Roger/G3SXW and I had a great weekend in Iceland. The effects of the Aurora Borealis (Polar Aurorae) were amazing. The moment the K index went up we saw an impact on the bands. Actually seeing the Northern Lights was something else too!
The article below is Roger/G3SXW’s submission about this trip to the CDXC Digest.
A Weekend in Iceland
Roger Western, G3SXW
No, not shopping for frozen fish fingers: this was a quick trip to Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland to play radios. John, G4IRN and Roger, G3SXW made some 2,000 CW QSOs during a weekend visit in late September.
Why Iceland? Because it is there, of course! Anyone who has been there says that it is a fascinating and beautiful place. Actually, the fact that we were able to buy cheap tickets and that it’s a CEPT country also had something to do with it! Some months earlier we had found that British Airways would take us there and back for a little over £100, which seemed a good deal.
Where to Stay?
With travel booked and no need to do anything about transmitting licences the only remaining question was where to stay. This is a tourist location with many hotels to choose from. Firstly, should we stay in the capital Reykjavik or Keflavik, the airport town some 40 minutes drive away? Checking Google Earth we found that Keflavik was very flat and beside the sea but Reykjavik (also beside the sea) had high mountains nearby, to the East. We decided on Reykjavik with a wider selection of hotels, and restaurants etc nearby. As it turned out those mountains were distant enough, the blockage being only about five degrees elevation so we needn’t have worried.
Searching on the internet, we found a place called ‘Room with a View’. This was a self-catering apartment block bang slap in the middle of town which had been used by visiting radio amateurs before, with easy access to the roof, to install antennas. This proved very suitable, although like everything else in Iceland it was rather expensive, a little over £200 per night. The sea is close, on three sides, as can be seen on Google Earth at 64° 08’ 44.42” North, 21° 55’ 50.96” West.
Having all the logistics in place next was the question of stations and antennas. We both use the Elecraft K2/100 as an ideal DXpedition transceiver, delivering 100 watts with a superb receiver and set-up for CW, and all for less than three kilos weight. We would both log with Win-Test and use Win-Key for sending computerised CW. We swapped draft packing-lists, listing all connecting cables, tools and so forth, just to be sure that nothing crucial was forgotten.
There were then still two critical issues: antennas and airline restrictions on luggage. We knew that the antennas would need to be light-weight, but firstly which bands would we each operate? The formula on trips with Nigel/G3TXF seems to work very well: he operates WARC bands and I operate the ‘traditional’ bands. Each having our own bands has advantages: less confusion amongst callers, more chance for the Little Pistol to get through the reducing pile-up, and especially the reduced risk of inter-station interference, because we each use antennas which are NOT resonant on the other bands. So, we decided to follow this model: TF/G4IRN on 30, 17 and 12 mtrs, while TF/G3SXW would be on 40, 20 and 15 mtrs. These were the bands most likely to be open at this high latitude and at this stage of the sunspot cycle. Propagation predictions with W6ELProp confirmed that there would be almost no signals above 17 mtrs.
We then set about preparing antennas specifically for these bands. John took a trap-dipole to cover the three WARC bands. SXW built a 40/20m trapped dipole and added wires for 15 mtrs. Add some string and hope that we can find somewhere to hang them up. John decided to take a 35’ fishing-pole and hang his dipole vertically. I would hang my dipoles from his second fishing-pole, as an inverted Vee.
The final piece of the jigsaw was airline luggage restrictions. They all have different rules these days, and keep changing them so you really do need to check before flying. British Airways now allow one free checked bag of maximum 23 kgs plus one carry-on of any weight, but with specified maximum dimensions. Any second checked bag costs £60 each way to Europe. We decided that a ski-bag would contain the antennas, two fishing-poles, coax, string, tools etc. One suit-case would contain whatever parts of the station could not fit into our carry-on bags, plus personal items for each of us. In the end we had two checked-pieces: ski-bag 17kgs and suit-case 23kgs. Plus a carry-on bag each made four pieces of luggage. We packed the critical (and costly) items in carry-on: transceiver, laptop, keyer.
The journey was uneventful, albeit requiring a horribly early start, leaving the house at 4.30 am. But this did have the advantage that we were at our hotel, after a taxi ride from Keflavik airport, at 11 a.m. We were let into the rented apartment early (it had not been occupied the night before) and could immediately set about investigating antenna possibilities. The apartment was perfect: a large lounge with kitchenette, two bedrooms, bathroom, all nicely appointed and furnished with everything you might need.
There were two possibilities for installing the antennas: the flat roof would require climbing ladders and it had no safety wall. Or there was a balcony, some 70 feet long on the top floor (one floor up from our apartment) which looked very suitable, with a stout restraining wall which would be perfect for attaching the fishing-poles. Problem: to get onto that balcony required passing through one of two large apartments. Were they occupied? They were not, so this was OK. Would they remain unoccupied for the whole weekend in case we needed to fix anything and for dismantling? Not known, but there were no reservations. As it turned out one of them remained unoccupied, so this was only a worry, not a problem.
