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volume 7
april 2004

The day of the great hurricane


  The wet and wild history of Radio Caroline (17)
by Steve Conway
  October 16, 1987, the day of the "Great Hurricane," a more than violent storm caused massive destruction to property and many casualties among the population across the southern half of the UK. The radio ship MV Ross Revenge, anchored at the Falls Head, some 18 miles East-North East from Ramsgate in Kent was hit by it too. At that stage the ship still had her original 300-foot aerial, putting out the signals of Radio Caroline (558 kHz) and Radio Monique (963 kHz). On board of the vessel were Peter Philips, Chris Kennedy, Dave West, Steve Conway, Tim Allen and engineer Mike Watts for Radio Caroline and a team of three deejays for Radio Monique, led by Dick "Trousers" Verheul. Steve Conway takes us back to a hectic day.
1 Right: Steve Conway (photo: Chris Edwards)

Waking up to a storm. For me the morning of October 16, 1987, started just after 5:00 am with the usual banging on my cabin door by Peter Phillips. At that early hour Phillips was already on-air with the breakfast show, which ran from 5:00 am. I was the fulltime newsreader, and would need to have "travel" and "weather" prepared for shortly after 6:00. I would be reading the first headlines on air at 6:30, so it was important for me to be up by 5:30 at the latest. Still unknown to any of us, the whole of South-East England was being devastated by hurricane force winds, with immense destruction to property, injury and loss of life. Thousands of trees were being uprooted, roofs torn off, electricity cables and TV transmitter masts felled, ships were being blown aground high onto beaches — and we were 18 miles out at sea, unaware that all shipping had headed for safe ports, and we were the only ones still out there. "Good morning to you, Steve," Peter called out as he banged on my cabin door: "Time to get up — oh, and by the way — it's a trifle rough this morning."

  It was still dark as I got up and made my way to the galley for a first cup of tea, feeling the ship moving roughly beneath me, and hearing an incredible moaning from the tower, louder than I had ever heard before. Tea in hand I made my way up the two flights of stairs onto the bridge, and an unbelievable sight met my eyes. Everything was white. Flying foam filled the air higher than the top of the ships bridge, and through every window all you could see was white foam, flying through the air at more than a hundred miles an hour. Visibility was about three yards. We couldn't even see the tower from the bridge, just blue flashes through the white, as the foam caused the thousands of watts of broadcast power to arc and flash with the unexpected wetness. The tower was only a few feet from the bridge window, but if it hadn't been for those flashes you wouldn't even have known it was there.
2 Left: Communication equipment on the Ross Revenge (photo: Hans Knot)

Something will go soon. Incredibly, both Caroline on 558 and Monique on 963 were on the air as usual, as the arcing didn't seem to be doing any damage to the equipment. Going into the newsroom to start my shift, I turned on the TV to get the first reports of the day from the teletext. Nothing but static on all channels. Never for one moment assuming that all of Kent's TV transmitters had been forced off the air, I assumed that our own TV reception aerial on the roof of the bridge had been torn away by the storm, and turned to the radio. The dial was very silent, I couldn't seem to pick up any of the nearest UK local stations on FM, but I finally got BBC's Radio 4, and listened with amazement to what they described as an emergency forecast from the Met office. The weatherman was explaining that they were only on air thanks to emergency generators, as all power supplies in London were disrupted. He described the hurricane force winds from the South-West, and this was followed by the travel news, which was basically a warning from the police not to travel. All trains were cancelled, all roads to London were blocked, hundreds of minor roads in Kent were blocked, and the police was advising everyone to stay indoors. Then followed a news bulletin about the devastation, including that fact that several ships had got into trouble before they could reach the shelter of port, and a Sealink Ferry had been blown up onto a beach near Folkestone.

