2009: Sierra Leone (9L5A)

The 2009 Sierra Leone Team consisted

AA7A - Ned Stearns

G3RWF - Nick Henwood

G4BWP - Fred Handscombe

G4iFB/ZL2iFB - Gary Hinson

N7CW - Bud Semon

This was multi-2 entry to CQ WW CW.

Rigs: K3s plus Alpha amplifiers: two one-kilowatt stations.

Antennas: Two beams, LF wires, multi-band vertical.

Claimed score: 9,342 QSOs; 161 zones; 533 countries = 19.3m points.

Note from team: This was the Voodoo Contest Group’s 18th CQWWCW entry from West Africa. Our grateful thanks to Zbig SP7BTB/9L1BTB who helped enormously and to all the staff at the Bintumani Hotel.

The following article is by Bud N7CW:

The usual plan would have us arrange to move our equipment, currently stored in Conakry, Guinea, to Freetown, Sierra Leone via truck or bus. But the rainy season is just ending in November, so the roads were not dependable. During the reconnaissance visit in 2008, Roger, Fred and Vince had met Zbig, 9L1BTB. Zbig was in charge of UN helicopters flights in Sierra Leone and he could arrange to transport our gear from Conakry to Freetown, although it was not to be cheap. So several of the team agreed to fly to Conakry, load the equipment onto the helicopter and then travel with it to Freetown. This required additional flights, since flights to Conakry originate in Paris and the rest of us were traveling through London. And of course, additional visas. But unknown to us, late in December, 2008, our plans for November, 2009 began to unravel.

In late December, 2008, the ruler of Guinea for the past 24 years, President Conte, died. The Army dissolved the government and took over the country. In September of 2009, after 3 of our team had obtained visas and tickets to fly to Conakry, the military cracked down on a pro-democracy rally and killed over 150 people. In October, the US Department of State issued a Travel Warning for US citizens in Guinea or planning to go to Guinea. Our in-country contact told us that the government was confiscating anything resembling communications equipment and that it wasn’t the right time to try and move our gear. Was there any way we could reschedule the CQWW CW DX Contest?

So, 5 weeks before the contest, we had a major disaster on our hands. As if that wasn’t enough, several of our most experienced members had to drop out. It didn’t seem reasonable to just quit, so we came up with Plan B. We would operate Multi-2 and we would do that with whatever equipment we could carry with us. This would require a re-design of the stations, an update to the network plan and of course, a complete change of plans for the antennas. The team evolved into Fred, Ned, Gary, Nick and me. We got busy with new plans.

We had decided early to use Elecraft K3 radios and Alpha amplifiers. Note that the Voodudes do not take sponsorships from any equipment manufacturers. The K3s are compact and can easily be carried on the aircraft. Ned custom-built mounting racks into rolling carry-on suitcases for the amplifier transformers and we checked the amplifiers as baggage. Along with power supplies, keyers and all the other necessary paraphernalia, our luggage was packed to the very limit of what we could check through and what we could physically carry.

In the meantime, we had applied for licenses for all 7 of the original operators. The Sierra Leone National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM) had recently changed their interpretation of the rules and they required us to each have a personal license. After some whining by Roger, they agreed to issue 4 licenses. We sent off our money. And, in a fit of stupidity, I volunteered to be the group treasurer. Roger responded to my email offer before I could move away from the desk after having sent it. I should have taken that as the bad sign it was.

Because of British Airways flight schedule, Ned and I had to leave Phoenix 2 days earlier than absolutely necessary to catch our flight to Freetown. So we spent a very pleasant 2 days doing some sightseeing with Roger. Fred lives in Dubai and Gary in New Zealand, so we were flying from all over the world to meet in London and travel together.

Traveling with radio equipment, antennas in ski bags, amplifier transformers in carry-on luggage, etc. is an adventure in itself, which I won’t address here. However, the Freetown airport is located a significant distance from Freetown (see the Google Earth™ photo) and there are a number of ways to get to town. Your choices: Drive – it’s about 4 hours over uncertain roads, ferry – it leaves irregularly and must travel in what is essentially open ocean, air boat – it is open to the weather, must travel over the open ocean and sinks regularly, or helicopter. Although the helicopter ride was expensive and noisy (it’s an old Russian MI-8), it was the option of choice.

It’s time to stop the narrative and introduce our secret weapon, the 6th Voodude – Zbig, SP7BTB and 9L1BTB. Our recon team had met Zbig in 2008 and we continued our email correspondence with him during the trip planning. He is in charge of helicopter operations for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone and is a former fighter pilot with the Polish Air Force. We had some trepidation about getting through Customs in Freetown, getting out equipment aboard the helicopter and then getting to the hotel. We worried needlessly – Zbig took care of us. He arranged for the appropriate “fees” to be paid to allow us through Customs, he got us seats on the helicopter, he hired guys to help us haul equipment, he met us at the heliport in Freetown and drove us to the hotel and he exchanged money for us, so we weren’t giving away our dollar bills at an unknown street exchange rate. When we got our gear into our rooms (at approximately 2 AM), he said “OK guys, what time do we start putting up antennas?”. He drove us wherever we needed to go, he showed us the restaurants where it was safe to eat, he gave us his cellular USB modem to allow us to connect to the Internet for cluster spotting and he worked his ass off putting up antennas. We begged him to operate, both before and during the contest, but he just wanted to help. On top of all that, he is just a damn nice guy. Thanks, Zbig!