The location was right in the middle of the town, on the main shopping street. Would this mean high man-made noise? It did not – the location was electrically very quiet. Would we be hemmed in by other buildings? There is only so much investigation that can be done on the internet before travelling, you then make a decision and hope that it will work out alright on the day. This it did: our six-storey building was one of the taller ones in that locale.
Having gained access to the balcony we were impressed. We could see the sea almost all the way around, but at some 400 yards distance and realised that our antennas could be mounted up in the clear. We would tie the two fishing-poles to the balcony-wall with tie-wraps, at each end of the balcony. At my end there were three wooden poles sticking up which at first I thought would interfere with installing the fishing-pole, until we noticed that these were in fact flag-poles with halyards. Bliss! Heaven! Ready-made! They were about 25 feet tall, with working halyard and pulley. Talk about falling off a log!
So, we set to work. John raised his fishing-pole (taping each telescopic joint to stop it slipping down) with the WARC trapped dipole tied to the very top. This was unguyed and did blow about in the wind but came to no harm. I simply uncoiled the wires of my dipole, connected the coax and pulled it to the top of the flag-pole with the halyard. We were finished up there within half an hour.
Then the acid test: would the antennas resonate? We had installed these antennas at home before travelling of course, an essential step, and tweaked them to resonate on the CW end of the bands. John’s WARC antenna gave near perfect SWR straight away, max 1.2:1 on all three bands. My dipoles were a little short on all three bands and were around 1.8:1 SWR, meaning a second visit to the balcony to lengthen them a little. In another few minutes all was well.
On Friday 21st September, 2007, we were both ready to QRV just a couple of hours after arriving in Iceland. We decided that before starting operating we would get something to eat and do some shopping: we would self-cater with cheese, baked beans, fruit, cereals and so forth and then go out for one meal each day.
We got back to the shack, fired up Win-Test and started to check the bands. My favourite frequency, 14023, was already covered with a sizeable pile-up which of course was for 3B7C on 14022. Their signal was huge, a good 589 so I called them and Clive/GM3POI, the 3B7C operator at the time, came back the third time I sent my call-sign. Magic – what a great way to start a mini-DXpedition to log 3B7C as the very first contact!
Preferring to use frequencies ending in ‘3’ I then QSYed down the band to 14013 and called CQ. I was instantly called by Europeans and W’s. The first UK station was Ian, G4IIY. Conditions seemed fairly good, the W6’s were loud but rather fluttery, suggesting that there might be some aurora.
John meantime got busy on 30 mtrs, with good sized pile-ups. We understood that TF is not DXCC-rare and therefore the pile-ups might not be large, or would not last very long. Hence we had planned only a 2-3 day operation. As it turned out the pile-ups remained large throughout the weekend, restricted only by propagation (see below).
After dinner I checked the bottom end of 40 mtrs and had déja vu: 3B7C had a pile-up down there and was the loudest signal on the band. They came back to me first time, although the operator had a bit of trouble with my unusual call-sign! We then stayed on the air most of the time until Sunday late evening, when the bands were open.
It is amazing but true: every single trip over the years we learn something new, every time. This time it was about the effects of aurora. When aurora is active the HF bands take on a mushy sound, like listening through cotton-wool. There’s an extra level of atmospheric noise and all signals sound a little ‘dirty’, and suffer significant QSB. When there is no aurora the signals are steady and sound much more pure T9 note.
In UK we live at mid-latitudes, around 50-55 degrees North of the equator. We know when there is a large auroral event, but perhaps do not really notice minor events. The further North you go the closer you get to the auroral zone: Iceland is just on the edge of the auroral oval, at 64° North. The extent of disturbance is indicated by the K index, reported every three hours. This ranges from 1 to 9. A reading of 1 or 2 is fine but 3 is disturbed, 4 is worrying, 5 is damaging. Anything from 6 to 9 means you may as well read a book or watch TV!
During our stay in TF we had these K reports:
21/9 22/9 23/9
00 3 3
03 3 3
06 4 5
09 4 3
12 3 1
15 2 3
18 3 1 2
21 3 1 3
Most of the weekend we were suffering a K of 3 or 4. On the Saturday evening we both commented on how good the bands sounded, whereas around sunrise there were practically no signals to be heard.
In practice there were no signals from midnight until about 0900, good for getting beauty sleep! The best times were late afternoon and the evening hours.
Another new experience was watching how the MUF (Maximum Usable Frequency) and LUF (Lowest) moved. At home we always have a choice of two or three open bands. As the MUF increases after sunrise the lower bands drop out and the HF bands open. On our trips Nigel (WARC bands) and I (traditional bands) would leap-frog each other, going up through the spectrum as the day progresses. When close to the equator this happens very quickly, moving from LF bands before sunrise right up to ten metres in just a couple of hours.
