Bouvet Bound: Craig Thompson, K9CT
Saturday, January 27, 2018
On January 27, there were reports of 15 to 20-foot waves in the South Atlantic, as the team of the 3Y0Z Bouvet 2018 DXpedition slowly makes their journey to the third-rarest DXCC entity. Ralph Fedor, K0IR, wrote on the 3Y0Z blog: "That which was not secured is no longer where it was. Some of those who were up and about yesterday are down and out today. Personal items are scattered, and some small items are lost in the mix. Bathroom floors are wet from water splashing out of the toilet bowls. It was a tough night, but we knew this was likely when we signed on."
It's not uncommon on a major DXpedition; far-flung destinations often require water travel, and the best time to activate a rare entity doesn't always coincide with smooth seas. It's just one more aspect of major DXpeditions that remind us this part of the DX game is best left to experts. But how do you become an expert DXpeditioner?
Craig Thompson, K9CT, a veteran of many top-tier DXpeditions in recent years, is one of the experts en route to Bouvet. To him, the rolling seas, and the physical effects that often come with the pitching and rolling, are simply part of the price of admission, in which you had better be able to be personable under any circumstances. "The first thing that comes to mind is the team aspect," Thompson says. "You're with people for a long time; in this case, seven weeks. You'll have every conversation imaginable with people from all over the world. You learn a lot and make lifelong friends. That's one of the best parts. I can tell you looking back, they've all also left me with innumerable stories."
Just a few days before he leaves his central Illinois home for his nearly two-month excursion to Bouvet, his mind is going over all the last-minute details. "Making sure everything is ready for my family, making lists for them of who to call if something happens, or last-minute things that need to be fixed, taking care of explanations," he said matter-of-factly. "I own a business, so I have to make sure everybody's on the same page and something that needs to be done hasn't been neglected or forgotten."
And packing. While most of the big stuff was shipped months ahead of time, there's still a lot of packing to do. "I have travel gear I need to load, and I've got my technology, whether for photography or satellite gear for communication back home. It all has to be tested and make sure it's working and packed. So those are the things that concern me. And, of course, last-minute visits with everybody."
Thompson got interested in DX'ing a long time ago, including VHF meteor scatter and EME. His decision to go on major DXpeditions was a deliberate one. "It was actually a marketing strategy on my part," he laughed. "Having been in business, I realized in order to be invited to any sort of project, you have to be qualified. I talked to Ralph Bellas, K9ZO, when I was asked on my first DXpedition, and he told me what to watch out for and what to learn. That first DXpedition I was part of (TI9KK, Cocos Island 2008), I learned so much in that one DXpedition of what to do, what not to do, the planning, lack of planning, and the things that just happen. I maintained good friendships with the team members after that trip."
Eventually, the phone rang again. "Somebody from that team called me up and said, 'you need to do this and that, and if you do, you can be on another DXpedition.' "
Of course, going to Cocos is not the same as going to a tourist destination for a vacation. For anybody wanting to be a part of a major DXpedition, Thompson says it all boils down to being qualified and being connected. "Operating is a skill that needs to be practiced," Thompson said, "and DXpeditioning is very much like high-speed contesting: lots of people calling at the same time, and you have to dig a call out of that mess, and get it logged right. The more you do contesting, the better your skills will be. Get involved in contesting, participate in smaller DXpeditions, and make sure that DXpeditioning is really what you want to do. Pay attention to how much it costs, how much time it takes, and whether you can get the time off work or away from your family. There are a lot of issues that come into play. It's a big commitment. The rarer the entity, the more the trip costs, both financially and personally."
The rewards of such a trip are significant. "So many stories," Thompson reflected. "When we were on Wake Island (K9W 2013) and getting the personal tour where the Forgotten 98 were killed, and where their stone monument was, and reading the history and seeing the Japanese bunkers, was just something to see. It's a rare place to be in the first place, because it's a military base, but to see that was awesome."
Of course, as the rarity of the operating location goes up, so do the risks. "We were waylaid a day leaving Amsterdam Island (FT5ZM, 2014) due to rough conditions. It was just not safe to try and get back on the boat. If it weren't for the team on Amsterdam and the skilled crew of the Braveheart, we might still be there today."
Like many DXpeditioners and other leaders of the amateur radio community, Thompson wants to make sure that DX'ing remains a vital force within the hobby. "I'm a little concerned about the age of the current amateur radio operator population and what's going to attract younger people to our hobby. I guess time will tell, but I think we should be actively doing things to make sure that it's interesting for young people so that as we die, there's people keeping the hobby alive and exciting," he offered. "I'm concerned about the decline of the CW activity in particular and I have a feeling that we'll start noticing it at some point, in the number of entries for contests, and maybe the decline of CW pileups for DX'ing and maybe diminished activity during the day in the CW band. I hope not, but the reality is I'm not sure that new hams are learning CW as fast as we're losing people that have known CW all their lives."
"The biggest concern, of course, is what draws people to the hobby anymore," Thompson said. "I believe that emergency services and those sorts of activities are going to be diminished, because I think the police and fire and emergency service workers now have such tremendous technology and professional staff, that part-time amateur radio activity [in those activities] is going to be less and less. I still believe that we'll have an interest in supporting other hobbies, whether it's walks, runs and other social activities, adventure sports, and other things like that where amateur radio can lend a hand."
Thompson says including college-age people in the hobby is paramount. "I think we should all be involved in that. College clubs are very diverse, they're completely different from when I went to college. They have a spectrum of interests; they like excitement and adventure. I think we should all be involved in that so we can actually be part of making sure that young people are involved in the hobby."