September 1974. For the last year, since the start, I’d been working for Capital Radio, London’s first commercial radio station. That had all changed with the introduction of a new ‘national agreement’ that had resulted in most of the engineers being downgraded in status, pay, and conditions. It was time to move on.
I accepted a one-year contract in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But the visa took forever to come through. Russ Tollerfield, one of the engineers at Capital, knew I wanted ‘out’ and surprised me one day, saying “Why don’t you go to work for Radio Caroline until the Saudis sort out your visa?”
What I didn't know was that Radio Caroline had just upped anchor and returned to the UK side, after the Dutch passed their own version of the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act.
I thought Russ was joking. He wasn’t. Russ knew Ronan O’Rahilly, legendary
Irish Outlaw of the Aether, a good-looking rich batchelor who toured
London in his Range Rover; one of the ‘in crowd’ Ronan was always seen
with the prettiest debs and was a good friend of George Harrison and
Ravi Shankar, the famous Indian sitar player.
A few days later Russ said, “If you’re interested, be at the Casserole restaurant on King’s Road, (Chelsea), at 6 o’clock.”
At 6, the restaurant hadn’t yet opened for business. I knocked on the door. A spyhole slid open. An eye peered out at me. Then the door swung open.
Ronan O'Rahilly - The Hague, 1973
photo courtesy of Offshore Echoes
Ronan O'Rahilly was sitting at the back of the room with a bunch of debs and people who looked like record company reps. He proceeded to ask me three questions in his soft Irish accent:
“Are you any good?”
“I’ve never had any complaints.”
“What do you think of politicians?”
“They’re all crooks.”
“Can you leave tomorrow?”
“Ermm, I’ll need a couple of days to sort my flat out.” At the time, I was renting an upstairs flat in East Finchley.
“Right. That sounds perfect.”
Magical Mystery Tour
Soon after, one of Russ and Ronan’s friends, called Rob - Rob Eden I think – drove me from London to Dover, where we took the ferry to the Dutch port of Zeebrugge. Rob drove on, stopping briefly at the berth of another pirate radio ship, Radio Veronica, which had been impounded by the authorities. A large sign hung across the gate. It read: “Eingang Verboten” (Entry Forbidden). We were thinking of tyrying to get a sneak look inside, but two large tough-looking guys appeared. So much for Veronica, a casualty of the 70’s Radio Wars.
(Note: one of the MCR operators at Capital was fired in the autumn of 74, for taking Capital's audio off-air for a few minutes so as to let the London audience hear the closing-down announcement broadcast by Veronica. Home Office ba****ds had ensured that Capital's wimpy AM transmitter was sitting on top of Veronica's frequency, thus jamming it in the UK. I never did understand why the Veronica engineer didn't simply change frequency and retune the transmitter. When Caroline was jammed, I immediately went to the TX room and reviewed my choice of crystals, though in the event I never had to retune; see later notes on jamming.)
Eventually we arrived at the coastal town of Scheveningen. I went and hid on a small Dutch fishing coaster, where I found two more Brits shipping out to the MV (motor vessel) Mi Amigo, otherwise known as Radio Caroline. We sat inside the cabin, introducing ourselves, while somewhere on the quay our skipper bribed the Customs officers with Geneva gin and a wad of guilders. By the time everything was settled, it was the middle of the night, and a force 10 gale had blown up. We set off into the teeth of it. I spent most of the trip retching and wishing I were dead. The captain spent part of it cooking up eggs and bacon for his crew, waving plates of it under our noses while declaring that a good plateful would settle our stomachs. After seven hours of hell, we arrived at the Mi Amigo and tied up alongside her.
Photo courtesy of Eylard Harmsen
The captain kept the engine running and we kept our distance, since both ships were rising and falling some twenty feet or so in the mountainous waves. We all set to, transferring the stores that would keep us fed and watered in the coming months. Water, through a large-diameter hose; beer, in the form of countless boxes of canned Heineken; vegetables, in bags and barrels, and meat, not to mention the several dozen brand new albums the DJ’s were bringing, suitcases, and so on. And finally we transferred ourselves, by dint of leaping from one ship to another at the precise instant the decks happened to be at the same level.
