Lighthouse activation on Malta to ILLW turns into a special experience

It's February 2022, a cool 4 degrees and raining. OM Dirk, DL1KVN, dreams of warmer and drier times and starts planning his summer vacation. A vacation home or an apartment it should be, Northern Italy – for the culture between the sunbaths. While browsing through the offers, the category "special locations" catches his eye. Out of curiosity, he clicked on it and found accommodation in a lighthouse – Delimara Lighthouse on the island of Malta. So a use-case was obvious: participation in ILLW 2022. The Pulheim radio amateurs had already undertaken lighthouse activations occasionally, for example on the North Sea, in the Netherlands or in the middle of Cologne (DE-0011, Helios tower). But at the Mediterranean Sea? The suggestion, which immediately landed in the club chat, was not really meant seriously ­– but the location looked appealing.

It quickly became clear that some people were thinking about it seriously. And why not? Sun and warmth are tempting. Finally a common activity again. Antenna building material and transceivers can be transported somehow in the airplane, accommodation and shack are already available. When Rolf, DL1KJ, asks a few days later in the round, who is with it, announce themselves fast altogether ten participants – thus the team is then also completely. So the idea becomes reality. Accommodation and flights are booked, and on the Friday before the third weekend in August the team sets off from Cologne/Bonn and Frankfurt for Luqa (the name of the airport on Malta). At this point the preparations were finished for the time being.

In the next months it slowly became more concrete: Two Icom IC-7300 are available as transceivers, 100 Watt transmit power should be enough. The software UcxLog should be used for keeping the common logbook, preferably on several computers with active network connection for synchronization. Live upload to Club Log is then also no problem.

Dirk is creating a website (9h6lh.com) with some pictures and info about our project. This will turn out to be a stroke of luck.

At Google Map, directly beside the historical, no longer active lighthouse Delimara, the present lighthouse was discovered. Much less pretty to look at, but with several radar antennas and other active radio equipment on the roof. 15 meters distance maximum: Will that be enough or will the weekend be in the shadow of the evil three letters Q, R and M? When looking at the map, it becomes obvious that Malta is actually located further south than Tunis. How hot is it there in August? And how big are luggage pieces allowed to be in the airplane, do they fit sufficiently stable masts? How else can you transport equipment to the island? We should still find out all this.

The logistics - "Parcel Radio" is not so simple.

Our airline tickets allow us to carry luggage with a maximum weight of 23 kg and a total side length (length + width + height) of 158 cm. A heavy-duty mast does not fit into the typical suitcase – but maybe a "suitcase" of the dimensions 142 x 8 x 8 cm can be built? Exactly one 10 m heavy duty mast would fit into it, plus 50 m of coaxial cable if wrapped around it very tightly. No sooner said than done: The piece of luggage is created from cardboard and large quantities of adhesive tape – and is ultimately actually accepted at check-in. 

Further materials can be stowed in other suitcases. Laptops and transceivers are to go in the hand luggage. When compiling the packing list, however, it becomes clear: not all participants have booked free luggage and we will have problems with the weight limit. Instead of booking additional luggage, we could pack the less sensitive material (guy ropes, tools, power supplies, more masts and cables) in one big package and send it by mail. A destination address is found quickly, since Artur, DL3KA, already has contacts in Malta.

So this plan was followed. Two weeks before departure the package was brought to the post office. With increasing proximity to the departure day the parcel tracking service is observed ever more intensively and it becomes clear: That will be tough. So a plan B is quickly developed: What do we still have at home, who can pack something in the suitcase? The most important things are found and we are sure to be able to take action even without the contents of the package. By the way, the package will arrive intact in Malta – but only on Monday after ILLW. Unfortunately, one suitcase remains missing until the end of the action. Inquiries of the airline remain unsuccessful. Thus it goes on in the consonant series to plan C.

Local radio amateurs support the team

As written earlier, the creation of our website should prove helpful. Manos, SV1DAY, stumbles upon it at the end of July. He is frequently in Malta for professional reasons and has equipment and local contacts. He is also a good CW operator and therefore contacts us to offer his help on site. At first it is not clear if he will really be in Malta on the said weekend, but material he can lend us in any case. Shortly before the start it becomes clear that he will indeed be there. The team has unexpectedly grown and the people-connecting aspect of amateur radio is once again directly noticeable!

As a result of our logistical challenges we are doubly happy about this, because Manos spontaneously organizes some masts, cables and various building materials from his own stock and with further support by John, 9H1XT – in the end even more than we can use. Many thanks to both of you!

