Friday, September 09, 2005

Pamban Island Expedition (AS-173) to Rameswaram Town

By B. L. Arasu Manohar, VU2URJuly 12, 2005
Rameswaram town is a very old and a historic place of pilgrimage from the times of the Epic Ramayana. The present population is about 38,000, and the daily floating population is many times over. It was earlier connected only by a railway bridge called Pamban Bridge. A 2.2 km long pre-stressed concrete road bridge called Indira Gandhi Bridge, across the sea, parallel to the Railway Bridge, has improved the tourist and pilgrim traffic. There are quite a number of tall towers with three blade type of windmill electric power generating units installed in the coastal area.

A very important landmark in the town is the majestic composite (concrete and steel) type television tower of Doordarshan, over 200 meters tall, prominent in the skyline. The town is located at approximately 79 degrees 22 minutes E, 9 degrees 17 minutes N (Grid Locator MJ99qh), on Pamban Island in the south Indian peninsula, in the Palk Strait/Bay. There are many smaller islands, including Kurusadai, Sangala and Pumarchan, close by, but special permission from the Forest Department is required to visit them.

This area of Palk Bay felt the fury of a cyclone between 17 and 24 December 1964 that devastated the town of Dhanushkodi from where regular steamer service was run to the Sri Lankan port of Talaimannar. The cyclone completed its fury after washing away a passenger train between Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi, killing hundreds of the passengers. This Pamban Island Expedition was dedicated to the memory of all those who lost their lives. The QSL card also has this dedication.Why did the Rameswaram IOTA operation wait for such a long time, despite all the basic necessities being readily available? It is difficult to answer. The members of the Ramanathapuram Amateur Wireless Association were contacted earlier at the Hamfest at Chennai in 2002. OM Durai, VU2NDR, was the contact person along with OM Satya, VU2LR, and they did try to see something coming up with Dr Selvam, S79BBC and facilities available with him. As it was not an island, as recognized by the IOTA HQ, the discussions had dropped off. They picked up momentum when OM Vittalji, VU2VIT and OM Rama Raju, VU2RMJ came on the scene and started grouping the amateurs with this interest and set a target date for the Island Expedition. We had regular chats on 7070 kHz in the mornings and arrived at the dates of 23 to 31 August 2004. No invitations were sent to anyone to join the group, nor was any interested person denied entry to the group.

With that broad outlook, a group of 13 operators joined together to make the pioneer team. The applications from everyone in the group for special call sign AT0RI, for the period 23 to 31 August 2004, with a temporary change of location were requested. The Wireless Planning and Coordination wing of the Ministry of Telecommunications was very kind to grant permission. VU2FBI, VU3RRU, VU2GUR, VU2UR, VU2VIT, VU2NDR, VU2JVA, VU3YFD, VU2LR, VU2RMJ, VU2KLG, VU3WAI and VU2KGN formed the officially permitted group for this island expedition.
Some History
A brief historical detailing of the Amateur Radio activities in the coastal islands of India is not out of place. The states of West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat have territorial waters with some islands. IOTA HQ listed all the islands into their respective Indian state groups in their Directory, which formed the reference data for anyone to use to plan a DXpedition.

The earliest Indian coastal island operation was the one organized by OM Bernard, VU2BMS/DL2GAC/H44MS with hams from Bangalore and Mangalore to St Mary Island of the Karnataka State Group. This operation got the number AS-096 for its activity.

In the late '90s, OM Arasu, VU2UR was very enthusiastic about the IOTA program and had applied for the Participation certificate of IOTA-Millennium Award of 2000. SWL Vis, VU-0020 and VU2UR applied for the basic IOTA-100 award. After receiving the award, interest was further ignited. In the month of January every year (between the 10th and 17th), the Calcutta VHF Amateur Radio Society, at the request by the State Authorities, was attending to the traffic problems on Sagar Island, when hundreds of people go there for the Sagar Mela for a holy dip in the confluence of Ganges River with the Bay of Bengal. On one such occasion, OM Horey, VU2HFR and others were contacted by VU2UR and told about the IOTA program and Sagar Island being a listed unnumbered island of the West Bengal State group. The group took it seriously and worked HF, along with VHF, and provided all documentation to IOTA HQ in a very short time, and achieved the number AS-153.

The Mangalore Amateur Radio Society, with OM Sri, VU2SBJ, in the lead, took up a second expedition to the St Mary Island. Then, they tried a bigger adventure in planning and executing their next island expedition to Sacrifice Rocks of the Kerala State Group. This was indeed the toughest of the coastal island expeditions in India so far, and the group did a fantastic job and achieved the number AS-161.

Then followed the saga of another adventurer by name OM Basappa Arabole, VU2NXM. He jumped in to activate some island in the Maharashtra State group and selected Janjira Island. He got the permission of the Ministry and just before departure, came to know from IOTA HQ that this island cannot be accepted as it is an island in an enclosed bay. With that reply also in mind, OM Basappa did go to the island and operate from there but, unfortunately, he made only a few QSOs and returned. By that time, IOTA HQ had revised its listing of islands of the Maharashtra State group and added Butcher and Elephanta Islands. This boosted morale and OM Basappa planned another attempt, this time to Butcher Island with a special call AT0BI from the Ministry. The Mumbai Port Trust Authorities refused landing permission, advising that it is a "restricted" area and Amateur Radio activity can as well be carried out at Elephanta Island. Immediately, a request to the Ministry for a change of location to Elephanta Island with the same special call, AT0BI, be granted, was faxed. It was, again, the most understanding Officers of the Ministry who rescued us by granting permission. Thus, the first phase of Elephanta Island was carried out and the number AS-169 for the Maharashtra State group was obtained. OM Basappa, VU2NXM, with his small dedicated group, did a second phase operation also to Elephanta and had given the island chasers a second chance at a QSO from 23 to 26 July 2004.

