Through The Panama Canal

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The Trip

Although Andrea doesn't like to travel in the spring because her very extensive gardens (we live on 5 acres) that she works very hard on are just coming into bloom, this year, she came home from a Garden Club meeting and said, "How'd you like to take a cruise through the Panama Canal?" Now, as a retired engineer, the Canal ranks as one of the top five engineering marvels of the 20th Century for me, and I dearly wanted to see it. Old injuries from SE Asia are beginning to restrict my mobility, and I figured that if I was going to see it, it would have to be sooner rather than later.

This particular trip was being run from our local Senior Center, and would be a 15-day cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to Los Angeles on the Sun Princess. Everything (except beverages and shopping!) was included, so we joined the Center and signed up. The itinerary included a flight from Sacramento to Ft. Lauderdale, an overnight there, and sailing on 18 Apr 2005. We stopped at Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Oranjestad, Aruba; and cruised through the canal on Sunday, 24 Apr. After a short evening stop at Panama City, we visited Punta Arenas, Costa Rica; and then Hualtulco, Acapulco, and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and then home to LA. With one exception, each stop was preceded by a full day at sea, and these were the times I chose to operate.

The Preliminaries

Being a somewhat conservative engineer who tends to follow the rules, I tried to obtain a reciprocal operating permit from Bermuda where the ship is registered because that's what the rules on the ARRL Web Site told me to do. I did finally get notice from Bermuda that sort of translated, "We don't give a damn what you do aboard a ship registered in Bermuda, just do whatever whatever you want to under the terms of your US license." I labeled this letter "Permission to Operate Aboard a Bermudan Vessel," and moved to Step Two - permission from the Captain.

Again following the rules, I wrote to Princess Cruises, described my radio (including a picture), and my operating plans, and requested the Captain's permission. I received a phone call very quickly where I was told that transmitting aboard ship was a threat to the ship's navigation and communications, could endanger the lives of passengers, could produce unacceptable levels of RF radiation, and might start a fire. This sounded suspiciously like a "No," however, relying on the premise that when at sea, the Captain runs the ship, I took the radio anyway. After we sailed, I showed the radio and battery to the Purser's desk, they sent the 1st Officer to inspect it, and he said, "You have the Captain's permission to operate from your balcony (but not common deck spaces) provided you do not remove any paint." I asked him to write this in my log and sign it, which he did. He actually had some interest in my QRP log, and we chatted about it for a few minutes. I immediately had visions of big pileups trying to work K6DGW/MM ... good thing I also brought my GPS so I could give out accurate QTH's.

The Shack

The shack was a "balcony" about 8' high, 3' deep, and maybe 12' long, surrounded by 1/2" steel plate covered with at least another 3/4" of white paint. It was on Riviera Deck (#12) room 350, which is the highest deck with staterooms on the ship. This was "The Good News." It was on the port side of the ship (that's the left side as you face the pointy part of the boat for those unfamiliar with nautical and marine language), which put a few thousand metric tons of steel between my antenna and North America. I logged this fact as "The Bad News." It had a small plastic stack table and two plastic stack chairs. I finally found a very well painted bolt projecting from the bulkhead near the top from which I figured I could suspend my antenna. Other than this, there were really no objects to hang a wire from. The sliding door into our cabin was unpainted aluminum, as was the door stop which was screwed to the ship, and this would become my ground.

The Rig

The rig was the KX1, of course, covering 20m, 30m, and 40m with the ATU and integral paddle. Like any good combat troop, I had devised a "Plan A" for power, with a "Plan B" just in case. I had charged a Li-polymer 850 mAh battery before leaving and I figured I'd start with it. Since this battery runs at nearly 12V, I should be getting pretty close to 3W from the KX1. My Lithium battery charger is too bulky, so I took 12 NiMH AA batteries and a little charger for them, with the plan of switching to them when the Li-polymer ran down ("Plan B"). Six of them will power the KX1 to about 1.5W. Read on down a bit to see how this all worked out.

The Antenna

I have an MP-1 knockoff (Ralph, W6RWL, found it for me at a ham swap), and I've used it on our deck at home with pretty good results. It also collapses into a small package of parts, and has a clamp on the bottom which I figured I could clamp to the railing. This was the good news. The bad news is that, when disassembled, the resonator resembles a pipe bomb on an x-ray. Now, I'm already toast at a TSA security checkpoint because I wear braces on both legs and carry some scrap metal around. I always travel in shorts so they can see the braces, and I always get the full search routine. Not wanting to further complicate our passage through the checkpoint, I opted to leave the "pipe-bomb" at home and take the 24' wire and single radial antenna I had made from a length of RG-58. After all, it had worked pretty well when I was operating the KX1 from the pool at the hotel in Tucson at the annual Cactus-Intertie meeting.