During the first week or so I finished building a new tape studio for Radio Mi Amigo, the Dutch pirate radio service that ran during the day. It was run by a couple of guys whose names sounded like ‘Koos’ and ‘Lonis’ though heaven only knows how they were properly spelt. Those guys were the eminences grises behind the enterprise, since the Dutch service ran advertising and made money, while Caroline ran on something Ronan specialised in, called ‘Loving Awareness’, and never made a cent.
Koos and Lonis apparently ran some company that made waffles, under the brand name ‘Suzi Waffles’ and these were not only advertised very frequently, but the occasional visit from the Dutch coast would bring lots of these waffles. After the Brit DJs made some uncomplimentary remarks about the waffles, supplies abruptly came to an end. When I wasn’t constructing the new tape room or sleeping I battled with the Continental Electronics 50 KW medium-wave transmitter, which sat in the forward hold like some dragon monster machine. It had been cannibalised over the years, and the circuit diagram bore little resemblance to the manufacturer’s intentions.
Continental 50 KW Docherty modulation transmitter.
The transmitter seen at the rear is a Gates 10 KW.
photo courtesy of Offshore Echoes
One night while I was asleep, the lone watchman also dozed off, and during his snooze the transmitter caught fire. I came down in the morning to find it still functioning despite a large scorch mark and several melted components.
It was a tough old beast, that transmitter.
Then came the day that someone asked: “Hey. Do you think you could do a radio show?”
And so I started doing the midnight-till-two spot.
The ship’s crew consisted of the Brits, who did nothing except run radio programmes and get stoned, and the Dutch, who did the ship-things and also got stoned. We had two captains over the period I was on board, and one cook, Yoss, who was a 5-star chef and had cooked in some of the best hotels in Europe.
Yoss had a great sense of humour. I decided to learn some Dutch, and Yoss told me the Dutch word for ‘ashtray’ was ‘kutlop’. Later, while ashore on the Dutch side, I tried out my Dutch in a restaurant, while enjoying a meal with the owners and their wives. I asked for the ashtray and a dense silence descended. It turned out that the word ‘kutlop’ is Dutch for a special cloth used while performing sexual services on a female partner.
John B Mair (left) and Johnny Jason
photo courtesy of Offshore Echoes
The Brits consisted of me; a Scots lad, John B Mair, who was quite naïve and innocent; Andy Archer; Johnny Jason; and Tony Allan. Tony and Andy were both gay while the rest of us were straight.
Tony Allan died on the 10th of July, 2003; rest in peace, Tony.
You can find many stories and Internet links to Tony's life in radio.
Offshore Echoes, a site rich in detail and images. Highly recommended.
Hans Knot's Site, a wealth of information
Soundscapes, a tribute in Dutch and English
Tony Allan's dedicated site
Eylard Harmsen (Caroline after my time)
Johnny Jason started his show at six in the evening. It was three hours of heavy metal and hard rock.
One day Johnny was preparing his show and asked me what was the heaviest piece of rock I had ever heard.
I knew the answer immediately: Dachau Blues, by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. It’s on the ‘Trout Mask Replica’ album.
“But you’ll never play it,” I added. “It’s too heavy even for you.”
“Nothing is too heavy for me!” Johnny declared and immediately set off for the record library, which resided in the midships hold.
To my amazement he found a copy of Trout Mask Replica and brought it into the studio. The album was in unused condition. I knew why. After playing it, even Johnny had to admit that it wasn’t something he wanted to put on air.
I had secretly wanted to be a DJ ever since building my first crystal set and so I took to my late-night shows with gusto. I still harboured resentment at the way Capital had treated me, especially towards a person who’d taken over as assistant chief engineer. And so I would dedicate records to this guy, at least once every program; records with messages in the music! One of my favourites was “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” by Stevie Wonder.
Later, I heard that the police had paid him a visit to ask him what involvement he had with the illegal pirate radio station, since he seemed to get a lot of musical dedications! Of course the police and other idiots in the Home Office had no sense of humour whatsoever and appeared to be under the impression that we were spying for Russia, judging by the secret service trawlers that often shadowed the MV Mi Amigo.
