Maritime Mobile Ops
Dave De La Haye M0MBD
Most people know of my personal preference for escaping the QRM created in built up areas and that I like to get out in the ‘battle bus’ and work mobile when possible. The chance to broaden my horizons came recently when my other half suggested trying for a cruise to get away from it all. Now while she probably had images sipping cocktails by the pool and sunning herself on a sandy beach in the Caribbean, I was thinking of me working pile-ups from the luxury of my balcony cabin.. things were not going to work out quite like that!
Barbados and St Lucia
We were booked to travel on the P&O liner the Ventura boarding the ship in Barbados & cruising to St Lucia, Antigua, then crossing the Atlantic and visiting Madeira on the way to Malaga where we were to disembark and catch the plane home.
A great deal of preparation had to take place in order to activate on board the ship. First was a call to P&O, who despite displaying in their t’s&c’s that operation of radio equipment aboard was forbidden, I managed to get them to contact the ship’s chief electrical technical officer, who confirmed that a radio transmitter would not interfere with their systems. I was however required to provide a full equipment list, along with which frequencies I wanted to work. This was just one hurdle, once I had permission to take the gear (obtained only the day before departure), I had to work out how to run my switch mode PSU on the 110v power supply the engineer said was the norm on the ship. To my horror, the PSU was only rated for 240v with no adjustment for 110v. Frantically I called around to find a solution which came in the form of John (M0JGR) who had an auto transformer which would step up 110v to 240v.
The aerial would be a Hustler mobile antenna with resonators for 40m, 20m & 10m, matched by the Icom AT180 to my Icom IC-706 Mk1. As set, and the equipment packed into a small case to be taken on as hand luggage on the flight, there was drama at Gatwick airport, when the powers that be took one look at the Hustler that I was carrying and said that it would not be able to go on the plane except in the hold.. they said to try with the cabin crew at the plane (by which time it might be too much aggravation to turn me back).
white stick (Hustler) operator
Going though security, the hustler prompted the staff to usher me through the disable gates, mistaking the antenna as a white stick! Once on the plane I thought all is good.. 8 hours later the Dreamliner touched down in Barbados, the luggage was whisked away to the ship and were bussed to the dock ready to board.. more hilarity as I was yet again ushered through the disabled gate at the port security and issued my credentials for the ship.
Yay.. On-board the ship and ready to operate? Well actually, no. I set up the transceiver and everything in the cabin and put the mag-mount outside on the balcony floor & discovered that it did not stick. I was alarmed to discover that whole swathes of the superstructure are made of aluminium alloys to reduce weight and maintain a low centre of gravity. I did find that I could stick the magnet on the side of the ship which allowed me to operate horizontally polarised; however that is not the way the hustler is designed to work. I was also amused to see that there was indeed 240v available in the cabin, so the heavy autotransformer that I had struggled around with in the hand luggage was not required! The ATU was having problems matching the antenna against the unfamiliar ground plane and lack of a proper earth (more of that later).
Permission to operate
Before transmitting on the ship, even though I had the go-ahead from P&O, plus the agreement of the Chief Electrical Technical Officer, I still needed the OK from the Master of the Vessel, Captain Charlie Carr. I went to the enquiries desk and it seemed like they were an impenetrable wall between the guests and the crew.. I was asked to put my request in writing and thought that would be the last I heard from anyone until we docked in Malaga! Imagine my surprise when the Captain phoned me in my cabin just before dinner time, informing me that I had his “express permission” (a term I used in my note to him) to operate my radio, but I might like to leave it for a few days until after we were clear of Antigua, as we would be dipping in & out of various sovereign waters in which I was not licensed to operate. This gave me a few days to work out where everything was on the ship & how to get the radio working.
S9 noise everywhere….