Here is Google Earth™ photo of our hotel.

We had planned to buy rope and acquire some type of antenna supports in Freetown. Our first goal was to install a 160M antenna. After some study, we bought all the rope in Freetown and, after several attempts, got a 160M dipole up between the hotel roof and a convention center that had been destroyed in the civil war and never repaired.

The drop-off from the hotel to the ocean was very steep and we were about 800-1000 feet above the ocean. This antenna worked very well outside the contest.

We had decided to use a Spiderbeam (carried by Nick) for 20M and 10M and a separate Moxon 15M beam (also carried by Nick). Our only issue was how to support them. Once again, our secret weapon came to our aid – “Guys, let’s see what is in the UN junk storage”. We found about 4 canvas bags of fiberglass mast sections, made to slip together and lock, along with guy ropes and tie down fixtures – about 240 feet altogether. Our luck was holding….

After a couple days of 90° heat and 95% humidity, working on the hotel roof, we had antennas for most bands installed. They included the 160M dipole, an 80M sloping dipole off the roof to the ground, a 2 element 40M delta loop array, the Spiderbeam and Moxon and dipoles for 30 and 17M.

Next to all the antennas, there is a large sign on the roof that says BINTUMANI. Yes, it is neon. Fortunately for us, it didn’t work. It saved us the extra chore of having to make it not work.

In our spare time, we set up the equipment . Sierra Leone uses 240 VAC, 50 Hz power and the power connectors are common to both New Zealand and China. We knew this from our recon visit, so we were prepared with many power

We were issued 4 calls. 9L5A was to be our contest call. 9L7NS was issued to Ned and 9L5VT was issued to Vince, who was not there. Nick had lived in Sierra Leone in the 1960’s and had operated as 9L1NH then and he desperately wanted to re-activate that call. NATCOM generously issued him that call. So we decided to use 9L7NS and 9L1NH outside the contest. If you know Morse Code, you understand why those are not particularly good choices. In any case, we had the calls confused fairly often. We made about 9300 contacts outside the contest, including 1700 unique calls on 160M and over 1000 RTTY contacts.

One of my tasks prior to the trip was to integrate our logging software (we used N1MM Logger) with the RTTY software, MMTTY. Both of these programs are extremely powerful, yet easy to use. When we first set up the RTTY station, I insisted on being first to operate. RTTY is not my favorite mode, but I wanted to experience the pileups. Inside N1MM Logger, MMTTY decodes the signals and N1MM highlights callsigns in the decoded text. A simple mouse click moves the call into the logging window and sends a report. Hitting Enter logs the contact. So the entire process is tune in a signal (this process is also made almost trivial by the software), click, read and verify the response, hit the Enter key and repeat. No skill is required at all. After 100 or so contacts, I was drifting off the sleep. So Gary took over and he is the guy to thank if you worked 9L7NS on RTTY. His willingness to tune, click, enter for hours on end should be appreciated by all the RTTY ops.

Gary was also our IT guy. He was responsible for making N1MM act properly on the network and keep us from losing contacts. The Bintumani had WiFi, but it was incredibly slow and the signal was very weak in our room. Once again, Zbig came to our rescue and loaned us his USB cellular modem, which gave us access to the worldwide packet network and allowed us to keep in touch with home via email. The network that Gary set up for us worked flawlessly.

Operating before the contest gave me my first taste of real pileups and it was a major learning experience. As noted by many, many other DXpedition operators, European operators do not follow directions. And they never stop calling. One would think they would realize that slowing down the DX operator hurts everyone, making the whole process much slower. All the pileups were huge, but given that Europe is only 1 hop away and we had such a great location, working Europeans was a real chore. To make matters worse, at 2200Z, it was sunset in Japan, the middle of the night in Europe and sunrise on the east coast of the USA. At that time on 40M, we could hear all 3 major population centers, making the pileups even larger. And trying to use directed calls was almost impossible, because the Europeans were so loud. In addition to that problem, Japanese operators are generally very well controlled. They won’t call if you have mis-copied 1 letter in their call. So when you answer a Japanese station with 1 letter wrong, he won’t answer, but thousands of Europeans will. This is a tough problem and it gave me new respect for the operators that can do this efficiently.

I also had my first taste of intentional QRM on my listening frequency. I couldn’t really believe that was happening, but verified it with the other operators. Of course, it is easy to work around this kind of QRM, but it makes me wonder about the kind of person that would do that.

The largest irritant by far was the number of stations calling that repeat their calls when I answer them. This seems to be an almost universal poor operating practice. If I have your call correct, don’t give it to me again. Give me a report and let me get on to the next guy! OK, enough whining…

A CW contest is a pretty boring thing to watch. Some clicking noises, some occasional swearing – that’s about it. We operated M/2, with a multiplier station to fill the band map.

This score was good enough for 2nd place in the world (claimed). We did not get any significant openings on 10M. Our multiplier rate was fairly constant over the entire contest. Not bad for having carried almost everything we needed in our suitcases! Most importantly for the group, we had fun, we made a new friend in Zbig, we enjoyed each other’s company and we drank a few beers. For me, it was an incredible opportunity, for which I have to thank Ned and Roger, along with the other guys.

During 2010, one of the founding members of the VooDudes passed away, much too early. K5VT was a friend to all of us. To honor Vince, we will be 9L5VT in the 2010 CQWW CW Contest. Please give us a call!

The following video was produced by Ned AA7A: