Navassa Island

May 12-15, 1972

Operators: Rick K3FPY, Ray K4PGM, Skip K4TMA, Wayne W2NSD/1, Chaz W4GKF, Phil W4GTS, Steve WA4VWV, Don WB4SST (now N4DK), Neil WB4UPC and Bill, WB4WMG  (Names in bold were members of the SEDXC.)

    The Idea

    This adventure began (the planning stages at least) at a Southeastern DX Club (SEDXC) meeting in October 1971.  We were sitting around talking about going on a "real" DXpedition (not just another hotel/contest one) and I drew a 2,000 mile circle centered on Atlanta.  We pored over the DXCC Country List and noticed a little island in the Top 10.  The tiny (only 2 square miles) island is named "Navassa" and it's in the triangle formed by Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica.  It's just a tiny dot on the map:

    Everyone said, "Well, Navassa hasn't been activated in years, chiefly because access is controlled by the US Coast Guard and you'd never get permission to go there.  There's no place to land a boat (40' cliffs surround the place) and it's really dangerous."

    So I contacted the Coast Guard and my Congressman and received permission to go there.  Wasn't too hard; but one did have to sign a lot of papers indicating you were "on your own" if any life-threatening problems arose.

    "Oh, they said, you might be able to go there but you'll never get a KC4 callsign (that was then Navassa's prefix); the FCC isn't giving those out."

    So I worked through the local FCC office (and my Congressman again) and was issued KC4DX.  That quieted the naysayers right down, I can tell you.

    The Planning

    I read everything I could about Navassa and there was a lot -- and this was thirty years before Google!  The island had been used to mine phosphorite (initially mistaken for bird guano) for a phosphate fertilizer company (Navassa Phosphate in Baltimore) late in the 19th century.  From what I could tell it was largely a slave labor situation.  I mean, where could the miners go?  They were literally in the middle of nowhere.  In 1889 there was an uprising and several management-types were murdered.  The mining operation was shut down and the place abandoned in 1901.

    The Coast Guard thought it was a nifty place to put a lighthouse to aid in navigation, so one was built (162' high) in 1917.  It was a battery-operated strobe and the CG would go there twice each year to service the light and change the batteries.  (Before it was shut down in 1996, they used a helicopter from Guantanamo Bay to do that, but in the 60-70s it was done by boat).

    The island looks like a porkchop:

    There is a 40' cliff completely around the island; no beach, no harbor.  The technique used to get from a boat to the island was this:

    • Anchor a safe distance away from Lulu Bay (an indentation in the island cliffs)

    • In a small boat, approach a 40' metal rope ladder dangling from a cantilevered catwalk extending some 30' over the water.

    • When you reach the bottom of the rope ladder (which is, BTW, unsecured at the bottom) you leap from the small boat to the ladder and scramble up.

    • Once on the catwalk, lower a line to a person in the boat and haul up whatever.

    And if that doesn't turn you off, Haiti thinks they own Navassa Island.  Possibility of conflict?  You bet!

    Now all I have to do is find a boat and a build a team -- oh, and collect everything we'd need to take with us.  Navassa is (still) uninhabited and there isn't any drinking water there (let alone food or gasoline for the generators).

    With the help of two Jamaican ham friends Lloyd Alberga, 6Y5LA and Chris Brennan, 6Y5CB I was able to hire a suitable boat, the "Tycoon".  "Tycoon" was a 41' Hatteras Sports Fisherman with a captain and two-man crew.  Since no one had much disposable income in 1971 (at least no one I knew), my next objective was to sign up as many team members as the boat would hold.  With the three-man crew there was room for ten others.  (As I write this, I'm struck by the headcount of thirteen -- a number any sailor would hold as at least potentially unlucky.  Oh, well..)

    NOTE: The photos on the rest of this page were scanned from 35mm slides taken nearly forty years ago.  Their quality isn't up to contemporary standards -- but they're all we have; hope you enjoy 'em. 

