WD5N/HC8 CQWW CW 1993: Competitive, No. Fun, Yes!

By Dave Harper, WD5N

Written 21 December, 1993

It all started when Trey, WN4KKN, asked me if I wanted to go along with him as he returned to Galapagos to operate as HC8N again for the '93 CQWW CW contest. Last year Trey operated there, coming in second place world-wide in the single-operator category. I said SURE! The plan was to go to the QTH of Guido, HC8GR, on San Cristobal (the easternmost of the island group) the week before the contest, to repair antenna damage sustained in storms earlier in the year. I would get plenty of operating in during this time, then when Trey operated the contest as a single-op again, I would hang out on SSB, WARC bands, etc. Guido's QTH is on a hilltop overlooking the ocean, with 3 towers and monobanders for 40-10 meters. Airline reservations were made to Quito (you have to go through Ecuador to get to Galapagos, so it is always a two day trip). Trey faxed copies of our licenses and passports to Ted, HC5K, who took care of getting the licenses. Communicating with Galapagos is not easy, as they have only recently gotten telephone service, and there are not enough radio links for the telephone to the mainland. So Trey's communication with Guido had to be through Ted. There was also the language problem, as Guido speaks very little English and Trey and I speak very little Spanish! Then a couple of days before departure time, we got the word from Guido: don't come this year, come next year. Seems the antennas and towers had sustained more damage than we knew about. Great. Okay, now what? Trey decided to go ahead and operate the contest from Ecuador, as he had several offers of a station to use, and I decided to go on alone to Galapagos and try to find a hotel that would let me put up a dipole, then operate the contest myself as /HC8. So we travelled to Quito together on the Wednesday before the contest, arriving about 9:30 PM. We were met at the airport by Benny, HC1BI, who handed us our licenses that Ted had procured for us. Then he took us to our hotel and picked us up again the next morning, then helped us with purchasing airline tickets. It was at this time that I found out that Tame airlines, run by the military, would not take my Mastercard, so I had to use up some of the traveler's checks I brought. The ticket to the islands was $374, not exactly chickenfeed. Ecuadorians and Galapagos residents pay considerably less.

Trey's flight to Cuenca left first, then Benny showed me where my gate was, and then he had to leave to go to work. So I'm waiting for the flight to be announced, when I get paged over the PA system. Who could this be? To answer the page I had to go to the International Information desk, about a block away. I walked at a fast clip until I got there, only to find that they only hold the call for 2 minutes and I had missed it. Hmmm. Oh well. A quick walk back to my departure area, then I proceeded through the X-ray machine and lined up at the gate. Several minutes later I was paged again! This time I jogged to the information booth (carrying my 25 pound carry-on bag), only to miss the call again! But she had taken a number this time, and I saw it was from Ted in Cuenca. I proceeded upstairs to the area where you make phone calls outside of Quito, waited for a booth, and called. He just wanted to make sure everything was okay. Whew! Then another jog back to my gate, just before they opened the doors to let us on the plane. My legs and lungs ached and I coughed most of the way to Guayaquil. It didn't occur to me until later that this is what happens at 9000 feet elevation when you're not in great shape! Quito is in the Andes mountains, you see.

The jet stopped in Guayaquil on the west coast of Ecuador, and we got off the plane and walked 50 yards to board another jet which proceeded to Galapagos. You can fly to either San Cristobal or Santa Cruz Islands. I went to Santa Cruz, as the hub of tourism is located here at Puerto Ayora, including several hotels run by hams. The jet actually lands on Baltra Island, a small chunk of desert to the north of Santa Cruz. The airport is a tiny open-sided building in the middle of nowhere. I think the airstrip was built by the U.S. military during WW-II due to its strategic location in the Pacific. Immediately upon de-planing, you pay a $80 "park usage fee." This was $40 last year, and I understand it will be $120 next year. Trying to keep out the hippies, they say. From here on, there are no "porters" or anyone to help you with your baggage. I became very glad that I only had the 3 bags. Even that was tough, as the main suitcase with the rig and power supply weighed 70 lbs, and the smaller two about 25 and 35 lbs. They had to be hauled onto the top of buses and ferries. From the airport you take a 10 minute bus ride on a tiny and very crowded bus to the channel between Baltra and Santa Cruz Islands, then onto a ferry, then another bus which took a little over an hour over a bumpy dirt road to go to Puerto Ayora on the south side of the island. Lots of folks on the bus were trying to snooze, but not me. This was my first view of this strange land! The ride was quite interesting. For the first 10 or 15 minutes, the land looked exactly like West Texas scrub country, where I grew up. Very dry, small dead gnarled trees, tumbleweeds. Then we started climbing a slow rise, and as we topped the hill the climate and scenery changed drastically within about 15 seconds! Suddenly everything was lush and green and tropical looking, and the air was cooler and misty.

