April 20, 2018

St. Brandon - How beautiful can a check mark be?

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St. Brandon is an archipelago located about 430 km northeast of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. St. Brandon (also known as the Cargados Carajos Shoals) actually is a coral reef consisiting of about 20 to 50 (depending on who you ask and on seasonal storms and related sand movement) sandbanks, shoals and islets. It's measuring 50 km from north to south and about 5 km in width. There are 5 island groups and 22 islands and shoals are named. The archipelago is low lying and prone to substantial submersion during severe weather. The archipelago has a small transient population, mainly fishermen, of about 63 (a census of 2001, according to Wikipedia). The archipelago is quite elusive, and even on the internet, the information found isn't in abundance. In my The Times Atlas of the World compact edition, the archipelago isn't shown.

St. Brandon (3B7) forms a separate DXCC entity. It shares the same entity with Agalega Island (3B6) and together are known as the DXCC entity Agalega & St. Brandon Island.

Between April 5th and April 17th, 2018 a group of 8 French hams went on DXpedition to the South Island of St. Brandon. The callsign of the DXpedition was 3B7A.
Before the 3B7A operation, St. Brandon was #27 on the DXCC most wanted list of Club Log and the attention for the DXpedition and the pile ups were huge. The last DXpeditions to St. Brandon were in 2007 and 1998.

The QTH of the 3B7A DXpedition on St. Brandon. Photo courtesy of the 3B7A website. Check the site for more stunning photographs!

During the DXpedition I had little time to spend on the amateur radio hobby, and soon the end date of the DXpedition came in sight. I had managed to hear them on 40m CW one night with very good signals, but the pile up was huge (probably extending over a range of more than 10 kHz), so I decided to call it a day, as I was also supposed to make an early start the next morning at my QRL. Then on the 14th I heard them on 17m CW with fair signals, but unfortunately I again didn't manage to get through the pile up.

I thought my chances of working them on 17m CW would be fairly high, but although I do get my HyEndFed 40/20/10 tuned for this band, ofcourse it isn't optimal, the antenna being designed for 40, 20, and 10 only. So in the morning of April 15th I quickly made a dipole wire antenna and cut it for resonance at the CW portion of the 17m band. I lowered the HyEndFed and raised the dipole, and I anxiously awaited for 3B7A to get on the air again on 17m CW. But instead they were active on 17m in SSB only. But lo and behold, with the dipole I could also here them in SSB (I checked, I couldn't with the HyEndFed)! I tried to get through the pile up, but to no avail.

I wanted to work St. Brandon so much, and I was so disappointed I didn't manage to put them in the log. I had read on their website that the team would leave by boat for Mauritius in the morning of April 16th, so I knew no other chances would be there anymore. It surprised me, because the DXpedition was announced to last until April the 17th.

But then on April 17th, I had just arrived home from work, I checked the DX cluster and saw that 3B7A was still active on 17m SSB! It turned out that not the whole team had left St. Brandon; two of them, F4FET and F4HAU, had stayed behind and would follow later. They would leave the island by boat on Wednesday morning, April 18th, and until that time would remain sporadically active from the island.

Ok, this definitely was my last chance! But it has been a while since I worked real DX in SSB (most of the DX I work is in CW these days). The solar minimum had sort of slowly made me believe that in times like these it's impossible to work (or even hear) real DX in SSB with just a wire antenna. I quickly connected the 17m dipole though and heard the weak SSB signals of 3B7A. I turned on the pre-amplifier of my rig to it's highest stage. The noise level went up accordingly but with some tweaking of my FT-991's noise reduction, a workable signal came out of the speaker.

3B7A was listening 5 up, which was a sign that apparently the pile up wasn't as big as during previous times, during which the DXpedition was listening 5 to 10 up. I could also tell by the way the operator was calling that the pile up was not big. So I started "shouting out" my callsign, and at one point I heard the operator coming back with a nice French accent "Mike Delta Juliett". Yesss! Please don't loose me now! It took some calls, but then finally the operator had my callsign complete. I did it! Thank you 17m dipole!

Less than a half hour later the 3B7A DXpedition made their last QSO and went QRT! I'd made the contact in the nick of time! The last part of the log wouldn't be uploaded to Club Log until F4FET and F4HAU would be safely back in Mauritius, so my patience was again put to the test, but today I checked and seeing the result I thought to myself: "how beautiful can a check mark be?"

Results for PA7MDJ in the 3B7A log in Club Log. The notice about the last two days missing in the log had not been removed yet.

St. Brandon is DXCC entity 220 for me.

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