A long-sought island unexpectedly comes on the air

Robert W. Schmieder, KK6EK

Probably the first human to stand where I now stand was a crewman from the Golden Hinde. The year was 1579. As his shipmates collected thousands of eggs and perhaps a few seabirds, he stood on the summit of this island and peeked at the horizon, hoping for insight into the coming voyage across the vast emptiness of the Pacific Ocean. A mere 25 miles to the East lay the stunning (and as yet undiscovered) bay and hills that we now call San Francisco. Now from this very sane spot I can see the City where he saw only coastline. He stood on these rocks gesturing and yelling to his compatriots be1ow; I sit in a concrete room under an enormous rotating navigation light, talking easily with people all over the world. He had keen eyes and perhaps a crude telescope; I have a radio!

Spanish explorers gave these Islands the name Los Farallones, which means small pointed cliffs in the sea, shortly after their reputed discovery by Don Rodriguez Cabrillo and Bartoleme Ferrelo In 1542. Thirty-five years later Francis Drake and his men stopped here on their way across the Pacific. After that, not much happened here for a very long time. San Francisco Bay was finally entered by sea in 1775 in the person of Francisco de Ayala, who used the Farallones to guide him. Over the next hundred-plus years, the islands were host to repeated destructive waves of exploiters. Russians and Americans alike hunted the sea lions, otters, fur seals, birds and eggs to economic extinction. Finally, in 1909, Theodore Roosevelt designated the Farallons Reservation; complete protection was provided in 1981 when the SE Island was included In the Point Reyes-Farallons National Marine Sanctuary.

Right now this history drifts remotely through my mind. I am very busy trying to re- construct blanks in the log: times, signal strengths, the individual phonetics from a cacophony that sounded very much like a hundred screeching gulls. Just outside the light- house door, within a radius of fifty feet, a hundred very real gulls shift tentatively on their nests, their eyes locking onto me whenever I move. The light turns constantly, 10 feet above me, and more than 300 feet above the water, its beam touching the horizon more than 20 miles away. Far below, on the lower parts of the Island, my son Randy works on his insect collection, and the naturalists are banding East Coast birds that are seriously lost. The Coast Guard has come to service the generators. There are altogether six people on the island, all transients. We all have things to do, and no one bothers anyone else.

Getting here wasn't easy. I had begun more than a year ago, proposing to the Point Reyes Bird Observatory management (who oversee the sanctuary here) that a radio event from the Farallons would have double benefit to the sanctuary and to amateur radio. Their response was less than enthusiastic; I got the feeling that they didn't understand what I wanted to do, and why. Hams had been asking for years to come here, but they were uniformly refused. I hoped that because I had spent more than 15 years in marine research at and around the Farallons that they might take a new look at the idea. I had my own boat to get me here; I had my own nonprofit research group and a recently published book about the nearby marine environment. I had a permit to conduct other scientific work here. And I offered the vision of hams everywhere learning about the sanctuary work and supporting it. The person who most clearly saw the potential benefits was naturalist Peter Pyle, who through my several visits to the Islands had become both friend and fellow traveler. So when we arrived yesterday morning, Peter suggested that we talk about it some more. By no coincidence, I had my radio under my arm, just in case.

Between collecting soil samples and banding birds, Peter and I talked and talked. We couldn't find anything wrong with the radio idea, but we felt we couldn't do it without some more official permission. At 3:00 in the afternoon, we made the killer walk up here to the light, and Peter called the new director of the PRBO, Dan Evans, on a handheld telephone.

"Dan," Peter began. "I have Bob Schmieder here. He is proposing to do a ham radio thing, and it might result in some good publicity for the sanctuary. I think it's a great idea, but we didn't want to do it without informing you, and getting some official clearance."

Dan, who had spent time on the Galapagos and Christmas Island, instantly grasped the concept. "It is a great idea, and you have my wholehearted support. Good luck!"

While Peter went fishing, I collected my FT-I000D from the boat, together with the antenna tuner and a 20-meter dipole. It was about 6:00PM when the boom crane lifted our dinghy, us, and the gear (but no fish), back on the island. Within an hour I had lugged the gear to the light. The dipole was tied between the light mount and the weather vane; as the light rotated the beam flashed on the shiny wire. The radio rested on an emergency power supply, plugged into 120 VAC. I powered up, and came on the air at 7:00 PDST (0200 UTC) on 1 Sept. 1992, on 14328 kHz.

"Is the frequency in use?" I asked.

Waiting for me was my good friend Bob Fabry, N6EK, in Berkeley, who had been listening for me most of the day. He had anchored my expedition to Rocs Alijos (Baja) in 1990, and I had one of his radios with me as backup.