Permission is Granted

Coming back to the Pamban Island Expedition, the Tamil Nadu State Authorities granted permission and accommodation in the first floor of the Taluk Office building at Rameswaram for the expedition operation and demonstration of Amateur Radio in times of disasters on 28 August. The collector of Ramanathapuram showed a lot of interest in encouraging all this, and getting the press, radio and television authorities for the demonstration. The foursome, OM Rajan, VU3WIA; OM Prasad, VU3YFD; OM Guru, VU2GUR, and OM Arasu, VU2UR, left Tirupur on 22 August by road and arrived at Rameswaram by 1930 IST the same day. Rameswaram town had a fluctuating voltage between 195 to 235 V, 50 Hz. The weather was humid with humidity hovering from 60% in the daytime to about 90% late at night. The temperature was about 30 degrees C during the day and about 25 degrees at night.
Just after dinner, these four started assembling the basic inverted V antenna and finished the assembly of the antenna and the layout of the equipment by 1830 UTC 22 August. As the permission was effective from 23 August, the team jumped to work the anxious island chasers right after 1830 UTC, and on 7 MHz CW they contacted over 120 DX stations before they hit the sack. After breakfast on 23rd, the assembly of the Cushcraft MA5B, three element, five band antenna (covering 20, 17, 15, 12 and 10 meters) was taken up by the owner, the visually handicapped OM Rajan, VU3WIA. By 0700 UTC, the beam antenna, the G5RV, the Diamond D-130 VHF/UHF antenna and an HB9CV for satellite work, were assembled. From then on, there was, nothing but pileup on every band and mode. Slow-scan TV and PSK31 were also used to give a few island chasers QSOs in these modes. OM Roger, G3KMA was kind enough, amidst his busy working schedule, to come on 14,260 kHz at 1731 UTC 24 August and advise us of the provisional number AS-173 for Pamban Island.


While working SSB on the various bands, it was "chaos" from the European stations. A very strict directional CQ call to NA W/VE and JA were given and Europeans had to be "ignored" to work some of these areas. Even while working Europeans, the island chasers were not listening to our instructions and caused unnecessarily heavy QRM to everyone. Then on, we were forced to work Europe, also in random order/prefixes so that all, especially the weaker ones, get a chance. Even then, there were still a few obstinate callers. There were quite a number of "brickbats and bouquets" expressed on the operating frequencies in a number of exchanges. But the operator of AT0RI continued amidst all these and gave QSOs. There were the usual multiple QSOs from some clever operators and we had to tell them to QSY as we have them on our logs.

This was continued on the day of the demonstration, 28 August 2004, also on the first floor of the Taluk Office Building, and the big gathering of schoolchildren, State government officials and the general public had a question-answer session and a number of display items on the walls were eagerly read and understood. The District Collector, Mr Chella Muthu IAS, presided over the program and Mr Alexander, DIG of Police who was also present spoke to the audience. The IOTA operators and the guest operator YL Sarla also spoke in the Tamil language. The program was covered by the press, radio and TV correspondents in the regional language.
The beam along with the other equipment of OM Rajan, VU3WIA, were dismantled on the 29th, as packing them safely and securely was a major concern and Rajan wanted to do it himself, very meticulously. His assistant and driver Amal, did all the heavy lifting, etc. Thereafter, a few of the operators went in for their religious work to be performed at Rameswaram seaside and taking the holy waters from the 24 different wells on the temple premises. All this took considerable time. An advance returning party with OM Rajan, VU3WIA, in the lead, left Rameswaram. The other operators who were interested in local chats and PSK31 QSOs remained until the last minute of the permission was complete. Then on 1 September they fanned out to their respective QTHs from Rameswaram, bringing the Island expedition to a close.

2500 QSOs/85 Countries

The expedition achieved around 2500 QSOs (putting all the modes together) to all the continents (except Antarctica), covering about 85 countries. The QSL route was given in the Web page, and the QSLs were pouring in, well before we printed the cards. The information about those envelopes that were pilfered and there was no return postage left, the details of QSLs sent, etc, are being shown in the same QRZ Web page to help all the island chasers with the latest information. For this Island Expedition also, YL Vani, VU2LYX, gladly printed the QSL cards and served as a QSO verifier and Manager. The system is working well and the DX operators are pleased with the service.
In addition, all the documentation required by IOTA HQ for formalizing the number AS-173 for Pamban Island from provisional status have been completed.

We thank all those lucky enough to have made QSOs with AT0RI, and we sympathize with the hundreds of others who missed out because of the lack of discipline on the bands. All those who forced multiple QSOs with us could have given someone else a chance for a QSO. The expedition station, barefoot and with a wire antenna, if swarmed like this, can get very few QSOs. Fortunately, we were not on batteries, but on ac power. But at Elephanta this QRM caused us an undue battery drain to complete every call sign. We were not a multinational/ multioperator/multitransmitter station with linear amplifiers to put out a punching signal wherever we transmit.


The operators are highly indebted to the Collector of Ramanathapuram, the staff of Project House where our eating arrangements were taken care of, and the Ramanathapuram Amateur Wireless Association for all the help and encouragement.

We also thank all the other visiting amateurs from South India who had the first hand view of what a pileup is, and what an island expedition is, etc. We also thank all those VUs from all over India who took an interest in the whole activity, had QSOs with us and had asked about how they can also organize an island expedition from their state. So, gentlemen, please keep your fingers crossed for the other States of India activating some island in their territory. You may potentially look out for the West Coast States of India, where Goa and Gujarat can turn up surprises.
All the very best, good luck, good chasing of Indian Coastal Islands, and 73.