In our amateur radio community we generally speak about Spratly when referring to the area that comprises of a lot of shallow islands and atolls. Different names exist and moreover, each claiming country has its own name for a particular island or atoll. Swallow Reef generally used as the name on Admiralty charts is better known to us as Pulau Layang Layang (Place of Swallows in the local Malaysian language) or Danwan Jiao in Chinese and Đá Hoa Lau in Vietnamese. As with all of the Spratly Islands, the ownership of Swallow Reef is disputed, but it is controlled by Malaysia. The island serves primarily as Malaysia’s claim to ownership of this section of the Spratly Islands, i.e. those which lie closer to its land area. The Malaysian Navy has a naval base on Swallow Reef since 1983 and a dive resort has operated on the island for a number of years.
It is uncertain, whether this is an oceanic island formed by coral growth capping an extinct undersea volcano or a sunken mountain. Specialists believe that thirteen coral reefs linked up to form the 7.3km long, 2.2km wide atoll. The 20m deep enclosed lagoon, with its fixed mooring buoys, is the only safe anchorage in this remote region.
Living in Malaysia is a great opportunity to explore that beautiful country with the many attractions and fantastic landscape. Apart from the highlands, rainforests and the many nice islands, there is another great opportunity if you are a radio amateur. Once I knew that I would stay for a while in Malaysia, I was committed to be active from Spratly, or for the Malaysian situation, Pulau Layang Layang.
Spratly has my special interest as I still remember very well the tragic attempt by four German operators that wanted to activate Spratly from the island Abonya Cay. I was asked to join this operation but for personal reasons I had to reject. Since that moment I followed the voyage of the Germans when enroute to their destination in the South China Sea. There were daily skeds with operators around the world but also with US stations located at the military base in the Philippines. One morning, a message was sent that they were shot from a military settlement op Abonya Cay. One person was killed immediately and some others wounded. With the catamaran set on fire, they managed to escape in a small dinghy. For the next 11 days they were drifting at the South China Sea without food and water. After a few days a second German died which left DJ6SI, DF6FK, the skipper and his wife in the small boat. Only on the 11th day they were rescued by a big transport vessel. This ordeal was not only extensively covered by the amateur radio media but also by the normal media.
Although lots of efforts by the ham community were initiated to start rescue operations, for political reasons these initiatives could not be effectuated. The Spratly area is disputed by most countries surrounding the South China Sea and all claiming parts or all of the islands and small coral islands and atolls. This area is not without reason called “dangerous area” on a number of maps. For any country going for a rescue action would immediately lead to tensions and possible more political trouble.
A great part underneath the South China Sea contains oil and hence the strong intention of a number of countries to claim islands in this area to make their territorial claims. This goes to the extent that very small islands will be turned into a military base or fortress or shallow waters and reefs will be turned into a small island in order to be claimed for a military base. Countries that have claimed or still claim parts of the South China Sea or in particular the Spratly area are: China, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
I dont want to go into details on the claims and political issues that are connected to all the small islands and atolls in this area but you can easily find further information on the internet.
What do you need to operate from Layang Layang
In the first place a radio license from MCMC, the license authority that is located in Cyberjaya, just south of Kuala Lumpur. Secondly you need to have clearance from the Royal Malaysian Navy, Markas Wilayah Laut 2 office in Kota Kinabalu (Sabah) as they do have a naval base on the island and control the island. Once you have both, you are ready to book your stay at the Layang Layang Resort, which is a diving resort. Upon arrival, the resort manager has to submit your license and navy approval to the head of the naval base and who will give his final approval before you can start your operation. This might involve also an inspection of your station as well. As in so many other cases around the world, some people have not handled according to the instructions which have led to more strict operations.
Layang Layang Resort organizes their own flights from Kota Kinabalu to the island and this is carried out by a Russian company that operates an AH-28-120 plane with 20 seats. In addition they also operate a cargo plane. It is also possible to book a vessel for Layang Layang. This might be an alternative if you want to bring a lot of equipment to the island.
Finally the approval arrived
In the weeks before my scheduled trip to Layang Layang, I started to organize my equipment, logging software, transportation, etc. However, the final booking for the resort would depend on the approval of the Navy, as without that approval, I would not be able to operate legally. The Layang Layang Resort was very helpful in this process, but it was very hard to reach the right person in the navy. Only a few days before my scheduled trip, the approval was received. Actually, at the same time I was writing my mail to the resort that I had decided to cancel the trip due to the fact that I did not receive a naval approval, the message came in that the approval was on hand. Now I had to quickly make my final transport and hotel arrangements to secure my scheduled trip. Flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu was arranged plus a one night in Kota Kinabalu.
After a few days the trip could start. I arrived in the evening in Kota Kinabalu and it turned out that my hotel booking was not arranged but was able to get a room. The hotel was good and even with free WiFi which was really fast. I even could get my breakfast at my room at 04:00 hr. It was only 10 minutes by taxi tot the airport, terminal 2. It was not clear where the Layang Layang counter was but after some searching I spotted a sign post. Later some people of the Layang Layang resort showed up but the lady who had to do the check-in (and had all the relevant documents) came too late. Gradually more people (divers, mostly from Hong Kong, Japan and some Europeans) showed up and they started to check in.
