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CQ WW 2000 : Island of Benbecula.

from Tom Costford ( MM0BHX )
Website: on March 6, 2001
View comments about this article!


by Brian Devlin   GM0EGI

The way that things happen in life never ceases to amaze me, an innocent comment made and your plans can be completely changed.   I was talking to Phil GM0LIR a fellow club member of the Mid Lanark Amateur Radio Society (MLARS) about the CQ WW contest in October.   Saying that I normally participate as single operator on the 15m band from my home QTH, but jokingly I said that maybe I would operate from Derek GM0EEY’s QTH.   Derek is another MLARS club member, presently living on the island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides.

I thought nothing more of my conversation until a few weeks later Phil, said “I was talking to Derek the other day and I told him that you would be coming up for the CQ WW contest”.   A few days later a letter popped through the door and it was from Derek, he was inviting me up for the contest and suggesting that we should participate as a Multi-Multi entry.   I phoned Derek to discuss what he was proposing; he said that there was plenty of land for antennas and he had room for several operators and perhaps I should suggest it to the club members at the AGM which was only a week away.

At the AGM, I mentioned the offer and was surprised at the positive reaction that it received.  There were some rogue comments like “Benbecula at the end of October !? even the sheep move out by then !”.   However, there were six interested operators, so I contacted Derek again and told him the outcome of the meeting.   After further discussion and thought, I decided that a trip to the island was called for, to see what space was available for antennas etc, so I arranged to go up for a few days in July with the video camera.

I spent two days on the island and returned to the club with all the necessary information, this would be make or break time, I was expecting some of the operators to drop out after seeing the video, as the island looked quite bleak in parts, and that was in the summer with the sun shining, what would it look like in the winter ?  I could just imagine some of the comments that I would get.

I took the video to the club and tried to answer any questions that they had, everyone was still keen to go, in fact one other club member, Gordon GM7VYR asked if he could join us after seeing the video.  This brought our number up to nine, including Derek, probably just about the right amount to operate a multi-multi with six stations running.

After our AGM we had a short meeting and decided that we would give it a go, that meant we had just over three months to prepare everything.   The first thing that I thought of was a callsign, I sent a letter off to the RSGB asking for an application for a special contest call and decided to apply for GM0B (Golf Mike Zero BENBECULA). and was pleased when I was advised the call was available and would be issued to me.

The next thing was transport across to the islands, we only had one option here and that was Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries (Cal-Mac).  I decided to enquire if Cal-Mac would be willing to help out with some of the costs of the trip and so I wrote a letter to Mr Mike Blair their marketing manager.  I explained what we were going to do and asked him if his company could help. 

I received a letter back and he told us that if we paid the fares for the vehicles that he would let the passengers go free.   This was great news as it saved us more than £100 and we would like to thank Cal-Mac for there generous support; their logo is on our QSL cards and they are mentioned on our web site.

After the callsign and transport was organised, next was the antennas, radios, linears, coax, masts, computers, bandpass filters, operating rota, etc., etc.

We decided that we would attempt to have five stations running continuously, propagation permitting, this meant that we would need five of everything.   Our first major logistics problem was antennas, we already had a four element and a three element beam on the island and we were taking another three element beam with us, so we would have beams on 10m, 15m & 20m.   We did not have a beam for forty metres so I decided to make up a wire array which I had used once before when trying to work Heard Island.   The array consisted of one driven element and three reflectors.   It was also possible to rotate this array using the “Armstrong Method”.

Eighty metres was going to be more of a problem, and in the end I decided that a big vertical was the answer, so I made a fifty foot vertical and top loading wire.   I was also going to take my Chelcom HV1.

Radios were not a problem as everyone going had their own, we ended up using three Yaesu FT-920’s, an Icom IC-756PRO, Icom IC-736 and an Alinco DX77.  The linear amplifiers were Icom IC2KL, Yaesu FL2100B,  Ameritron AL84, Heathkit SB220 and a Tokyo HL 2.

As the contest got closer my garage started to look like an Aladdin’s cave for DXpeditioners, there was coax, antennas, fibreglass poles, alloy poles, metal stakes, guy ropes, rotators, stub masts and as much spare wire that I thought our trailer would hold.   We were going to the island on the Wednesday before the contest and although it would be dark when we arrived we would be able to set up the radios and that would give us two days to put up the antennas and sort out any problems that we may come across ( “Murphy” had not visited our group yet, but there was still time).

