Friday, August 15, 2014

VE3LYC Cezar, Outstanding IOTA DXpeditioner


VE3LYC Cezar, Outstanding IOTA DXpeditioner

A Passion for Challenge and Adventure

My first contact with amateur radio was as a child, when I discovered the QSL cards that my father received a couple of decades earlier. It was my first lesson in world geography, and when I began to dream about travelling places. I was born in Bucharest, Romania. My father Septimius (Lionel) was a Professional Engineer, who was licensed as YR5TI before World War II and was one of the founders of the Romanian Short Waves Amateur Association in 1936. In 1946 he was among a group of twelve hams who formed the first post-war amateur radio organization, and signed an official petition for the reinstatement of this activity in Romania. Retired in 1967, he became YO3TU and was a frequent presence on the bands for almost 20 years.

I became a SWL in 1968 as YO3-2388. I remember very well how as a young teenager I climbed for the first time the steps of the Central Radioclub in Bucharest with my hand in my father’s. He loved building equipment and experimenting, whereas I became instantly interested in DXing and contesting, with my mother being supportive of my hobby. I was later licensed as YO3YC, and before long became a member of the DXCC, IOTA, and YO DX Club. I maintained my YO first class license and callsign after I moved to Canada with my family in April 1992.

Work kept me QRT for three-and-a-half years. However, by late 1995 my old passion for DXing brought me back on the air, this time as VE3LYC. Now I hold the DXCC Honor Roll (338 MIXT, 337 SSB, 336 CW), 9BDXCC, WAZ (SSB, CW), 5BWAZ (200), DXCC Challenge 2500, IOTA Plaque of Excellence, IOTA Trophy (IOTA 1000), and the Antarctica Award Honor Roll. Since February 2005 I am QRV in digital modes (DXCC 302), and since September same year on 160 M (DXCC 189, WAZ). I am a member of FOC (#1994) and A1-Op Club. In Oct 2009 I was awarded the Premier IOTA Plaque for Outstanding Contribution to the IOTA Community, and in 2011 the Radio Amateurs of Canada’s Amateur of the Year.
The difficulties associated with putting on the air some of the most remote islands on Earth, usually for only a very short period of time, and sometimes under precarious propagation conditions makes island chasing a remarkable challenge. As such, I particularly enjoy the IOTA program, which I also consider perfectly tailored to the DXer.
It took me almost 16 years (until September 2011) to contact 1000 different IOTA groups of the 1055 on the air during this period of time, and 1100 activated. Since some 120 hams have already attained this performance, what new could I possibly write about it? Well, it is not the performance itself I would like to talk about, but the journey; and what a journey this was!

With Ken (right) and guide Paul (left) on Finger Hill Is. (NA-194).

Every operation from a rare IOTA had its incredible challenges and terrific story. I remain graciously thankful to all those many avid and brave activators for sharing with us their brilliant adventures and leaving us with some unforgettable memories. While I tried to gather advance information on any planned activation of a rare island group, if the respective schedule conflicted with my business travel schedule, the latter was always given priority during my first ten years in the Program. It was after I missed a number of extremely rare IOTA expeditions that I finally changed my mind and began scheduling my business travels with the IOTA calendar in hand.

VO2A: working JA pile-up (NA-194)

Meanwhile, my interaction with island chasers grew constantly through my involvement in the Program. First, I became the QSL manager for a series of IOTA operations in the Canadian Arctic carried out by Jack, W2NTJ, between 2000 and 2003 (NA-159, 173, 196). Then, as a pilot station, I assisted the teams that put on the air for the first time AS-162 (Cham Is., 2002), AS-173 (Pamban Is., 2004), and SA-094 (Rennell Is., 2005). These small tasks fermented the idea of being part of an activation team myself, an idea that grew stronger with time.

During 2004 and 2008 I participated in year-long IOTA marathons. Since I was often told that this is mostly a European program, I was poised to demonstrate otherwise.
The two Gold Level Awards received, the only such awards issued to a Canadian and North American station, respectively, were my humble effort to re-iterate that IOTA is truly an international program, and expeditions should focus on scheduling their time on the air to ensure that all regions of our planet are given an opportunity to contact them.

By 2007 I reached 900 IOTA groups confirmed. Since I wanted any personal island activation to also give me a New One, it was pretty clear that at this score no activation would be easy! It was with Ken, G3OCA, that I planned to put on the air in the summer of 2007 East Pen Is. (NA-231 New), located in the southern part of Hudson Bay. Despite my hard work on the logistics, and the very significant costs required to get us up there, our attempt was unsuccessful. The presence of a large number of polar bears around the island determined the locals to refuse helping us out. The guilt of failing Ken added to the shattered dream, leaving me numb.

A few months later though, we began to dream again and in August 2008 Ken and I operated as VO2A from Finger Hill Is. (NA-194) and Paul Is. (NA-205). It was an amazing trip, on which we travelled by helicopter and then by boat, to activate these groups for the first time in 13 years and for the second time ever. All those who helped us on this project, as well as the harsh and majestic landscape of northern and central Labrador with its wildlife, made a great impression on us.

