Steven R. Schmidt, K4WA
Sanford (K5YY), Igor (W0IZ) and I arrived in Taipei on different flights at 6:30 AM and we were whisked directly to Paul’s apartment. Paul (BV4FH) and his wife Christine (you may have worked her as BX0YL) are gracious hosts and we spent the morning chatting with Paul about antennas, propagation, etc. Then Paul took us to a local restaurant in Fengyuan and treated us to some authentic Chinese food. Delicious! We checked into our local hotel, showered, shaved and napped briefly in an attempt to recover from, in my case, a 26-hour collection of flights and layovers.
After a nap, we returned to Paul’s and took turns working the radio with BW4 prefixes. Paul has a pair of beams on the roof of his apartment building, up about 150’, so we certainly had a signal. The three of us were still tired and just couldn’t wait up for Gary (W5FI) to arrive from his later flight. After working a few log pages, we walked back to the motel, turned in early and went to sleep almost immediately.
Monday morning we returned to Paul’s apartment and met Gary and the other members of the 2002 team, Wong (BV5CR) and Robert (BV3FG). We ate breakfast, discussed equipment and then went to work testing, collecting, organizing and boxing up gear for the trip to the southern tip of Taiwan. During breaks, we discussed the antenna placements, operating details and other nuances of operating from the island. Christine served a delicious lunch of Chinese beef and noodles, and we continued to pack and prepare for the trip. Finally, we finished packing up equipment and waited for the truck and bus that was to pick us up and transport us the three hours to Pingtung, where we would spend the night before our early departure for Pratas.
After arriving in Pingtung, we checked into the motel and put our bags away. Then we went to a local street restaurant and shared a meal of duck with cabbage, mushrooms and ginger root, warmed in a table stew pot, with Taiwan Beer and even a shot of the strong Kaoliang liquor. While there, the truck showed up with all our equipment. We followed it back to the motel, unloaded it into one of the private garages and turned in for showers and a short night sleep.
At 6:00AM the following morning, we awoke and dressed, loaded the military truck, then walked (me with FT-1000MP and a computer bag over my shoulders) a mile or so to the airport. After security checks, and transfer of all equipment to the C-130, we strapped ourselves in and finally took off for Pratas at 10:00AM.
After arriving on Pratas, we took our bags to the spartan quarters where we were to work and sleep for the next nine days. It was hot, with temperatures and humidity in the high nineties. We labored under the sun, putting two C3S antennas and a Force 12 WARC beam together. After construction, we struggled to get the two C3S antennas up on masts, and ran out of time for the WARC beam erection. It seemed we would only have two stations working the first night. We also had to deal with some equipment failures. My Bencher paddle was damaged sometime during my travels, but BV3FG ingeniously performed a temporary repair using wire.
We started operating at 1225z, with W5YY on 20m SSB and K4WA on 15m CW. The pileups were fierce, despite the fact that Pratas has slipped in the rankings due to some very effective operations in the past few years. The effort was not without its distractions. The island had a construction project underway, and we shared the quarters with quite a few workers. It seems our “shack” had served as their recreation room, including television, and we often had folks looking over our shoulders, watching TV, and chatting animatedly on the telephone or to each other at a volume that occasionally made things difficult for the operators.
In the first couple days it was apparent that conditions were unusually varied; at times 15 meters stayed open to all parts of the world all through our night; at other times it was difficult to raise even local signals. We also had stormy conditions, with wind and rain lashing the beams. We found out from the base vice-commander that we were threatened by a typhoon. For the first three days it was out of the question to attempt to erect a Titanex vertical. We also had some problems with inter-station interference. Six and seventeen meters, in particular, seemed to wipe out any hope of weak signal work on the other bands. Initially, we also found it impossible to operate CW and SSB on the same band. With the interference and only one WARC band antenna, we were limited in the number of stations we could put on the air at once. The linear loading wires on the WARC beam also gave us a bit of a problem. We couldn’t figure out why the stock measurements didn’t work until we noticed the tape measure we were using was metric!
On Thursday, after the wind and rain subsided, we started constructing the Titanex vertical, and put a dipole up to work temporarily on forty meters. BV4FH took the first stint at 40 meters, working forty meter phone on Thursday night, while BV3FG worked JA’s on six meters. It seemed the typhoon was not clear of us yet, and we determined that we wouldn’t try to erect the Titanex on Friday.