The journey to the island would take us the best part of a day, as we were all travelling from the Central part of Scotland to the North end of the island of Skye.  We were getting the ferry from Uig and sailing to Lochmaddy on North Uist.   The week before we left I received an Email from Tom MM0BHX to say that his son Craig MM0BUL would be joining us. Craig had been really keen to come with us from the start, but as he is in the RAF and was based in Lincoln he would not know if he could come until a few days before we left.

The morning of departure arrived and everyone met at my QTH about 07:45am and we set off in convoy.  We had two metre rigs in each vehicle so we were able to keep in touch on the journey.  Our convoy consisted of an Isuzu Trooper towing the trailer, a Jeep Grand Cherokee and a Range Rover.  The journey was mainly uneventful apart from having to stop in Fort William AND Skye AND …. to fill up the Range Rover  ( I would advise against buying a V8 petrol Range Rover as the consumption is terrible, I reckon that Kenny GM1MMK was getting less than 15 miles to the gallon. )

The only scary event on our journey was a nutcase of a driver in a white van that screamed passed us as we drove through Glencoe.    I got a warning shout on the radio from Phil GM0LIR as the guy tried to pass all of our vehicles at once, all I could see was this white swinging mass coming straight towards me and then at the last minute it swerved to scrape pass my wing mirror with less than an inch to spare.   It was very windy at the time and I will never know how that van managed to stayed upright and on its wheels as it swayed left and right all the way through the glen.  The way that it defied the pull of gravity was something which had to be seen to be believed.

Eventually, we arrived at Uig in Skye and we pulled into the line for boarding the ferry, when a “nice” man from Cal-Mac came up to the car window and informed us that the ferry was cancelled.   Mr Murphy in person” I thought to myself.   The ferry had apparently tried to dock earlier, but because of the severity and direction of the wind the captain could not hold her against the jetty therefore decided to sail to the more sheltered port of Ullapool.

I went to the office with some of the others to find out what was happening and the man behind the desk asked if we had not seen the sign at the Skye bridge telling us that the Uig ferries were diverted to Ullapool.   I told him that there was definitely no sign other than a high wind warning sign and this was energetically confirmed by the rest of the party.   We were three and a half hours drive away from Ullapool and under no circumstance would be able to arrive in time for the ferry departure which was leaving in just twenty minutes.     We were, therefore, told to be back at the pier at 09:00 the next morning.  

So there we were all nine of us, stranded, looking for bed and breakfast at short notice.   We tried several accommodations before stopping at one house with a B&B sign.   I knocked the door and asked the man who answered if he had space for us, but I could tell by his look that he did not.  He knocked his immediate neighbours door, who also did B&B, but even between them they could not take us all.   I suggested that they let us sleep on their floor as a few of us had brought inflatable beds, but they were not keen on that idea.

Then the man suggested that we try the local Youth Hostel Association, as they probably would have plenty of space for us at that time of the year.  We followed his directions to the top of the hill and on arrival we found it to be open, but with no one in attendance.  There was a sign which said “back at 17:00”.   Tom MM0BHX decided to phone the headquarters of the association to explain our situation and after about ten minutes he came back and told us that it would be okay to stay as there was no one booked into the hostel that night.

We had two hours to kill before the warden came on duty so we decided to make up a top band dipole, we got out our roll of wire and tape measures and started to measure it out.  It’s amazing how big a top band dipole is when it is on the ground ~ our wire ran from the lounge, past the kitchen, into the dining area and up to the front hall.   I was concerned that the warden on arrival might not be to pleased with this situation, but Kenny GM1MMK said “we will just tell her that we are here to rewire the place”.   Eventually we got the dipole made and put away before the warden arrived.

When the warden did arrived she was surprised to find so many people there and told us that we were lucky as it was the end of the season and the hostel was closing the very next day until March 2001. 

I had to phone Derek GM0EEY to tell him of our situation, as he was expecting us to arrive that night.   I also had to find out how we would get access to his house when we arrived the following day, as he would be at work   “I’ll leave the door unlocked” he said and in fact he had lost his door keys back in July and still hadn’t replaced them, as locking your door on Benbecula is not the accepted thing to do !