Started as a desire to return something to the hobby for the many hours of unforgettable moments it offered me over the decades, the Labrador project put the island activation process in a completely new perspective for me. That remote island is no longer just a target, a score to settle. It starts with a dream, but it is a challenging journey, with many working together to make it come true. Subsequently, I felt a strong need to explore further our relationship with the surrounding world, with nature and our own kind.

VY0A camp on Fox Is.

At the end of winter 2009 I signed as VY0A from Fox Is. (NA-186), the first operation from this group in 16 years and the second ever, as the group was sitting at #1 on the Most Wanted IOTA List in North America. Getting to the island took a daunting three hour ride on the back of sled runners, pulled by a snowmobile, jumping over the ice mounds created by the continuous breaking of the sea-ice by the tide.
Inside the tent, once the heating fuel ran out, operating at night time at -20oC required sheer determination.
My next two trips brought on the air the last two Canadian island groups that remained to be activated: NA-230 (Gilmour Is., September 2009; see photo below title on first page) and NA-231 (East Pen Is., March-April 2010).

Both trips were very eventful and thus memorable. On the way to Gilmour, the 26 foot boat’s main engine died and a subsequent short circuit killed the sump pump, which led to the slow flooding of the engine compartment, almost sinking the boat several hours later. Before leaving the island we were stalked by a polar bear, and on the way back the repaired engine gave in for good, as the gear box broke. We had to be rescued by another boat, while a C-130 Hercules from the Search and Rescue Center flew circles around us until we neared the mainland.

East Pen was reached by sled pulled by snowmobile after a nine hour ride at -30oC including windchill, following a failed seven hour ride a day earlier when the engine overheated. Later, a strong snowstorm broke the antenna mast in three places, subsequently fixed with improvised materials. Attempting unsuccessfully to bring in a replacement, the guide left me alone on the island for more than three days with a rifle, but without water, wood for fire, or gas for the generator. Warm air moved in rapidly, making land travel extremely difficult. He finally rescued me by plane, but not before I felt compelled to transmit an SOS, which generated considerable attention from hams and non-hams alike, an expression of extraordinary solidarity.

My bond with Jakussie, Peter Boy and Sailasie Ittukallak, and Qalingo Tookalak during the trip to Gilmour went well beyond racial, cultural, social, and religious differences, bringing to the forefront the most fundamental aspects of a human being, where the primordial curiosity and spirit of adventure go hand in hand with the survival instinct, deep respect of nature, and each other. Although Tommy Miles’s decision to leave me alone on East Pen led to some edgy moments, it unleashed a collaborative rescue effort that brought many people together. This rescue included a 26-hour frantic effort by Andrew and Jason to reach me by land, taking them 24 hours to return to the village, while I was picked up by a plane. VE7DP, W3HQ, N9NS, VE7XF, and K1BG are only a few of the hams who actively participated in this memorable operation from afar.


My last trip to the Canadian Arctic was to the beautiful village of Kugaaruk, located around 70oN latitude, from where I activated Ulituqisalik Is. (NA-208, August 2010), the first operation from this group in 14 years and the second ever. The picturesque landscape and the warm hospitality of the locals, particularly of Vincent Ningark, remain etched in my mind. For the first time on one of my trips up North I succeeded to QSO with all seven continents when R1ANP called me on 30 m from the Progress Antarctic Base, situated at 70oS latitude! During five journeys into the Canadian Arctic, a total of six rare and new IOTA groups were activated and 14,500 QSOs logged.
In January 2011 I joined forced with Johan (PA3EXX) and travelled to Herschel Is., at the tip of South America, for the first activation of SA-031 in 24 years and the second ever, as this group was sitting at #1 on the Most Wanted IOTA List in South America, and to Gonzalo Is., in the Drake Passage, for the first activation of SA-097 (CE9/VE3LYC and CE9/PA3EXX). This project, the most complex I had ever attempted, required considerable logistics to secure the licenses, authorizations and permits for landing and operating from these islands, as well as sailing aboard the 40 foot yacht Nunatak, getting on the air, and logging a total of about 7,100 QSOs. The trip sealed a strong friendship with Johan, as well as with Dino (CE3PG), Jorge (CE8PTK), and our sailing crew Thomas and Sara.

During the second day of operation from Herschel Is. we found ourselves in the middle of a powerful storm, with winds gusting to 120 km/h. The sounds of the tent being pummeled by the wind, and the ocean’s waves splashing on the beach were so loud that it was very difficult at times to copy the stations calling in the pile-up. Each night I had to battle with the tide. Higher waters would dig some radials out and flip the mast. Since the beach was narrow, at least one of the radials had to be periodically moved deep into the bush. On Gonzalo Is., a couple of striated caracara, a type of Austral falcon, kept picking at the tip of the radials and so the mast would fall onto rocks and break; they seemed to enjoy this very much. Without wood, we fixed it up using bird bones found around the rocks, remains of animal feasts. At nightfall, the caracara would go away, but the tide would set in, pushing the ocean close to the tent from the east and north.

