A QRP Odyssey to Portsmouth Island

Throughout my life, I have often felt the need to seek nature’s solitude.  When I was a young lad, I would walk a couple miles to my best friend’s house, and then we would continue walking to one of several farm ponds on the outskirts of our small town to do some fishing or to explore the surrounding woods.

Years later, I still find myself seeking quiet, out of the way spots, whether it be deep in the woods, along a riverbank, or at the sea coast.

I invite you to return with me to one of those special places, Cedar Island, which I first visited in 2003, and have later returned to several times.


Cedar Island Sign


Cedar Island is easy to find.  You take NC Hwy 12 East until the road dead ends at the Pamlico Sound.  As you approach Cedar Island, you will see vast areas covered with sawgrass and narrow waterways.

Lola from Hwy 12


The Pamlico Sound is part of a larger estuary system that covers more than 3,000 sq. mi. of open water.  The Sound is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a narrow sliver of sand known as Portsmouth Island, or Core Banks.

My journey began at a secluded boat ramp near the community of Lola.  If you look carefully at the photo above, you might be able to make out a treeline which abruptly ends.  This is where the tall pine trees meet the Sound.

In the photo below, my sea kayak was loaded with camping gear, food, radio gear, and a 2 element 40M phased vertical array for a three day excursion from Cedar Island to Portsmouth Island.


Lola Boat Ramp


The crossing from Lola to Portsmouth Island was about seven miles, with five islands serving as waypoints, the first of which was Hog Island.  Hog Island is actually composed of several islands bearing the same name.  The ponies on the island are descended from Spanish Mustangs.


Hog Island Camping Spot 2


The next two islands were Chainshot and Harbor Islands.  Harbor Island is an especially interesting island.  From a distance, it reminded me of Stonehenge, with what looked like three columns rising from the water.


Harbor island 6


As I got closer, I observed that the original structure was built with a “tabby” mixture of seashells, mortar, and sand. The entire island is now about a third the size of a football field and is under the protection of the Audubon Society.  As such, no camping is allowed on this island during most of the year.

Intrigued as to the history of this structure out in the middle of the Pamlico Sound, I was later directed to the book Carteret Waterfowl Heritage by Jack Dudley, which chronicled the purchase of this five acre island in 1886.  The following year, The Harbor Island Club was formed, and for the next 5 or 6 decades waterfowl hunters used the clubhouse as their base of operations.


Harbor island 8


After eating lunch on Harbor Island, I headed for my final two waypoints, Wainwright and Shell Islands. From the perspective of a kayak, these islands were just visible from Harbor Island, about a mile distant, with Wainwright on the right and Shell Island another half mile to the left of Wainwright.  I used a handheld GPS receiver to ensure correct headings.


Shell and Wainwright Islands from Harbor Island


It was interesting to see that Wainwright had been claimed as a nesting site by scores of pelicans, and they were definitely not shy to let me know that I’d best keep on paddling!  So I paddled well offshore and decided to rest on nearby Shell Island, which is crescent shaped with no substantial vegetation to support bird colonies.




The good news was that after several hours of paddling, I could now clearly see my destination, Portsmouth Island.  The weather was beautiful, and the journey had gone without incident.

As I approached to within 1/2 mile of Portsmouth Island, the water depth decreased from 3 feet to about 6 inches.  It was odd being so far from shore, yet not having enough water depth to keep from bottoming out as I paddled.

I decided to step out of the kayak and send it to its destination with an occasional soft nudge using my right foot.  After about 20 minutes of perfecting this technique, I was finally rewarded with dry beach beneath my feet.  By the way,  I encountered many good size blue crabs as I traversed the shallow water.




My immediate goal was to get my tent set up first and then concentrate on setting up the antenna system.  The wind was moderate, between 10-15 mph, which tried to turn my tent into a kite, but I eventually got it staked down to my satisfaction.

Next it was time to try out the fun stuff– my prototype 40M vertical array.  An earlier 20M vertical array design had worked very well.  Would the 40M design work just as well?  This array consisted of two vertical elements, each 1/4 wavelength long, with the verticals separated 1/2 wavelength (68′).




A simple phasing controller was positioned midway between the two verticals in my tent.  This made it easy to switch the phase relationship between the two verticals for one of two conditions–either bidirectional end-fire directivity or bidirectional broadside directivity.  Given that my verticals were lined up on a N/S axis, I would therefore be able to fire my signal either N/S end-fire, or E/W broadside with the flip of a switch on the phasing controller.