On this occasion we found that mostly there was only one band open at a time, and the MUF increased only slowly. John would have a good run on 30 mtrs for an hour or two whilst I had no signals because 40 had dropped out but propagation had not yet reached 20m. After an hour or so of this John would throw his headphones on the desk in disgust because the signals on 30m had become too weak to copy. Meantime, I was smiling because 20m was opening nicely. There was some overlap, when both 30 and 20m had weak signals, for maybe a half-hour. The next leap-frog up to 17 mtrs provided short openings for John, on both days in the afternoon: a happy coincidence with the MUF increasing and the K index at minimum. His brief openings only worked on 17m with lengthy skip, hearing no signals from West Europe.
One happy experience: we had no inter-station interference, even without plugging in the bandpass filters. Antennas were only a few feet apart, but they had different polarisation (one vertical, one inverted Vee) and were not resonant on the other chap’s bands. Mostly, though, I attribute this lack of interference to the fact that the Elecraft K2 is a very clean transceiver.
The overall operating experience was a little frustrating, with long periods when only one of us could operate. And this, naturally, dented our QSO totals. But we were not complaining. This was not a serious DXpedition to a rare country: it was a fun, relaxed weekend.
The result of these propagation difficulties was a deflated log-book. We normally expect an average of around one thousand QSOs per operator per day. We were two operators QRV for 2.5 days, suggesting a potential of 4-5,000 QSOs. We made less than half of that number.
These were all on CW of course. Propagation never allowed 15 mtrs to open. Any time I was in the shack in daytime but not operating, I left the RX on 21150 to monitor the NCDXF beacons. I never heard a single peep on that frequency. Needless to say John didn’t even listen to 12 mtrs.
From that location the path to North America is good. But long-haul DX was generally poor (except for 3B7C who broke all the rules!).
Mtrs EU NA
40 94% 5%
30 94% 3%
20 75% 22%
17 99% 1%
We ran skeds with VK4OQ which failed. We never heard any VK/ZL signals and did not log ANY QSOs with South America. Indeed only a few JA’s were worked, although this should have been a good path as it avoids the auroral oval.
Yes, it is all that it is cracked up to be: spectacular scenery, volcanic, no trees. Windy and cold, even in late September.
And it is expensive. Not everything, but on average prices were around double those in UK. It felt as if the exchange rate needs a 50% adjustment! A normal Chinese meal cost us nearly £40 each, a snack lunch was £20 for a small plate and one beer.
Alcohol is still tightly controlled and heavily taxed. This seems not to be preventing all-night revellers who create an almighty racket every night, until dawn.
Standard of living is high. The economy is very strong: the 5th highest GDP per capita in the world and the 2nd highest on the UN Human Development Index. Industry is based on fishing, aluminium and finance. There is an abundant supply of hot geothermal water: this is piped some 30kms into the city with the loss of only 1° C, retaining up to 80° C.
The only touristing which we did was a short walk to the Hallgrimskirkja, a massive cathedral. The 250 foot tall tower provides marvellous views of the whole city.
Iceland has a population of only 300,000 of whom nearly half live in the Reykjavik area. Their language is based on Old Norse but everyone we met spoke fluent English. Contrary to popular belief a lot of them are NOT blonde!
We were lucky enough to visit the TF3IRA club-station, a permanent set-up, right beside the sea, on flat land. Their SteppIR 3ele and LF vertical obviously worked very well. We then went for coffee at Perlan, a magnificent view-point, high up above the city.
Here we saw the aurora borealis, another life-time achievement ticked off the list! The lights were ghostly green and appeared like slowly shifting patches of clouds, forming and then dissipating. The locals told us that in an average year they are visible on one half of nights.
We met the Club President Keli/TF3HR, and were kindly transported by Sele/ TF3AO. We also met well-known CW operators Yngvi/TF3YH and Oskar/TF3DC; and Hal/TF3GC, Halli/TF3HP. It is always fascinating and really enjoyable to meet some locals. We are always warmly welcomed, as members of the world-wide club of radio amateurs.
This was a terrific weekend, lots of fun, a great mix of CW pile-ups, seeing new places, meeting new friends. Iceland is indeed an unusual place, well worth adding to your ‘must see’ places.
We will do the usual for QSLing. The cards will be printed within 2-3 weeks. For those wanting a bureau reply we encourage e-mail request, to save half of the delay and cost for the bureaux. Just e-mail both call-signs, date, time, band. QSL via home-call.
In summary, propagation conditions were disappointing but our expectations were not high, so this was OK. In a way (“always look on the bright side of life”) this allowed us to do a little touristing and socialising without feeling too guilty about leaving the pile-ups.