"N6EK. Hello, Bob. Are you on the island?"

"Hello yourself, Bob. Nice signal from Berkeley. Yes, believe it or not, I'm sitting right under the light. I think I can see you from here!"

Also on frequency was Charlie Southall, KI6YB, in Costa Mesa. The three of us get together in person regularly for Explorers Club meetings. Here we met on the air, on our Explorers Club net frequency. I gave greetings from the Farallons. I explained the delay In getting permission and hauling the gear up to the light; the tremendous view and the birds standing nearby; that we did, In fact, have full permission to operate. I made a short speech crediting the Explorers Club, expressed appreciation to the PRBO management, and described the exhilaration of sitting at this historic spot, talking, for the first time, on amateur radio frequencies. And then I called CQ.

While I fielded the first few calls, Bob put the news on Packet that the Farallons were on 20 meters. Secretly I hoped that there was somebody out there who cared.

I kept the log by hand, asking each contact for signal reports, name, and QTH. While this slowed the QSO rate to about 20/hr, it was definitely a friendly way to operate, and apparently was appreciated. Now and then a caller would mention that he had often passed the Farallons in his boat, or that on a dear day he could see them from his front window, or that during the War he had been on the Island to repair equipment. Some said they had always expected the Farallons to come up someday. More often, the station had never heard of the Farallons, or would ask for the spelling. All who called were appreciative of the New One, and polite and complimentary. I heard no angry words, and practically no attempts to take advantages. I was impressed with the radio community out there...

After an hour I was so famished that I stumbled down the long, dark trail to the naturalist's house and obtained nourishment and coffee. My friends were curious about how it was going, but not sufficiently so to make the climb back to the light for a demonstration.

While Randy was attracting insects with the ultraviolet light, I was attracting other species on another frequency. Finding that the top of the 2-meter band was noisy, I moved to 14200kHz, where I stayed the rest of the night. The first DX contact came at 0433: T32O, on Christmas Island. Over the next 3 hours there was a smattering of ZLs, JAs, a VK, and an RA. The U.S. stations were mostly 6s and 9s. Around 11 o'clock two long-lost friends encountered each other on the frequency, and for 20 minutes they chatted between themselves, apparently oblivious to the fact that I was desperate to get on with it.

Around midnight the stations petered out. My CQs went unanswered, and I was so exhausted that I tumbled onto a foam mat left at the light and slept 9 hours without moving.

Even before the Monday morning fuzzies had been shaken off, I had the radio on. Just as my momentum was building, one of the naturalists appeared at the door.

"Uh, the Coast Guard is here. They might want to do some work on the light. Peter thinks you should stow the station, just in case."

"Mmmh," I mummered. Mostly I thought about the precious minutes I would waste. The horror of no more operation was too awful to think about.

"Tell Peter I'll stow it and be down shortly," I said.

I broke off the QSO In progress and packed the entire station, including antenna into the blue plastic tote boxes. Then I traipsed down for breakfast and a conference.

After assessing the Coast Guards needs and intentions, we figured it was no problem, so I hightailed it back up to the light, and put it all back together, this time opening on the Family Hour Net frequency, 14226.5. Apparently the packet message was working: I had a barrage of calls, including a surprising number of VEs. About an hour later the noise came up and I moved to 15 meters. An hour and 17 contacts after that, my CQ went unanswered and I returned to 20 meters.

By then the packet message was really working, and I was totally swamped. I moved to 14195 kHz, where the noise was less. Still, I could not distinguish a single letter of any call from anybody. Shortly after 0000Z I decided to run the U.S. by districts. I started with 0-land, and worked through to 9-land. Then I took DX, but was surprised at the paucity of stations. In contrast, the Canadians were in very great abundance.

As the evening rolled in, I was aware that I would lose the East Coast, so I called for stations only east of the Mississippi. They came at about 1 per minute. Propagation was wonderful; virtually all signals both ways were 5/7-9. Once in a while, someone with a western callsign called, and I gently asked him which side of the river he is on. I was delighted how cooperative the stations were; one station who called out of turn graciously called back to apologize.

When I sensed that the propagation was falling, I flopped over to take stations west of the Mississippi. To my chagrin, there were very few California stations; we were too close on 20 meters. I tried to move to 40 meters, but local noise made that band useless.

About 0430Z, the South Pacific started coming in. Within a half-hour, Spain and Italy arrived, plus a few others: Russia, Latvia, Japan, New Zealand, Denmark, Czechoslovakia. At 0620Z, just after a contact with Sweden, the band abruptly disappeared— there was nobody anywhere!

