Friday, December 5, 2014

The Thrill of the Chase

It was the bottom of the solar cycle when I first started to get a bit more serious about DXing.  If I happened to hear about a major DXpedition somewhere I would likely try to have a listen for it.  Between the low solar flux, my modest home station, and my location under the auroral oval I usually didn't have much luck.  Some parts of the world were simply beyond my reach and propagation often didn't support communications on any band during the brief windows when a rare DX location was active.  I did manage to catch a few operations like K5D (Desecheo) and VP8ORK (Orkney Islands) but there were several once-a-decade type DXpeditions that I will be waiting a long time for a second chance at, like BS7H (Scarborough Reef) and FT5GA (Glorioso).

With the dramatic improvements over the last few years both to propagation and to my station I've come to realize that I have at least a reasonable chance of working just about anything that comes up if timing and conditions are in my favour.  I managed to work all of the major DXpeditions in 2014 (many on the first or second day) and have been successful in picking off numerous smaller operations, inching ever closer to being the first VE8 station to earn "Honor Roll" status by working (practically) all of the current DXCC entities.  Working and confirming 46 ATNOs (All Time New Ones) in the past year has been an amazing experience and, other than a handful of mostly African countries, all the rest I need end with "Island", "Reef", or "Rocks".

This DXCC timeline chart from ClubLog shows the slow march to Honor Roll.  I wasn't very active between 1996 and 2000 and off the air completely between 2001 and 2008.  Now I'm trying to make up for lost time!

I've been lucky with the propagation (from up here under the auroral oval conditions are often very poor) and my antennas aren't anything too special, just a tribander at 70 feet and an assortment of lesser wires and such.  However, my Flex-3000 software radio has an outstanding receiver which is a huge advantage as the signals reaching through the aurora here are mostly very weak and a legal limit (2.25kW PEP in Canada) amplifier sure helps in the other direction.  The real secret, though, to working DX is mostly just paying attention and making it happen.

VP8SGK is perfect example of how it works.  I've never worked South Georgia Island and it is extremely rare on the radio.  The last big DXpedition there was 2002 but every once a while a visiting ham can make a brief appearance from VP8SGK, the British Antarctic Survey base station at King Edward Point.  I had heard that Mike, GM0HCQ, was working on a ship in that area and might be able to get ashore and on the radio during his brief stop there.  I put a reminder in my calendar to check his web page again when he was closer to the island.  A week later I read that his ship was delayed and his arrival was pushed back for several days.  Then the day before he was to arrive he reported that due to the weather their docking was further delayed and he would not be able to operate from the base at all.  It was too bad but that's the way it goes.  At least I had been paying attention! 

The next day at work I just happened to think about GM0HCQ and thought I should check to see if anything had changed.  There had indeed been a change:  he was reporting that if all went well he might be able to get ashore for a couple of hours and be on the radio at 1745z!  I looked at my clock and it was already 1815z.  I checked the spotting network but no spots had been reported yet.  Since it was 11:15am local time, I decided immediately I was taking an early lunch and jumped in the truck for the 15 minute drive home.  On the way I contemplated how strange it was that here was some guy in the Arctic rushing home to attempt to contact some guy who had just arrived on an island in the Antarctic.  That right there is the magic of DXing!  I dashed through the door and into the shack, frantically pushing buttons, turning antennas, and warming up the amplifier.  As soon as the computer was up I checked the spots again and there it was: VP8SGK had just been spotted on 21.200MHz!  Within 20 minutes of receiving the news I was sitting in the shack with the radio on, the big yagi pointing to the South Atlantic, the amp all warmed up, and my ears straining to hear the signal from South Georgia Island.

This story does have a happy ending but probably not what you were expecting.  As it turned out VP8SGK only made 35 contacts and his signal was inaudible here and most everywhere else.  After about 20 minutes of listening to the static and the occasional other stations on frequency calling "in the blind" or just stating the obvious - "I can't hear him..." - I turned everything off, made myself a sandwich, and went back to work.  But I was smiling.  In this case it was all about the thrill of the chase.  Mike says he'll probably be back there again this time next year.  I'd better be paying attention!