GB1BB: A RATHER UNUSUAL SPECIAL EVENT STATION
by Rod Angel G4ZUP –
About 3km north of Cowes, where the Solent, Southampton Water and Spithead all come together, there is a large sandbank: The Bramble Bank.
Though significant, this topographical feature is usually submerged and is generally unnoticed, except by the navigators of large ships who have to steer round it; and by a couple of local yacht clubs who hold an annual cricket match on it in September, when the equinoctial spring tide actually uncovers the top of the Bank.
There are, of course, two equinoxes each year and both are associated with extreme spring tides. But the small island that appears at low water is short-lived and quite inaccessible. It is, by any stretch of the imagination, an unlikely setting for a special event station.
Covid lockdowns changed our behaviour patterns in many different ways. On the Isle of Wight, Radio Society members took to the airwaves as never before, replacing physical club meetings with well‑attended nets; and so did our neighbours at the Fort Purbrook ARC. Almost immediately, these nets collided and, in a spirit of friendly co-operation, became a joint net; controlled by each club on alternate weeks. The combination was soon christened The Bramble Net – a kind of polite nod to the fact that neither club actually ‘owned’ the joint net.
“Ho! Ho!” I joked on the IOWRS shiny new website (with tongue firmly in cheek), “If we’re going to call it The Bramble Net, then perhaps we should have a radio station on the Bramble Bank.”
“That’s a good idea!” responded our Chairman, “I’ll supply the boat.” (You can say that when you are a senior captain in a company that has lots of boats.)
There was no going back. My bluff had been well and truly called, and we had to make it happen.
A plan comes together
As my flippant quip morphed into a serious project, a world of planning considerations emerged. The idea quickly became popular among club members and, with the easing of Covid restrictions, many were happy to take part; but a certain level of physical fitness and nautical nous would be needed by those leaping off a boat to set up radio stations on a very temporary island.
Anyone contemplating such a stunt in a busy commercial waterway would also need to get other stakeholders onside; to do risk assessments; to make provision for possible emergencies; and generally to avoid causing mayhem.
Finally – or perhaps firstly – there had to be a reason for doing it; an objective. The short time available for operation on the sand meant that this could never be the kind of station that chased a QSO count. Nor was it especially DX, just a bit difficult. It did straddle 2 WAB squares, and 2 Locators, but neither was entirely ‘wet’, so no great novelty there.
Gradually we settled on some key selling points: It would be a fun thing to do; and fun for people who were younger and fitter than most of us. There was obvious potential for some interesting photographs, and it would be a great PR opportunity for amateur radio in general, and for the IOWRS in particular. We could show how diverse and inclusive out hobby really is, and how it’s a great practical application of STEM subjects. We just needed some operators who didn’t have grey hair!
Preparation – the secret ingredient
JOTA 2021 had given us an opportunity to meet local scout troops, and to show off amateur radio to many young people. The experience was clearly enjoyed by both sides, and some of the scouts had shown considerable interest in radio. Now, a few emails to scout leaders quickly identified two willing volunteers.
“You’ll need to be licensed,” I explained. “OK. How do we do that?” There was no time for the niceties of good teaching practice. I pushed a Foundation Licence Manual into their hands. “Read that and then sit the exam on-line.” It was a big ask. At just 14 years of age, our youngest volunteer had not yet covered some of the basic physics in school. But with gentle encouragement, a bit of support from the on-line invigilators, and a lot of their own hard work, both candidates secured M7 calls in the few weeks available before the event. ML&S recognised this achievement, and kindly gifted a Baofeng radio for use by our new recruits. Our Chairman kindly gifted a second radio.
ML&S also gave us a light-weight HF radio for the event, and a couple of our more-established M7s immediately began training on this, guided by one of our most experienced HF operators.