Actually we knew it before: Among Hams one always helps each other. We could have saved ourselves a lot of worries if we had sought direct contact with the locals. 

Friday, August 19, 2022: Arrival at the lighthouse and stormy outlook

First photos and info from Malta reach us already on Thursday, because our team member Frank, DK7FH, arrived already one day earlier and can explore the situation. 

Unusually early then the remaining alarm clocks ring on Friday, because the flights start early. Since we can only arrive one day before the start, the remaining time must of course be used in the best possible way. Already on the approach we can take a look at the lighthouse. Between 12 and 15 o'clock all team members arrive on time and the short distance from the airport can be overcome quickly thanks to a rental car (despite left-hand traffic). 

A very special thanks of the team goes to Stephan, DL1MOG, who braved with our rental car almost death-defying the left-hand traffic with southern driving style of the locals, with many single-track roads bordered by stone walls. Chapeau! At the same time Manos arrives with a car full of equipment and the current weather forecast. That it is hot and humid, we have already noticed and it shows quickly. For the weekend heat is still expected. However, the high humidity should disappear thanks to stormy winds (7 Bft). So it comes, which brings both our antenna masts in motion and masses of fine sand into the shack. 

In the course of the afternoon and evening we try out different antenna setups and check the QRM situation. It turns out that the upper bands from 30 meters are largely free of interference. 80 meters is not usable at all, on 40 meters it becomes difficult at least in SSB. In the end, a multiband wire antenna for 40, 20 and 10 meters on the 10m mast as inverted-V behind the tower and a groundplane antenna for 30 meters on the neighboring vineyard are ready for use. First tests on Friday evening on 30 meters (CW) and on 20 meters (SSB) bring the first small pileups to warm up. However, since the two signals interfere with each other at some point, we switch to FT8 on 20 meters (also thanks to emerging fatigue) for a few QSOs.

Saturday, August 20, 2022: The early bird...

Around 5 a.m. CEST the short night was already over for Dirk, as he had fallen asleep right next to the transceiver and could hardly wait to pick up the Morse key. The 40 meter band was in good condition and the log filled up quickly. After about 90 minutes, a CW QSO with a New Zealand station went so well that it was agreed to try SSB directly.

This was successful, but was interrupted by our upset neighbor who feared damage to his vines from our antenna. It turned out that the concern was unfounded. Nevertheless, without further ado, we moved the location of the 30-meter antenna closer to the tower. Later, however, it turned out that this meant that simultaneous operation of both antennas was no longer possible. For the rest of the day we made several attempts to rebuild the antenna, but in the end we were only able to operate one station at a time. The only exception was a short FT8 session with 10 watts output power, which was able to bring some Japanese stations the Maltese lighthouse call into the log as a second station largely without interference. Further attempts to use a QRP transceiver (IC-705) with an endfed antenna for more CW QSOs unfortunately failed in the end due to mutual interferences of the stations close to each other.

Conditions were quite good throughout the day. For example, lighthouse-to-lighthouse QSOs in SSB were made with the US Virgin Islands (KP2AD), Uruguay (CX1T), Puerto Rico (NP3VI) and our German colleagues originally from Bad Honnef, now active at Berck-sur-Mer lighthouse in France (TM0BSM). Also the Mediterranean "neighbor" lighthouses in Gibraltar (ZB2LGT) and Cyprus (P3CG) as well as some others in Europe could be reached

As expected, 9H6LH was a sought-after radio partner as a lighthouse on Malta. At the latest as soon as our call appeared in the DX cluster, nice pileups came up and we could – some of us for the first time ever – gain some practice in working off many simultaneous calls. In SSB, Stephan (DL1MOG), Jürgen (DD2JB), Benedikt (DL4BP), Benedikt (DG2BPW), Gisela (DL9DJ) and Rolf (DL1KJ) were active during the day, in CW additionally Dirk (DL1KVN), Frank (DK7FH) and Manos (SV1DAY).

It turned out that the Delimara lighthouse is an attractive destination not only for us, but also for some other tourists in the otherwise somewhat desolate southern tip of the island. Some became aware of our activities while photographing the tower and we were able to advertise amateur radio and answer questions several times. Besides the radio operation there was enough time for us to explore the surrounding area in groups. Marssaxlokk as the next town with a picturesque harbor promenade was just as popular for us as the Il-Kalanka bay, a beautiful rocky beach with several meters high rock overhangs. Lucky for those who had bathing suits with them (or could buy them at short notice at the market). The jumps from the rocks into the cool water were for many of us the "non-radio" highlight of the trip and a flashback to childhood.