  I was stunned, because although the foam and lack of visibility was unprecedented, the MV Ross Revenge was behaving no more badly than it had in the last storm, and in fact was not rolling too much at all. The fact that the winds were blowing South-West helped, as there was land on that side of us, the only direction that we had any protection from. I typed up the weather and travel news — basically "police advices everyone to stay at home" and took it down to Peter in the studio. "Hmm, ... are you sure about this?" he asked me, not believing that things could be that bad. "It's all word for word off the BBC," I assured him, so he went ahead and read it. Gradually, as dawn came, we were able to see a little way through the foam that filled the air around us. We saw waves the like of which we had never seen before. Huge towering waves rolling majestically past us, but leaving us relatively unscathed. Mike Watts pointed out that the wind was so fierce that it was actually holding the ship face into it, thus preventing us from turning to catch the waves broadside, which would have been disastrous. The ship was even leaning slightly with the force of the wind moaning in the tower, and Mike reckoned that the strain on our aerial, mast and superstructure must be enormous.
  "Something will go soon — mark my words," he said, on hearing the latest from Radio 4, saying that winds in our area were now greater than 110 mph. The breakfast show that morning was great fun, if a little difficult, knowing that we were one of very few radio stations which had managed to stay on air during the big storm. The storm itself was the major news item, of course, I managed to get a few other stories from Radio 4, and Peter made great play on air of just how rough things were out at the Falls Head, at one stage describing the scene outside the studio porthole as "a seething cauldron of saline hostility." Caroline's studio, studio 1, was the best to be in during a storm, as it was on the centreline of the ship, with the equipment on the inside wall, basically at the centre of gravity whatever way the ship was moving. The Dutch, next door in Studio 2, were having a hard time of it, however, as their records and equipment flew all over the place. The Dutch deejay on their breakfast show that day was Dick Verheul — known onboard as "Dick Trousers," looking more than a little morose. He sat there playing continuous music as the studio fell to pieces on top of him, but over on Caroline 558 it was business as usual.
3 Right: Boudewijn Dom

Tightening loose parts. Just before I was due to read the 7:30 news headlines, something caught my eye through the newsroom porthole. I looked out, and saw with horror part of our aerial feeder system had come loose from the mast, and was swinging back and forth past the porthole, with spectacular flashes of power whenever it touched the metal mast or stays. This was serious. I left the newsroom and dashed around the ship looking for Mike. Once I found him I explained what I had seen, and then ran back upstairs to arrive panting in the newsroom just as Peter opened the news-mike for me to read the headlines. I grabbed my piece of paper and read them, and Peter asked on-air if I had been running a marathon, not prepared for the answer I was about to give him. I told him and the listeners that I'd been running around the ship frantically trying to locate our engineer, as we seemed to have a problem with our aerial. "Ah ... Let's hope it's not too serious," Peter said, before announcing the next record. Barely had it started, however, when he broke in over it, and announced that our engineer had told him we had an aerial problem, and that we were shutting down immediately. As soon as he said that, the station went off air, Mike obviously having rushed down to the transmitter room to wait for the announcement.