Happily, our operators were no strangers to boats. All had completed RYA courses and spent many hours on the water; but they were still novice radio operators, with no experience of handling the kind of pile-up that a special event station can attract. To help them cope, a team of more‑experienced operators would establish an on-shore monitoring and logging station, and be prepared to step in and act as net controllers if the need arose.
With both ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ crews now training for the event, attention to technical matters became a priority. Our crew transport was to be a repurposed lifeboat – an ideal craft which had been designed for beach launch and recovery. Its spacious cabin had room for all our equipment, and gave us options for on-board radio operation if the weather turned inclement. It also had an MF/HF vertical antenna, which was easily tuned to 40m. The aluminium cabin roof necessitated outside antennas for 2m and 70cm too, so we set to work building a couple of marinised SlimJims that would replace redundant marine antennas.
The plan for disembarked operation was quite simple. Operation on 2m FM simplex, and on 70cm through GB3IW, was to be carried out with hand-held radios. The HF radio would sit on a picnic table, with a tuned vertical antenna. A length of copper pipe driven into the sand, and a short earth lead, would ensure this rig was connected to the world’s best ground plane. What could possibly go wrong?
Well first, we had to disembark. The lifeboat drew about 1m of water, which meant that as the boat settled onto the sand on the falling tide, we should still have 1m of water all around us. We should then have to wait for the tide to fall a further metre before we could get off the boat and onto the sand. There would then be a ‘feet‑dry’ period as the tide continued to fall to a low-water point, and then to rise back up to our level. As the sand flooded, we should have to re-board the lifeboat, and then wait for the tide to rise another metre before we could re-float and go home.
How long would all this take? How long might we get on the sand? And what should we do if one of our crew became ill or injured whilst the boat was aground? We needed a detailed picture of the tide, but tidal curves are only estimates; extrapolations of measured curves from a few standard ports. As we pondered this point our friends at the UK Hydrographic Office came up trumps, producing high-resolution tide curves for us, which covered our landing area for the few days when a possible tidal window existed. From these curves we could see immediately that our time on the sand might be nearly an hour, whilst the aground‑but‑flooded periods before and after could each be as much as an hour and a half; a total period of almost four hours when there would be no possibility getting the lifeboat under way.
We clearly needed a safety boat with a very shallow draught; something like a RHIB. Now where would we find one of those? “OK, I’ll get you a RHIB as well … and I suppose you’ll need a driver for it.” “Yes, please! …and the club can provide a crewman.”
When it comes to marginal beaches, the predicted height of the tide is only part of the story. The actual height of the tide is also influenced by barometric pressure, and by wind. We needed high barometric pressure, with a light and variable wind which tended to be easterly more than westerly; and we needed a reliable specialist to advise us when, or if, that was likely to occur during our very limited tidal windows. Enter Jim Bacon, G3YLA, retired television weather man and consummate expert on the interactions between weather and amateur radio. “I can give you the bigger picture,” explained Jim, “and I can probably do that a few days in advance. But you’ll need to look at local conditions for the detail.” Perfect!
One by-product of Covid restrictions, which made few headlines, was actually a minor relaxation of restrictions: The Ofcom requirement for special event stations to be publicly accessible was quietly suspended, and remains so even today. There was thus no regulatory barrier to a special‑event callsign, and an NoV for GB1BB – the first station on the Bramble Bank – was duly issued.
Now all we needed was advertising, to make sure GB1BB had some stations to work when (if) we got out there. A short video for the IOWRS website started the ball rolling. “We have two possible shots at this,” I told members, “the first around the actual equinox, 19-20 March, and the second at the back end of the Easter weekend; but we need to be ready to go in March if the weather is OK, because the weather at Easter might not be OK – and we won’t know that so far in advance.”
With a couple of draft texts prepared for future GB2RS broadcasts (nearer the time), I felt we had done just about everything we could possibly do to be as ready as possible for the Bramble Bank endeavour. Endeavour was – appropriately – also the name of our lifeboat.