    The Captain, "Busha" Jervis ("Busha" is slang for "boss" in Jamaica):

    .. who'd been near Navassa before, estimated the trip as twelve hours (each way).  We wanted to avoid hurricane season so we chose the dates of May 12-15, 1972 for our adventure.  The plan was to fly to Kingston, Jamaica and spend one day/night at a hotel near the marina from which we'd sail.  We'd sail after supper on Thursday May 11th and arrive at the island mid-morning on Friday.  We'd unload and set up by early evening on Friday and be on the air.  We'd operate around the clock Friday, Saturday and Sunday, break down early Monday morning and sail back to Jamaica arriving after dark on Monday, May 15th.

    But getting there took a lot of recruiting and planning.  Exclusive of air transportation to and from Jamaica, the total cost of the adventure was $5,000.  That's right; in these days of six-figure DXpeditions it's hard to imagine one costing only $5,000.  Of course we were only going to be on the island some 54 hours -- staying longer would have run the cost of the boat out of our sight.

    Soooooo.  $5,000/ten guys =$500 per man.  Doable even in 1972.  And that trip was the most fun I ever had for $500.  For sure.

    The next several months were spent in getting stuff together and publicizing our plans to the ham radio community. We got mentions in all the magazines every month and in all the DX newsletters. The world would be waiting.

    The Team

    We recruited eight of the ten operators from the Southeastern DX Club (SEDXC); SEDXC members are shown in bold. Here they are:


    K3FPY
    Rick Feld
    Philadelphia, PA

     

       
    K4PGM
    Ray Cobb (now SK)
    Atlanta, GA

     


    K4TMA
    Skip Staub
    Marietta, GA

     

       
    W2NSD/1*
    Wayne Green (now SK)
    Peterborough, NH

     


    W4GKF
    Chaz Cone
    Atlanta, GA

     

       
    W4GTS
    Phil Latta (now SK)
    Atlanta, GA

     


    WA4VWV
    Steve Smith (now SK)
    Atlanta, GA

     

       
    WB4SST
    Don Kasten
    (now N4DK) Roswell, GA

     


    WB4UPC
    Neil Stone
    Atlanta, GA

     

       
    WB4WMG
    Bill Donovan
    Marietta, GA

    (*)Yes, that Wayne Green, controversial Editor and Publisher of 73 Magazine.  Wayne had been to Navassa before and he wanted to document the trip for an article in the magazine.  The article appeared in the fall of 1972.  It was a very nice job although he was a little hypercritical of one of the guys.

    We decided that we had enough people to operate three rigs at the same time.  We were lucky enough to get a Swan 500C transceiver donated and it became our main rig:

    We also took along two Heathkit SB303 Receiver/SB401 Transmitter stations (owned by Neil WB4UPC and Bill WB4WMG) and that was it, radio-wise:

    Oh, yes, we took along several Drake TR22C 2M rigs (remember them?)

    .. for communication around the island and to the boat.

    Our antennas were dipoles, a Mosley Classic 33 tribander and a Hustler 4BTV vertical.

    We had a pair of Homelite generators (2.5KW if memory serves):

      

    The plan was to have two rigs relatively close together but operating on widely different bands and the third rig some distance away.

    Bill, WB4WMG was assigned the overall quartermaster planning function.

    Neil, WB4UPC had the power/equipment maintenance role.

    I took care of being treasurer, handling publicity, travel arrangements and crew scheduling.

    Ray, K4PGM was cook and bottlewasher.

    Steve, WA4VWV and Skip, K4TMA had the antenna job.

    Wayne, W2NSD/1 and I shared the photographic mission.

    The rest of the guys pitched in where needed.

    In March we had everything together (except the fuel, water and some foodstuffs which we planned to buy in Jamaica) so we set it all up in my backyard to see what bits and pieces might be missing.  Everything worked well.

    Rick, K3FPY was a friend of Don (WB4SST) and we met him for the first time when we boarded our flight to Jamaica in Miami.  Rick would be our primary CW operator.  With travel the way it is now after 9/11, he wouldn't have made it on the flight.  All of his belongings were in a bright yellow army surplus watertight case clearly stencilled "Bomb Tossing Computer" on all six sides.  And he was wearing a T-shirt with a giant marijuana leaf on the chest.  No problem.

