Interview with James Brooks-9V1YC

Posted: September 1, 2014 in Uncategorized


Here is an interview with James, 9V1YC, who shares some of his ideas on DXing and DXpeditioning.

 Paul: I know that you live in and work in Singapore. You are in the video business?
James: I run a television post production company.  Most of our work is editing, coloring and packaging of programs for channels such as Discovery, National Geographic, History, Lifetime, Food Network etc… Singapore is the regional hub for most of the big TV networks, and we’re part of that business.  We also do work on feature films, commercials and videos.

Paul: What first attracted you to radio?   Where/how did you start?   I know that you were 12 when first licensed?

James: There was a club station in my local school and nearby summer camp, and back then (the late 70’s) ham radio was a popular attraction for kids my age.  I was introduced to it by one of the school’s physics teachers who was a very active ham. 

Paul: You are an incredible CW Op. I assume that is the mode you prefer. How did you develop and hone your skills. You have terrific stamina and you are able to operate for long periods.

James: I really enjoy CW, and yes, it’s been my preferred mode ever since I was first licensed.  I enjoy high speed CW rag chewing as much as contesting or Dxpeditioning, so running for long stretches is not difficult at all – especially when a pileup takes on an organized, smooth rate.  But honestly, most of the great contest operators have much more stamina than me.  At least with Dxpeditioning I don’t have to operate for 24 hours nonstop.  I can sleep and take breaks. 

Paul:  I know that you were a part of VK0IR, A52A, FO0AAA, ZL9CI, VP8THU/VP8GEO, FT5XO, ZL8R, BS7H, K4M, VP8ORK. Of course, your most recent 4W operation . Can you share where else/what other operations you have done?

James: I’ve also operated from 9M0, VK9X, XU, XW, H40, H44, KH8, E51, 3B8, FR5… and I few more I’ve probably forgotten. This is an interesting side of the world for radio. Though we’re too far away from North America and Europe to be competitive in contests, there are plenty of nice radio locations within a short flight from here that make regular DX operating enjoyable.

Paul: Tell us about what you enjoy most during a Dxpedition?  Is it catching the perfect shot on video?  The camaraderie of the team?

James: Shooting and producing videos about the large expeditions is something I really enjoy, and that comes from my professional background in television editing. Its fun to weave in the history, culture and even personalities behind each destination and add some color to a DXpedition story.  Without that I’d just be documenting the same people putting up the same antennas and running the same pileups. Travelling with good friends who share the same interests is also something I enjoy.  As my old buddy Wes, W3WL loves to say, “a DXpedition is just a catalyst – an excuse for your buddies to get together and go someplace weird”. Most remote islands look the same, right? And pileups all sound the same too. Its the people you travel with and the adventures that unfold that make the difference – not the pileups.   I’ve made many lifelong friends from these trips.

Paul: James, who are your Dxpedition mentors?

James: There are many of course, but I would have to say that Peter, ON6TT is one DXpeditioner who I learned a lot from.  He had an amazing amount of energy and passion for DXpeditioning, and that was just awesome to watch in action at VK0IR.  He’s also a gifted storyteller which had a big influence on my own way of telling a story. He’s not really active these days but I know he’s still just as energetic about his work and travels. Fred Laun, K3ZO was on the DX end of a pileup for many years, and is also someone who I admire tremendously.  Fred has a lifetime of adventures that revolve around DX, and has become something of a legend out here in Southeast Asia. If you ever get a chance to sit down with Fred and hear some of his stories you’re in for a treat.

Paul: Tell us about the “Microlite” approach and the philosophy behind it?

James: The Microlite DXpedition was (and still is) a very controversial idea. Even now, most well-known DXpeditoners disagree with the concept. Essentially, it flips the classic DXpedition idea on its head. It puts the burden of working a rare entity on the DXer at home, rather than the DXpedition itself.  A less-is-more kind of thing. 

The basic idea is to take a small team, lightweight gear, low power and simple antennas, but make the folks at home put up the big stuff and sharpen their skills in order to work us. If that makes it more of a challenge – so be it. Why should we risk our lives hauling amplifiers up a frozen rock just because some guy with his indoor dipole can’t hear us?  Should we always cater to the lowest common denominator?  Wouldn’t it be more exciting if the indoor dipole guy secretly extended his wire outside when nobody was looking – just to work us?  

