The Pitcairn DXpedition team has returned from their epic journey all in one piece. Core team member, and leader of the expedition, Glenn Johnson, W0GJ, said it perfectly when asked about the experience. He said, not too many people go there more than once.
He was not only speaking to the arduous travel and logistics to get there and back, but to the logistics of even existing there. Long hours, cyclones (known as hurricanes in this hemisphere) and very rough terrain. The island is only two miles wide and a thousand feet up. It’s hard to find a spot that’s not steep. And their equipment? Well they won’t see that again for eight to nine months because of the trip it takes to get home. Fortunately, no one accidentaly packed their house keys into one of the Pelican Cases™.
In spite of all the adversity, Glenn wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. The connections, friends and experiences made over such a short period of time will last a lifetime.
Read the post Pitcairn interview below with Glenn Johnson, W0GJ and get a taste of what it was like.
Q: How did you get involved in ham radio?
A: I started listening to my grandfather’s Philco™ radio back in the day, and listening to the hams and that’s really what got me interested. I ended up getting my license when I was 15. Years later, I discovered my grandfather’s old radio on my cousin’s farm, tucked away in a barn. I have since restored it completely. It’s amazing to have the same radio in my possession that got me into it in the first place 60 years ago.
Q: Pitcairn isn’t easy to get to. Were there any surprises on the journey out there or on the way back?
A: Comparatively, no, it went smoothly. For example, Flex and DX engineering sponsored our failed Bouvet trip. This island is halfway between the tip of South America and the tip of South Africa. It’s one of the most remote islands in the world and the weather is notoriously horrible. The ship we took was damaged by a cyclone. We lost an engine, and had to go all the way to South Africa because one engine couldn’t make it back to Chile. Two groups have tried and two have failed for the same reason. So after that trip, our core group decided to go somewhere that is fun and take some guys who’ve never gone on an expedition like this. And Pitcairn it was.
There was an incident with one of our operators. As he was boarding the ship to Pitcairn, he tripped and fell, hitting the deck of the ship hard. He ended up cracking a few rips and broke his shoulder. We didn’t know this at the time because there wasn’t an xray within a thousand miles. Once we got to Pitcairn he was put on a stretcher and taken to the island. Then he had to get on a 4-wheeler to get up to the site. It’s not an easy jaunt. Unfortunately, he continued to get worse and his pain was getting unbearable, so he had to leave with the next supply ship and get medical treatment in Tahiti. There he found out the extent of his injuries. Suddenly we were down to 12 operators from 14. The other loss was when our leader had to bow out last minute with a serious health condition. That’s why I was asked to lead this expedition.
Q: What ended up being the most difficult parts of the experience and did you anticipate those?
A: Travel, travel, travel. Logistics are definitely the biggest challenge. The planning is key. For example, we have to pack up the gear and ship it off months in advance and we won’t see it again for months later. It’ll end up being gone for around 15-16 months in total. Then once you have a solid plan in place, you must have contingency plan after contingency plan after contingency plan until you arrive home. But that’s part of what makes it so fun.
The mud. The 39 residents of Pitcairn say they have the world’s friendliest mud. And they don’t mean it in a good way. We were prepared for it, but that doesn’t make it any less present. It’s everywhere when it rains. Speaking of rain, a cyclone sat over us for four days and damaged some antennas that we couldn’t repair for days. You can imagine how friendly the mud was after that.
But I would say the biggest thing we didn’t anticipate was how good the food would be. Andy Christian, the direct descendant of Fletcher Christian who led the Mutiny on the Bounty over 225 years ago, is a terrific chef. He lives there still and he can really cook. The food was so good, we all gained weight. Which in theory, probably made the mud even more treacherous.
Q: What are the most rewarding parts of the journey?
A: Team selection is so very important. We want compatibility, dependability and complementary skill sets. We have each other’s back. Our friendships with old friends are strengthened and we develop lasting friendships with the new guys.
Also, the social aspects and cultural aspects of meeting new people and seeing new places. I mean these people become lifetime friends. And particularly with some of these places, it’s amazing, because the history comes alive when you actually go to these places. We’ve all heard of the Mutiny of the Bounty, but to see it and see where it happened and meet the descendants, it’s just amazing.