The check-in procedure was funny. After processing of the documents, you also have go on the scale yourself together with the hand luggage. In my case, it turned out to be easy as the scale goes only till 100 KG and gave an error. No extra charge for me! However, you have to be prepared not to bring too much excess luggage as it might be refused or charged for. Imagine that you are flying on a small plane and every kilo is important. I had carefully selected what I absolutely needed and what I could leave home. That had resulted in a total weight of 35 KG of luggage. This consisted of radio, antennas, coax, laptop, photo camera, all other equipment and tools and as less as possible cloths.
Once we were ready to board, we walked to the plane. Once in the plane I discovered that it was a Russian plane, including 2 Russian pilots and their Russian instructor. I got the impression that the pilots still had to learn how to fly as the instructor always spoke to them and most of the time hung into the cockpit, even during take-off and landing. Nevertheless, we managed to reach the island but it was a strange experience.
We arrived at the island at about 08:30 local time. I first got room 1326 which was absolutely a disaster for me, so I asked the management if I could get one on the other end of the block. Later I got room 1302 which was at the end of the block and gave me a good position to place the antenna in the garden next to the building and run the coax cable easily into the room.
In the meantime I handed over my papers to the resort manager who was going to submit them to the commander of the naval base on the island. Not long after I had established my radio and erected the vertical in the garden, I got the approval and could start the operation.
During the first day on the island I was also able to use the WiFi internet access of the lobby, but already the next day problems occurred with the WiFi router which left us without internet for the rest of the stay.
After operating for about half a day I discovered that the vertical antenna probably did not radiate well and decided to relocate it further from the housing block and more closer to the sea. I first rolled out the coax to mark the maximum distance I could cover with the coax. Next I erected the vertical again, fixing it with guy wires to whatever I could find (piece of concrete, old tree trunk, etc.). After some operating I had the impression that the antenna was much better performing. The same day I also hung the G5RV dipole in a tree next to my room. I was unable to get it at a good height but it was more for the case that something would happen to the other antenna and could switch directly to the dipole. This switching was done by loosening the coax from the vertical and connecting it to the dipole.
One of my concerns was the coax to the vertical, which was running over a small concrete road. This road was used by the military personnel to go from the base to the quay where a big navy vessel was anchored. They crossed this road sometimes with small but heavy lorries that could easily crush my small coax cable. Fortunately, the coax remained in good shape till the end of the operation.
In general, the conditions during the day were poor and tried to use those times for leisure, going out on a boat trip with divers or making photos of the island. Food was served 4 times a day which was good, but I made sure I had something to eat and to drink also during the evening and night hours. I maintained a bit odd schedule and this was also recognized by some of the other guests. I did not even join them for diving, so what was I actually doing on the island. Most of you may have come across people asking this question and it always nice to see the reactions when you try to explain about this strange hobby, although diving for far from home will help a little bit to understand.
One of the problems I encountered during this operation was the interference with other DX stations. Because of my weak signal the started their CQ close or on top of me. This was sometimes quite troublesome and confusing for the other end. In other cases I had to use the 2nd VFO intensively and tuning the pile-up, which is a practice I use rarely. Normally I prefer to work split but do not tune the VFO a lot and stick to one or few frequencies instead.
One day, we had an enormous rain shower. After a while I discovered that the SWR went high on a few bands. I suspected the connecting barrel half way the coax, but even after thoroughly drying it did not change the situation. It must have been a problem with the antenna as after a few hours the situation improved and went back to normal again.
My departure from the island was scheduled for Tuesday, 23 April. During the Monday I prepared most of the packing but left the necessary equipment so I could operate till the last moment. On Tuesday morning at 06:00 hr I had packed everything and ready for departure. Again we had to do some weighting after which all the luggage was moved to the runway. After the plane arrived, I met the same Russian instructor next to the plane. I asked him if he could make a nice circle around the island to allow me to make a nice picture. He said he would consider it.
Once everything was packed, we were ready to go at about 08:00 hrs and the plane taxied to his position. Just 5 seconds after the pilot started to release the breaks, he had to stop. I turned out that a goat or small animal was crossing the runway. Quickly he continued his take-off and we made a safe landing the Kota Kinabalu airport around 09:00 hrs. From there I took the plane to Kuala Lumpur where I arrive at home the same day.
A special thanks should go to the staff of Layang layang Resort for their king support for this operation. Without their help I would not have made this trip. I like to thank in particular Mr. Lawrence Lee,Vicky Lee, Hooiyin Liew and Mr. Eugene Foo the resort manager.
Contact details are:Layang Layang Island Resort Sdn Bhd (Kuala Lumpur Sales & Reservation Office)
Block A, Ground Floor, A-0-3, Megan Avenue II, 12, Jalan Yap Kwan Seng, 50450 Kuala Lumpur, West Malaysia.