The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that I’d once worked for the Diplomatic Wireless Service, a strange bunch of people dedicated mainly to debugging embassies and providing secret communications services, but who also ran several large broadcast transmitters on behalf of the BBC foreign service. About half way through my tour of duty, they started jamming us. I got very annoyed when our London audience reported the jamming and decided to do something about it, and started restoring to service one of the two spare transmitters, both of them 10 KW in power. At the same time I left word with an old friend back on the mainland. The word was, that if the jamming did not stop, then that 10 KW tranmsitter would soon be broadcasting Radio Caroline on top of Capital Radio’s frequency, and if that didn’t prove sufficient, then I’d get the remaining transmitter working too, and set it to work on the BBC’s Radio One.
It seemed perfectly natural to me to proceed along these lines without ever asking anyone else, like the ship’s owners, what they thought about the idea (typical engineer.) The jamming stopped soon after, but I heard that I was now very unpopular indeed with the Foreign Office.
Andy Archer in the studio.
Photo courtesy of Offshore Echoes
My show became quite popular and I soon became expert at operating the Gates audio mixer, which was a big old-fashioned thing full of glowing valves (US: tubes), and had giant rotary ‘faders’ for the microphone and turntables. Siezed by the idea of ‘upgrading’ I tried out a newer mixer, one that used solid-state components, but it was useless; with the 50 KW transmitter in such close proximity, everything was ‘live’ with RF (Radio Frequency).
As I became more accustomed to finding my way around the record library I planned a program that would last two hours and would consist of an imaginary space trip, all achieved with various tracks from different albums, starting with ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’ from the Pink Floyd album ‘Ummagumma’ and ending with the Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (or some such title) from Donovan. It took me some days to find all the tracks, but finally I was ready.
This was to be a psychedelic programme so about an hour before I went on-air, I swallowed a large dose of ‘acid’ (LSD) with the intention of being in an appropriate frame of mind. The programme began well, and about half way through I was so pleased that I decided to visit the transmitter just to check that it was actually broadcasting my wonderful selection of tracks. All seemed well; I stood in the hold, watching the modulation display on the oscilloscope, and thinking, hmm, if I set it a little over 100% the signal will have more ‘punch’.
Then I realised that if anything went wrong, the only person on board who could fix the transmitter was the acid-head standing in front of it, and brains under the influence of LSD aren’t very good at working with 16,000 volt machinery. While I was standing there the track came to an end. I stood there for a while, thinking “The DJ needs to put another track on”, until I suddenly realised that the DJ was me, and made a run for the ladder to the studio.
The program proved so popular that we broadcast it again later, from a tape I’d made. (I carried the tape back to the UK, but sadly it was confiscated by the DTI ‘police’ who maliciously erased it before handing it back.)
About half way through my tour we ran out of food. Rumour had it that the Dutch guys had paid some contractor out of Harlingen to deliver the grub, and the guy reneged on the deal. On the Mi Amigo we were reduced to eating sardines and rice pudding. The tomato-sauce sardines went first and then all we had were the oily ones. Then we started running out of water, and even fuel oil; I had to reduce the transmitter power in an effort to conserve diesel fuel. Of course this is anathema to the engineer, whose whole rationale is based on getting the biggest signal out. Eventually ‘Trips Tenders’, based in Scheveningen, got a coaster out to us. We linked up the fuel and water umbilicals and took on a load of desperately-needed food and two dozen more cases of Heineken. To this day I have never eaten rice pudding again.
The same time as the food ran out, we started having antenna problems. The continuing foul weather caused a lot of salt spray, to the point where it was dangerous moving about the deck due to the risk of being carried overboard by a larger-than-usual wave. Winter in the English Channel is no easy ride. High voltages plus sea water equals radio-frequency arcs, and the insulators had reached the point where they weren’t insulating anything very much. This meant the transmitter was constantly going off-air and it became an urgent priority to change the insulators.
If you take a look at the image (left) you'll note how far out from the ship's side and how high the insulators are./ Before I began, I called up the Dutch side of the operation (Radio Mi Amigo) and told them I needed to take the transmitter off-air for a couple of hours during the day. The conversation took place over a 150-watt single-sideband amateur radio transceiver I’d just installed on the captain’s bridge. We used a frequency on the amateur 40-metre band. No doubt various governments picked us up on their monitoring services.
“No way!” the Mi Amigo guys said.
“Hell, I need to do this in the daytime,” I replied. “It’s dangerous! At night it will be a . . . well, a nightmare!”
“No. You must do it in Caroline time,” came the answer.
“Well, OK then, I have one question. Who is paying me? You, or Ronan?”
