Santa Cruz ARES Succeeds in Operation FOXHUNT

The Heist

It was well known that one of WB6ECE repeater group’s units, instrumental in communication during the early stages of the August 2020 CZU complex fires, burned down in the same event. Located over the hill from Felton, California near Empire Grade Road, it was a vital emergency link between that community and Santa Cruz County. The loss was devastating, but the tower owners (names withheld at their request) were proactive in rebuilding. Despite pandemic obstacles, they were able to find replacement equipment and clear ground for rebuilding in short order.

But then the unthinkable happened. During the first storm of the season in October 2021, the not-yet-assembled custom antenna tower and its associated equipment disappeared in the night. “After all the money we raised, all the hard work we’ve done. This was quite a setback,” one of the owners wrote on the repeater’s Facebook page. “We’ll have to hold a raffle, a bake sale and a pancake breakfast in addition to our Patreon campaign to raise more funds.”

Of the mystery there were few clues: Flatbed truck tire tracks crisscrossing the area; a few vague footprints filled with mud; a tattered wad of paper found in the open shed, submerged in a puddle from a leak in the roof.

Four months went by. The case grew cold. SLV and Coastal ARES had plenty of relay practice in their weekly nets to accommodate the Bonny Doon community members. It looked like it would take years to replace the hole in their ailing repeater network.

Pirate Radio

In mid-February, Dan Selling (N6RJX) got a phone call from Felton’s Fire Department Chief. “There’s something weird going on with one of our 2-meter channels.” Dan turned on his radio and found a stream of monologue chatter on the simplex band designated for local CERT and fire communication.

“I’m paraphrasing here,” said Dan, “but the guy said something like ‘We don’t need no stinking call letters! But if we did, it would be A-R-R-R! Pirate radio!’ He followed that up with ten minutes of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean music.”

When Dan was over his shock he got to thinking and gave Santa Cruz County DEC John Gerhardt (N6QX) a call. “It’s a long shot, but we might have a lead on the missing tower.” John called Bob Fike (KO6XX). Bob called Sebastian Steinhauer (KK6FBF). Sebastian sent a Winlink message to half dozen others. In no time the worst-kept secret in Santa Cruz filled the county’s simplex channels and messaging apps.

The next day John announced the news in a packed Santa Cruz ARES monthly Zoom meeting. One member activated his virtual mic and said, “they’re on right now! Tune to 147.4500!” Ever-ready Bob Fike pulled out his nearest Yaesu FT60 HT and turned it up. “Turn all your mikes off,” he announced. “Let’s hear with one ear.” Twenty minutes of speeches and music followed before the radio went silent. On the main Zoom screen, Bob scowled as the broadcast progressed.

When asked about this, he admitted his boy-scout heart had been bruised, and he listed rules the radio operator had broken:

-She didn’t identify herself.

-She talked too long.

-She didn’t pause for a transmitter drop

-She was using stolen property

-She interfered with potential emergency communications

-She played music.

When the radio went silent, John Gerhardt asked for a couple of volunteers to track down the operators responsible. Every member raised a hand. Someone typed “FUN!” in the chat.

The Hunt

John organized a tag team of eight radio operators to plan and execute Operation Finding Our Xmitter Hopefully Under Nearby Trees, or FOXHUNT. They distributed the equipment needed for the job: HT radios; tape-measure Yagi antennas made to order by Neil Stoddard (KN6JOI); and foxhunt offset attenuators cobbled together by Bob Fike at the MIBtronics lab after hours.

They built several transmitting kits for practice, using Bionics Foxhunt controllers paired with Dan’s old Baofeng burner HTs. Stephen Betita (KM6NEP) donated a hatbox to house one, and Karen Corscadden (KM6SV) found two Hello Kitty lunch boxes and a Tupperware cereal bin that made perfect containers for the others. JoMarie Faulkerson (KM6URE) created a location spreadsheet in Google Drive and Lisa Schallop (KN6IAB) collected photo documentation for the archives.

