Pirates of Agia Mariani

by Antony Chazapis

This June, as soon as the first summer heat wave hit us, I started thinking of the IOTA Contest. After last year’s exciting experience in contesting, I began contemplating something even more adventurous: a DXpedition to an uninhabited, rocky islet, similar in style to the great ham radio excursions organized in far away islands of the Pacific, albeit in a much smaller scale. Fortunately, Greece is full of such islets, so I just had to find one that was accessible, and a team of brave, fellow operators that would eagerly participate in a DX crusade.

SV1IZF, SV1OAN, and SV1COX

SV1IZF, SV1OAN, and SV1COX

Panos, SV1COX, was thrilled with the idea. We started looking for an appropriate destination and somehow decided to journey to Agia Mariani, a very small island at the southwestern edge of Peloponnese. Agia Mariani is part of IOTA EU-158, which also seems to be the most wanted group of Greek islands. Moreover, we found a video on YouTube, showing that the island had a dock for small boats, from which a path lead through the bushes to the church of Agia Marina. Built on the islet’s highest point, the church seemed recently renovated, with an adjacent tiled shelter providing a place to camp and operate in the shade of the burning sun. Ideal.

I took up the task of issuing the special callsign, SX3AM, and arranging our transport to and from the islet. Panos was put in charge of organizing the equipment and preparing the antennas. We decided that we should arrive on target early Saturday morning, so it would be best to sleep in Methoni the previous night. We would probably sail from Methoni anyway.

Another major decision was to run the contest in the QRP category. Operating at 100 Watts, would require carrying over big radios and power supplies, plus a generator and gas to power them. The generator would require resting every 4-6 hours, meaning we would also need batteries. A lot of stuff to handle, too much weight to move around, and – most importantly – too many things to go wrong. Lower power meant just ultra-small radios and a few batteries in our backpacks, which would already have to include clothes, food, and water.

A few weeks later, the callsign was approved and we made an open call for participation. Many friends liked the idea and expressed their intention to join us, but we needed confident answers, in order to know how many beds to book and what kind of boat to hire. Takis, SV1IZF, responded quickly and became part of the team. He also agreed to solve the problem of powering our equipment. He would bring over many amp-hours worth of batteries, fully charged and double-checked.

So, on the afternoon of the 25th of July, I put my bags in the car and drove over to pick up the others. Half an hour before midnight, we arrived at Methoni. A quick bite and back to the hotel to get some sleep. Methoni was very quiet, and luckily the bursty winds of the previous week had calmed down. I talked to our captain and he would wait for us at the port at 9 AM.

Next morning, we stopped at the local bakery for food supplies and headed to the port. We had a lot of bags to carry. Right on time, Mr. Christos picked us up and we departed for a 40-minutes long sail to Agia Mariani. Upon reaching the island, I was amazed by the dense vegetation. The path leading to the church was very narrow and its sides were decorated by giant spiders, that watched us peacefully going up and down four times to bring up all the equipment to the shelter. Takis brought along two 70 Ah batteries. Very big to handle, but necessary to ease our anxiety of running out of power.

An hour before the contest’s start, everything was ready. We had four dipoles – one for every band, except 80 m, and an additional C-Pole antenna for 20 m. Our radio setup included an Icom IC-703 and a Yaesu FT-817ND, with an Elecraft T1 tuner. We also had a spare Yaesu FT-817, connected to a 2 m Moxon antenna, for local communications.

Exactly at noon UTC, I started calling on 20 m. A few responses. Actually nothing, compared to J49A’s pile-ups. Soon, the band got crowded and there was a station to be heard in nearly every KHz. I began feeling desperate. Over an hour later, and we did not even have 10 QSOs recorded. I imagined QRP being a bit hard, but not so difficult.

We started chasing other stations to gather some points. Every time I got to operate, I started by calling CQ for 10 minutes, in case anyone heard us. Once, I was lucky enough to create a small pile-up and log about 20 contacts in 15 minutes. All other attempts yielded a couple of replies at most.

It was time for CW. Panos took over and nearly doubled our contacts in an hour. Me and Takis tried to get some multipliers on SSB. Every QSO was an adventure. Again, a completely different experience than last year’s. You had to work very hard to get each point. It was not a matter of speed and accuracy to handle tens of stations calling at the same time. You needed persistence and patience.

Nightfall brought changes in propagation and in the sounds around us. Panos’s concentration was often shattered by squeaks coming from the nearby bushes. Suddenly, we realized that the church’s front yard and surroundings were filled with rats. The island’s residents were not daunted by our noise and did not even seem to care when we flashed them with our spotlights. We had camped in the pirate’s lair, and soon the pirates started raiding on our supplies. They must have smelled the freshly baked bread and the juicy fruit.

We quickly changed roles. One had to work the contest and the others had to protect the camp. In the calm between battles, I managed to get a few hours of sleep in our tent, guarded by the others. The morning light, our mightiest ally, drove the rodents back to their hideouts. When I woke up, I found the others exhausted. “An unbelievable night,” they said. I believed them.

I made some more contacts before midday. They were even harder. Most bands were closed. We decided to leave a bit earlier, as operating in these conditions seemed pointless, we had a lot of things to pack and carry back to the dock, plus a long drive back to Athens. Indeed, right on the contest’s end we were all ready, waiting for the boat to take us to Methoni. As a bonus, we spared a few minutes for a quick, refreshing swim in the crystal-clear waters of Agia Mariani, before waving farewell to its inhabitants.

We made 180 QSOs, as show in the table below, of which only 2 invalid for the contest. We logged 21 different island groups and got 38 multipliers. We claimed 50,160 points.

SSB CW
40 m 11 64
20 m 49 47
15 m 8 1
Total 68 112

Many thanks to SV1COX and SV1IZF and to all stations contacted. It was a remarkable journey, from which we learned a lot. Next time, it will be even easier. Our battles with the pirates of Agia Mariani did not let us down, but have already turned into stories of courage and endurance; properties necessary for operating with very low power amongst giants, in the heat of one of the world’s biggest contests.

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