Suddenly I felt alone. The emptiness left by the radio's uselessness was intensified by the fog that was closing around the light. The rotating beam cast a ghostly glow on the moist rocks and the birds resting fitfully, waiting for dawn. Frustrated, I trudged back down to the house and found to my delight that my friends had left dinner on the table for me.

"How's it going?" Randy was slumped in a big easy chair, making notes. He was quiet, into his own business.

"Out of this world," said I. "Around 400 so far. But the band Just fell to pieces, so I decided to walk down." Neither of us spoke another word; It was late, and Quiet Time.

When I finally returned to the radio an hour later, one station in Oakand was there. He had waited the entire time. We chatted amiably, and I signed for the night, eager to record my feelings of the moment before they diffuse with the fog...

"Bob. Hey, man. Peter says you gotta be off by eight. You OK?"

"Wonderful. Wonderful," I intoned, surfacing slowly from the short sleep. It felt as if I was emerging from a great dream, a dream about being at a lighthouse, with my radio, talking to friends all over the world...

The radio! I leaped up, panicked at the thought of only one more hour. I quickly called CQ on 20 meters, but there was no one. Again, nothing. In desperation, I checked into the Family Hour Net, and offered the Farallons for one list. Graciously, net controller KI5OG ran me, and I was very popular. Too bad it didn't last; at 1434Z, out of time, I pulled the plug. The birds continued sitting, as if nothing at all had happened. Two hours later I was back on the boat, looking at the light from the ocean. It seemed very far away.


The author extends his appreciation to Peter Pyle and Dan Evans of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory; the S. F. Bay Wildlife Refuge; the Explorers Club, including members N6EK and KI6YB; W4BAA for interfacing with IOTA; and all the amateurs whose courtesy made this a thoroughly enjoyable event.

Technical Information

The operation described above was conducted by KK6EK, between 0200UTC 1 Sept 1992 and 1435UTC 2 Sept. 1992

Equipment used was a Yaseau FT-1000D transceiver, an MFJ Versatuner V Model MFJ- 989B tuner, and a homemade dipole cut for 20 meters. The dipole dipped at 30 degrees approximately to the West, its midpoint about 15 feet above the ground. Full power (200 W) was used for all contacts. Frequencies used were 14195,14200,14226.5,14240, and 14328 kHz en 20 meters, and 21338.5 kHz on 15 meters.

Total number of contacts was 419. Total time on the air was 19.3 hours. The average rate was 22 contacts/hr. The contacts were distributed as follows:

U.S. 0 31
U.S. 1 27
U.S. 2 26
U.S. 3 22
U.S. 4 26
U.S. 5 31
U.S. 6 39
U.S. 7 12
U.S. 8 31
U.S. 9 43
Hawaii 10
Alaska 2
Puerto Rico 2
St.Vincent Is. 1
Canada 51
Mexico 2
N. America total 356

Argentina 2
Brazil 1
Colombia 1
Venezuela 1
S. America total 5

Czechoslovakia 1
Denmark 1
Germany 1
Italy 16
Latvia 2
Poland I
Spain 1
Sweden 1
UK 1
Unified 5
Europe/Asiatotal 31

Australia 3
Christmas Island 1
Japan 9
New Zealand 13
Pitcairn Island 1
Pacific total 27

About a week after activation, the number NA-178 was assigned to the Farallon Islands for the Islands-on-the-Air (IOTA) list by the Radio Society of Great Britain, %Roger Ballster, G3KMA, La Quinta, Malmbridge, Chobham, Woking, Surrey GU24 8AR, England.

QSL Information: Robert W. Schmieder, KK6EK, 4295 Walnut Blvd., Walnut Creek, CA 94596. USA., Tel (925) 934-3735

The Farallon Islands lie about 25 miles west of San Francisco, California. The light on the SE Island is located at 38°42.00’N, 123°00.10’W, at an elevation of 358 ft. The islands are part of the City and County of San Francisco. They are administered by the S. F. Bay Wildlife Refuge Complex, Box 524, Newark, CA 94560, Tel (415) 792-47222.

The research work on the Farallon Islands, including long-term studies of birds and marine mammals, is overseen by the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, 4990 Shoreline Highway, Stinson Beach, CA 94970, Tel (415) 868-1221. Contributions to the PRBO are welcome, and are tax-deductible.

This operation was part of a continuing research program of Cordell Expeditions, directed by the author since 1978. Contributions are welcome, and are tax-deductible. A book, Ecology of an Underwater Island, (144 pp., 98 color illust., $22 postpaid), published by Cordell Expeditions, is available from the address above.


For a Word version of this article, please click here.

This operation generated a considerable amount of controversy. When this article was published, officials of the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge objected to the permissions given to the author to conduct the radio operation. For more details and comments on this situation, click here.