    We arrived in two groups in Jamaica (carrying the rigs as carry-on baggage), loaded our 2,000 lbs. of gear into a couple of small vans and headed to the marina where we'd have dinner and board the boat thereafter.  We had no problem with Jamaican customs as one of our local Jamaican ham buddies, Chris 6Y5CB:

    .. met our flights and smoothed things with the locals.  Thanks to a few (budgeted) well-placed US dollars we were permitted to "transit" the country without our gear ever technically entering Jamaica.  Equals no duty.  Sweet.

    We sail!

    I don't remember mentioning that I'd never been to sea.  Never.  In any size boat.  Ours was a 41-footer which ain't all that big.  Just after dinner Captain Jervis fired up the boat and off we went in our motor yacht "Tycoon".

    Turns out that I get seasick pretty darned easily.  My friend Bill WB4WMG tells me there are only two kinds of people in the world:

    • Those who get seasick
    • Those who have not YET gotten seasick.

    What an unpleasant surprise.  I heaved over the rail for the entire TWELVE HOUR TRIP from Jamaica to Navassa Island.  Truly.  No fun -- and, thankfully, no photos.

    Meanwhile, Neil WB4UPC loaded up one of the aluminum outrigger poles and made several maritime mobile contacts during the voyage.

    The seas were a bit rough, averaging 8-foot swells.  And it was a head-on sea; the boat would rise up and then fall and then repeat.  For twelve hours.    Not pleasant for "bad sailor" me.

    We Arrive!

    Right on schedule we saw Navassa on the horizon (apparently our Captain knew the way all right!) at about 8AM and dropped the hook about 200 yards offshore at about 10:30a.  Here's a photo of the boat taken with a telephoto lens from the island:

    Why so far away?  I mentioned that the island is ringed by 40 foot cliffs.  With an 8-foot sea, the waves crashed heavily into the cliffs -- right at our intended access point, Lulu Bay.  So the captain elected to anchor well away from the waves/breakers to protect the boat.  The plan was to row from the boat to the island in the boat's dinghy.

    I've told you about 8-foot seas in a 41-foot boat.  Now imagine 8-foot seas in an 6-foot boat.  And one without a motor.

    The boat crew consisted of two lads, Richard (the first mate):

    .. and Joseph (the other guy):

    Richard had the physique of a body builder.  Joseph was a little scrawny guy about 5' tall.  Guess who got to row?

    Yep.  The plan was for Joseph to row one or two of us and 75-100lbs of gear the 200 yards from the boat to the island:

    Then what?

    Catch the rope ladder and scamper up.  Right.

    Who'd be the first to go?  As DXpedition leader I pre-empted everyone else because I HAD TO GET OFF THE $^%#%#% BOAT!  So I went first.  All Joseph and I took with us was a u-bolt, a small pulley, 100' of nylon line and a bundle of supplies.  Off we went.

    Did I mention I wasn't a good sailor?

    I wasn't sick on the way over to the island; I think because I was so anxious to get onto dry land again.  The tiny dinghy would disappear between swells; you'd see water 6' above our heads on all sides when in a trough and in a few seconds we'd be high up above everything on wave crests.

    When we reached the ladder (thank goodness it was still there -- we didn't have a backup plan).  I timed the rise and fall of the dinghy, grabbed a rung of the ladder and let the boat drop away.

    There's a trick to climbing a rope ladder where it isn't secured at the bottom.  You climb up the edge of the ladder straddling the rope and putting a foot on either side onto a rung.  It's not difficult and I was in a hurry to get onto dry land.

    At the top:


    That's me on the catwalk, Richard, Steve WA4VWV and (poor) Richard in the dinghy.

    .. I affixed the pulley to the rail of the catwalk, threaded the line through and ran it down to Joseph.  He attached it to a bundle and I hauled it up.  Joseph returned to the boat for the next player/load.

    Poor Joseph did this dozens of times without complaint:


    Richard, Don WB4SST, Ray K4PGM and Joseph


    Don on his way up..