  There was a general sound of running footsteps as people arrived on the bridge to assess the situation. Mike arrived back from the transmitter room, and explained that not only had one of the thick metal stays on the mast snapped, but that it had ripped away some old disused aerial feeder cable with it. Both these 300-foot long pieces of metal were now flailing about through the sky as the ship moved, wrapping themselves around everything else, shorting out the power from the transmitter, and in danger of snagging the main aerial feeder cables. Something had to be done straight away, or the damage caused would get progressively worse. We looked out of the windows. The sea was mountainous, the spray was still flying thick through the air. It was virtual suicide to attempt any maintenance work on the mast in the middle of this hurricane — but it had to be done, otherwise the damage could get far worse as the loose stay whipped around and it could put us off the air for days. Peter, who moments before had been safely ensconced in a warm studio, lost no time in acting to save the situation. "OK, he said, "I think it would be madness to try and climb the tower in this weather, but perhaps I can reach the those wires and catch them from the top of the bridge, and then tie them back so they do no more damage — are you with me, Mike?"
  Mike looked at the swirling maelstrom outside, and shrugged: "OK, let's do it — at least if we're successful, we'll be back on the air when most other stations are still off — yes, I'm with you." All the rest of us could do was help in kitting both of them in waterproof gear, and organise some hot soup for when they returned. When they opened the bridge doors to go outside, the howling of the wind increased tenfold, and we could almost taste the white spray hurling past. They went out, and within seconds were lost from sight. We could hear them moving around on the bridge roof, and waited anxiously as the minutes ticked by, and it became apparent that they were having trouble catching the swinging metal. Eventually, however, they managed it, and returned indoors when it had been safely tied back, looking like two Arctic explorers who had been lost for months. We pressed hot soup into their waiting hands, but instead of wanting to rest after their ordeal, Mike went straight down to the transmitter room to switch us back on, and Peter to the studio to resume the breakfast show.
4 Left: Chris Kennedy (photo: Hans Knot)

My turn to go on deck. We were on air again at 8:20 — incredibly, having been off for less than an hour despite having had to do mast repairs in the middle of a ferocious storm. To have gone outside in such conditions at all was extremely dangerous, let alone climb onto the roof and attempt repairs, but somehow nothing seemed too much effort to keep Radio Caroline on the air. Peter coped admirably with the rest of his breakfast show, despite the fact that he was still in his waterproof gear, and dripping everywhere, and at 10:00 am, Chris Kennedy came on to relieve him. Peter decided to go back to bed at this stage, and I can't say I blame him. At 10:30 another stay snapped on the mast, and urgent work was needed again to remedy the situation. I didn't think that it was fair to wake Peter up again, so this time I volunteered to go outside with Mike. Now it was my turn to be dressed up in waterproofs and protective gear, and brave the teeth of the hurricane. This time there was an added complication — the station was staying on air, as Mike had had difficulty firing up the transmitter after the last break, due to the continual arcing and wind-stress on the aerial pushing its preset trips close to their safety limit.

  As long as we were on the air, it would stay on, but if it was turned off again, Mike was afraid that we would be off until the storm was over and adjustments were made. So we left it on, meaning that we would have to be extra careful up on the roof not to get too close to live aerial cables, and not to touch the stay we were trying to catch when it touched off the aerial and became live with 50 kilowatts of power. Nothing could have prepared me for the outside — it was a screaming nightmare of wind and spray, taking the breath away as soon as you stepped out of the shelter of the bridge. Climbing up the ladder onto the roof was terrifying, as the ship bucked and rolled in the sea, as if trying to shake us off. Looking down at the frenzied sea around us, I knew that one slip would mean that we would be hurled into the icy waters, and lost forever. I held on tightly, and made it to the roof, where I was exposed to the full force of the 100 mile-an-hour winds. Mike and I clung onto each other, and wedged ourselves up against some railing near the funnel, so that the wind was pressing us up against something solid.
  It took ages for us to catch the rogue stay, which was swinging back and forwards through the air with considerable force, occasionally contacting the aerial and crackling with deadly power. We were almost blinded by spray, unable to breath properly, and constantly in danger of being tipped over the side into the sea, 30 feet below. In the end we had to climb onto the safety railings at the front of the bridge roof in an attempt to reach it. Finally we managed to catch it as it came past, though the force of it almost sent us crashing backwards into the tower with its live cables. We clung onto it for dear life to steady ourselves, and then quickly tied it back against the ship's superstructure using some metal wire, which would hold it for the time being at least.
5 Right: Mike Watts (photo: Offshore Echoes Magazine)

A welcome cup of tea. When we had finished, we looked up, at the gigantic mast towering above us. Spray had been carried by the wind hundreds of feet up in the air, almost to the top, and dozens of the porcelain insulators used on the metal stays were glowing and crackling blue as the water and salt encrusted them, and shorted out our broadcast power. "We're going to have more than just a few broken stays to deal with after this," Mike yelled at me through the wind, "that whole lot is going to have to be checked out inch by inch — it's a miracle we're still on the air at all." Eventually we made it back indoors, and down to the galley for a welcome cup of hot tea and a chance to dry off. Even down in the messroom, the moaning of the wind in the tower was quite loud, almost drowning out the sound of Caroline coming from the speaker on the wall.