“OK, I’ll do it in Caroline time then,” I answered, money being more important than drowning.
I had a word with the captain about the problem and we located some new ceramic insulators in the RF stores. This was not a job any of the crew cared to assist with, despite their supposed sailor’s knowledge of ropes and halyards, so I ended up perched in space, above the heaving sea, on a wildly swaying platform, while with brute force removing the corroded old insulators and splicing in the new ones. After an hour or so of hard graft, I climbed back aboard, frozen to the bone, soaked in brine, eyes weeping from the salt spray, only to be told that Ronan had been on the VHF ship-to-shore radio complaining bitterly about Caroline being off-air. I sent a message telling him the station would sound all the better for it.
The MV Mi Amigo
Photo courtesy of Theo Dencker
Notice how the insulators on the antenna wires are "outside" the ship ... one mistake and you're gone!
The perfect storm
We were hardly back on-air when another fierce storm came in. This was a force 10. It is a sobering experience to stand on the bridge of a little ship watching 15 metre waves coming at you, especially when you know that there are no lifeboats (or even lifejackets), and that the engines haven’t been started since the last-but-one captain, and nobody is sure if they will, in fact, start!
With each wave the ship rolled about forty degrees, and I feared that the ship would keep on rolling and capsize; or that the antenna mast would be unable to stand the stresses and would collapse. (We had a large oxy-acetylene cutting set on deck, ready for this eventuality.
If the antenna goes it has to be got rid of fast, before it capsizes the vessel.) After a while I couldn’t stand watching any longer and so I made the perilous journey from the bridge to the messroom.
Andy Archer and Johnny Jason
Photo courtesy of Offshore Echoes
Just in front of the messroom was the on-air studio. I grabbed a can of Heineken, checked the ‘on-air’ lamp wasn’t lit, then cautiously opened the studio door. Andy Archer looked up with a haggard face. He was keeping the turntables going at more-or-less the correct speed, by dint of spinning them with his finger every time the ship rolled. Real hi-fi! The listeners didn’t mind though. The music we played was so much better than the crap played on the mainland that we stayed popular.
“I’ve had enough, I’m going to tape,” Andy announced.
I decided to check the transmitter. Amazingly, it was holding on, but as the weather grew worse, I had serious doubts that we could stay on air. Already low on fuel, the rolling stirred up sludge at the bottom of the diesel tanks, and the generator filters were clogging up. The starved gennies groaned under the load. Every roll to starboard I watched the voltmeters on the big transmitter, dropping as the ship tilted: 11KV, 10KV, 9, and so on, until at the maximum roll point I’d hear all the contactors clattering and barely able to hold in. Of course, our signal must have been going up and down like a yo-yo. The power dropped as low as 20 KW. I prayed the beast would keep going, not wanting to press the ‘off’ button and face Ronan’s wrath on the VHF link.
The old transmitter did come through all right, until the next storm, but with all the sea water sloshing around the ‘roof’ the ventilation fans all burned out. We made it through the night and in the morning the gale died as quickly as it had blown up. By noon the sea was like glass. At low tide, Andy Archer went with some visitors about a hundred yards away, and stood on a submerged sandbank while others took pictures. It looked very strange to see him twenty miles out there in the Channel, up to his knees in the sea, with a backdrop of ocean.
Harold and Richard
One day some visitors arrived from a local BBC radio station, and they’d brought with them a tape. It was a 7½ in/sec tape on a 10½ inch NAB spool, a copy of one made days earlier at Television Centre in London. Me being ex-BBC I got on well with the BBC local radio people even though now I was the guy in the black hat who sold whisky to indians. The tape was handed over with the words, ‘You’ll find this interesting. Do what you like with it, but for God’s sake don’t tell anyone where you got it.’ Of course I couldn’t wait to listen to it, and after the visitors departed I went into the Mi Amigo tape studio, placed the NAB spool on the feed side of one of the Revox tape machines, and pressed the PLAY button.
What I heard made my jaw drop. The tape was the audio track from a filmed interview between the then-Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and Richard Dimbleby. As the interview went on, it became apparent to me that the Prime Minister was of unsound mind, as I listened to him first ‘losing it’ completely, and to use an American term, ‘going postal’ at Dimbleby.
