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Ham Jam 2007 -- VE4MM/6Y5


In July 2007, my engineering colleague Percy Beach asked me if our family would like to visit him and his wife in their new home in Runaway Bay, Jamaica in December for a holiday. His home has five large rental suites, a large kitchen and a library/TV room.

Percy and his wife, Mildred, spend the winters in Jamaica and the summers in Winnipeg, Manitoba, also my hometown. He was flying down to Runaway Bay in late July and I asked him if he would be visiting Kingston, the capital city, and he said he was. I then filled out the required paperwork for a Jamaican Alien Amateur Spectrum License and gave him $20 US for the fee. My temporary license was granted on August 14, 2007.

I had around 4 months to prepare for my remote ham radio experience, so the first order of business was to select an antenna to bring down with me. I needed something small with good performance. My family consists of my wonderful wife, Laurie and our three beautiful boys: Alex (13), Brendan (11) and Connor (9). So as you can see, other luggage details would have first priority. I have known my wife for 20 years, so she is fully aware of my radio passion.

After a bit of research, the SteppIR 2-element beam fit the bill with perfection. Small travel package, lickety split set up time, peak performance and continuous band coverage from 6 meters through 20 meters.

I faxed in an order and then received the bad news of a 3 month delivery date. I then spoke with the owner's wife, Marla, who understood my DXpedition plans.

On August 7, 2007 the order was in the system and within a month I received the antenna. I had time to build the antenna and do some quick checks. But this was on my back yard deck. I experienced high SWR on a few bands and believed that when I installed the antenna at a higher elevation the SWR would come down.

The next step was to select the rig I was going to bring with me. I have an ICOM IC-7800, but that weighs too much for a carry-on. I also have an IC-718 and an IC-706MKIIG. The IC-706MKIIG is a great performer; the IC-718 is a bit weak in the receive section. So I decided to go with the IC-706MKIIG.

I then purchased an ICOM IC-7000 for a back-up rig. This radio is considered a mini-version of the IC-7800 and I think it is a top performer myself.

The IC-706MKIIG, the IC-7000 as well as two power supplies were packed into two bags, which were carried onto the plane.

My toolkit could not have been simpler. I packed it in two small plastic containers. The basics were locking pliers, one wrench, one socket wrench and a screwdriver.

The antenna, mast and cables fit into a double-ski bag, but the two element motors were a tight fit, and since this had to be loaded and unloaded from the plane, I was worried about damage. So I brought a large suit case just for them.

That was it; I had two carry-on bags for the radio gear and two check-in bags for the antenna system.

Wheel's Up!

We left Winnipeg on December 10, 2007 at 6:00 AM for our holiday. It was minus 30 degrees Celsius outside, so we picked the right time to leave.

I managed to bring my radio carry-ons through security and customs at the Winnipeg airport with no issues. I had to do the same at our only "en-route" stop-off point at the Toronto airport with the same results.

After a full day of travel we arrived at Sangster International airport, Montego Bay at 3:45 PM local time. After waiting for about an hour in the hot, sweaty crowded customs line, we were ready for our vacation. I had no troubles bringing my ham gear through the Jamaican customs and security checks after we arrived.

Percy and Mildred picked us up at the airport and when we arrived at their home, a nice dinner was waiting for us. We then settled in and went to sleep.

The following day, Percy fastened the 2 inch aluminum mast I brought to a concrete column on the deck and within an hour, I had set up the SteppIR. I pointed the antenna as north as I could. Percy's place is 1 kilometer south of the ocean, so I saw the ocean and aimed the antenna by "eye."

My operating position was in the huge library/games room on the floor below. I set up the radios and the SteppIR control box and started to tune the bands. I had signals present on most of the bands and a real cool ocean view from my operating position.

But, this was a family vacation not just my DXpedition. In the morning we would hang out at the house, and after lunch go out to the tourist sites or the private beach. I only had a few hours in the morning to play ham radio. I had no real expectations of my activity. I would be happy if I could make a few contacts with my first "portable" station operating exclusively SSB.

On our second day in Runaway Bay, I promised to take my family to Dunn's River Falls and climb the falls. I had climbed the falls back in December, 1998. Then it had taken about 15 or 20 minutes -- in the rain. This time was different. I had three kids to bring with me and I had to make sure they were safe. Laurie didn't climb because in '98, she slipped on a rock and fractured her foot. We managed the climb without injury and Laurie took tons of pictures of us from the sidelines.

Afterward, I made my first contact with Tom, WD8JFU, on 18.156 MHz at 4:30 PM local time. I made one other contact on our second day in Jamaica and 16 contacts on the next day. All were made on the 17 meter band.

Remember the high SWR problem back in Winnipeg? Well, I had it in Jamaica, even though the antenna was about 13 meters above the ground. I tried to make contacts on other bands but with no luck. The 17 meter band had the lowest SWR, so that was the band of choice.

On December 13, my first contact was with Brian, GD4PTV, located on the Isle of Man, on 18.130 MHz at 9:52 AM. He said he was using a SteppIR 3-element beam. I explained my problem to him and within seconds he solved it.

After that contact, I immediately calibrated the antenna on each band and found I had 100% power output on my IC-706MK2G on all bands. Maybe I could make contacts on the 10, 12, 15 and 20 meter bands. That would be my challenge.

Brian seemed to turn my luck around that morning. The SteppIR 2-element beam didn't let me down, giving me over 100 contacts that day. I was now set, just hoping that I wouldn't have any equipment failures to ruin a great vacation.

Since I was not expecting this much activity, I didn't bring my laptop for logging. I just grabbed a pad of paper and a pen by the phone in the room. I have to admit, this is the ugliest logbook I have ever used.

