HIGHLIGHTS OF THE EXPEDITION
The Armada de Chile of course! The Navy of the Republic of Chile. Charged with the security of Chile's northern border, the Navy established an elaborate campsite loaded with radios and world-class antennas, and an airstrip that will land a 737 jet. Next, perhaps, are scientists and administrators, who study and manage the island. Only specialists could love the flies and moths, the pitiful plants that struggle to survive on the tarmac, and the boobies that make circular nests of white guano on jet black lava. Very, very few relate to the volcanic cinders and blowing dust.
The people who feel they need San Felix the most, however, sometimes bordering on desperation, are radio amateurs. World wide, there are about 16 thousand obsessed hams who meticulously keep their checklists, and have not yet checked This One. Often risking their livelihoods, families, and health, they can be counted on to be there when it counts. It is these loyal friends that get people like me moving, knowing that if we could only get to the island with a live radio, they would be there, en masse, confirming what we know full well: that those who need San Felix most are the DXers, the Deserving, those to whom God has revealed the sublime and limitless mystery of wireless communication.
This expedition required a lot of doors to open in front of us. The man with the keys was Carlos George-Nascimento, NP4IW/CE3AQI, an American/Chilean Chemist/DXpeditioner who speaks English/Spanish and does SSB/CW. With so many dualities, Carlos is in the enviable position of being able to make bridges, and pick political locks. He also lives across town from me, and was my partner in the XRØY/Z and VKØIR adventures. It was his connections and experience that toppled the barriers for this one. Don't try this at home--unless of course you have the same kind of double-sided keys Carlos has.
Actually, the original idea was not San Felix at all. It was San Ambrosio, some 10 miles away. That forbidding rock, with its 100-m vertical periphery and violent windy and chaotic summit, was politically less sensitive, and Carlos succeeded in arranging a vessel to take a team there to operate radio. When the preparations and the vessel proved inadequate, he delayed it a year, and set about rebuilding the team and plans.
From our experience with the Heard Island Expedition, we know that a year delay is not a curse but a blessing, and that proved to be the case again. Carlos pulled together an expanded team, and set about using his considerable connections in the Chilean Navy to convince them that they really wanted to take us to San Felix. Busy with my business, I held out as long as I could, until the adventure proved irresistible, and I volunteered my soul and body.
The team was thus set: K5AB Alan Brown, N6TQS Doug Faunt, K5AND Dick Hanson, N7CQQ John Kennon, DJ9ZB Franz Langner, N6MZ Michael Mraz, I8NHJ Max Mucci, NP4IW/CE3AQI Carlos G-Nascimento, KO4RR Joseph M. Owen, HB9AHL Willy Ruesch, KK6EK Robert Schmieder, W6KK Charles Spetnagel, CEØYWS Ricardo Menzel. I was delighted that after signing on, no one on the team dropped out. Ricardo stayed in Valparaiso to help coordinate things.
The expedition started in a little bright yellow hotel in Vina del Mar, a few miles from the port city of Valparaiso, an hour-plus north of Santiago. The weather was as perfect as you could define. We could find the hotel easilyit was next to 3 pizza shops.
We had several remarkable experiences in Vina. For instance, I needed some Chilean pesos, and walked across the street to a small corner market. There I found an ATM in a little kiosk, and slipped my Bank of America card in the slot. Naturally it asked for my PIN number, then to my astonishment it asked me how much money I wanted. Well, I said, how about 40,000 pesos? Immediately it obliged, rolling the bills out the slot and asking me if I wanted more. What a great time! 80,000 pesos! No problem. Out it rolled. Getting a grip, I stopped this nonsense, trotted into the wine department, and took on reserves for the expedition.
Another amazing thing was the live internet connection in the hotel lobby. Why this should be so amazing was itself amazing, but we were thrilled.
In front of the hotel we opened the satellite phone, and found that we could make calls as easily as if we were home. I called my wife Martha by dialing 1+areacode+7-digit number. That was it!
LIFE ABOARD SHIP
The Chacabuco is a real warship, with real guns. As we left, I tried to persuade the skipper to fire one of them, but he was only amused, not motivated.