A touch of reality
“Make sure you get a good picture that we can use for the QSL card,” said Paul G0GMY with a smile. He had run a print business in earlier life, and knew all about that sort of thing. “We have to get there first,” I replied. I really had not meant to sound quite so negative, but I was acutely aware of the fragility of the whole project. So many things had to align at just the right time, and in just the right place, including the notoriously variable British weather. It had always been a long shot.
The first week of March passed and, as the vernal equinox approached, it became obvious that we were not going to be ready. Endeavour was only just back in the water after a long lay-up, and needed some basic sea trials before we could use her. Then we had to fit the SlimJim aerials. The man from whom we were to collect the HF rig was off work with Covid; and one of our operators had not yet passed her Foundation exam. Like it or not, GB1BB, if it happened at all, was going to be an Easter holiday event.
We watched with gritted teeth as the equinox came and went with perfect weather and sea conditions – and we wondered about our chances for a month hence.
There were still things that could usefully be done, so we busied ourselves and tried not to think about Easter weather in Britain. The ‘dry crew’ rigged and tested the monitoring station. Endeavour spent a weekend in the Island Harbour Marina, where we took the opportunity for the ‘wet crew’ to do some familiarisation; and to fit the second SlimJim. We practised rigging the HF station on the beach at East Cowes, and successfully contacted the ‘dry crew’ with it.
A week before Easter, I was on the phone to Jim. “Well,” he said, “I think you might just get lucky. The models all have Easter Sunday looking nice, but then it gets rapidly worse. Monday does not look at all good, and we might have a gale blowing up the Solent by Tuesday.”
“But we should get Sunday?”
“Yes. At the moment, that looks most likely, but the forecast will probably change a bit as we get nearer to the weekend.”
I emailed the crews, telling everyone that we had one shot. It was Sunday or not at all. A similar message went out on GB2RS and on ML&S TV. On Good Friday I called Jim again.
“It’s actually looking better than it was,” he said cheerily. “The low that was expected to come in on Monday is not properly formed yet; and when it is, it will probably go a bit further north. So you might be in with a chance on Monday as well, if you need it. But the barometric pressure is falling, and the wind is moving around to the west and strengthening, so not really ideal for you.”
I decided to keep that piece of good news in my back pocket, and to press on with Sunday’s plan.
As predicted, the conditions on Easter Sunday were near-perfect for our project: Sunny and dry, with unlimited visibility and light winds which tended to be easterly rather than westerly; barometer showing 1022 hPa; base prediction for low water of 49cm above chart datum; and all done at a sociable time of day. We planned to be back home in time for tea and medals.
We were feeling pretty good as we set out. In due course, the boat settled onto the sand – a bit later than expected, but without drama – and we waited for the water to go down … and we waited, and waited, and watched as a significant island appeared 200m to the east of us. But our bit never actually dried out, and the water between us and the beach was too deep to wade. It got down to about 30cm around our boat, but then started to rise again.
A ladder over the side, and a cautious paddle, confirmed that we were not going to get the team or kit disembarked, despite a helpful offer from our RHIB crew to ferry us to and from the beach. So, instead, we set up the HF rig as G4ZUP/MM using the boat’s original MF/HF vertical antenna. The ladies operated /M on 2m and 70cm using our bespoke SlimJim antennas on the cabin roof. But GB1BB was a non-starter.
Now, this is where the ‘met’ situation awareness really helped. On the transit back, the skipper and I mused, and considered our options. The one-shot do-or-die weather had moderated and Monday, though less favourable, was not obviously impossible. All the conditions would worsen a little, but none was an obvious show-stopper; so there was some potential for a second attempt, albeit marginal. We decided to have another go.
Its a bit too far
Monday was indeed marginal. About the only good bit was the sunshine and lack of rain. A fresh wind over a slackening tide produced some uncomfortable chop, making station keeping on the Bank almost impossible; and when the boat did eventually settle onto the sand it was around 50m east of where we wanted to be, and just about in the surf line.
