So close, yet so far by Glenn Johnson, WØGJ
History of Navassa
Before 1997, getting permission to activate Navassa was relatively easy. Just get a letter from the U.S. Coast Guard (easy) and arrange to get a boat to take you to the infamous “ladder.” Every few years someone activated Navassa. When the USCG deactivated the lighthouse in 1997, administration of Navassa was transferred to the United States Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the ladder was removed. FWS declared Navassa to be a “closed” refuge for the protection of several unique and rare species of plants and animals. Any request for permission to activate Navassa was declined and for many years, only rare visits were made by FWS biologists. Navassa is in the Jamaican Channel, 90 miles east of Jamaica, 40 miles west of Haiti, and 100 miles due south of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Columbus visited Navassa on his 3rd and 4th visits to the New World, but noted great difficulty getting onto the island and that no fresh water was to be found.
The Guano Act of 1856 set the stage for activity on Navassa. In 1857 Peter Duncan claimed Navassa for the United States and started mining phosphate. The ownership/management changed hands several times, but from 1857 until 1901, over one million tons of phosphate was strip-mined and exported, primarily to the United States. In 1901 the workers (literally slaves) revolted because of abusive conditions and killed several of the supervisors. Three men were put on trial in Boston, convicted and given death sentences, which were later commuted by President Harrison.
Navassa lay dormant until the Panama Canal opened in 1914. Navassa Island was in the middle of the shipping lanes to the Canal. In 1917 the Navy built a 165-foot tall lighthouse and a light keeper’s house. A light keeper and two assistants tended the lighthouse until 1929 when the lighthouse was automated.
The very first amateur operation from Navassa was in 1929 by the very last lighthouse keeper, Russel Dunaja, K4NI. He was 24 years old at the time. He was initially licensed as 3ADY in 1921. His last callsign was W3BBF. He passed away in 1989.
The next recorded activity was 25 years later in 1954. This was KC4AB, a four-day operation by Don Miller, then W4VZQ, Bob Eshleman, now W4DR, and Carl Shenk, WN4HBC. The last accredited operation was W5IJU/KP1 in 1993. Between these operations, every couple of years or so, some individual or group obtained permission and Navassa was “irregularly” on the air. Navassa has been silent until February of 2015, a period of 22 years.
Navassa is claimed by seven countries (United States, Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Columbia and the Dominican Republic), but most of the world accepts U.S. control because of the IARU, economic, navigational and refuge management activities and oversight. In 1981, a group of Haitian amateurs led by HH2JR operated as HHØN, but this operation was not counted for DXCC because appropriate permission was not given. To say that the HHØN operations caused a rift with Haitian hams and the DXCC administration, would be an understatement. Regardless, if Navassa was in fact Haitian territory, it would not count for DXCC because of the proximity rule. I could ignore the “sour grapes” of HHØN, and not even bring it to anyone’s attention, but, as we will see, this played a crucial role in the K1N operation, almost leaving the team and FWS personnel stranded indefinitely without food and water.
Several individuals and groups were seeking permission from FWS to activate Navassa beginning in 1998 or so. In 2002 we combined forces and formed the KP1-5 Project with the express purpose to activate the closed refuges of Desecheo and Navassa and at the same time assist FWS in their logistics and management of these refuges. Read more »