Sleeping arrangements were a minimalists dream: a canvas rectangle captured in a horizontal pipe frame hung on pegs in a vertical pipe frame stacked four high, four across, and eight long in the hold, if you follow all that. The bunks formed a kind of dormitory, seen from the stairway as a matrix of mats, bags, boxes, and bodies. I never saw where the women slept.
The food was a good match for the bunks. Breakfast was a cup of hot milk and a piece of flat bread akin to an English muffin. I usually missed lunch, but I know the same bread was served. Dinner was a piece of boiled chicken of unidentifiable geometry, and the same piece of bread. Once we had something I would swear had already been eaten. In spite, it was hearty and wholesome, and loved by the Chileans, who eat this all the time.
Two days later, as we neared San Felix, we began furiously making detailed schedules for the landing. Most of this fine scheduling was rendered useless when we arrived two hours early, at first light. With dawn breaking overhead, the ship and the island came alive with men and machines.
At this point we became spectators to our own expedition. The Chilean ship crew efficiently unloaded our container, lifting even the heavy items over their heads to the tops of the containers, where the helicopter snagged them and carried them to the island. Nearly all the gear was deposited at the end of the airstrip, and then loaded on a flatbed trailer drawn by a tractor, and taken to the Navy garrison a mile away. Just one little problem when the wind caught one load, the helo pilot was forced to drop it, directly in the ocean! It was only later that we learned that we had lost our tomatoes, melons, and precious cheese, but oh, well, we survived.
Some of the local boobies didn't fare as well. These great goose-sized birds flew gracefully around the ship, presumably hoping for a handout, zooming in and out with easy grace. Unfortunately, they seemed to not differentiate the helicopter, and flew happily around it as well, now and then venturing into the influence of the tailrotor, tumbling wings-first into the powerful sucking vortex. As the next blade swung around, it neatly sliced off both wings, which went sailing in wide arcs. The poor bird's carcass dropped vertically to the water.
Although we were prepared for much worse, it was actually far better than we could have imagined. Making friends with the garrison, we found ourselves invited to share their facilities! They had an empty bunkhouse, a carport with concrete floor, and a sheltered parkplace. We rapidly designated these as bedroom, galley, and corporation yard, and went about arranging our gear appropriately. It took no time at all for the full import of hot showers, laundry, and a BBQ to sink in. I can assure you that there was no regret that our main shelter, a 2x4-and-brackets-and-tarps invention, was abandoned as redundant.
Typical of our easy corruption was when a Chilean appeared with a large transformer, and showed us the 220 volt outlet where we could plug I in to make 11 volts. Not a single person objected as I ran extension cords, multi-outlets, and plugged in the coffee maker, electric skillet, and the small freezer I had bought at Sears. I must say it did give me some trouble when I put my hand on 220 VAC on the frame of the microwave. Oops! Tracking back, I found that the transformer had no ground, and if you put the (reversible) 220 volt plug in the one way, you connected the hot lead to the outside of everything. I fixed that by installing the third wire, and running it to a real earth ground.
The freezer was probably a first for a DXpedition. Although not meant to be an icemaker, thats principally what we used it for. I must say that, next to a hot shower, an iced gin-and tonic is an important element in any self-respecting expedition.
We had brought enough food for a month. To protect it from ourselves, I arranged some shipping creates and tarps to form a kind of pantry. We constructed two 4x8-foot tables from lumber and metal construction brackets we had brought for the purpose, and I put one of the tables in front of the pantry, deliberately making it hard to get to, or even see, the stores of beer, wine, cokes, chocolate-chip cookies, and bags of candy. My reasoning was that if we ate all that stuff in two days, we would starve. And while the reasoning was sound, the stores were more than adequate to support the team, even at gluttonous level.
We had to hike to waterabout 20 feet to the large plastic pipe with a PVC valve. Operating the valve produced a strong flow of pure water, provided by the desalinization plant, which had probably 50,000 gallon capacity. No one volunteered to assemble our self-contained, pressurized water system--there was no need.
One of our first actions was to activate our transportation system. For this we had brought the famous little tractor we had taken to Heard Island in 1997, and two bicycles. Much to the hoots and catcalls of our friendly critics, the tractor, and its oversized wagon, had been a lifesaver for carrying around tents, gasoline, and linears. On that expedition, and this one, we found it more than essentialit was fun, and there was no shortage of drivers. The bicycles enjoyed unexpected popularity. We had to ration the use of them, so that they were available for fun as well as commuting. The Chileans showed admirable restraint, but plainly were enthusiastic, even envious. We felt a bit guilty that we weren't more uncomfortable, but no one took any steps to counter the feeling.