These are questions which can be debated of course, but a least we brought a new idea to the table. The Microlite DXpeditoon can be considered the exact opposite of the mega-DXpediton.  The ones that aim to carpet-bomb the bands 24/7 with big teams, big signals and big QSO numbers. Their motto is “everyone gets in the log”.  Even that guy running an indoor dipole.  I equate this to the “every kid is a winner” concept, where the whole class gets a prize no matter who wins the potato race. Is this an achievement?  Maybe. I certainly don’t think its wrong, especially if Johnny Dipole is happy.  In fact, I personally enjoy both styles.  But I do think its more exciting when there’s just a little more challenge for the guy at home.  If everyone easily fills their bingo cards with 26 band-modes from a loud, $500,000 DXpedition where’s the excitement?  

The Microlite DXpedition concept was also born out of necessity.  It was originally thought up by EI6FR, N5KO and myself when we applied for a permit to South Sandwich in 2000.  Two previous DXpeditions nearly ended in tragedy when violent storms and volcanic eruptions forced them to evacuate.  Because of what happened the British authorities were not interested in allowing non-scientific persons – especially inexperienced radio operators – on South Sandwich again. The evidence, they said, was still there:  The abandoned remains of a 4 element yagi and some tents still lie in the snow on Thule Island after the 1992 DXpedition barely escaped with their lives.  The British warned us that the islands were extremely dangerous and we needed to prove we could get on and off quickly –  without killing ourselves (or the penguins who lived there).  They were emphatic there would be no rescue if something bad happened. Clearly, hauling a huge container-load of radios, generators, amplifiers, food, water, tents, fuel and antennas onto those wind-swept islands was not going to work, and neither was a risky helicopter flight. So, we were forced to change the game in order to get our permit.  We ditched all the heavy stuff normally associated with big DXpeditions and made each station small enough fit in a backpack.  No Yagis, no amps, no big radios, no 160m antennas and no heavy generators. Small TS-50s, switching power supplies, 100 watts, verticals, and a few of those new (at the time)  Honda 1KW inverter generators. Just enough generator power to fire up four stations with a light, a laptop and a small heater.

Older DXpeditioners all thought we were nuts to go to such a rare island with just TS-50s and verticals. Even some of our own team thought we were nuts.  One of them (now a well-known DXpeditioner) even tried to sneak in an amplifier in with his personal gear because he just couldn’t handle the thought of running barefoot from a top-ten entity.  But the British bought it, and after months of negotiation we got our permit. It was limited to 4 days but at least we got one. We bagged 27,000 Q’s in 80 hours on the air.  And, just like the previous trips, narrowly escaped from a dangerous storm. 

We also froze our butts off in the process. Many DXers still question why we didn’t bring big amplifiers and low-band antennas down to South Sandwich.  But they don’t understand just how difficult it was to get a permit, or how dangerous those islands are.  They regularly get volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricane-force winds and heavy snowstorms.  And most of the year they’re locked in by ice or blocked by icebergs. There are even packs of aggressive fur seals who roam the beaches making it difficult to move around (even a small bite from a baby fur seal can kill a grown man). When we’re out there, alone at the end of the world and without any hope of rescue in an environment that can wipe us out in minutes, things like 160m drop down on the priority list. 

Paul: James, any regrets or things you would do differently?  Bring amplifiers to South Sandwich?

James: And as far as amplifiers on South Sandwich goes, like I said before, those were not something we had an option to bring.  People still don’t get this.   Other regrets?  I would have taken a lighter sleeping bag to Heard Island and a heavier one to South Sandwich. Both places I got it wrong and paid for it.   I would have also taken different tents to South Sandwich.  The ones we took were supposedly top-end, fast-strike Antarctic rated shelters, and were very expensive. But in the end we realized that South Sandwich needed tents that can take a beating in heavy rain, wind and mud. I would have taken a better cook to Kerguelen.  We suffered on that trip, and by the end we were really starving for something edible.  Unfortunately we didn’t know the cook was so bad until we were way out in the Indian Ocean.  I still have nightmares about the food on that trip.

