Dry Tortugas NPOTA Recap & Soapbox

Contributed by Craig, KD2INN

I got a text at work sometime this spring from Rob (K2RWF) asking if I wanted to go to the Dry Tortugas National Park (NP17) for an NPOTA activation in November.  Susie (XYL) works with me and I asked if she wanted to go and it only took a minute to reply to Rob in the affirmative.  After we decided to go, the planning to create a path to a successful DXpedition began.  Rob was in charge of the park.  He did a great job working with the National Park Service office responsible for Ft. Jefferson on the Dry Tortugas.  He made sure that we would be welcome and assured them that we would have no negative impact on the park itself.  I was on Transportation.  Being many months ahead of our planned weekend, I was surprised to find that the ferry to the island was booked full for campers.  Our options were few due to our work schedules so we accepted a Sunday to Monday overnight at the park and continued our planning.  We booked passage for 3 on the Yankee Freedom out to the island and Susie booked airfare for our flight to Florida.  Rob was going to be in Florida already, so he just added a flight to Key West.  With most of the initial stuff secured, we settled into a summer of dreaming of our trip.  In that time, Rob worked me over a bit on working a contest and we did a trip to New York state for a VHF contest with A.J. (AJ2I) and I got my first taste of contesting.  After that it was a trip to Sandy Hook for more contest running for a National Parks on the Air (NPOTA) activation.  This was a blast and we had lots of club members at hand to all take their turn at logging contacts.  Personally, this was a big confidence booster for me as I was soon to leave for a camping trip out west and NPOTA activations of my own and, I had never run contest style.  When I got back, I turned my attention to equipment that we would travel with.  

The camping side of things was easy as Susie and I camp as often as we can and have supplies for making it a comfortable experience.  Susie was in charge of getting all of that gear picked out and she put together cooking supplies for the dinner and breakfast that we would need.  We also had to keep things small as everything needed to be shipped down to Florida in advance of our arrival.  We also needed to sort out our radio gear.  Initially, I thought of traveling with my folding hex beam antenna.  However, as good as that antenna is, it's not really lightweight and getting it on a mast would be a challenge.  Based on the recommendation of Sean Kutzko, KX9X, Rob and I decided that a vertical was the way to go.  

Rolls of wire and a Jackite mast are a lot lighter than my hex and MGS mast.  I wanted to get us the best chance of getting out and heard so I started making resonant vertical elements for 40, 20, 17, 15, 12 and 10m.  I knew ground radials were also going to help so I made a way to quickly set out 16 33ft radials.  I wanted to be able to easily change bands so I came up with a way to quickly disconnect the main radiator.  With the ground radials cut for 40m, they would work quite well with any of the other bands.  I knew that being close to salt water would help our signal, but I didn't really know how close or far you had to be for this to work.  I was only going to assume that our ground radials were all that we would have.  We also wanted to be ready if a 6m opening occurred and I built a PVC Moxon that I could pull apart for transport.  We also brought an Arrow for satellite passes that would available for us to try.  

When packing things up, I kinda had a freakout moment and packed a G5RV and G5RV Jr. as alternates.  I also had a 60 something ft. piece of wire and a 9:1 unun for a random wire and a plan to wind it around the 32ft Jackite if things got desperate.  I was way over thinking things.  Time was running out and I could no longer afford to continue to be burdened with thought, we had to ship this stuff down to Florida.  Susie packed up 3 boxes of camping and radio stuff that totaled nearly 150 pounds and took them to FedEx.  So much for keeping this lightweight.  

Rob flew down separately from Susie and I and we both carried our Icom 7100's with us on the flights with no trouble from TSA.  Getting our stuff on board the ferry part was easy. Susie had purchased a couple of bags to carry our odd and bulky stuff in and we had everything on the boat in just a couple of minutes.  The two and a half hour ferry ride was delightful and smooth.  The Yankee Freedom III is a twin hulled boat that moves about 30 mph.  Once at the island, we received our do's and don'ts about camping on the island from the head Park Ranger.  After his talk, we introduced ourselves as the hams from New Jersey who were here to operate at the park.  "You're who?" wasn't the response we were expecting.  Thankfully Rob had printed copies of all correspondence between him and the park service that indicated we would be welcome, expected and even provided a generator for our electrical needs.  Apparently, no one from the main office told the island rangers of our long planned visit.  But a quick phone call from the head ranger to the mainland got things back on track and we were onto getting things set up.  Susie set up camp and Rob and I were building a radio station.  I was on antenna end of construction and Rob was on the other end of the coax with radios and laptops.  Our accommodations for the station were, well, rough.  We set up in an area used for construction material and refuse storage.  I barely had the room to spread out the ground radials and rob was setting up on the other side of rows of stored bricks.  Susie had packed up a table for us to use but Rob found a piece of discarded furniture among the junk there that he was able to use as a desk.  We were told in advance that we were not allowed to attach anything to any structure in the park.  So, I had devised a way of securing the antenna mast base that would not require guys.  A Home Depot bucket with a PVC tube screwed to the outside allowed us to just drop in the mast and hold it vertical.  All it required was some weight and the park service said that we could borrow whatever sand that we needed as long as we put it back when we were done.  Once the weight was in the bucket, the mast could resist the wind and stay up.  All around us in our area were broken pieces of brick, concrete and granite that made for nice weights and we filled them up.  I didn't look at the time, and I should have, but it felt like we were on the air in an hour.  Rob got on the air quickly on 20m and I started to assemble the mox and get it in the air.  Gorilla tape was required for final assembly and and it went up on another mast but only needed to be about 10 feet in the air so, despite its weight, it also required no guying and stood tall and solid. My rig was setup to monitor 6m and we would occasionally call CQ just to see if someone was out there.  No one was on Sunday.