The Results

My biggest concern prior to embarkation was getting a good ground to the ship. That turned out to be a non-problem ... I wrapped the ground radial from my antenna (the shield of the RG58) around the aluminum door stop several times. I found that, when I fooled with the ground connection, the VSWR didn't change much, so I think I managed the ground quite easily.

Why I ever thought that I could string up 24 feet of wire in an 8' x 12' steel window is a real puzzle. More of a puzzle is why I ever thought it would radiate better than a window screen. I guess I'll fall back on "It seemed like a good idea at the time." I tried starting the far end of the antenna at the aforementioned "painted bolt" and running it down to the teak railing and along it in various configurations. When I tuned the KX1, VSWR's ranged from 1.1 all the way to 9.9 (max on the ATU), and everything changed if I moved in the slightest. Obviously, since everything on our balcony, including me, was in the near field of the antenna, this was going to be a challenge. It also became clear to me that while TSA was strip-searching me at the airport, I would have had time to talk them through the details of trail antenna design, base loading antennas with lumped inductance, and probably could have gotten the MP-1 knockoff through them ... maybe just to get me out of their area.

All that said, I worked 3 PY's 3 LU's, one HC, one YV approaching Aruba, one HP (before entering the canal), and might have managed an HK on 30m, although I'm not sure we completed. W1AW on 14047.6 was readable early on, but then nothing. WWV was S4 early on 15MHz and discernable on 10 MHz, but both frequencies died about half way thru the trip. Heard no XE's. Copied K9GP weakly as we left Jamaica and he was the only NA station heard other than W1AW and WWV. Listened some for K6KPH on Saturdays on 40 since they run gobs of power and monitor 7050, but nil. I am not sure, but I think propagation also went into the tank about when we got to Aruba. I probably could have checked it out in the on-board Internet Cafe (@ $0.50/min), but chose not to because there was no bar service in that compartment.

Lessons Learned

Having spent quite a bit of money just to get on this boat to see the Canal, and finding out that the ports were way more fun than I had thought they would be, I would think twice about taking the radio again. I've been licensed for 53 years as I write this, and I went without ham radio for nearly four years in combat in SE Asia, so I could easily do 17 or so days without a "CW fix." We also had lots to do both onboard and in the ports without radio. Of course, having experienced this attempt, that is easy to say, and I'm not sure I'd say it if I hadn't tried, but I would advise to think about it first.

QRP is tough under the best of conditions if your idea of fun is having the whole world call you. I got that thrill as HS1FJ for 6 weeks in the mid-60's, and that may be what I'll live with. Doing QRP under really awful conditions such as I found on our shipboard "balcony" is probably not worth it. If you have some control over your operating conditions, and can do something for an antenna that might actually radiate, it might be worth it. Unfortunately, and I checked, Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) regulations make it pretty much impossible to use any of the ship's antennas, and stringing wires in public spaces is going to be a real problem. I enjoyed working the South American stations just as much as I always do, but I can now see that the variables are so unpredictable that I'd probably reconsider the weight in my carry-ons. It turned out that, while the port side cabin was awful for radio, it was great for everything else ... we were more often than not in shade, we more often than not were docking on our side and thus facing the town, and we more often than not had the direct breeze.


If you are going to spend $7K+ to get on a big white boat for 15 days, eat every 4 hours (and that would be missing a couple of meals they have planned for you), enjoy a relaxed life, see great ports, and if you are going through the Canal and marvel at the incredible engineering that is almost 100 years old, leave the radio at home. Coffee, LOX, bagels, cream cheese, and pastry on the balcony, with the ocean streaming by and turtles, dolphins, birds, and freighters passing in the AM was way more fun that trying to figure out a new way to get something to radiate that physics had already told me was a lost cause.

The Power Results

The Li-p battery lasted the entire trip, and I never needed "Plan B." It's terminal voltage is still 11.7 and I think I'll try it out a bit near the QRP "watering holes" at 14060 and 7040 just to see how long it will last.

Power Update - July 2006: In response to a thread on the Elecraft email reflector regarding KX1 power options, I offer the following update. About three months after returning, I decided to take the KX1 and Li-p battery out on our deck one balmy evening and work a little 30m QRP. The battery was dead ... as in zero volts. It had also swelled enough to break the filament tape holding the three cells together. Given the fire warnings all over it and in the documentation on the Thunder Power web site, it now resides in a coffee can outside and will go to the local e-waste dump on my next trip. It was fairly expensive (~$40), and it may be my last experience powering the KX1 with lithium anything.

I gave out real GPS coordinates to the few that I worked, but I'm not sure anyone cared. The Navigator never contacted me to help him with our position-finding either, which was disappointing. Since our cabin was right at the door to the top deck (which of course had a bar), on my first AM trip out to get a GPS fix and secure a couple of bloody mary's, I discovered a group of men all doing the same thing. Thereafter, I joined the "GPS Club" each morning for a few minutes, and we all compared our position readings ... just like Christopher no doubt did.

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