E51AND – The Palmerston Atoll Story


    Palmerston Atoll was active from 05:05Z on August 21st to 07:25Z on September 19th 2012

    QSL via AB7FS

    The activation of Palmerston Atoll was an impromptu event following our being “marooned” there for several weeks. We set off from Rarotonga in the South Cook Islands for a 5 day round trip to Palmerston in a small yacht — Kathy (ZK1SCH) and I (E51AND) were charter passengers on our first ever voyage — along with the skipper, Andre. Palmerston is in the middle of nowhere! About 500 miles SE of American Samoa and 300 miles NW of Rarotonga at 18.02 South and 163.30 West it lies in a region known to sailors as the Pacific Convergence Zone.

    The trip started well — calm seas and fair winds carried us to Palmerston in just under 48 hours.

    Kathy at the helm — at this point we were 150 miles out of Rarotonga on the open Pacific — an awesome experience! Happily neither of us were seasick nor did we experience the panic many people do as they completely lose sight of land. We each took 3 hour watches at the helm — that allowed 6 hours of sleep for each of us at night 🙂

    Although on leaving Rarotonga we were able to see he mountains for some 60 miles, Palmerston Island was something else! It is so low that we could not clearly see it until 10 miles out — here is what it looks like from less than a mile. A “motu” or coral sand islet about 500 metres across and 3 metres high. Covered in Pandanus, Coconut Palms and, surprise, huge Mahogany trees.

    Palmerston Atoll -- 500 metres wide and 3 metres high!

    There are no passages through the reef deep enough to permit the passage of a yacht so visiting yachts tie up at moorings outside the reef and the locals come out in small boats to carry you ashore.

    We had another treat when we got there — Whales! They were playing around the yacht – within a 100 metres or less – and breaching over and over again. SPECTACULAR!!

    Palmerston Island is amazingly beautiful — it is truly a tropical paradise — intense white coral sand beaches and the lagoon so many shades of intense blue you’d swear it wasn’t real.

    We stayed overnight with a local family Edward and Shirley Marsters — along with the extended family of “Mama” Tuaine Marsters. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for all they did for us!.

    Only 66 people live on Palmerston — 36 of them children. All are descendents of William Marsters, an English barrelmaker who settled the previously deserted island with his three Polynesian wives in the mid 1800s. Today his great, great, great great grandchildren populate the island and are scattered across Polynesia, New Zealand and Australia.

    After spending the night on the island we set off for Rarotonga, however, a storm blew up in the night and the vessel suffered serious damage and we were forced to put ashore again at Palmerston – lucky to be alive!

    This time we were stranded – forced to wait until another ship could take us back to Rarotonga — and ships visit once every 3 – 4 months and on no schedule!!

    After a few days on Island a Dutch yacht on a round-the-world trip stopped in — on the way to American Samoa — it was decided Kathy would take passage on the one available berth — and I would stay and await the next ship to Rarotonga.

    Life on Palmerston is VERY different from life in the US, or Europe.  There is electricity from 6am to noon, and 6pm to midnight — IF the generator is working. Water for drinking and bathing is collected rainwater stored in large concrete and plastic tanks, and anything that is not harvested from the land, lagoon or ocean comes in by ship — if and when one comes. The following are pictures from the island — and at the end, a couple of pictures of the “ham shack” and power and antenna systems. MINIMAL to say the least — this was not a DXpedition — I had the radio along in case I could operate from the yacht as E51AND/MM — so it came with me when we went ashore.

    A view Across the Lagoon

    The island was full of surprises — well kept streets of coral sand — raked to keep them free of debis — and YES — that is a street light — while the power is on, the streets are lit. Pretty much everyone walks, there are NO cars, a half dozen scooters and 2 quad bikes on island — and they only run IF there is petrol!

    “Little” John Marsters walks toward home — pretty much everyone is barefoot (except for Church on Sundays)

    William Marsters grave. He sired 23 children and had 134 grandchildren. Google him for more info 🙂

    To “give back” to the community for heir hospitality, I volunteered at the school. Palmerston “Lucky” school is pretty amazing – they provide an individualized program for kids are 5 to 18 — the two teachers there work SO hard — it was a pleasure and a privilege to work with them. Couple of pics of he school below.

    The classroom BEFORE school – gets pretty busy after 8am with 28 kids age 5 – 17 years

    This is the Ham Shack! — we first set up the radio in the open area that doubled as our bedroom but line loss gave only 8.5 volts and less than 50 watts out with terrible audio. So the radio moved to the disused kitchen area and was powered by a bank of solar charged batteries — that also powered the 12v water pump.

    There are no stores of any kind on Palmerston — I arrived with minimal equipment – the radio, a key, 25ft of coax and a Snowdonia Radio Products X80 17ft vertical with a 9:1 UNUN — with no way to augment the station or build more efficient antennas — it was “make do with what you have!” And I scrounged a school exercise book for a log.

    Here is the battery system – the solar panel is about 18″ x 24″ and on the roof. As you can see the antenna is simply clamped to an iron rod pushed into the sand. There were no ground radials — where would I get the wire?

    Operating was a challenge!! I am not a DXer and not at all skilled at managing pile ups. And when the band was open — there WERE pile-ups!!! Imagine you are standing in the centre of a football stadium, and everyone in the crowd is shouting their name at you and it is your job to select just one – and have a brief conversation with him. That’s how it felt to me at the DX end of the pile up. Eveyday I wished that the stations trying to contact me would READ and ABIDE by the DX Code of Conduct. I would have worked 3 to 5 times as many stations if they had!

    CW was even more of a challenge with a hand key, paper logging – and it has been 40 years since I operated CW. I copied at about 8wpm and worked those who slowed down – if you didn’t QRS – I couldn’t copy you – sorry!

    So that’s it – the VERY abbreviated version of the story!

    I’d love to operate from Palmerston with a little power and especially with a directional gain antenna  and if you are thinking of a DXpedition there — DO contact me –  there are electrical power and “island politics” that are best understood BEFORE you start contacting the folks on island!

    MANY THANKS to the stations who facilitated contacts -there were folks out there who helped moderate the European “chaos”, there were patient and courteous hams who quietly stood by until I called their number, and there were so many supportive and encouraging comments that helped me through the frustrations of he pile-ups, and the overwhelming sense of isolation.

    I was fortunate in that a small cargo yacht came up from Rarotonga after I had been there only 5 weeks – with cyclone season coming on I might have been there until March -5 or 6 months – or longer. HOWEVER, if your are going to be “marooned” — it is nice to be marooned in Paradise!