After all was in place, I sat down for the first time to take in the beauty of the area.  It's easy to do there, even when you are standing in the middle of the dumps.  The worn red bricks of the fort were in perfect contrast with the clear ocean water that varied from deep blue to azure to aqua green and we had an impossibly clear and almost cloudless sky from horizon to horizon in any direction.  It was magnificent.  After all of the running around of getting going, I'm glad that I took time to look around.  

Rob is a very good contest operator and he was racking up the contacts quite quickly.  It was getting crazy. He thought of operating split but decided to just go by number to help make it more manageable.  He started with the 6's and it was probably much more reasonable and he was clearly able to hear better, and he was going fast.  Spending a few minutes on each, 7's, 8,s, 9's and so on through the 3's, all went by in a reasonably well. Rob looks over at me and with a chuckle in his voice he says "okay, here comes the 4 wall". I can only imagine what this sounded like.  But he got through them too before tapping out and putting me in.  Sandy Hook and the VHF contest and even my trip out west to activate Canyonlands NP and Glenn Canyon Recreation Area, couldn't have prepared me for what happened next.  I get on and make my basic announcement and said "QRZ?" and a roar of unintelligible sound that my brain just couldn't process came flying back at me.  I froze in a moment of panic, not knowing what to do with this.  Thankfully the roar tapers off and then you can start to hear letters and numbers again.  I picked someone out,  got them in the log and moved on.  Again, a wall of sound and a desperate attempt to make sense of it all.  Got another one in the log and moved on again. This went on and on.  I can't go as fast as Rob and I can't seem to be able to pick out the calls as well either, but I was trying.  I tried to do a good job and give Rob enough of a break before crying uncle.  Maybe I was on for an hour.  Then he was back at it.  We traded off a few more times as the night went and we stopped at one point when it slowed for dinner and to admire the supermoon that had risen.  About 11pm, it was time to call it a night and secure our equipment.  The log showed over 1100 contacts up to that point.  It was unbelieveable.  Throughout the night we were receiving reports of 10 and 20 over S9 and a few said that we were among the strongest signals on the band.  Maybe there is something to operating within feet of saltwater. Whatever it was, I was just happy to to have had the gods of propagation smiling upon us that day.  

Neither Rob nor I slept well that night as visions of QRZ danced in our heads, and Rob left the tent at 5 the next morning to get at it again. I was trying to sleep but it just didn't work and I got up about 6 to join him. being as how it was now Monday morning, it was much much quieter on the bands.  Rob had set up 40 first thing and it was going slowly at about 40 QSO’s per hour.  We changed to 20 and I was on for a while and it was quiet there too. A contact said that things were going well on 15 so we quickly changed antennas and went there.  That guy had better luck on 15 than we did.  The morning moved by quickly and Susie brought over coffee and breakfast.  Maybe 150 additional HF contacts for the morning, and a few satellite contacts was what we accomplished before the process of breaking things back down began.  

Rob had monitored 6 meter band openings via dxmaps.com for about a week prior to our arrival. We knew how important EL84 was to the 6 meter community. There had been several Es openings during the morning hours in the days leading up to our trip, a promising sign. On Sunday morning, while I worked 20 meters, Rob called CQ for over 90 minutes at 50.125, constantly moving the beam between 270 degrees and 100 degrees or so. Out of seemingly nowhere, N8JX comes booming in from EN64, giving us a 52 report. Rob was screaming back for a spot on the cluster, which N8JX obliged. We thought we’d see a lot more action, but there were no other takers for the next 30 minutes. N8JX stopped back in about 15 minutes after our first exchange, now giving us a strong 59 report. Unfortunately, by breakdown time at 9:30, N8JX remained our only 6 meter contact of the entire activation.

Everything needed to be back at the boat by 10:30 sharp.  We had it all on the dock at 10:15 when the boat was just coming around the fort with the day's load of passengers.  It was over, with 1225 QSO’s in the log.  

The balance of the day was spent exploring the fort and the grounds and Rob took a swim in the warm gulf waters.  I think we were all very tired and we boarded the boat when the bar opened and called it a day.  The ride back was not without event as we left the dock before two passengers had boarded and the captain had to go back for them.  When they say be on the boad by 2:45, they mean it.  

On the drive back from Key West to the Naples, FL area where we flew into and stayed at my sister's place, we stopped by Biscayne National Park and did a quick activation there.  All prior arrangements there worked out well and I was welcomed to use a corner of the parking lot.  Made over 100 contacts in about 2 hours so it wasn't bad.  I did a little 40m to start for some of the locals to get a chance to get that park but it was super slow and I just couldn't spend more than the 30 minutes I gave it for so few contacts so I moved to 20 where things were very different.  Eventually local noise took over and the bands changed and things ground to a halt and I took it as a sign that it was time to go.

For me, the whole experience was unbelievable and something that we would both like to do again. From the preparation to the execution, all of it was fun and rewarding.  

Craig Ward

KD2INN