SAN FELIX ISLAND
San Felix Island was not exactly what we had expected. It was big, big! On paper, 2 km doesnt look that big; on a moon-scape of an island, it looks huge. Our ideas for positioning our tents were in rapid revision.
The island is completely bisected by an airstrip that will land a 737. To the south is a high and sharp edge of black lava, frozen in its leaping waves. To the north is a gently sloping desert, home to thousands of boobies, hundreds of antennas, and two dozen young men. At the extreme north side is a lovely beach. Everywhere the ground is carpeted with volcanic cinders, not the nice smooth stuff, but the razor-sharp kind aptly named aa.
The garrison lives in a small village, comprised of buildings painted in camouflage, power and fresh-water generating plants, tennis and soccer courts, and more antennas than you could dream about. For roughing it, they actually have it pretty goodhot showers, laundry, greenhouse, walk-in freezer, rec room, and lots of communications gear.
The island dump is as interesting as the village. Thousands of rotting steel drums, automobile frames, broken bottles, a sofa, a vintage typewriter. It was fully as satisfying as any dump you might find anywhere. Even more so when, the morning after we arrived, I found some of our empty XRØX cartons, generously picked up by the nighttime San Felix garbage crew.
Large areas of the island appear from a distance to be covered with a hoar-frost, but don't be fooled--it's the booby nests, annular "nests" of white guano, infrequently with a single egg in the center. The adult birds are rather tame, and allow you to get within a foot or less before they shuffle off, their rubbery feet making ploppy sounds. The juveniles, however, are skittish, and get into tilting, flapping, beak-working, sqawking, and awkward tumbling when they trip over themselves.
With time, some of our team got acquainted with the mice, which appeared very interested in radio. One of the operators, Alan, reported that his mouse particularly liked to run up his pantleg while he (Alan) was working JAs on CW. The particular affinity of the mice for certain band-mode-countries was never explained.
The flies really were worth writing home about. There is no question that there was an infinite number of them. You really shouldnt think of them so much as individual animals, but rather as a kind of fly-fluid. Trying to rid our dining table of flies was a bit like trying to shoo away smoke. You might make some progress in pushing back the front, even momentarily getting it out of sight, but then, in minutes, it inexorably comes slipping back in. I got so skilled that with a single swish of my towel, I could send perhaps 20 flies to fly-heaven. But then God in His wisdom saw fit to create 20 more, or perhaps 20 times 20 more.
But the substance non pareil was the dust. As dust, it was exquisite. As companion, it was less so. When you walked on the black rocky surface of the soil, it broke through like ice, our footprints showing in embarrassing glops of the light tan dust underneath. Walking in dust was one thing. Working radio in dust was another. The dust loaded the spaces in computer keyboards until they scratched. It covered the tops of the tables, and the screens and dials on the computers and radios. It made your clothing dirty, and there was no way to keep from spreading the contamination. Even the light rain that fell now and then was quickly dried, and our hopes for a cementing of dust into hardpan were dashed. At the end, I did the only reasonable thingI drew XRØX in the dust on the table and shot a picture of it, just to prove how we had suffered.
Of course we had planned to separate the stations as much as possible, to avoid inter-station interference. When confronted with the vast expanse of San Felix, we took this plan into overdrive. We had planned to set the SSB and CW stations as outliers, and operate RTTY and PSK from the main shelter. But when we took up residence with the Chileans, the GEM (Greeting, Eating, Meeting) tent was rendered pointless. So we decided to erect a separate "specialty" site for RTTY/PSK/6m. We would have three sites, with two radios in each site.
The CW site, nearest the garrison, was virtually in the Chileans antenna farm (we did not interfere with any operations). We had to make our own road to it through the volcanic dust, and when the wind blew, the dust roiled like smoke coming off the ground. There we hoisted the Battle Creek Special, in a display of erection virtuosity that we surmised had never been equaled. Various tribanders and verticals provided all-band capability. Pounding stakes into the ground was more challenge than you might imagine. Invariably, within a few inches you hit a rock. Move to the side and you might go deeper, but you would hit another. Mike N6MZ was able to activate our killer Hilti drill to set some of the anchors in solid rock.