Ted's daughter Cynthia lives in Puerto Ayora, and he had told me she would help me find a hotel and whatever I needed. Well, she did better than that. She met me when I got off the bus in town, and introduced me to Henri Schaeffer, HC8KU. She said "Henri will take care of you," and off she went. Well, he sure did. Henri is from Germany, and has lived 20 years in Ecuador working for an international shipping company, and the last 5 years on the island. He put me up at his house, a cute little one room place with a loft for the bedroom. The couch I slept on was pretty lumpy, but the curves fit my body pretty well and I slept very well. The arrival was mid-Thursday afternoon before the contest, so we immediately set to put up my 80 meter zepp. It was fed with ladder line so I could use it on all bands with the little MFJ transmatch I had brought. We took down Henri's 20 meter dipole, and raised mine on the 25 foot bamboo support, then routed the feedline through a window to the kitchen table. The house had no glass in the windows, just screen, as the temperature is fairly moderate most of the time, although it can get pretty hot at times (cooling Humboldt ocean currents or no, it is after all on the equator).


Within a couple of hours the antenna and station were set up, and I began to work guys. The first contact was with HP1XXE on 20M SSB. I was only to make one other SSB QSO, a roundtable after the contest with TI2CF (Tree, N6TR), PZ5JR (Marco, AA6NJ), and a couple others. Then on to CW and RTTY. I used a TI notebook computer for logging, and a Kantronics UTU for RTTY. I had planned to take my PK232, but had to throw that out along with lots of other stuff when I found I couldn't fit everything I wanted into the available packing space! It was a tough decision, but I even left behind my Kansas City Keyer, using only the K1EA program for keying, plus a straight key. Really missed that keyer at times!

The power on the island goes off from midnight until 6 AM, and I planned to use Henri's battery system for the rig after midnight for a few hours each night (the computer will only run a couple hours or so on its battery), but this never worked very well. I had a really hard time working people. During the contest I tried getting on 80M after midnight because the band was quiet and signals were loud, but hardly anyone would answer me. I did manage to work HG73DX on 80, so why weren't the loud stateside guys answering? Only made 6 contacts on 80! Well, after the contest I was on the battery when a guy in Hawaii told me my signal was very distorted. Apparently my TS-690S needed a little more juice than Henri's battery could deliver. Oh well. I like to sleep at night anyway. Fortunately the commercial power stayed on for 18 hours a day during the contest, as there were several outages afterwards for hours at a time, which Henri said was becoming more and more commonplace as the town is growing quickly with no additions to the power plant. (20 years ago there were about 150 residents. Today there are over 10,000 and growing).

Friday morning we walked a short piece to the Charles Darwin Scientific Center. This is where all the tour guides receive their required month-long training. They also raise giant tortoises here, particularly the endangered varieties, then put them back on their native islands when they are old enough. We happened across a small tour of 6 people, and Henri knew the guide, Fabio. He asked Fabio if we could tag along, and he didn't mind, so I got the benefit of one of the better tour guides for the next couple of hours at the station. We saw Lonesome George, a large (these guys weigh around 600 lbs) saddleback tortoise that is the last known of his species. Humans have caused the extinction of several species of giant tortoises, mainly for use as food. Pirates and whaling ships used to carry off these creatures by the thousands, because they were easy to catch and they could stay alive while aboard ship for up to a year with no food or water.

Henri introduced me to Jorge, HC8JG, who runs the Hotel Galapagos. He has a nice tribander on about a 70 foot freestanding tower next to the beach. You see lots of tribanders and dipoles around the town, but most are used for talking to boats or unlicensed communications with the mainland. When you are that isolated you get away with a lot of that kind of thing. You also saw lots of handheld rigs for talking to the boats on various frequencies.

After lunch at an open-air (as most are) cafe of Ceviche (I think? it was a yummy shrimp dish), it was back to Henri's house and more operating. Worked mostly WARC band CW, as that is a rarity from HC8. N4ZC asked if I would try a satellite QSO through RS12 in a couple hours, so I did, and we made it! It was the first satellite QSO I had ever made.

The contest started at 6 PM (Galapagos is on USA CST, perfect for a Texan), and I tried to join the 5-band sprint that some of the dxpeditioners ran at first, working eachother for 5 minutes on 20, then 40, 80, 15, and 10M. There isn't much of a set procedure for this as to who goes when, and they are going at lightning speed. NA Sprints are for weenies compared to this! Due to my weak signal and bewilderment, I only managed to work a couple of the guys besides Trey (signing HD9N from HC5K's QTH) whom I did get on 5 bands because we were pretty close (and I think he was listening for me). Later Trey moved me to 160M where I made my only contact. I had no antenna for that band and the MFJ tuner couldn't go that low, so I fed the zepp like a longwire with no tuner and an infinite SWR, shutting down my rig to a few watts. Trey could barely hear me and vice-versa.

Well, the contest was fun. Sometimes I'd CQ to no avail, other times I got some nice pileups of W's going, especially when someone spotted me on their packetcluster. Henri doesn't know the code real well, but he'd sit behind me for a long time, just watching. I think the contest bug bit him, as he wants to know when the SSB contests are, and he's trying to get a computer for logging. He had a TH3 tribander on the ground, and after the contest he acquired a used 50 foot tower he had been trying to get for a long time. Too bad he didn't get it about a week before! I also was amused during the contest and other times by Henri's little kitten Gato, which delighted in climbing all over me and the rig and keyboard.