Preparing for swimming to Pupuya Is.

In November of 2011 I activated for the first time Pupuya Is. (SA-095), together with Christian (CA3TAM), and Juan (CE5PHI). We reached the island by swimming about 50 m in the 10oC water wearing wetsuits. Pupuya is a small but very densely populated bird paradise. We were constantly under bird droppings, and a fine mixture of dust and bird excrement covered everything. From over 30oC at daytime to 3oC at night, the huge temperature variation led to condensation, turning the fine dust into an oily and acidic fluid, which adhered to everything, affecting the antenna tuning. After sunset millions of flies would be wildly attracted by the radio’s LCD or my headband light. They made it impossible to operate by covering everything with a dense layer of insects. I couldn’t see, write, or breathe. Nothing worked until we replaced the white light with red light inside the tent, while keeping white light lamps outside. It was Marisa’s (CE2MT) tireless effort that ensured the necessary logistical support for this expedition.

CE9 Camp on Gonzalo IS. (SA-097)

One of my most challenging operations was from Escondida Is. (SA-096), in January 2013. It was the last IOTA group from South America waiting to be activated. A small rocky island off the coast of Patagonia, Escondida is home to a permanent colony of sea lions hundreds strong. Swimming against the strong currents and avoiding shallow rocks, I landed together with Alex (LU5WW), bringing with us the radio equipment, including two ICOM IC-7000 rigs, a multi-band wire vertical, a waterproof laptop, an electronic key, and a foot paddle. Due to a boating accident, we were unable to receive the rest of the supplies and were forced to return to mainland, leaving all of the equipment behind, to be later swept away by the tide and lost at sea.

Despite a second accident the next day, in which Jose (LU2WAZ) ended up with a severely bruised leg, we landed again, followed by Johan (PA3EXX) and Miguel (LU4WMM), with spare equipment and minimum food and drink supplies. With great difficulty, we advanced slowly against very aggressive sea lions, and reached the top of the hill well after sunset.

The camp was set up and the wire vertical antenna installed under headband lights. I operated with Johan and Alex in shifts under the open sky, and all of us took turns with Miguel to guard the antenna against animal intrusions. A change in wind direction the next day signaled incoming stormy weather. As such, the logistical team requested that operations be terminated, and that the team return to mainland. In 17 hours of operation we made 2000 QSOs with 1600 different stations.

It is the need to dream that makes us go where few have gone before. From the cold of the Arctic to the wet and windy Sub-Antarctic region at the tip of South America, the attempt to bring on the air some elusive islands led me to some unforgettable life experiences. It allowed me to discover nature in its fresh and unspoiled beauty, and to better understand the ancestral respect that locals have for it and everything it represents and that they rely upon. It also gave me the possibility to reflect on our role and position as mankind. Weak and meek as isolated individuals, we are brave and powerful together. It is through resolve and determination that we succeed, relying on one another.

It takes the effort of a great team to win a motorsport event, or put a man on the Moon. Keeping proportions in check, it also takes a considerable team effort to bring a rare one on the air. Since this work takes place primarily behind the scenes, it is rarely apparent to most of the stations in the pile-up, but it deserves full acknowledgment. My hobby tale, however, is also about the thousands of operators like you, the reader, chasing that elusive DX. It is about those who have long since joined in, and others who will join before long in the challenge and adventure of discovering the amazing world we share.

It is the trust, enthusiasm, and support of many that feeds our dreams, as our ever hungry curiosity continuously extends our horizons as a group. And thus, the success of a tiny, little project becomes part of a much larger and far more profound group experience. Stories about my trips are available in publications such as QST (May 2010, Oct 2010, Oct 2011), The DX Magazine (May/June, July/August 2010, March/April 2011), The Canadian Amateur (March/April 2009, May/June 2012), RadCom (December 2011, April 2012), IOTA Directory (2011), as well as radio magazines in Romania (Radiocomunicaţii si Radioamatorism), Finland (Radioamatööri), Germany (FUNK Amateur), Argentina (Revista del RCA), etc.

Looking back at the past years, I would like to express my gratitude to the German DX Foundation, International Radio Expedition Foundation, Clipperton DX Club, Swiss DX Foundation, top donors W5BXX, JM1PXG, and VE7DP, as well as other groups and hundreds of island chasers and DXers whose financial support helped bring these projects to life. ICOM Canada’s constant and unweaving support is gratefully acknowledged. I would like to thank Alfio (IT9EJW) – who designed and printed all my QSL cards, George (VE3GHK) – who provided invaluable technical support and Maury (IZ1CRR) – who designed and maintained several expedition websites. My entire journey was only possible with the love, understanding, and unmatched moral support received from my wife Lucia and our son Tiberius.