Friday just before sunset, the WARC beam went south, suddenly giving us a high SWR on all bands, just as we were planning a serious effort on 30 meters. After working on the antenna until dark, without success, we decided we would also have to try to fix the WARC beam the next day. Frustrating! In another display of ingenuity, BV3FG erected a 17 meter ground plane on the roof using a glass fiber fishing rod with elevated radials, and we were back on the air for the evening on 17 meters, making well over 500 contacts with 100 watts to the ground plane. It was interesting that fifteen and seventeen meters seemed to be open all night, starting about 10PM local time, but midday, conditions were awful to nonexistent.
Saturday we got the WARC beam fixed, but found that it caused serious interstation interference. We moved the seventeen meter ground plane and erected the Titanex vertical for 40 and 80 meters. Saturday night, W5FI worked RTTY again, bringing the RTTY total to almost 600 stations. We attempted to time our operating schedule to keep stations on the air at all times, but found it impossible to sleep during the day due to the high heat and humidity.
Sunday we once again plugged away, with BV3CR again working for hours on fifteen meters, working mostly JA with a linear. I managed to pull some weak US stations out of the noise on 15 CW with 100 watts (we only had two linears due to weight restrictions), one of the few times we successfully worked two radios on the same band. It seemed that 15 meters would prove to be our best band in terms of total numbers, despite some spirited pileups on twelve, seventeen and thirty. Sunday was also the first day that we were able to relax in the heat of midday, without the need to do additional antenna work. On our Sunday evening, we had some huge pileups on seventeen and twenty meters.
It was tough going at any time on eighty, forty and thirty meters. Unfortunately, June is not the best time to work the low bands from Pratas. At times on thirty, listening for east coast US at the gray line, signals were copiable one letter at a time, but it was impossible to complete a full call. We could tell that the stations could hear us, but the QRN level was high, and listening problems were compounded on our end by the myriad pirate CB or illegal broadcast stations that seemed to crop up moments after we found what we thought was a clear frequency. It was truly an exercise in frustration to sit at the radio trying unsuccessfully for five minutes to complete a single call. We decided that it was an exercise in futility to erect the full Titanex vertical for 160 meters due to the condition of the antenna, the wind and the unpromising low-band conditions.
By Monday night we were all exhausted. The “spoiled Americans” were longing for a full night of air conditioning, a freshwater shower and a drink with ice in it. Paul somehow managed to find a case of Taiwan beer, got it cooled, and we enjoyed our first cold beer since arriving on the island! Tuesday morning, Gary was up at 2AM, working a few hundred more stations on RTTY until dawn, when the rest of us got up and continued our multi-station assault on the airwaves. With an A and K index of 16 and 4, respectively, it was a somewhat ineffective mission.
Our stated intent before the trip was to work as many Atlantic, Eastern and Central time zone stations as possible, since those were the areas that needed Pratas most for a new one. Because of that, we asked stations to stand by any time we found a path to those areas. Hopefully, people understood and were patient with that. For my part, I found the pileups were pretty well-behaved. There were some poor operating practices, like the tendency for some stations to send their call incessantly on my listening frequency while I was trying to verify the call of the station I was working. When that happened, I deliberately tuned away from the offender, to insure this poor operating habit was not rewarded. On a couple occasions, I noted the call on a separate piece of paper, pointedly penalizing him by ignoring his call until I had worked quite a few more courteous operators.
Tuesday, we took down one of the C3 triband beams. That night, K5YY worked 500 stations on twenty meter phone, and I worked almost 500 stations on seventeen and thirty meter CW, taking our QSO totals over the 20,000 mark. Wednesday late morning, after the bands predictably started their midday fade, we took down the second C3 tribander and the WARC beam, leaving a 17 meter and 20 meter ground plane up for the afternoon and evening. We didn’t anticipate too much operating on Wednesday night, because we’d been invited to a banquet!
On Wednesday afternoon, we showered, shaved and dressed for dinner with the two vice-commanders of the island garrison and some of their officers. We weren’t prepared for the hospitality and the toasting. We were served piles of delicious Chinese food, including fresh lobster and were presented with lovely plaques, hand painted with colored Pratas sand, which commemorated our participation in the 2002 BQ9P effort. And we were continuously toasted with the fiery Kaoliang liquor, served in tiny glasses. Apparently, foreigners who can drink Kaoliang are held in high esteem. There’s just one problem; every guest at the banquet offers a toast, to see if it’s true!
After the party wound down (and our Taiwanese hosts definitely party with fervent style) we returned to our quarters to finish preparing for an early morning departure. K5YY and I stayed up at the radios in an effort to push our totals over the 21,000 mark. After all the partying, we faded rather quickly. Finally, alone at the radio, I was looking for an excuse to stop. A particularly persistent SM6 kept calling on top of the W6 I was trying to work; after finishing with the W6, I sent “SM6 QRM SO BQ9P NW QRT.” And we were.