From a radio point of view, we were able to conclude Saturday with around 550 QSOs in the log – and thus, given the circumstances, quite pleasing. In view of the weakening water supply, clogged drains in the showers and sand in the entire apartment and everywhere, that was a good thing to remark.

Sunday, August 21, 2022: From Sydney to Venezuela

The goal for Sunday was clear: At least 1,000 stations should be in the logbook at the end. Dirk started again today with CW operation on the 30 meter band. He visibly enjoyed working the pileup, more than 50 QSOs were made quickly. From 8 o'clock Benedikt, DG2BPW, and Jürgen, DD2JB, took over the first SSB session. To start, just like the day before, a station from Sydney was reached. However, thanks to pleasantly good conditions, Australia still appeared several times in the log, even a mobile station in the Sydney area (Paul, VK2EIR/M with a very good signal). 

The callsign from Malta was again very popular on Sunday, so that especially in the SSB pileups the logbook filled up quickly. It showed again that the ILLW is really an enjoyable event and especially for beginners a great opportunity to practice "working" a pileup. Since the goal is not to score as many points as possible and there is also no competitive character, there are always short conversations besides the exchange of the reports and the lighthouse reference (for us MT-0001). At least for a few nice greetings there is always enough time. When, after three hours, the microphone was put aside at around 11 a.m., there were already a total of almost 800 entries in the log. The goal of the day was within reach.

A morning call to our host with the request to at least do something about the problems with the water supply and disposal led to a spontaneous but detailed visit of a very talkative local, to whom we – in exchange for insights into the history of the lighthouse – once again explained our radio activities.

In the meantime, Manos had joined us again and we were able to talk in detail about our respective experiences in amateur radio as well as about the Greek method of learning the German language. For the following two hours he then picked up the key and put our call on the air again in CW, this time also on the 20 meter band. In parallel, Dirk, Benedikt and Stephan replaced the groundplane antenna with an ad-hoc knotted vertical monoband dipole for the 10-meter band. Given the creative anchoring of the mast to a stone block lying around and the simple connection technique of the cables, this became known as the "Stone Age" antenna in the team. The antenna now made it possible to operate with two stations in parallel again, since there was hardly any mutual interference. However, since the 10-meter band was not in particularly good condition, only FT8 operation could be carried out there. With low transmit power the log filled up quickly with DX stations from Indonesia and South America and also some European stations. 

Throughout the afternoon and evening the main station remained active, the 20 meter band was a lot of fun. So it didn't take long until the hoped for 1,000th QSO was made. The last shift at the microphone was done by the father-son team Artur, DL3KA, and Benedikt, DL4BP. Thanks to the evening band openings to the west, a number of DX connections were logged, including several to Venezuela. Around midnight 9H6LH left the bands.

Closing and conclusion

Before the stations and antennas were taken down, there was a last window of opportunity early Monday morning for some CW connections on the 40-meter band. 

At the end there are 1,233 connections with 1,117 different callsigns in the logbook. Among them are about 500 QSOs in CW, 600 in SSB and a good 100 in FT8. A total of 67 different DXCC areas were reached, Europe being the clear focus with about 88% of all connections. Reached were altogether about 35 other lighthouses and lightships.

With the first flight on Monday morning at 6 a.m. the first team members, Gisela and Rolf, already left the island, while others got on the plane at noon or in the late afternoon. This left time for early morning swims in the sea, visits to our local contacts in Malta, and a stroll through the city of Valletta, the capital. Frank did not return until Wednesday, so he was able to regale us for two more days with recent photos of the gorgeous surroundings.

Now we are all reminiscing, especially looking at all the great photos of our activities and excursions that SWL Petra took.

We all learned a lot during this weekend: about our teammates – thanks to COVID-19 there was a lack of common activities in the last years – but also about operational technology, antennas, propagation conditions, foreign languages (Malti is really interesting to listen to), international parcel shipping and much more. For similar projects in the future, we will more actively seek contact with local radio amateurs and, if possible, plan travel times so that there is enough time for everyone to experience a little more of the area. Many adversities that may have irritated us for a short time will certainly be remembered less strongly in the long run than the beautiful moments at the radio and away from it. The 9H6LH team will keep this weekend in good memory for a long time and possibly set off again soon for similar activities.

Benedikt, DG2BPW, for the 9H6LH team