The SSB site was a mile away, on the west end of the island, about 200 meters off the runway, in a flat circular clearing that was reached by a road. Behind the tent you could climb down a vertical wooden ladder to reach a large tidepool the Chileans used as their swimming hole. In addition to the A3S and A3WS tribanders, and the G5RV and 80 and 40 m bazooka dipoles, we erected two 40-ft masts, one for the national flags and the other for the sponsor flags. The view from this site was tremendous. To the west was the spectacular and mysterious Cathedral rock. Directly to the south was the only large peak on San Felix, the 200-m dome capped with an automatic light. To the west an unbroken stretch of black volcanic cinders, punctuated by the brilliant white circular booby nests. To the north, only the ocean, and the vast sea of radio amateurs we so hopefully awaited.
The RTTY/PSK/6m site was only about 500 m from the SSB site, on an even more spectacular location. From the right angle, and with a lens of the right focal length, you could frame the tent, all its antennas, and the cliff, with Cathedral Rock in the background. It was literally about 20 m from the cliff edge, so wandering at night without a light was inadvisable. The site was outfitted with a 3-element 10 m beam, an A3S tribander, and Dick's 8-element 6 m beam.
In mid-afternoon on 15 March 2002, Carlos made the first QSO, logging Ricardo CEØYWS in Valparaiso on 20 m SSB at 1748Z. The commandant of the garrison paid a visit, and we all stood around taking pictures for a while. Then we got to work, working the Deserving, who didn't disappoint us. They were there in droves. And droves. And droves
Realizing that we were going to have lots and lots of QSOs, I produced a QSO-thermometer in the galley. It was a wooden 2x4 eight feet long. Every foot I marked a line in black, and numbered the lines 0, 10000, 20000, ... , up to 70000. Each day we would tally the number of QSOs, and mark the thermometer in red. As the days unfolded, the QSO temperature rose, eventually reaching nearly the full length of the board.
The team members rapidly settled into patterns. At the SSB site, Willy and Franz, and Joe and John, formed a pair of tag-teams. They worked shifts planned at 3 hours, but sometimes running to 10+ hours. Somewhat the same was true at the CW site, where Max, Alan, Charlie, Carlos, and Mike rotated in and out like the sloshing tide. At RTTY/PSK/6m, Dick patiently worked CW and SSB on 6 m hour after hour, while Doug logged thousands of QSOs on RTTY and PSK, mostly 10 m but including some on 15 and 20 m. For my part, I seemed to be busy running the galley, collecting plant specimens, and keeping my log updated. To my surprise, I was too busy to work radio for several days.
After about 5 days of operations, Carlos, Mike, and others studied the distributions of the logs. Something queer was happening. Although 15 and 20 m have been the workhorse bands, we were clearly exceeding the totals on the WARC bands, especially 12 and 17 m, and by significant amounts. It was not that we were putting undue effort into the WARC bands; it was better propagation. It was agreed that we should put additional effort into 20 m, especially 20 m SSB. To that end, I was defined out of the galley, and into an operating position. The only possibility was the RTTY/PSK/6m station, and with some trepidation I took the news to Doug that he would have to timeshare the radio. While clearly disappointed that this change in schedules would probably prevent him from reaching his goal of 4500 RTTY QSOs, he took it with equanimity, and made steps to fill the galley position I had vacated. The switch worked--we ate, and we worked SSB, and Deserving saw that it was good.
We solved the issue of personal communications by implementing multiple paths. We had the satellite telephone, amateur-band e-mail, direct e-mail from any website, and the potential for using the Chilean facilities, if all else failed. Mike had put together the system for uploading the daily logs though Winlink, and it worked when there was an appropriate station available. The only problem was that there was seldom an appropriate station available. After several days of frustration, he turned to the satellite phone, and within an hour succeeded in uploading the days logs in about 5 minutes. After that it worked perfectly. It's good to have a satellite phone on an expedition!