SW40+ and 40M Phasing Controller


The all homebrew QRP station consisted of a SW40+ CW transceiver (L) and phasing controller (C)  The miniature paddlette key and logbook completed the station.  The phasing controller was a 20/40M dual band design, first detailed in an earlier Adventure Radio Article.  Please feel free to contact me for additional details on the antenna system.

So how did the antenna system play?  Alas, 40M conditions were quite poor during my two days on Portsmouth Island, but I was able to ascertain to my satisfaction that the same deep nulls were observed as on the earlier 20M array as I switched directions from N/S to E/W.

It it my firm conviction that the use of half wave spaced elements, fed with equal length feedlines (of any length as long as the two feed lines are the same length), suitably fed either in-phase or 180 degrees-out-of-phase, makes for a field friendly array, which is relatively easy to get working and entirely suitable for portable operation.


My return paddle back to Lola was quite sobering.  Even though my weather radio was reporting mild wind conditions, I encountered white caps and strong opposing wind in my face.  Waves were breaking over the bow of the kayak.  It took four hours of hard paddling to reach Harbor Island.  Two hours after launching from Harbor Island I found myself battling increasing waves and wind, and looking back I was dismayed to see that I was making next to no forward progress.

What I later discovered was that the constant water breaking over the bow had penetrated both the fore and aft storage compartments on my kayak–compartments that should be water tight in order to provide buoyancy.  I was now trying to paddle the equivalent of a water logged log…

Up until that moment, I had considered myself in charge of any situation, quite capable of handling whatever came my way.  I was not unduly frightened, but I realized right then and there that I was not in control of this situation.  I uttered a prayer , and being completely exhausted, I allowed the wind and waves to take my little kayak whither they would.

Within a half hour, I could see that the elements were blowing me toward Hog Island, about a mile away.  I was thankful to be heading landward and spent that night camping in the good company of two curious Hog Island ponies. Fortuitously,  I found a structure on the island which displayed the sign, Hog Island Hunt Club.   Around back,  I found a recently renovated cistern on the roof which provided fresh water for my camp stove.  After a good meal, I felt like a new person!

I decided to sleep in a hammock on the front porch of the hunt club that night, as the waves were still white capping.  I prepared my kayak for launch at first light the next morning.  The wind blew hard all night long.  After a fitful night’s sleep, the wind finally subsided to the point that I felt confident I could safely complete the half mile crossing of Cedar Bay.  Interestingly, as soon as I made that crossing, the wind picked back up.  By that time, I was in protected water, sheltered from the wind, all the way back to the Lola boat ramp.

Unfortunately, I am not able to provide any pictures for the return segment of the trip, as the dry bag containing my camera, cell phone, and all my radio gear was breached by salt water.  I was able to salvage the memory card from the camera, but the camera didn’t survive the return crossing between Harbor Island and Hog Island.

I learned several important lessons from this odyssey:

  1. Mother Nature has awesome power at her disposal
  2. Prepare yourself as best you can for any contingency
  3. Realize that even you are not always in control of every situation
  4. Don’t kayak alone
  5. Never give up
  6. Learn from your mistakes
  7. Be safe
  8. Some of us have to learn things the hard way
  9. We are never really alone


6 thoughts on “A QRP Odyssey to Portsmouth Island

  1. Awesome adventure Paul. Takes a lot of courage to do that alone. Glad you made it ok. Trips like this build character, and, as I’m sure all your buds will agree, you are a real “character” – HI. Thanks for sharing with us.
    Marc, W4MPS


    1. Thanks for the kind words, Marc.
      I think various life events make us more receptive
      to teaching moments, whereas we might not get the
      message otherwise. Hopefully we learn from such
      experiences. Looking fwd to our next operation together.
      72, Paul AA4XX


  2. Nice adventure, glad you made it out safely. Did your radio equipmnet suffer the same fate as the camera? We enjoy kayaking, camping and qrp radio too, but I have not combined all three as of yet. Thanks for sharing the story, it made for a nice read before dozing into 2016. 73 Don kb3drw


    1. Hi Don, you are a very astute reader.
      Yes, I also lost my cell phone, QRP rig, and phasing controller, which were
      in the same dry bag. I had built that QRP rig especially for this trip, so it only saw two days of operation. C’est la vie! Glad you enjoyed the story.
      72, Paul AA4XX


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