So after 2 days of operating I had over 100 contacts. I was very satisfied. My first 20 meter contact came at 4:30 PM with RW3LG / maritime mobile in Venezuela and my second was with my friend Gary, VE4YH, in Winnipeg.

The next day, December 14, we went cave exploring at the Green Grottos, which is close to Runaway Bay. The caves are home to thousands of bats, and while my wife is terrified of birds, the bats didn't bother her. They also filmed a James Bond movie in the same caves, near the bottom in a real cool underground lake.

That morning I did have a chance to get on the air. I had my best luck on 17 meters, so I mainly hung out on that band. I was working England, El Salvador, Canada, most every state, Slovenia, Germany, Japan, Hawaii, Sicily and the Canary Islands to name a few. I was having a blast!

Then I looked up Jamaica Ham Radio on the internet on Percy's laptop and found out that there is hardly any activity on the 17 meter band from the island. That's why I was having pileups when I called CQ. I was thrilled with the band conditions amidst a low sunspot cycle.

I ended that day of operating with an additional 100 contacts in the log.

Saturday, December 15, looked like I would have an entire day of operating. My wife wanted to spend the day at the beach, and she said I could spend the day at the house. It was a weekend, and many hams love to chase DX on the weekends. So at 9:30 AM I fired the rig up on 18.148 MHz.

I managed 340 contacts that day, with my last contact at 4:26 PM on 15 meters with Laura, YW6YL. I was really tired at the end of that day. That was a lot of operating, especially in the heat and humidity. I now needed contacts on 10 meters and 12 meters to make Ham Jam 2007 complete.

On December 16, Laurie wanted another day at the beach and this time I was included. I managed to get to the rig a bit earlier this time and I started at 8:43 AM on my usual band of 17 meters.

I had worked 311 stations in about 2 hours of morning operating time. That was a rate of 150 contacts per hour. In the beginning, I would have ragchew a few minutes with the first few contacts of the day, but when they found out where I was, the pileups started. I enjoyed my lengthy contacts but I also needed to give out VE4MM/6Y5 to everyone I heard.

The private beach provided a nice serene peaceful time for me after having a bit of a headache after the short intense morning ham session. Landowners in Runaway Bay are the only people allowed to use the beach.

Just floating in the sea on top of the waves and under the sun makes one forget all the troubles in their daily lives -- even ham radio lives for that matter. Just thinking of the cold weather and snow back home gave me a warm feeling all over. While we were away, the East Coast of North America was hit with a bad blizzard, which left many towns without power and local airports closed.

I only had two more days of operating when December 17 rolled around, and I was still snuffed out of my 10 and 12 meter band contacts. I started the day at 9:30 AM and the pileups started very quickly. While on the Internet in the evening, I saw that hams were putting my call sign on various DX clusters.

I broke for lunch at 11 AM and when I returned to the radio at 12:20 PM I tuned to 10 meters and lo and behold I picked up a beacon. Ha, the band was open. I called CQ for a few minutes on 28.400 MHz and worked Jim, KB3PSM, in Pennsylvania. He has an 8-element beam, so it's no wonder he was 59 plus.

I managed to work 15 stations on 10 meters until 12:40 PM. I figured if 10 meters was open, then by common sense, 12 meters would be open too.

I then tuned to 24.950 MHz and called CQ. Within a few minutes, KD8DGG in Ohio came back to my call with a 55 report. I only managed one other contact on 12 meters, with Larry, K1IED, in Connecticut, and he gave me a whopping 59 plus 40 dB. Boy was I happy. I did it; I worked stations on all the HF bands I wanted to.

I only managed a total of 140 contacts that day because of an early dinner date.

December 18 would be my last day active in Jamaica as we were leaving the next day. I needed time to pack up all my ham stuff for the trip back.

The rig was energized at 9 AM sharp as we had a date with the beach, this being our last full day on the island. I had to work as many stations as I could so I would not disappoint the hams on the lookout for me.

I parked myself on 18.148 MHz and started calling CQ. I worked 124 stations in an hour and a half of morning operating time. We went the beach and I savored the last few hours of paradise.

We arrived back at the house at 2:25 PM and I stayed at the radio until 4:44 PM when I began the antenna tear down. I managed to work 69 stations in the afternoon with a daily total of 193. The last station I worked was Jim, AC5BJ, in Arkansas.

The ICOM IC-706MKIIG worked flawlessly, and I had many a perfect audio report. The hams were surprised that my microphone was an ICOM SM-8.

Since it gets dark around 6 PM, I had just over an hour to tear down and pack up the antenna. I went to the roof, packed up the cables and then I remembered that I forgot to "reel-in" the elements. Luckily for me, there is a 120 V ac outlet on the roof, so I just brought up the SteppIR control box and within minutes that job was done.

I have many great family memories from the trip including 250 photographs courtesy of my wife Laurie. But I also have an additional 1307 memories, of all the contacts I had with hams all over the world. Most thanked me for the new country, but I thank all of them for the fun I had with my radio. Without those hams, my trip could have been a bust.

We arrived back in Winnipeg late that evening and I had 20 QSL cards waiting for me in my mailbox.

My friend Joe, VE5JL, has designed a great QSL card to commemorate my trip and everyone who worked me will receive a card.

Thanks to all, especially to my wife, Laurie, and to Percy and Mildred Beach who were the best hosts a person could ask for.

Michael J. Mark is a licensed Professional Engineer with a BS in Electrical Engineering (University of Manitoba). He owns M2 Engineering in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A life member of the ARRL, he has been licensed since 1983. He is also an author having written Working Class Engineer -- From Misfit to Millionaire, M2 Engineering; 1st edition, 2007.

All photos courtesy of Michael Mark, VE4MM.

Michael J. Mark, BSc EE, VE4MM