One day I received an e-mail message from Martha to call her immediately. "It's OK now," she said. "Just your boat sinking. I took it to the boatyard." Now Im not one to avoid responsibility, but this was one occasion that I was just as happy to be on a remote island, unable to do anything, except of course to think about the plants, the Deserving, and the evening BBQ.
We sometimes listened to the Ducie Island operation VP6DI. This new DXCC country was generating a pileup like we seldom hear. And while we know they were doing well, we also heard some moderating comments, such as "Imagine! A 30 kHz spread!". Our hopes rose. Perhaps we could shine as brightly, even from an island that was down on the list to about 20 or so.
The last QSO was made at 1415Z on 26 March 2002, with W8WFN on 17 m SSB. It was the 68,910th QSO we logged. Not a record, but up there. We were happy, and proud. But humble, you know, of course. It is worth noting that more than a week earlier, Carlos had predicted that the total QSO count would be 68,926, a mere 0.03% off of the final talley!
While not a garden spot, San Felix does offer some attractions for the non-radio visitor. I resolved to take full advantage of these. So one day I went fishing, for the express purpose of providing the team with nurishment. Mind you, my last experience fishing was at age 13 or so, but in anticipation of my reincarnation, I had procured a shiny new pole, and an inventory of hooks and weights. So, on my decision day, I took all this high-tech gear and my innocent optimism to the rocky precipice where the Chileans haul in the Big Ones, and prepared for greatness. My first mighty cast converted the reel of neatly wound line into a Gordian tangle of heroic proportions, so I was able to rest for about 30 minutes while I performed the untangling. It didnt help to know that the Chileans did not use a pole, just a length of line and an old hook (probably not shiny, like mine). Over the next hour, I managed to land one fish, a pretty red-orange thing about 8 inches long. No matter, I reasoned, with vague thoughts about fishes and loaves, and breaking bread, or was it something else? I carried the fish back and put it in our freezer.
Snorkeling provides another opportunity for relief. I had more than diversion in mindI was on a charter from the University of California to collect samples of the seaweeds and the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History for marine invertebrates. I asked the Chileans how I could get in the water, and one named Christian took me to the place where we first landed, a rocky shelf accessed by the concrete staircase. There is a small platform that anchors the tide gauge, and provides a ladder to exit the water. I simply went in fully clothed, since I expected the water to be cold. But it was pleasantly cool, and I was able to stay in as long as I wanted (about an hour). I had my own snorkeling gear, and between Christian and myself, we filled a goodie bag with specimens, including a lobster. I rushed back to camp, where I fixed the seaweeds in formalin and the invertebrates in alcohol. Except for the lobster, which was about the same size as my little red-orange fish. That I served to the crew for dinner. Each man got about 10 grams of meat.
On several days I went foraging for terrestrial plants. The botanists at Berkeley had advised me that there is one plant that is an endemicit grows on San Felix and nowhere else on Earth. It was last collected many years ago (1937?). Could I look for it? But of course! But as much as I looked, there was nothing that resembled it. There was a beautiful little daisy-like flower on a red-purple ice-plant like organism that grew principally on the tarmac of the runway. Looking close, I could see all stages of the plant, from the 2-leaf germlings to rather large plants with dozens of flowers. There was a wheat-like grass, and about 5 other individual taxa that grew mostly just off the runway. I reasoned that rain runoff might be providing enhanced water for these areas.
The day before we packed, I talked the Chileans into taking us over to Cathedral Rock. They have a large Zodiac, and a few days earlier had taken it to the islet and bagged a 40-inch fish that was near the record for the area. Eight of us, including 3 Chileans, took to the Zodiac and headed for the Rock, about a mile away. The spires were spectacular. They are the erosional remnant of a volcanic plug, all that is left from an underwater cone after being attacked by the pounding surf for a few hundred thousand years. It was very similar to Rocas Alijos, off the Pacific coast of Baja California. The rocks leap nearly vertically about 150 ft. Capping the top are two rocks that are very good likenesses of the moai on Easter Island. We used Maxs mask and put our faces in the water, seeing thousands of small fish and a few big ones. The Chileans never dive there in fear of the sharks. We werent afraid, of course, but we knew about discretion and valor, of course.