After settling into the hostel we went down to the village to get dinner and as Craig MM0BUL wanted to watch a champions league football game that night, enquired through one of the locals if any of the bars/hotels had a TV ?   He was advise in a high pitched highland tongue that “Mrs Campbell’s hotel had a television” then a few seconds later, almost as an after thought, was told, “but I don’t think its working !?”   So we headed back up to the hostel to discuss our situation.    If the ferry could not make it in the next day what would we do ?   We had 3 options,  Option 1 was to drive to Ullapool and get it from there, this would mean a further three hour drive and a five hour ferry crossing which meant no antennas up until Friday the day of the contest, Option 2 the warden of the hostel feeling sorry for us had said that if the ferry did not get in she would ask headquarters if the hostel could  stay open for another five days to let us operate from there,  Option 3 was go home.   The third option did not go down well at all, so we decided that we would drive to Ullapool.

We all headed off to bed to try and get some sleep.  I was woken at 05:30 the next morning by the howling of the wind and thought we were going to have to drive to Ullapool and spend yet another £100’s worth of petrol for Kenny’s Range Rover !     At 07:00am the warden came on duty and I asked if she thought the ferry would get berthed to-day ?   She told me that the wind always seemed much worse on the hill, that it had changed direction and that she didn’t think that it was as bad as the previous morning.

The rest of the team got up, had breakfast and decided to head down to the ferry terminal to find out what was happening.  The girl behind the desk told us that the ferry had left Lochmaddy at 07:00 and should be in Uig about 09:15.   We parked ours cars in the line and waited, after waiting for about 20 minutes there was a definite decrease in the wind strength. By 09:00 the wind had dropped to a gentle breeze and ten minutes later the Motor Vessel Clansman entered the bay and successfully berthed.   By 09:30 all the vehicles were loaded, passengers had safely boarded and we were on our way to North Uist.

We disembarked at Lochmaddy and drove to the village of Torlum on Benbecula where Derek lived.  The neighbours must have thought that we were an invasion force as we drove into his yard.   We immediately started to unload the antennas and masts as we wanted to get all the hardware up while the weather was fine, in fact we could not have asked for better weather, no wind, sun shining and dry.   By the time that Derek returned from his work we had three Yagis, a top band dipole on a 13 metre mast, a 40 metre Windom, a fifty foot vertical with a top loading wire for 80 metres and a four element 40 metre array all up and in position.   I took some stick while we were erecting the antennas as every few minutes I would say “hang on until I get my camera” as I had agreed to make a slide show and video for the other club members and I was going to keep my word. 

I tried to get photos of most of our group, but it was always very difficult to get some of Kenny GM1MMK, every time I tried to find him he was off on a “Mr Fix-it” mission.   It got so bad, the motto of our group soon became “Where’s Kenny ?” or similar words of a slightly stronger nature.  In repair mode, he fixed a thermostat, fitted a new external light, wired it, connected it to an existing indoor switch and replaced almost every plug on every cable he could find..   Not to be outdone Iain GM0OQV fixed the leaking tap on the kitchen sink.

On his return from work, Derek could not believe that we had put all the antennas up in just three hours.   So Derek and a few of the boys headed off to the local shop to get all the food and drink we would require for the next five days, whilst the others finished setting up the rigs, linears and computers.   We were completely set up by the Thursday evening, so even though we were a day late in arriving it had not troubled us.

The following morning some of the group decided to operate with their own callsigns/p and activated Benbecula on most bands for IOTA and IOSA chasers, Craig MM0BUL had great fun running a pile up of VK’s and ZL’s on twenty metres ~ all looked well for the contest. 

As the day went on we rechecked everything, set the correct times/bands on the computers, tensioned the guy ropes and generally relaxed.   Derek came home from work, we had dinner and decided to have one last meeting before the contest started.  Only some of the group had seriously taken part in any contests and I had mentioned that this was really a learning situation as none of us had operated a multi-multi before.   I had told the group that the main aim of the contest was to have fun and I suggested that a target of 4,000 QSO’s would be what to aim for ( I thought that this would be well within our reach.)  The evening wore on and some of the group went to try and get some sleep while the rest sat talking around the table.  At 23:30 UTC Phil GM0LIR started to give everyone a shout, he thought that we should start to find some frequencies and operate with our own callsign/p until the contest started.  At two minutes to midnight (UTC) we were all ready to go, we had six stations ready, we were all looking at the computer clocks and the seconds ticked down to midnight 5,4,3,2,1 … we were on the air !   GM0B was  QRV on all six bands, the contest had started.