    Me watching Steve WA4VWV pull on the rope

    Finally we were all ashore with all our gear -- except that one operator refused to make the trip.  Phil, W4GTS was 53 years old at the time (the rest of us were in our 30s except for Wayne W2NSD/1 who was fearless) and was not comfortable with the "dinghy, 8-foot sea, rope ladder" thing.  We all appealed to him and he finally made it over unscathed.  Attaboy, Phil!

    What a shame it would have been to come all that way and then miss out on the fun part!

    The Setup

    We set up camp under Don's direction:

    We got the radios, antennas and campsite assembled and, at about 4pm, made our first scheduled contact with our Atlanta-based communications station, Dale K4ROZ.  I worked Dale on 20 Meter SSB as W4GKF/MM so as not to give away that we had actually landed.  Once I let Dale know that we were all OK and to call the wives to tell them, we signed off.

    The Operation

    Then I said: "QRZ KC4DX" -- and the world erupted!  Unless you've been on the DX-end of a worldwide pileup, you simply cannot imagine the cacaphony.  It sounded like I imagine 500 ducks would sound like stuffed into a blender.  You could hardly pick out a single letter of a callsign.  But, we did and we were off and running.  Since our main rig was a transceiver, we were unable to work split (as is the custom today), so managing pileups on your own frequencey was a major challenge.

    We were all really excited and the bands were open to somewhere all the time.  We only broke for food when we were starving; a good thing, too because Ray K4PGM (our cook):

    .. was 50% of our CW operation!

    The layout was, as planned, with two rigs near each other and the third some 100' away:

    Because of the layout of our campsite, the two rigs were "up-the-hill" and the third was "down-the-hill".  The "hill" was about a 10% grade.  The generators were set up between them.

    The generators precipitated our first intra-group conflict.  Neil WB4UPC was in charge of the elecrical system as well as electronic maintenance.  He had devised a simple switching device to handle the 110VAC.  It worked like this:  Neil placed the two generators about 100' apart.  The output from the generators ran down heavy #4 rubber-covered cable to a switch box.  From there, cables ran to the three operating positions.  A single generator ran the whole thing; when it needed fuel (about every 40 minutes), someone would start the other generator and then flip a switch (this happend so quickly that it never interrupted power on the rigs).  They'd then shut down the out-of-gas generator and refill it for the next cycle.  Worked well.  The generator refueling task rotated among the operators.

    Neil reasoned that separating the generators would prevent a fire from taking them both out.  Made sense.

    What he didn't think through was that the refueling process involved a pretty good hike (uphill one way) and then back carrying five-gallon gas cans.  Skip K4TMA, when it was his turn, would move the generators together to ease refueling.  Neil would notice that they had moved together and move them apart.  Skip would move them together; Neil would move them apart.  When they finally caught each other doing this it almost came to blows!  Good thing that it was "almost" because Skip outweighed Neil by a good 70lbs...

    The literature available on Navassa says it doesn't rain there in May.  So we only had one tent and the rest slept on cots under the stars:

    But the guidebooks were wrong.  It rained a little every afternoon:

    Unplanned Excitement

    Late Saturday night I was operating 20M SSB and someone came by and announced that there was a large ship in Lulu Bay.  This was a cause for some alarm since the ownership of Navassa Island was disputed by Haiti.  This dispute was many years in the making.  While we had Coast Guard permission to be there, we definitely did NOT have Haitian permission and it could have been dicey if the ship in the bay was a Haitian gunboat.

    It wasn't.

    It was, however, a Russian fishing trawler:

    The captain of that ship had been in touch with our captain and had learned that a bunch of radio techies were on the island.  The Russian ship had long-distance radio trouble and wondered if one of us would take a look.  Captain Jervis radioed us on 2 meters and Neil WB4UPC volunteered to take a look.

    It's deep in the middle of the night.  The Russian ship sent a rubber Zodiak lifeboat over to the island, Neil lowered his 80lb. tool box down the line and climbed down the rope ladder and into the Russian tender.  And off they went.

    I can't imagine what it would have been like climbing down that rope ladder in the pitch black night.