Returning to San Felix, I decided to make one last attempt to locate the elusive rare endemic plant, and invited two Chileans to climb the mountain with the light on it. The climb was rigorous, but not dangerous, so long as you did not slip. If you did slip, you would continue sliding more than 500 ft, eventually falling vertically to your certain death. But we were careful, and no one was killed. As we approached the summit, I was electrified. There, across a small shallow drainage area perhaps 1 acre in area, were hundreds of what appeared to be bleached antlers, stacked into piles up to 1 m in diameter and more than half that high! As I approached, it became clear that these were plants, articulated tubers of some sort. The branches were about 1 inch in diameter, 4-6 inches long, with up to 3 or 4 branching articulates at each joint. On a few plants, a few of the terminal joints had 3 fleshy leaves, about 3 inches long. Digging up a small one, I found that its root was a tuber very much like a sweet potato, shallow and small, but fleshy. I took a few voucher specimens, shot a lot of pictures, and completed the climb to the light, confident that I had in fact rediscovered the lost plant of San Felix. [This was later confirmed by the botanist at Berkeley].
We decided that, as we packed the CW and RTTY/PSK/6m sites, we would keep the SSB site operating. Willy and Franz made the supreme sacrifice of working radio instead of dismantling antennas and tents. While we literally took their tent apart around them, they continued logging Qs. Left in the open air, just a table and a chair, they kept logging Qs. Only when someone said 73, QRT and pulled their plug did they stop serving the Deserving.
The Chileans showed us they knew how to party. Midday, they brought over wine and empanadas, the stuffed pastries that all Chileans eat every day. We gathered in front of our galley, and everyone exchanged sincere, sometimes serious, expressions of friendship forever. Carlos held a raffle and gave away my precious fishing pole, which I did not take as a comment on my fishing ability. We also gave them the bicycles. I gave Christian my dive gear. Several team members gave the Chileans various items. I got every man of the garrison to sign my log, with his mailing address, and promised to send a copy of the book. We figured that there was no way we could adequately compensate them for allowing us to live with them.
That night we did our best to match their party. Around 9 PM a dozen Chileans stormed our galley, armed with pisco and coke. Then began the ritual of drinking "piscola," which is half Coke and half pisco. It's a common mans drink, designed to give you a lot of latitude in style and consumption. Led by Carlos, we began the ritual peer-pressure drinking. Sung loudly while pounding on the table, the song goes: "You are a lighthouse, but you are not shining very brightly. That's because you are nearly out of fuel. So to brighten up, you need more fuel, so drink, DRINK, DRINK!" At which point the person with the piscola downs it, and the crowd turns to the next man and repeats the procedure. Two rounds of this game is enough to carry the crowd into a frenzy, and we were well underway when I played my trump card. Having preserved all the specimens I needed, I still had about a liter of 99.999% pure ethanol (ethyl alcohol) in the reagent bottle. With a flourish, I brought it out, and pushed the drinking game to previously unattained heights. The men hated the taste of "ethanola," but loved the effect, which was a killer. We went round after round, entraining even the old farts, nondrinkers, conservative wimps, nerds, and men who thought they were there for something else. Eventually the ethanol was exhausted, and we were reduced to smelling the fumes and rinsing the bottle with cola. By 1:30 AM, I sensed the point of diminishing returns, and advised all to declare victory and retire for the night. All did, except for one poor soul who returned a little while later, and in complete darkness, began stacking the chairs. We gently directed him toward his bed, and we believe he had a very good rest. As did we all.
Late on the last day we gave the Chileans the rest of our food, and moved all our gear to the end of the runway to await the ship. Racing darkness, they launched the helicopter from 10 miles out. Our first inkling of their arrival was the guttural helo engine and the sight of a dot emerging from the clouds to the west. Concerned that we were going to be overcharged for the long helo runs, I started an analysis of the flight strategy, given a fixed number of trips and a hard deadline. The answer turned out to be about the same as the actual time they launched the helicopter.
Eventually the Chubasco hove into view, and moved into position in the cove anchorage. In what could only have been a sign from Providence, the sun set behind a rack of perforated clouds, creating a cone of luminous orange beams perfectly centered above the ship. The periodic flight of the helo into this glowing curtain was suggestive of a prehistoric bird carrying prey to it aerie high on the slope of an erupting volcano, and we were mindful that not so long ago the very place on which we stood generated just such a pyrovisual display.