Ah, Harold Wilson. Do you remember The Beatles complaining about him and Edward Heath on their hit single 'TAXMAN'? "Ha ha Mr Wilson, ha ha Mr Heath.."
At one point Dimbleby asked Wilson what was the amount of the advance he’d been paid for a forthcoming book, his memoirs. Wilson exploded, referring to the ex-PM, Tory Edward ‘teeth’ Heath, “You don’t ask him that, do you? You don’t ask how much he paid for that ship, do you?” (voice rising to a shout). And then “Is this being recorded?” (pretty dumb question considering he was sitting in a TV studio with several cameras pointed at him and all the lights on).
Dimbleby is heard remarking “Well yes Prime Minister, this is an interview you know” and then Wilson snarls “Stop now. Just stop. I don’t want this going on air.” and so on. Later he comments about bloody leaks from Lime Grove (a BBC studio in London) and that the BBC staff would all be in serious trouble with MI5 “if any of this gets out”.
The interview was restarted but rapidly deteriorated into more raving, so the total running time – at least of the tape that I had – was about twenty minutes. Immediately I knew that I could edit up a copy, to remove the boring bits and stitch together ten minutes of pure dynamite. By heavens, Caroline would have the biggest audience rating ever known. However there were other considerations. First of all was the fact that at least one other pirate radio ship had actually been assaulted by the SBS and taken over. Even though we were in international waters we were defenceless against any kind of attack or sabotage. I imagined a limpet mine being secretly attached on orders from Wilson. After all I had heard the tape; it was quite obvious the man was ten bob short of a pound.
Secondly I was sure that Ronan would fire me because he was an apolitical soul who seemed to espouse nothing but ‘loving awareness’ and a blatant political act like broadcasting the Wilson-idiot tape would be beyond the pale.
Last, and the biggest factor, was the fact that we were only a day or so from a General Election and I could imagine the ship being blown out of the water by a squadron of RAF bombers about five minutes after my tape began to roll. I still sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d taken the risk.
With the transmitter room fast turning into a furnace (because the ventilation fans had broken down), I left the main hatch to the hold wide open to let the hot air out.
It wasn’t long before a force 9 gale followed the force 10 we’d just endured. I was busy working on the transmitter (doing RF engineering in the belly of a heaving ship is a little tricky) and cursing the increasingly heavy rolls, forgetting entirely that I’d left the main hatch to the forward hold wide open, which is not something you want to do while running a heavy sea because, quite simply, it can send you to Davy Jone’s locker. The tide was turning, and the Mi Amigo with it, rotating on her anchor chain, and the ship got broadside-on to the swell.
I decided to go up the ladder to see if I could spot a problem that I was having, when suddenly the hatch above filled with a green colour. The sea!
Instinctively I made a huge leap down the ladder using the rails as hand-slides and cowered beneath as a torrent of brine crashed into the transmitter room and invaded the transmitter. Arcs started in the final stages, smaller components caught fire, and we went off-air directly.
There was nobody else to fix it so despite the fact I’d already been working twelve hours I started repairs. It took several hours of very hard labour to replace the burned components. Afterwards I staggered off to my cabin and slept until Yoss, the cook, woke me for supper. Then I went into the studio to do my midnight show.
Every week or ten days, whenever the weather was good enough, some small boat – usually a fast launch out of Frinton, on the British side, or Scheveningen, on the Dutch side – would arrive with records and goodies. The goodies of course were things that we’d run out of or were in generally short supply. This didn’t include dope or psychedelics, there were usually plenty on the ship, though harder things like opiates or coke were avoided. But the albums were strangely unwelcome. I couldn’t see why at first, because getting hold of all the latest releases for free seemed simply wonderful to me.
After a couple of months I began to understand. Listening to thirty or forty new albums in a week, every week, is mind-numbing. And that’s if they are good albums. I became aware for the first time that ninety percent of all the music that was being released was, in fact, irredeemable crap. It became almost impossible to distinguish the occasional nugget of goodness in the huge crap-pile. (I suppose this is why literary agents are often unable to distinguish the occasional decent manuscript in the slush mountain.)
Thus one day I picked up the first Supertramp album, Crime of the Century, and wondered for some days, as I played it, if it really was as good as I thought - or if it was a piece of garbage, because the other jocks made no reaction to it.
Of course later, Supertramp became really big, (thanks to us?)