    They returned Neil to the island several hours later.  He had successfully repaired their radio and they were very appreciative.  So much so that they gifted our captain with a rubber fuel cell containing fifty gallons of diesel fuel:

    You'll see the importance of this bit of extra fuel later.

    Exploration

    On Sunday, when the pileups were ebbing, a few of us went to explore the rest of the island.  When the phosphorite mining was going on in the 19th century, they'd laid a narrow gauge rail line from the top of the island (where the mine was) down to Lulu Bay.  We were able to follow that roadbed and avoid the sharp rocks and cactus that was thick everywhere:

    Here's our first glimpse of the lighthouse as we hiked up to the highest point on the island:

    The lighthouse was padlocked so we couldn't get in:

    .. but we did explore the ruins of the buildings.  Some walls were still standing more than seventy years after the occupants left Navassa:

    One of the oddities was a three-holer latrine built over a deep shaft.  400' deep we estimated (by dropping a rock and listening for the clunk/splash at the bottom):

    There was a lot of graffiti on the remains of the buildings. We added our own:

    Yes, Steve couldn't remember Bill's call -- hence the strikeout. The typo was scratched out and the proper callsign inserted at the bottom...

    Goin' Home!

    Our arrangement with the boat was that it would stay near the island all the time we were there; they took little fishing trips to allay their boredom but they were always back in Lulu Bay by nightfall.

    We were going to leave on Tuesday but the Captain advised us on Sunday that the seas were building so we elected to break camp and leave the island Monday instead.  Reversing the process was a bit easier (climbing down a rope ladder beats climbing up one!)

    On the trip home I didn't have one bit of seasickness.  This time the seas were 90° to our direction of travel and apparently the rocking motion doesn't bother me.  Also the pressure from the responsibility of the DXpediton was pretty much off my shoulders by then.  No one had been hurt, we made 5,500+ contacts and had a great time.

    As we came into sight of the harbor at Kingston:

    ..one last little challenge awaited us.

    It turns out that the little fishing excursions our captain and crew went on (while we were making contacts) used more fuel than expected.  Even with the fifty gallons that Neil's talent had secured for us, the "Tycoon" ran out of fuel fifty feet from the dock in Kingston!  We coasted into the berth on momentum.

    My bride Gael, our eleven-month-old daughter Kristyn and Ray's bride B.A. were there at the dock with Chris Brennan 6Y5CB to welcome us.  On Lloyd's suggestion we'd booked rooms at the Rose-Neath Hotel in Kingston for the night.  Gael, Kristyn and B.A. had already checked in and reported that it was lovely.  They noticed quite a number of young ladies at the hotel.

    Turned out that the Rose-Neath Hotel is a brothel.  We didn't know and, when we did, we didn't care!

    I built an 80-slide presentation that I gave hundreds of times; some of the pictures on this page were scanned from those slides.  This one is the title slide (crude but, remember, it was 1972!):

    One of the advantages of having a ham radio magazine publisher along on your DXPedition is that you can often get an issue of the magazine devoted to the trip.  Here's the cover of the August 72 issue of 73 Magazine:

    Click HERE to read the article.

    Fund raising (after the fact)..

    In our extensive planning we forgot that there would be post-DXpedition expenses that were going to invade our wallets -- among them, the decision to go with a full-color QSL card (not cheap in those days; see top of this page).  So we came up with the idea of selling "shares" in the DXpedition at $2/share.  Didn't work too well but it covered the costs; here's mine:


    (Click to see it larger)

    News!

    At the Southeastern DX Club (SEDXC) meeting on July 19, 2012, I presented the KC4DX story; 30% of the original team was there:


    Bill WB4WMG, Chaz W4GKF and Don N4DK

    Here's a letter from Neil WB4UPC:

    Here's a 13 minute video made from the super8 film shot by Steve WA4VWV on the trip:

    And so it's over..

    Navassa was a tremendous experience and I've been dining out on this story for forty years.  We made 5,500 contacts (not a lot by today's standards but we only operated for 54 hours).  QSLs and the logs are still available so if you worked us and need a card, just click to let me know!

    73 es gud DX,

    Chaz, W4GKF