Due to the low power (about 80 watts output) and low dipole, 90% of my Q's were with North America. I really couldn't run many Europeans, except for a pretty good run on 40M the first evening. Oh, for a beam antenna! There were a few nice surprises, HZ1AB called me on 40 and 7Z2AB called on 15.

For the first day of the contest, the noise level was quite high (S9 with SSB filters in place). It didn't really sound like line noise or computer noise, so I figured the band must have been noisy. I should have checked further! Sunday morning I finally discovered that it was the computer after all. I had brought a bunch of snap-on ferrite chokes and was using several, but by using a few more, and rearranging the mess of cabling behind the rig and moving the computer a little further from the rig, suddenly the bands got about 6 S-units quieter! Of course, what this meant partially was that now I could hear guys that couldn't hear me, hah!

It was fun having guys asking me to QSY through the bands. Did that with several Caribbean & South American stations. ZD8Z tried to move me to 20 twice but he couldn't hear me either time.

Since I knew I wouldn't be a competitive entry for assorted reasons, I saw no reason to knock myself out, so the usual schedule had me up at 6 AM when the power came on, breaking around 8 or so for breakfast, then breaking for an hour or so for a leisurely lunch, then another break for dinner. Henri is a pretty good cook! Sometimes we took the 5 minute stroll to one of the local cafes for dinner. Food (and souvenirs) are much higher on the islands than in Ecuador, which means that it costs about the same as in the states.

The contest ended with the log showing 1722 QSOs. Country & zone counts were pretty low on all bands. 15M was the best band with 632 Q's, 20 zones, 52 countries. Although 90% of the QSO's were with North America, those were 3-pointers for me, so score ended up with 1.18 Meg. I guess it could have been better, but considering my small setup and first dxpedition, I was pretty happy. The computer breakdown showed 5 different hours exceeding 100/hr, all in the first day, with 1700Z hour Saturday morning being the best at 129/hr on 15 meters. Gee, this pileup thing is fun.

Outside of the contest had around 500 contacts, mostly on 30M and 17M CW. Also 28 RTTY QSO's. Some of the WARC band pileups were bigger than the contest piles, requiring me to go split. HC8 is needed on WARC, especially CW, and I would have liked to do more, but ran out of time.

Monday I took Henri's bicycle (he calls it his Mercedes) to go shopping for souvenirs and T-shirts while he hired a truck to go to the other side of the island to pick up the tower. There are at least 25 T-shirt shops, mostly on the main street that travels along beside Academy Bay, with more under construction. Then Tuesday and Wednesday I went on "day trips" to nearby Plaza and Seymour islands. You take a boat on part of the trip, and bus back. My boat had 13 young boys, Ecuadorian students, and their teacher. The guide spoke Spanish to them and then English to me. The tours were quite interesting, with lots of sea lions, crabs, lava lizards, land and marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, and more. And from a dingy in Black Turtle Bay we also saw manta rays, white-tipped sharks, and mating sea turtles. Because hunting is prohibited and tourists must all stay with the guide and touching the wildlife is not allowed, the creatures did not seem bothered by our presence, and you could often get within a few feet which made for some really good pictures. I took slides for the first time, and they turned out very well.

On the second day trip we were joined by J.J., a pretty American girl touring the Pacific while on sabbatical from her television network executive job. She seemed fascinated by the whole ham radio contesting thing, asking lots of questions. Our return travel plans coincided as far as Miami, so we got to be pretty good friends. (note added later: this led to my sailing trip in the South Pacific - see "South Seas Adventure" story)

On the return to Quito, we had about a half hour to shop before the stores closed, and found some real bargains but just didn't have enough time to find more. With the Andes mountains towering around the city, Quito is a very scenic city. Next time I go I will try to have more time on the islands and more time in Quito.

At the airport the next day, I turned in my remaining Sucres for dollars, and part of the change I was given included a Susan B. Anthony dollar! So that's where they all went. By the way, I was a little worried about customs since Trey had had a bit of a problem getting his TS-930 into Ecuador the year before, but they didn't bother him about it this year when they asked what was in his bag, and they just waved me through with no checking. And on the way back customs in Miami didn't even ask either. As they say on the islands, no problem.

If I could have stayed on the islands 2 more days they could have arranged for me to teach a massage class at an Aerobics center (I'm a Texas certified massage therapy instructor, a part time job). When I go back we'll try to arrange that in advance, with a work visa if necessary, so I can deduct the trip as a business expense. Every little bit helps. I left Henri the Zepp and some coax and connectors, partially to thank him and partially to make a little more space for souvenirs.

Never having travelled before (I did cross into Mexico once with K5TSQ to operate at 6D2X for a multi-single CQWW SSB), I have decided that life is too short, and I will try to go somewhere at least once a year. I'm not sure when I'll make it back to Galapagos but I'll definitely be returning, as it was a truly enjoyable trip, even though more expensive and time-consuming than the Caribbean. And by the way dxpeditioners, Henri likes having ham visitors. But check before planning CQWW CW '94, because Trey may be doing HC8N again!