For example, we once took a DXpedition to Bhutan and made lifetime friends. After that trip, we even had foreign exchange students come and live with us from Bhutan.
We all also love the contacts, of course. And you can tell with a trip like this that both ends of the pileup love it. We can hear it in their voices, they’re really excited to talk to us. You can hear the morse key vibrating a little more than usual. You can hear the passion on the other side of the radio. People love it.
Q: What are some memorable moments or contacts that come to mind?
A: I was working a pileup, in the zone, and suddenly my call sign shows up. It was my station in Iowa. I have a Flex radio there and have remote capabilities. Some of my friends were using my station and then used my station call sign to contact me. It was pretty neat. It really got my attention.
I always enjoy low frequency bands. Larger antennas, weaker signals and always more of a challenge. On this trip it was great because we didn’t have the same issues with interference at Pitcairn as we would in a more congested area. It was wide open and that made it a lot of fun. Definitely a rare opportunity.
Q: What are all the firsts that took place at Pitcairn?
A: We used 60 meters for the first time. It’s a relatively new band and we used FT8 because most of these countries have low power. We ended up with 900 contacts with more Europeans than North Americans!
Four thousand of our contacts were on 160 meters. That’s 5% of our total contacts, which is way higher than any DXpedition to Pitcairn. It’s because we had a new well-designed antenna for 160 that allowed us to do it. Pair that with FlexRadio’s diversity reception and together the equipment made it happen.
We also made 36 contacts with moon bounce, that was a first and very exciting.
Q: What are the DXpedition numbers?
A: We made 82,232 contacts total. It was around 9,000 a day. On the cyclone days. It was about half that number for those four days. We worked 165 countries total. On six bands, 80 40 30 20 17 and 15, we worked over 100 countries. 21% of our contacts were from Europe which is astounding being at the bottom of the sunspot and being at their antipode! About 30% of our contacts were via FT8, which is a DXpedition record.
Q: Tell me about your involvement with the team?
A: I ended up being asked to lead the team Just a few days before our scheduled departure. Our leader came down with a serious medical condition at the last minute. Everything was pretty much taken care of logistically, thank goodness. But the plan certainly didn’t change. We were going to have fun and take some new guys on the trip that have never been on a journey like this. And that’s exactly what we did.
Q: What firsts are you looking forward to attempting on the next journey?
A: Nothing planned yet. But there are always several other groups planning trips.
Q: Is there a message you want to deliver to our readers about the event?
A: Ham radio is fun. When you’re there, working through the pile ups, it’s more fun than anyone should ever be allowed to have. It’s fun from both sides. Pitcairn is an amazing place, I want to return with my wife and really focus and enjoy the island. There’s good food, we know that, and it’s a beautiful island. That’s definitely on my bucket list to do. I don’t say that about most places we go. Pitcairn is a special place.
Q: What has it meant for this expedition to have FlexRadio as a sponsor?
A: It takes a big commitment from a company which we really appreciate! It’s a long term commitment because it can take a couple years for the equipment to come back. FlexRadio packed every station in a Pelican Case so it was safe, complete and ready to go on arrival. Their equipment is dependable and resilient. And we had tons of help on standby, not only from Flex, but from the community. We never needed it, but that’s an even bigger testament to the equipment.
Q: What are the advantages to using FlexRadio in general and for a journey like this?
A: The ergonomics of the Maestro. It looks simple because it is, but it’s incredibly powerful. The stuff is so easy to set up and use. You can concentrate on the task at hand with the pile ups, instead of working on the radio itself. The brick-wall filters and immunity to close-in transmitters are found in no other radio.
For an expedition like this, you are limited on what you can take and you have everything you need with a FlexRadio. It integrates easily into logging programs and with virtual cables the digital modes work perfect. There are fewer cables and peripheral equipment to ship and setup. Which also means less things to break. FlexRadios are seamless and powerful and allow your attention to be solely on the pileups.
Q: What would you let people know about FlexRadio if you could?
A: A lot of people don’t want to try something new. Whether they’re purists or stuck on a particular brand like I was. They don’t want to change or even hear about changes. But if they would, they would never look back.
For me, it comes down to the simplicity of FlexRadios, the ergonomics and the performance. Nobody can compare.