I would finish my morning routine of inspecting new albums by joining the crew for breakfast, which for most of the Dutch crew consisted of pickled herring (rollmops). Urgh. Bring back the sardines and rice pud.
One day, distracted by the charms of the rollmops, I made a sandwich with both cheese and jam, and was about to throw it away in disgust when I noticed the Dutch guy opposite staring at it with great interest. Maliciously I said to him, “I don’t know how you can eat those rollmops so don’t complain. Haven’t you tried cheese and jam before? Delicious!” And with that I ate a good piece of it, smiling even as the weird combination hit my tastebuds like a badly-aimed fork. Soon I had several of the Dutch crew convinced that it was the most natural thing in the world to enjoy cheese and jam sandwiches.
Someone's watching us
The D.T.I. spying on Radio Caroline
Photo courtesy of, and © Eylard Harmsen
Everything went well for a few weeks. We’d had a food and drink shipment, the transmitter ran like a Japanese sewing machine, but we did notice with a sense of unease, this large fast trawler that seemed to be hanging about our area. One day it went by at a very respectable speed, much faster than I’d ever imagined a trawler could go, and some burly men took photos of the Mi Amigo with long-lens cameras. After that, us Brits took to wearing bobble hats and large sunglasses while on deck.
We’d all been on board for a lot longer than usual, due mainly to the bad weather, but a rumour started that Ronan had had trouble finding another engineer, and of course he knew the minute a fast launch arrived with replacement jocks, I was liable to step on to it! Tension rose to breaking point, insults were hurled, and we all became so wound up that the mental state of people in the control room having a row could be felt from outside. Fists flew. And then the jocks went on strike, putting me in a difficult situation.
My problem was that the Dutch were paying me, so my first responsibility was to them, even though Ronan had recruited me. My fellow Brits, the jocks, wanted me to switch off the transmitter. But the transmitter was in rough condition after the big wave, and the DTI, otherwise known as the Blue Meanies, would see it as some kind of victory and whoop for joy. So I decided the professional thing to do would be to keep the transmitter on the air, even though it offended my professional feelings to keep consuming all that diesel fuel just to transmit . . . silence.
The strike didn't last too long, fortunately. The DJs had a chat with Ronan over the VHF and soon enough, the turntables began to spin.
A near miss with the electrics
In the final storm we’d shipped a lot of the old briny, and the big 150 KW gennie on the poop deck had had enough of it all, and suicided. Woof! Lots of smoke and no big gennie any more. We still had a couple of Deutz 80 KW diesel-alternators in the main engine room, so Cap’n Derek, on board at that time, suggested strongly that I might like to wire them up. Being an RF (radio frequency) and not an AC power engineer, this was to be my first experience of wiring up big three-phase generators.
I looked dubiously into the engine room, a dismal hole filled with large chunks of predatory diesel sets. They emanated a sense of power and fate. Shit on this, went through my mind.
“Hey, shouldn’t B___ do it?” I asked. B___, the ship’s official electrician, was otherwise known by us Brits as Brick, after the then-popular Jethro Tull album ‘Thick As A Brick’.
One of the generators.
Photo courtesy of, and © Eylard Harmsen
Cap’n Donald looked me in the eye. “No, I think you can do it MUCH better. Come mit me.” Then he fed me a couple of glasses of Genever Gin and I became convinced that, by jingo, I COULD do it!
Fortified literally by Dutch courage I staggered into the engine room lugging a giant bundle of two-hundred-amp, three-phase power cable. My task was to jumper the Deutz gennies to the main busbars. Mentally I ticked off the procedure:
First, shut off the main power. Obviously, working on live busbars is not popular with the life insurance company.
I called Brick into the engine room and told him, with the aid of mime, what I wanted. After a while all the lights went out and I found myself in darkness. It being not a good idea to wander around a ship’s engine room in the pitch black, I waited, and after a while the clatter of the emergency standby gennie came from somewhere to the stern, and the lights flickered back on.
Brick arrived, grinning.
“All off?” I asked. (Since the kutlop incident I no longer tried to speak Dutch.)
“Ja! Alles is off!” He waved his hand.
“Good.” I walked over to the main busbars, huge copper things the size of a man’s arm, able to carry several hundred kilowatts of power. I reached out with a steel socket wrench in my hand. I was about a centimetre from contacting the bars when something made me stop and look down.