They held foxhunt training workshops and exercises over the next two weekends. Everyone had a great time. According to net manager Roberta Joiner Roberts (AJ6KN) “This might become a regular activity for our people. We all learned tons.”

Things got serious after the second training. The illicit broadcasts were unpredictable; short bursts any time of the day or night, rarely sustained enough to track properly. Whenever one was detected, calls went out around the county. Sometimes radio operators were able to find the general direction of the signal, but the location seemed to change each time. Dan said it was obvious that the tower was being moved around. “But how can you move such a large assembly without detection?”

Team leaders puzzled over that. Google Map pins ranged from Pescadero to Moss Landing. One team member even swore that the source of the signal seemed to wander during one of the longer broadcasts. But one thing was certain: the general direction was always towards the coast, never inland. Dan proposed that the tower was transported in pieces, assembled, and operated from redwood groves around the county. John told the crew to keep an eye on Highway 1 for big trucks bearing suspicious cargo.

Chase and Capture

Their big chance arrived the second weekend in March. Lisa Schallop was packing her gear for a weekend sea exercise around 9 am when her monitoring radio came to life. She immediately reached out to Neil Stoddard. Neil was running a workshop at the time: Building your 23cm antenna with the food you have on hand. He was testing the SWR on a student’s end-fed vertical hot dog antenna when he got the call. “We were fortunate. I was holding the class outdoors near Natural Bridges Marine Reserve. Covid safety, you know. We were admiring a tall ship that had sailed into the bay. I told Lisa about it and her quick thinking put it all together. She said, ‘Bingo! Point your Yagi out there! Call our coastal team and I’ll get us some transportation.’ I did as I was told, and sure enough I was getting a strong signal.”

Lisa called her colleagues at Monterey Bay Marine Life Studies. They arranged a rendezvous point near Santa Cruz Harbor. Twenty minutes later, radio team members and their equipment split between 4 whale watching boats and continued to zero in on the target. As luck would have it, transmissions continued as the boats fanned out on the bay. The source was clearly on the water. Then it went silent. All they had now was a general direction and a hope that their prey would not change course.

At noon, one of the whale watchers spotted the tall ship on the horizon. There behind the main mast was the missing repeater, a pirate’s flag flapping from its upper reaches.

The teams surrounded the tall ship and called in the coast guard. The ship’s crew, sensing the approach of authorities, hoisted the white flag and gave up without a fight. The sailors were interrogated and eventually released with citations.

The radio operators, led by famed Bay Area pirate radio advocate Severus D. Unifer, were released on bail and thrown to the tender mercies of the paparazzi. The group was well known in radical circles for their decades of work dispensing pirate radio gear around the world. ARRL’s local PIOs were puzzled that these vendors of micropower radio kits would steal a poor amateur radio group’s equipment. When this author asked Severus to explain, he said, “didn’t you find the note? We left our statement of intent in the shelter.”

One of the foxhunt team said, “all we found was a sopping, mouse-eaten wad of paper. You should have PM-ed us on our Facebook page or something.”

Severus went on to explain: “We were just borrowing your equipment for a while. We were running a doomsday exercise designed to test our ability to scrounge parts and operate agile sea radio in field conditions. We called it Imperialist Infrastructure’s Serious Imminent Ruin. I-I-SIR for short.”

John Gerhardt gave Severus a thumbs-up and said, “I couldn’t have named it better myself.”

It was apparent that the Santa Cruz ARES group and Unifer’s team were kindred spirits, merely divided by the thin blue line of law and order. Team leaders exchanged grudging respect over that line, and the pirates made amends to the WB6ECE folks by promising materials and labor when final permits were granted. Meanwhile, the pirates had heavy fines to pay and possible jail time for their reckless actions. Neil Stoddard promised to be a character witness if the case ever went to trial. “We got along like a house on fire,” he said, “after a few good insults were exchanged.”

And there you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth. Scout’s honor.

Happy April 1st everyone, and 73.

Allison Hershey, AEC PIO (KM6RMN)