US Islands On The Air – FL543 Qualification

 Living in a densely populated neighborhood of Los Angeles presents quite a few problems when attempting to operate an amateur radio station, mainly the lack of space to string up any kind of antenna, and S9+++ noise which is always present, no matter the time of day.  These conditions have guided the choices I made when building a modest 100W station,  the main criteria being portable for field work, and to escape the noise and have an opportunity to put up an working antenna.
    I’m lucky that the holiday season affords me some time away from work, and the city call home.  My parents live in South Florida, and I needed to make a visit to see them.  As the trip was a bit more extended than previous visits to Florida, there would be time for getting on HF and making some contacts.  Normally I take advantage of SOTA (Summits on the Air), which is an award program for radio amateurs that encourages portable operation in mountainous areas.  But the state of Florida is completely flat and void of any proper summits.  The closest thing you can find that resembles even a hill are the garbage landfills scattered around the various small municipalities.  While looking for something to do with my HF radio in Florida,  I learned about the U.S.Islands on the Air program.  I took a look at the entities database and was surprised to find the majority of these spoil islands were not yet qualified.  “Great” I said to myself, “let’s do it!”.  I now had a goal, something to do with my down time.
     A cheap flight and a rental car later, I found myself in a place rich with spoil islands just a short boat trip away.  These islands are small land masses that were created when the Intercostal Waterway (ICW) was dredged, and the excavated sand deposited on the side of the channel.  There are at least 100 of these islands, maybe more stretched between the Jupiter Inlet and Cape Canaveral in the ICW along Floridas east coast.  You can imagine that over time, native flora and fauna have made these islands home, making them an important eco-system for Florida.  Additionally, recreation is welcome on a few of the islands when nesting birds are not present.
     It was time to decide what I could pack in my luggage.  There is a 50 pound limit per bag, and $50 extra fee for an extra bag.  Careful consideration is required!  Given that the solar cycle is rock bottom, I didn’t want to pack the small, lightweight QRP rig, as I might not make the required amount of QSOs to qualify the island.  The only other radio is have is the trusty 100W Yaesu 857d.  In addition to the transceiver, I packed a Z-11 Pro tuner, a 100 foot spool of cheap copper clad aluminum wire (CCA), 25 feet of RG-8x coax and a 4:1 Balun.  The idea was would cut a dipole before the activation, and shimmy it up in a tree.  The tuner would take care of any resonant mis-match in my rough cut antenna.  I also ordered 50 more feet of coax and had it shipped directly to the Florida address, as 25′ wouldn’t be quite enough.
     The last thing I needed for qualifying the island was a boat to get there.  Luckily I have a local friend who let me use his small aluminum boat.  My rental car didn’t have the means to tow a trailer, so my dad let me borrow his truck to move the boat between the house where I was staying and the docks down by the water.  Now that all the pieces were in one place, island qualifying could be done!  The night before the scheduled qualification, I packed a cooler with some water, snacks and a few beers to keep me company.
    The next morning I woke up early and headed to the boat ramp off North Hutchinson Island, where my problems started almost immediately.  First, I forgot to put the drain plug in the boat, which quickly filled it with sea water before I got if off the trailer!  With the plug re-installed and the boat drained, it was time to get underway, but not without hesitation from the small 8HP outboard motor.  Once it warmed up a bit it felt safe to motor out to the channel and head to FL-543.
     Once on the island, the task on hand was to get a line up in a tree to pull up the dipole I made just a few days before.  For this a fishing pole was used, and a rock was tied to the end to serve as a weight.  On my first cast, it became clear that there wasn’t enough fishing line to do a complete loop around the target tree branch, the line flung off the spool, taking all the monofilament with it.  Luckily the backup plan was to use jute twine and a water bottle to hoist the antenna up, unfortunately it was a bit difficult to get any kinda height with this method.
     25 feet up was the center feed point of the dipole, as my coax dangled a few inches from the sandy ground.  Each leg was strung up as high as possible, in somewhat of an inverted V fashion.  “Perfect” I said to myself.  Just when I was about to connect the radio to the antenna, I realized I forgot to bring a PL-259 coupler.  Doh!  The tuner I brought is electronic, and when it’s not powered defaults to bypass, so this was inserted into the feed line back to the radio and the battery.  Unfortunately I can’t use tuner anymore, but continued anyways hoping the dipole was ‘close enough’.
     When sending my first CQ, I watched the SWR meter on the radio shoot through the roof, triggering the internal protection circuit.  I moved up and down the bands to see if things would improve, but it was clear this antenna was not resonant in the 20 meter band.  A hard decision was made to abandon the dipole which took nearly an hour to put up and choose my backup approach – a long wire fed by the Z-11 tuner.  Since I already had jute twine in the trees, changing the wire was pretty easy.  I didn’t have a good way to connect the long wire to the tuner, so the feed point of the wire was simply stuffed into the empty PL-259 socket on the tuner.
     After a long, successful tuning cycle, I found a clear space in the band, called CQ, and made my first contact on the island.  After a few more CQs I found myself in a mini pile-up, my first ever.  Before I knew it, I had made the required amount of contacts, including two DXCC entities.  Whoo hoo!  This island is now qualified!  I made the decision to pack up the station and check out another island for possible qualification.  
     I pointed the boat north to FL-542, a 15 minute ride away.  When I arrived, others were occupying the island at the largest beach.  Not wanting to disturb them, I went to the opposite side where a tiny, narrow beach was presented.  I pulled the small boat up onto the sand, and looked for good trees to string up my long wire.  This island had much denser vegetation than the last which would make it difficult to get a string up.  The sun was starting to go down, and the temperature was dropping.  If I left now I could be back at the house to clean the boat up while there is still a bit of light. I learned quite a bit on this trip, mainly to double check your kit to make sure you’re not forgetting anything!