I was standing on metal deck plates with bilge water sloshing over my feet. Most of the deck plates had been taken up to lay the new cables, and the exposed bilges smelt like old drains.
I looked back at the busbars. Of course they were dead. Weren’t they? My hand hovered uncertainly. I drew it back. In my other hand I had a giant screwdriver, about two feet long and a quarter inch thick, with a big yellow plastic handle. Hmm, I will just test the bars by shorting them with the screwdriver . . .
The force of the explosion threw me across the engine room and into the bilges, where I lay for a while waiting for all the blue lights to stop whizzing about.
I still clutched the screwdriver, except that now, it was a blackened plastic handle attached to a melted stub of steel about three inches long.
Brick arrived with a question on his face and I asked whether he understood ‘off’ meant ‘BLOODY OFF!’
It turned out he’d left a generator – a big one – running on the poop deck. Loving awareness! If only Ronan had been here to see this.
A while later the mast lighting had to be replaced, and that was definitely the job of the ship’s electrician. Of course, the transmitter has to remain OFF while the electrician is on the mast, or the electrician becomes toast.
Brick was about to climb the mast when he saw me standing there holding the transmitter key. A special look came over his face. In truth I only wanted to show him the set was off, but later I realised he might have thought I was waiting for him to climb the mast to turn on the transmitter!
Play something for George
One night the ship-to-shore radio broke squelch. It was Ronan or one of
his close pals asking for some of George’s (George Harrison) music for
‘the party’, evidently some big party going down for London’s smart set at Ronan’s Chelsea apartments.
So off I went to the record library and loaded up with old Beatles hits, George Harrison songs, Ravi Shankar (one of George’s pet projects) and generally got into a party frame of mind.
Sometimes the jocks would play wicked practical jokes, though not usually on the engineer, who had, after all, the power to silence them at a moment’s notice.
One night I found Andy Archer and Tony Allen plotting outside the door of the on-air studio. Inside was John B Mair, a shy Scots lad. I had just come from the transmitter room after shutting the Continental down earlier than usual. It needed urgent maintenance and there was no choice.
Unfortunately I neglected to inform the jock, who was listening to his output on a studio monitor rather than off-air. And he’d neglected to notice that the TX lamp had gone out, but was merrily continuing his show for nobody.
As I reached the door, Andy said to me, “Have you told Johhny?”
No, I shook my head.
They laughed, and just as the ‘on air’ lamp came on, burst through the door into the studio.
Andy and Tony were both profoundly gay and Tony in particular was extremely camp. (After this trip I could never listen to one of the BBC’s camp comedies such as ‘The Navy Lark’ without hearing ten times the naughty innuendoes I’d heard beforehand.)
Anyway, Andy gave John a big hug and murmured things into his ear, then he and Tony said terrible things into the microphone, about John liking young lads and so on.
John turned beetroot and slammed the controls down to zero. The expression on his face . . . it looked like he’d been made to eat lemons.
Then somebody burst out laughing and he exploded. “You bastards! It’s off air, isn’t it? The transmitter?” He gave me a terrible look.
I nodded, and grinned sheepishly.
Boarded at sea
Towards the end of my time on board we started seeing the big trawler more often. Once, a light aircraft flew over and dropped a package to us. It landed about thirty feet from the ship, but too far for us to get a line on it, so we never discovered what it might be.
One day the HF radio woke the captain, and the captain then woke me, with the news: prepare to leave! The forecast was good enough to arrange a transfer, but the weather window was quite small and we – the Brits – would have to leave by fast launch to the English coast. We worried about this, and our fears proved to be well-founded.
About ten o’clock, a Dutch coaster hove into view. We’d had it on radar for the last half-hour, but we maintained radio silence on VHF and HF because we knew the DTI would be monitoring us.
Just as the coaster approached the Mi Amigo, what should appear but the big spy trawler, which arrived at about twenty knots, a big bow wave in its teeth. Trawlers don’t usually have that kind of speed. There were a lot of big guys hanging off it, dressed in butch clothes and bobble hats. Many of them had binoculars and cameras in their hands. They passed a mere twenty feet from our stern, and the Mi Amigo rocked in the wake.
I had donned my own bobble hat and dark sunglasses as soon as the spy ship appeared, and noticed the other Brits doing the same.