Everything went to plan for the first 24 hours, the home made 40 metre array and the 80 metre vertical worked better than expected, the QTH that we were operating from was on a peat bog and only about 800 yards from the west coast of the island.   There was nothing between us and the States except salt water.   The 15 and 20 metre QSO runs were amazing.

As the first day progressed the wind speed steady climbed.  The antennas were still working well and Phil and Craig were running pile ups on 40 metres and 80 metres into the early hours of Sunday morning.   I had gone to bed about midnight as I had had about 2 hours sleep since the Friday morning.  When I awoke about 08:00 I noticed that the room was empty, everyone else was up, it was then that I realised that it was exceptionally windy.   I got up and went through to the kitchen to talk to some of the others and looked out of the window.   I could not believe the devastation.   The 80 metre vertical was gone, it had come down about 03:00 whilst Craig was working the States, the 13 metre mast supporting the top band dipole had snapped and the wires and guy ropes were everywhere, the 40 metre Windom was down.

The 40 metre array and the three beams were all still standing, although the 10 metre beam looked as if it was set for satellite working.  What we needed was a damage repair party.  We left a couple of operators running 40 metres and 20 metres stations whilst the rest of us went out to sort the problem.  I was particularly sorry that my 80 metre vertical had snapped, as Phil had said it was working really well and I was looking forward to working with it later that night, in fact I never got to use it at all during the contest, but next year the mark 2 version will be there and this one will be storm proof.

In the middle of the night we had taken the full force of 100mph winds from the South West and we later discovered that the whole country had been hit by severe gales and that a lot of flooding had taken place throughout Europe.  In the late morning we lost our 20 metre beam.  Phil, Kenny and I decided to cut the top band dipole down to make it into a 20 metre dipole, so for the last 12 hours or so we operated 20 metres using a dipole which was only about 15 feet above the ground.  We continued to do our best with our limited antennas and by the end of the contest we had worked nearly 5,000 QSO’s.

The end of the contest came around and we all went to bed and flaked out.  The following morning Derek had to be back at work in the community school where he is teaching, so the rest of us stripped the stations and started to dismantle the remaining antennas.   During our decommissioning, Charlie the local postman came round to asked how we had done in the contest and later Derek had said that both the teachers and the pupils were also keen to find out how we had got on..   I am always amazed how non amateurs take an interest.   

The weather on the Monday after the contest was surprisingly good, sunny, not a breath of wind and pleasantly warm, a complete contrast to the previous 24 hours.  We got what was left of the antennas down, packed our radio gear and then had lunch in the local community school dining hall.    We decided as we were staying on the island just one more night we would to go to the beach and work mobile.  So we drove to the beach overlooking the Monach islands and attached my 24 foot high Chelcom vertical to the roof rack of Kenny’s GM1MMK Range Rover and worked some contacts using an Icom 706 in the car.

Later that evening Derek’s wife and daughters returned from the mainland where the had been staying whilst we overran their house.  We all went out for dinner that night to celebrate our first attempt at multi-multi contesting, will we do it again ? YOU BET ! Look out for us in 2001.   The evening came to an end and we all went back to the house, 13 tired bodies looking for a place to sleep.  The following morning we said goodbye to Derek as he left for work, filled our stomachs with Karen’s beautifully made breakfast and drove off to Lochmaddy to get the ferry back to the mainland.  The ferry crossing was fine and calm, the highlight of which was a guided tour of the bridge by the captain..  We arrived at Uig early in the afternoon and all headed off on the long journey south and back to normality.


We would like to thank Caledonian MacBrayne Limited, the Scottish Youth Hostel Association, the community school on Benbecula and most of all Derek and his family, Karen, Vivienne and Yvonne for letting us take over their home.


Member Comments: Add A Comment
CQ WW 2000 : Island of Benbecula. Reply
by oe5oho on March 14, 2001 Mail this to a friend!
Great Story. There´s something about contesting that a number of people don´t really get. Maybe stories like this help them to understand "there´s more to life than rag-chewing" ;-) Vy 73 de Oliver...
CQ WW 2000 : Island of Benbecula. Reply
by N3FR on March 14, 2001 Mail this to a friend!
I really enjoyed reading your "adventure"! Thanks for sharing it with us.
Sounds like you all had a great time and that's what it's all about. I hope to
experience a dxpedition some day with friends. I'm sure it's a blast!

Bob, N3FR
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