Wednesday, 27 November 2019

DXing The Utilities (Part 1)

The following blog was originally posted in 2015 but might still be of interest to anyone with a shortwave radio! Although maritime CW has all but vanished from HF, ships can still be logged and followed on digital modes, using DSC or Digital Selective Calling.


After building the house here on Mayne Island, in the early 90's, it was several years until I was able to set up a dedicated station. In the meantime, I limited my radio activities strictly to listening. I had a nice Icom R-71A set up in a hall closet and spent my radio-time, mostly on weekend evenings, listening to maritime CW, HF aeronautical traffic and, of course, NDBs below the broadcast band.

My HF receiving antenna consisted of three inverted-V's ... one for 160m, the second for 80m and the third for 40m ... all fed from the same coaxial line at the top of a 70' Balsam. It didn't take long to realize what an exceptional radio location I had, living right at the edge of the ocean, with dozens of miles of saltwater in most directions other than due west.

I really enjoyed following evening airline flights across both the North and South Atlantic, and in the early winter afternoons, following the commercial air-traffic all over Africa. Even though listening on 5 or 6MHz, I was amazed at how strong the signals from airliners over Africa at 30,000 feet or more could become, this far to the west. In the early mornings, directions were reversed and traffic from the far east, right into India, was fairly common. Often, small single-engine planes, usually run by various missionaries, could be heard while on the ground, taxiing at remote field locations and calling in via HF radio to request takeoff and flight-following.

Now QSL's have always been one of my top radio interests and it wasn't long before I started sending and collecting verifications for both the aircraft and the ships I was hearing ... once I had figured out how to get my reception reports to their proper destinations.

A very small portion of my 'utility' QSL collection is shown below. For the most part, it consists of PRC's or 'Prepared Reply Cards', with blank portions to be filled-in by the verification signers. Surprisingly, my return rate was around 90% and verifications were often returned with long, hand-written letters and numerous photographs ... especially from the ship RO's, as I suspect their days at sea were often quite monotonous. Even many of the military and commercial aircraft pilots would return a handwritten note along with the filled-in verification card, which I found even more surprising. It seemed that most were very surprised to hear that their radio transmissions were even making it this far and could be heard so readily.

Some of the most interesting catches came from the Pacific, with a large variety of ships operating out of Japan. There are probably still several maritime CW stations operating in Japan. Many of these were owned and operated by commercial fishing companies and could be heard working fleet vessels throughout the Pacific on their daily CW skeds.

This interesting catch from the North Pacific was the Japanese 'fisheries research vessel' 'M/V FUJI MARU'. She was about 1200 miles NW of her CW contact, JNA in Tokyo.

A Japanese cruise-ship, the 'M/V ORIENT VENUS' was logged early one summer morning while working JNA on 8355 KHz CW. Her position indicates she was in the Mariana Islands.

One of my first catches from the Great Lakes
was the 'M/V Oglebay Norton', a huge bulk
carrier out of Detroit. Her 150W signal was loud and clear late one August evening while in contact with WLC, Rogers City Radio.

The U.S. Coast Guard is still one of the best QSLers around.
Several of their stations will QSL with a nice printed card.
NMC (San Francisco) and NMO (Hawaii) were two
catches, regularly heard on the old 500 KHz calling

Stormy weather often provided a good chance
to catch a search and rescue mission in progress.

'Rescue 6008' was an HH-60J helo enroute from
Chesapeake Bay to Elizabeth City, North Carolina during
a midnight rescue operation.

Although not my farthest HF maritime catch,
this was one of the most surprising. 'C4PC'
was heard early one February evening on 8 MHz CW, when conditions seemed terrible. No other ships were heard on the band at the time. As I learned later, the 'M/V MAIROULI' was at anchor near Beirut, Lebanon, a distance of nearly 7,000 miles from Mayne Island.

                                                                .... cont'd


Richard Dickens said...

Hello Steve. Consider this a "newbie" question- long time amateur radio operator but not a utility DXer, though it sounds interesting. How do the PRCs work? Do you print out the card yourself and then fill in the callsign, frequency, location (?), date and time and let them fill in the rest and sign? Where do you find addresses for ships, etc?
Thanks and 73- Rick, KY0Q

Steve McDonald said...

Hi Rick - it's kind of like that but the only information I used to put on the card were the call letters and the ship's name and type. Everything else was left blank for the ship's RO to fill-in (from my report to him)as well to try and get an official 'stamp' on the card. It was a lot of fun and the return rate was surprisingly high.

The ship's names were looked up in the Lloyd's Registry of Ships annual publication. These were huge volumes but the local library in Vancouver would get new ones every year and these would give me the company address to mail the card. I would address the card to the ship's name with ATTN: Radio Officer and the company would just put it in the regular ship's mail drop at the next port of call.

I think the only reason our library had the books was because Vancouver was a large sea port.

It seems that much of this info except the company address is online at Lloyd's:

but once you had the name you might be able to hunt down their address on line.

Tom K4ZAD said...


Always enjoy your posts. Utility listening isn't what it was in the past as so much is now digital and routine in nature. However, the overseas aircraft USB comms. still provide some interesting catches.

Your post mentions WLC, Rogers City, MI. Here's the story of that station:

Steve McDonald said...

Hi Tom and thanks for your comment. Yes, we still have some aircraft traffic to listen to and Part 2 covers that aspect of my listening. Tnx for the WLC link which I will check out. I think I even have a WLC QSL here somewhere as they were very active on HF for the lake-traffic and probably received a lot of SWL reports back in the heydays!

73 Steve

Anonymous said...

Hey Steve, thanks for this. Reminds me of my CW earworms.

"VVV VVV de VAI VAI QSX 4 6 8 12 and 16 MHz on CH 4 5 and 6 OBS? QRU? AMVER? K " ....

I'm waiting for an article about military utility radio from you.

Here's what I send on the key to keep myself awake while listening for NDBs

VVV VVV VVV de CFH CFH CFH C13L C13L C13L K (sic) .....

Funny about that extra K on CFH.

The UBC club had an Icom 701 that you could force out of band by strapping a resistor across the pins in a Molex socket on the liner amplifier relay box. That gave me the 4 MHz band to monitor and also the 19 metre band IIRC. But the 701 would not do 100% general coverage receiving, nor did it have AM mode or 160m, or even 10 Hz tuning.


Steve McDonald said...

Dan, I think that would put me to sleep rather than keep me awake! I never did much milcom listening other than on their aircraft traffic channels where I actually QSL’d a fair number of their aircraft. The a/c commanders often sent me a nice handwritten letter and shoulder patches from their squadron but have no idea what to do with them now. I even QSL’d a B-52 when they were up in Alberta doing cruise missile tests! Part 2 has some of my aircraft stuff, which can still be heard today.

Photon said...

What a lovely and interesting post! I really enjoyed that, and will be something to look into here.