inter-station interference rendered station number two useless. Our backup plan was to rent a second, smaller cabin that was sufficiently far enough from the first station to minimize inter-station interference. So in the heat and humidity, Michael and Jacob moved the folded vertical to the second location where we were able to establish a solid second operating position.
The were a couple of problems with this arrangement however, there was a guest scheduled to arrive the next day to use this cabin, so our stay here would be limited to 16 hours at the maximum. The second and unanticipated problem with this set-up was that we didn’t bring a flashlight and when the sun goes down on Little Corn Island, it is “dark”. We literally could not see the hand in front of our face. I have never experienced such darkness before. There was a forested canopy over the footpaths that blocked out any starlight or moonlight. We were unable to navigate the 100 yards between cabins. Not to be stymied by such an oversight we used the light on the movie camera we had brought with us to illuminate the path.
We ultimately got the second station going on 30 and 40 meters and operated until around 0600z when the band closed to Europe. The busiest hour of the expedition was between 0400z and 0500z when the combined stations made 264 QSO’s.
The expedition was now in full swing and we were making Q’s at a good rate. Our first day on the island was extremely busy, but now it felt good. We had started the day at 4:45 a.m. in Managua and finished the day working the pile-ups. Around midnight local time we all “crashed”. We ended the day with more than 1,500 QSO’s in the log. The casita was only 50 yards from the Caribbean and a nice sea breeze cooled us at night as we slept. We all slept well.
I awakened first and started up station number 2 again on 30m at 1100z (5 a.m. local) looking for JA’s . Fortunately I was able to make a few QSO’s into Japan, but the opening wasn’t a good one. The signals were weak, but we got JA4FKX, JM1PXG and a few other JA’s in the log. We fired up the primary station round 1230z and immediately had a pileup. We switched to 15m at 1400z to catch the European opening and it seemed everyone was waiting for us. The day’s work had begun.
After 30 meters died out, we set about the relocating the second station. We had secured another cabin at the other end of the complex and began relocating the station again. When we were set, it was obvious that we would not be able to operate the high bands, above 30m, with both stations simultaneously. This third location was not a good one. So by 1800z after a few QSO’s on 17 meters, we abandoned the second station until 30 meters opened up later in the afternoon.
Casa Iguana has a nice set-up. Breakfast is served every morning at the lodge, which was about a 4-minute walk for us. There were several menu choices, but my preference was eggs, rice and beans (mixed) and toast. There was also fresh fruit, Additionally, they have an arrangement that allows you to choose from an assortment of iced-down beverages, make a tick-mark next to your name on the board and be on your way. The drinks were $1.50 each, whether beer or soft drink, no matter. What a deal. At the end of your stay you count up the tick-marks and settle up. Additionally, the view from the lodge was tremendous. Needless to say, the lodge became the unwinding spot for us. Now that the expedition had become a one-station operation, at least during daylight hours, there was a little more time for unwinding.
A survey of the island reveals an abundance of natural resources. Of course the local waters produce lobsters and an abundance of other fish, which when prepared by the local restaurants are wonderful. You can get a lobster dinner for the equivalent of $7.00 and it tastes wonderful. Also, just within a 5 minute walk from our casita are pineapples, bananas, star fruit, mangos and of course coconut trees.
By sundown on Saturday, we had more than 2,800 QSO’s in the log. Our goal for the operation was 3,000 Q’s and we were almost there already, with another full day to go.
Around 2330z we fired up station number 2 again on 30 meters. The rate was slow and it became obvious that this antenna location, (in the trees away from the beach) was not optimum. I worked mainly US and EU, but the signals were down. I called CQ on 40m for 30 minutes with no answer. We had experienced good results on 40m during a short stay on that band the night before, so I put the blame on the new antenna location. I went back to 30m and worked there until 0300z when after going several minutes without an answer to my CQ, I shut down the station.
The primary station was still rockin’ and rollin’. There was a great opening into Europe on 20m CW and we worked that pile-up hard. At 0533z, we worked JA8RJE and 3 more JA’s in rapid succession. This was the beginning of our best opening in to JA. The pile-up continued to be mostly EU until 0715z when starting with JA8BZL, 21 of the next 23 QSO’s would be with JA. The propagation was starting to shift. Beginning at 0738z until 0901z, 85 of 97 QSO’s were with JA. Around 0845z it started to rain. The rain static continued to build until I could no longer pull any calls from the pile.
I desperately wanted to keep running, but it was 3:00 am local and I had been up for 22 hours (I did nap for a couple of hours during the day) and the rain showed no sign of letting up. Reluctantly, I shut down the station and joined the other two intrepid expeditioners in la-la land. We ended the day with 3,750 QSO’s in the log.
We were off the air for about 4.5 hours before we came up again on 20m SSB at 1320z on June1. The pile-ups were solid and we switched to CW around 1440z and operated until around 1600z. I then decided to switch to a digital mode. I set the rig up for PSK31. After taking a while to relearn how the Rigblaster worked and to get reacquainted with the software, I made the first PSK31 QSO with VE9DS. I made only 7 QSO’s in about 10 minutes and decided to go back to 15m to work the opening to EU. I did go back to PSK later in the day and made a few more contacts. I am new to this mode, but I find it very interesting. One of the QSO’s I made, I couldn’t hear the signal, but the print was on the screen solid. I think I will play with this mode a little more.
We periodically called CQ on 6 meters but never heard a station on the band. This was our major disappointment of the expedition. We had originally planned to have a station monitoring 6 meters continually, but the beam antenna we ordered for that purposed arrived with missing pieces, so we had to scrap that plan. We finished out the day on 15 and 20 meters, finally making QSO number 4,393 with W3DKT at 2353Z.
We had to get the station down before dark because we had to catch a 7:00 a.m. panga ride back to Corn Island so we could catch an 8:15 am flight back to Managua. After we were packed, we managed to find our way in the dark to the Lodge where we put few more tick-marks on the board. We were very satisfied with our effort and had thoroughly enjoyed our stay on the island.
We retraced our steps back to Managua. The only problem arising when the ground crew wasn’t able to get our antenna tube loaded into the Cessna 208B cargo bay. The captain finally ruled that the tube would ride in the aisle of the plane. Needless to say this was a small plane. My seat was directly behind the co-pilot. I could have reached around him to take the controls, and I thought someone might need to when he fell asleep during the flight. It was a smooth flight back.
We arrived in Managua in time to have lunch, catch a nap and then take a cab ride down to the market to do a little shopping. There are some wonderful artisans in Nicaragua and were able to get some good deals on gifts for those back home.
On Monday night we sat by the Hotel Mercedes pool and had our last round of Victoria beers while talking about the expedition and our stay on Little Corn Island. We talked about where we might go next and all of the typical post expedition conversation. But we all concluded, that all things considered, this one would be hard to beat.
Tuesday morning we boarded the 7:00 flight back to Houston. After I had already boarded the plane the ground crew had a question about my luggage. I was required to go down to their inspection station. They had grave concerns over an extra balun I had taken. It looked like a bomb to them. I calmed their fears, re-boarded the plane and we flew back to reality.