After engine shutdown the boat began to wallow, and a last-minute attempt to turn her head with engine power had to be discontinued when the port engine refused to start. As the water went down we were subjected to a few minutes of vigorous rolling (enough to throw the HF rig off its bench and onto the cabin floor), and then relative calm.
This time the island appeared to the west of us. It was much smaller than it had been the day before. Then another, even smaller, appeared closer in. It was that now-or-never moment. We got the ladder over the side again, and I descended for a trial wade. At low-water time it was just about down to welly depth, so the operating team paddled across to the nearest bit of dry sand for a quick photo shoot; proof that we had really been on the Bramble Bank.
Standing out on the sand felt better than I could have imagined; but whilst our young team savoured the moment, I watched as the rising spring tide behind them started to fill in the gap between us and the boat. It was definitely time to go!
Back on the boat, we were still technically sitting on the sandbank, so we figured that GB1BB was legitimate – and this time we had actually stood on dry land. The station went on air on all three bands, using the installed antennas, and a gratifying pile-up developed almost immediately. Less than an hour later, the boat began to re-float and we pulled the plug on GB1BB – but by then there were lots of happy teddies.
As we prepared to leave the Bank, the starboard engine was re-started, but nothing we tried would wake up the port engine. The resulting single-engine transit back to Cowes was uneventful but, with an awkward combination of wind and tide, our skipper was never going to get bored. A bigger challenge still awaited at the marina. Here he had to manoeuvre our 15-ton metal boat, on asymmetric power in a fresh wind, between some very expensive yachts. This was no place to make a mistake! Happily the combination of many years boat handling experience, good seamanship, and our RHIB (now re-tasked as a tug) got us safely parked in short order.
The team having a well deserved drink.
Was it all worth it? Well, judging from the smiling faces around our club, and the new members we are beginning to attract, the answer must surely be “Yes!”
GB1BB was never going to break any log book records, but our ‘dry crew’ recorded 119 QSOs with 94 different operators. We thought that was not too shabby for three Foundation licensees who had an operating window of just under an hour – and who managed their own pile‑ups with minimal intervention from those ashore. To be fair, our ‘dry crew’ had been warming up a queue of stations, all anxious to work GB1BB, for some time before the SES opened for business; and on 40m the queue had to be deftly QSY’d when our now-battered HF radio became stuck on one frequency.
We should like to say a big “Thank you!” to all our sponsors; and to all the stations who called in, whether or not they made it into the GB1BB log. We have produced a special QSL card, and all the QSL requests from confirmed contacts have been answered.
It was a fun thing to do, and we have some nice pictures for presentations to scout troops, schools, and any other interested parties.
Would we do it again? Certainly not! We’ve done that now. Next time it will be something else that is novel and interesting – and maybe just a tiny bit whacky. Whatever that turns out to be, details will be posted first here on IOWRS.org So, watch this space!
Appendix – GB1BB Operating crews
Steve 2E0RQD HF monitoring, logging, recording, and net control.
Paul G0GMY HF assistant net control (remote station).
Alan G0VPO 2m FM monitoring, recording, and net control.
John M7JGK 2m FM logging.
Peter 2E1PHW 70cm (GB3IW) monitoring, recording, and net control.
Jan M7JMK 70cm (GB3IW) logging.
Joe G6RTE Senior Captain. (licensee for some /MM)
Rod G4ZUP GB1BB Licensee / photo / safety. (licensee for some /MM)
Nicholas M7BOY GB1BB HF operator.
Efia M7DCQ GB1BB 2m FM operator.
Lizzie M7CZW GB1BB 70cm (GB3IW) operator.
George M6CYN RHIB Coxswain (Sunday).
Rob M3RGP RHIB crewman (Sunday) / Coxswain (Monday) / reserve HF operator.
Linda RHIB crewman (Monday).