Attempting to work on the balcony drew a huge blank. No matter where I put the antenna, it received S9 of noise.. It was like being blasted by my next door neighbours plasma TV, but at point blank range. It might have something to do with the 6 huge diesel engines that are used to power the ships systems and of course the two huge electric motors running the two propeller shafts! It might also have something to do with there being a Neutral earth system on the ship, which effectively meant that I was having a problem using the mains earth to ground the radio & the switch mode PSU. According to the ships technical spec, the Ventura requires 11,000 Kilowatts of power whilst in port, so plenty of electrical interference then! When I spoke to the Chief Engineer during a tour of the ship, he said “Well, what do you expect?” It might also explain why after I had a nice massage and getting massage oil on my hands, I got a mild belt from one of the screws on the microphone, which felt like someone sticking a hot needle into my hand!
After leaving Antigua and drawing a blank from the balcony location, I searched for an alternative spot on the deck of the ship that I might get away from the interference. Well the ships own antennas are on the top of the ship, so it should be antenna friendly on deck, right? The only problem is that I could not go topside & operate during the day due to the hoards of people turning into lobsters on deck in the sun. It meant that I could only operate at night, and where was I going to find 240v?
Well, where the band sets up on deck for the sailing parties! In order to tap into the 240v system I needed an IP44 connector to 13A socket, I managed to track down a techie who allowed me to borrow such a beast as long as I put it somewhere safe for him for the next day, as he was going to bed! At least I was not going to have to use the autotransformer! I discovered the 110v tapping was open circuit!
The 2nd night after leaving Antigua, It was formal night.. No chance of schlepping the radio gear up on deck whilst dressed in a Tuxedo, so it was left to the 3rd night of the Atlantic crossing to have a go in earnest, which put us squarely in the middle of the Atlantic. I picked up the pesky adaptor from the techie & signed for it in blood, then set up on one of the sun decks mounting the antenna on an emergency hose cabinet, with the stinger poking out over the top of the protective windshield, which I was gladly behind, as the wind across the deck was in excess of 40 knots!
QSO with James WA4YBC Ellijay,GA
Things were still too noisy to operate on 40m, and 10m was dead at that time of night, so it was only 20m that was worked. Did I contact anyone? Well yes! During a 5 minute CQ, WA4YBC, James T West the 3rd answered my call. I actually gave him my maidenhead locator co-ordinates courtesy of the Satnav driven app on my smartphone and he was incredulous.. “You are in the middle of the Atlantic”. I told him about the ship and he looked it up on the internet and was surprise they let me operate as he has had friends turned down on the Royal Caribbean line before. I explained to him where I was operating from on deck & he told me he was at home in Ellijay In good ol’ Georgia USA. Interestingly he said I was giving him a 5:9 with my 100w, and yet I was just getting him on a 5:9 with QSB and he was running a 3 element beam and 1Kw. We chatted for over 15 minutes as I began to get quite chilly on deck. The only thing stopping hypothermia setting in was my LEFARS fleece. Even though the temperature was 20 degrees in the daytime, at night and with the cooling effect of the wind it was positively unpleasant on deck.
Due to a mixture of a busy evening itinerary on the ship along with a number of friends, there was no real opportunity to work up on deck again for the rest of the trip, which was a shame.
Back to Blighty via Malaga
Going through the airport in Malaga, I was told by the luggage staff that my antenna would not be able to go on the plane, as it could be used as a weapon to hit someone. They did not get the irony in my voice when I said I could hit someone with my fist anyway! The jobs worth’s were eventually overruled by the guy with the sunglasses and gun, but then they found an adjustable spanner in my hand luggage that I had forgotten to pack in the hold baggage. They told me it was illegal to carry tools on board (in case I started to take the plane apart in a desperate attempt to open the door in mid-air), so I lost that! Once again I was ushered through the disabled gates with my white stick and it was a few hours back to Blighty courtesy of Easy Jet!
Was all the effort worth it? Well yes, in my opinion it was a valuable learning experience.
- I worked out that I need a big cable with crocodile clips on to give me a decent earth.
- I need a more compact or transportable antenna arrangement.
- I need to find a way of transporting a rechargeable battery and a charger in order to be isolated from the ships power supply when operating.
- An easily matchable antenna would negate the need for an ATU would lighten the load.
- Make sure that any PSU or charger will work on 110v as well as 240v.
- Use a lighter radio than the IC706.
- Take an outdoor mains adapter with you.
Would I do it again? Hell yeah, if the missus will let me!