With the departure of our last load, we boarded the Zodiac in the dark and rode the waves to the vessel, watching the lights on the island staircase shrink together. We could barely make out the waving arms of our friends, signaling that this has been a good time for them as well as for us. As we climbed the rope ladder to the deck, the lights disappeared, and all we could see of the island was its silhouette in the three-quarter moon. Somewhere there were 24 men with whom we had established personal and fraternal bonds, and almost surely were thinking the same of us. Although we both knew it would be unlikely we would see each other again, the feeling was happiness and gratitude.
The Chacabuco made a sharp turn and revved her engines for the 2-day run to Valparasio. But only an hour away she stopped dead in the water while the crew replaced a faulty coupling between one engine and its screw. Staring into the darkness I didnt even notice it, until I realized I was still looking at the dark outline of San Felix. A brief sense of relief flooded in, as if I half-believed I would see my Chilean friends again, but then the engines fired, the ship lurched, and we began moving. As San Felix drifted away, San Ambrosio drifted into view, and then it, too, drifted away, and we were alone in the ocean.
Eager to get home, the Chacabuco raced at 17 knots on flat seas, the brilliant moon generating an ethereal glow. The warm air was inviting, and I spent several hours at the rail, watching the dark, mysterious water, and replaying the last two weeks in my thoughts. But then, perhaps I was only procrastinating, trying to avoid the rack in the hold!
We ran thusly for nearly two days. A few hours from Valparaiso, all the passengers were treated to brief helicopter rides. Our team was not invited to ride, which gave me an odd sense of satisfaction, as if we were part of the crew, rather than mere passengers.
As we approached the harbor, a herd of perhaps a hundred dolphins jumped happily in graceful arcs, like a band playing welcome home.
Inside the harbor, we came bow-breach to the Navy flagship, threw them a line, and were pulled alongside. Setting the gangplank was an unusually laborious affair; apparently the man who knew how to do it had been fast asleep. At one point, I inadvertently pulled the cable connected to the ship's horn, and we let out a mighty blast. I am unclear whether we signaled that we were going to ram them, or just come in for tea.
Finally, carrying our suitcases with us, we walked off, across the two ships, and onto the dock. Soon Ricardo arrived, with a bus, and we were transported back to the same yellow hotel we had left two weeks earlier. But grabbing the opportunity, several of us opted for the airport, and thence home, leaving the rest of the team to follow.
Logistically, there were some good things, and some bad things.
The good things included: the tractor/wagon; lots of wine; the folding food preparation table; the lumber tables; the garbage can; pancakes and omelets; the BBQ; green plastic chairs; ZipLoc bags; the freezer; while utility towels; small flashlights; and ice.
The bad things included: no fly traps or swatters; no means to suppress dust; not enough Snickers bars; too much rice that doesnt get fluffy; not enough bicycles; and not enough ethanol.
Operationally, this has to be one of the best. We far exceeded the initial estimates both on quantity and quality of the logged QSOs, and the on-air performance and behavior were exemplary. We had the right plan and the right stuff.
Was it worth it? The actual cost to the participants was quite modest, thanks in part to access to considerable gear from previous expeditions and to exceptionally low airfares. For less than $2000, or about $100/day, total, the participants were provided with an all-inclusive trip to one of the garden spots of the world, and adventures such as volcanic dust for which normally you would have to pay far more. Of course, there were a few duties, such as radio operations and galley cleanup, but on the whole they werent odious.
We believe that the Deserving also got a great deal. We logged 68,910 contacts, of which more than 20,000 will be confirmed by QSL cards. If we total the contributions from foundations, clubs, and donations expected to come with QSL requests, we estimate the total contributions to be about $10,000. Thus, each confirmed QSO cost the Deserving about half a dollar, about half the usual cost for a major DXpedition QSL.
So who needs San Felix now? Surely the Armada de Chile, and the scientists and administrators and the specialists who look after Gods little creatures. They all need it just as much as before. But perhaps you will agree that, at least for a while, not quite so many radio amateurs as before now need San Felix!
Copyright © 2002 Robert W. Schmieder All Rights Reserved
SAN FELIX ISLAND
BACKGROUND OF THE EXPEDITION
GOALS AND OBJECTIVES
MANAGEMENT OF THE PROJECT
Return to top of page