Paul: Have you had any dangerous encounters on a Dxpedition?

James: We have been in some nasty storms in the Southern Ocean which scared the pants off me.  The return journey from South Georgia was so bad that the authorities in the Falklands were actually worried we wouldn’t make it back.  The first 24 hours returning from Heard Island was even worse.  Being on a large ship doing 40 degree rolls is freaky. Getting off South Sandwich was probably the most dangerous thing we’ve ever done.  That required jumping off a cliff into a zodiac in huge sea swells and 50 knot winds.   We literally had to throw our gear into the boats before we jumped.  (Shall we talk about those amplifiers again?).

Paul: What is your favorite, most enjoyable Dxpedition location?

James: Heard Island, VK0IR.  1997.   Every member of that 20-man team will give you the same answer.

Paul: James, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this interview, and thank you for doing all that you do for the DX Community.

  1. Glenn KE4KY says:

    It is truly refreshing to hear a DXpedition participant speak so candidly about the risks and trials associated with a radio expedition to a distant and not-so-friendly environment. The concept of the Micro-lite Penguins DXpedition Team is very fascinating to me personally, and I believe that those that fostered this idea are spot-on with their observations and with their desire to make the DX experience truly a “hunt” for that coveted QSO. Having seen many of the activations of the Micro-lite group on DVD, I truly admire the concept and appreciate their efforts.

    There is an unfortunate belief among the many self-professed “DXers” in our ranks that it is the responsibility of the DX station to get them into the log, rather than placing the onus upon themselves for doing everything possible to capture that much needed contact. All one has to do is read the internet forums and see the endless criticisms directed toward DXpedition teams on their operating practices. Unfortunately, for many, instant gratification takes way too long in today’s world.

    I truly admire folks like Mr. Brooks that make the DXing aspect of our hobby so interesting and personally rewarding. Having had a taste of how difficult it is to put much needed entities on the air, I am simply in awe of the many accomplished DXpedition teams and team leaders that are currently active among our ranks. The resources required, the time commitments involved, and the ever increasing expense of activating rare DX locations are all too often overlooked by the casual DXer. I am so very glad that there are many that remain undeterred in providing a worthwhile experience to those of us sitting at home in the comfort of our easy chair and heated/cooled shack waiting for the opportunity to find a place in the log with a “rare one!”

    Glenn Petri KE4KY
    (ZL9HR 2012, VK9MT 2014)

  2. ky6r says:

    The Microlite Penguins are in my top 3 of all time best DX-peditioners. I’ll never forget FT5XO (Kerguelin) – and how the team knew propagation and set up their antennas so that I could work them on 5 bands – and where their signals pounded into the West Coast. Their operators – especially CW are some of the best of any group.

  3. Mike KJ4Z says:

    Great interview. The Microlite Penguins were before (and after!) my time, but I really hope to work them one day. I like the concept.

  4. Jonathan W6GX says:

    My one and only contact with the Microlites was on 20m SSB with VP8ORK. I was a newbie DX’er at the time and I had just put up a two-element yagi at 25′ in a HOA-controlled neighborhood. Prior to that contact I never really heard any rare dxpeditions using a G5RV. At the time I didn’t know how rare VP8/O is. Now I do! I have the DVD for VP8ORK and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the video.

  5. Brad Hurley - KB1CN says:

    Hi Jim – glad to see you are still active with the hamming after all these years, and that you’ve found a way to go to all these far-flung places around the world at the same time. I still remember heading into NYC with you for my first exposure to dim sum and a visit to the FCC office to take our licensing exams. I’m also glad to see that you credit our school club (K1UAT) and Mr. Georgis for getting a start — I still remember Walter debugging his logging program at 2AM during the middle of a contest while we slept on the floor in a classroom – those were the days…

  6. Peter Casier says:

    Hey James… Thanks for the compliment… 🙂

    And indeed also for me, VK0IR comes right there at the top of the best projects I’ve ever participated in. Not just in ham radio, but overall… A large and diverse team, complex operation, against odds of weather and propagation, risky budget, but flawlessly executed by a team of 20…

    Peter – ON6TT

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