After the close pass the trawler steamed rapidly away. I should have tracked it on radar, but by now everyone was needed to transfer supplies and people from the coaster, in a heaving sea.
It took a while to transfer 1,500 gallons of diesel for the generators, and at the same time we were moving the relief crew, the stores, fresh food, fresh water, transmitter parts, new ventilator fans, gennie spares . . . and I had to brief the replacement RF engineer on the transmitter status. Not least of all, I took personal delivery of an envelope stuffed with a heartwarming amount of Dutch guilders. These were doubly welcome, since under stupid Wilson’s government, the pound had collapsed and would hardly buy a bag of sweets.
The coaster left, and the weather began to close in. We started to worry that we’d be left stuck out there for a few more storms. Then a launch arrived from the British side. The ‘old’ UK staff – me, Johhny Jason, John B Mair, Andy Archer, and Tony Allan – boarded it with indecent haste. My suitcase was a lot lighter than when I’d arrived because half of my clothes had rotted from exposure to salt water.
I gave a final glance to the old rustbucket, then we rumbled off into the lightly gathering mist. The helmsman turned round, and called “There’s a chart in that box. Try to spot the bouys and call them out to me. I know which side to steer.”
I had a pair of binoculars and started to call out the bouy details. Like, “red and white, flashing light”. And so on. We were about twenty miles out from Harwich. Then a dark shape loomed from the mist. The spy trawler, going like hell!
“Can we outrun that thing?” I asked the skipper.
“I think so. We’ve got twin inboard six-cylinder diesels, three hundred horsepower, but the prop won’t take that. Still, I think we can make thirty knots. I’d be surprised to see a trawler go that fast.” He reached over and pulled on the throttle levers.
The stern dug in and I felt the surge of power.
“Just one thing. We’re on the ebb, and the bottom shoals fast here. We might run aground. Now keep a sharp eye on those bouys while I watch for shoals.”
I had one eye on the chart and the other on the line of bouys marking the channel. After a while I glanced back. Sure enough, the trawler couldn’t keep up. Suddenly it turned about and headed into the mist. Scared of the low water, I bet. Now if we could just sneak into Frimlington harbour . . .
“HEAVE TO! Prepare to be boarded! This is Her Majesty’s Customs Authorities!”
Out of the gloom came a PLA (Port of London Authority) cutter.
We shut the engines down and they grappled us.
Three SB (Special Branch) cops came on board, along with Customs, the harbour control officer, and a guy in a black mackintosh from the damnable DTI.
One by one we produced our personal stuff and were searched. The DTI guy gave my bundle of Dutch guilders a hard look, but handed them back to me.
They confiscated all our tapes, stereo carts, and albums. Then, on the quayside, they cautioned us that we’d all be liable for prosecution under the Marine (Broadcasting) offences act. (This was one of the most dubious pieces of legislation ever passed by a British government; we refused to acknowledge it because in international waters British subjects should not be subject to the law of the mainland in such matters.)
I went home to prepare for my year in Saudi Arabia (that’s another story.)
Shortly after I left for Saudi the cops arrived at my place with a warrant, and were most glum, apparently, to hear that I had departed for a place that British cops aren’t even allowed to visit. The rest – Johnny Jason, John B Mair, Tony Allen, Andy Archer, and the boatman – were arraigned before the Crown Court and heavily fined for ‘Abetting the operation of an illegal radio vessel’.
Except that is, for Johnny Jason, who decided to fight, had the benefit of a lawyer hired by Ronan, and got off on a ‘technicality’ or rather, stupidity, in the law.
The sad fact of the matter is, all governments fear media that is not under their direct control. Caroline was killed for political reasons, the same reasons why Margaret Thatcher killed the Community Radio experiment. (Remember that? Yet another story.)
And to this day, British radio broadcasting remains mainly in the hands of the rich and powerful conglomerates who've bought up all the radio stations.
One final photo, courtesy of Offshore Echoes:
Johnny Walker, Ronan, Dave Lee Travis, Mark Sloane, and Keith Skues at a recent reunion.
Feature (c) Clive Warner, 2006-2010
Thanks to Offshore Echoes, I have reproduced the newspaper reports about the boarding at sea, below.
I am, of course, the engineer referred to in one of the reports.