  "Chris is doing all right," said Mike, "he's all right, your brother". I agreed, and we speculated on wether Tim Allen would be able to withstand the rough conditions, knowing that Dave West probably wouldn't be able to. "Well, it looks like it's you and me back on the evening slot today," I remarked to Mike. "Yes, I'd better go and get some sleep — I've been up since dinnertime yesterday," he replied. "Keep an eye on things, will you, and tell me if anything goes wrong. I think the wind is beginning to die down now, so we should be through the worst of it." With that he went off to bed, leaving the ship to just myself, Chris on air on 558, and Dick who was still hanging on for dear life in the Monique studios. Everyone else was either still asleep, or being quietly sick in their cabins.
  Towards lunchtime I wandered back up to the newsroom, observing that the wind was indeed very slowly going down, and the spray was beginning to clear from the air. I put the radio on to start to gather news, then flicked the TV on, although I was sure we had lost our rooftop antenna. To my surprise, on one of the channels, I got a clear picture, with a test card. Obviously it had been all the TV stations that were at off, and this only made me marvel further at our success in keeping Caroline on the air through it all. I got plenty of details from teletext for my one o'clock news, and after I had read it, I settled down to watch the TV news, with its pictures of the devastation across the whole of Southern UK. I was particularly interested to see the shots of the ferry on the beach — if our anchor had not been able to take the strain, that could well have been us.
6 Left: Radio Caroline news room on board of the MV Ross Revenge (photo: Wim van Egmond)

Cleaning the deck. After a while, I was disturbed by a strange grinding noise, which seemed to occur at irregular intervals, and seemed to come from above my head. I listened for ages, trying to figure out what it could be, and noticed that whenever it occurred, the TV picture broke up as well. I finally placed it as outside and above me — it must be the tower. Dashing outside, I braved the wind once more to climb up onto the bridge roof, and hung on as best I could, waiting to see if I could spot what was wrong. The stays we had tied back earlier were still secure, and nothing else seemed to be loose. Just then, I heard the noise again, a crackling grinding noise, and saw a shower of blue sparks coming off the mast, about a third of the way up. I watched again, and then saw it happen — a single high-voltage cable had come loose, and as the ship rolled in the swell, would make contact with the metal tower and make the whole structure live. When this happened the whole of our broadcast signal would be shorting away, so it must sound to listeners on land as if we were constantly going off the air for a few seconds, then coming on again. I hastened down to the engineers cabin, and woke Mike.

  He took one look at it, and decided that we would have to switch off completely, and stay off until the weather was calmer and the whole aerial had been inspected. Just as we came back into the bridge, the emergency radio-link from Peter Chicago's house sprang into life. Chicago told us that our signal on land was now breaking up and totally distorted, but said that the main reason he had called was to check that we were all OK after the hurricane. He told us that Margate was a scene of devastation, and that his house had suffered quite a bit of damage. We closed down straight away, and got Peter Philips out of bed to survey the situation. The storm had died down considerably by now, but it was still quite rough, so it was decided that we would clean up on deck for a couple of hours before attempting to climb the tower.
  The whole deck of the Ross Revenge was littered with seaweed and chunks of wood and other debris, which normally floated by on the sea, but which had been hurled at us by the wind. Apparently nothing like this had ever occurred before. It took six of us two whole hours just to clear the seaweed and flotsam from the various outside decks of the ship, by which time the winds had died down to virtually nothing, the sea had become just moderate, and a weak sun was shining in the sky. Peter and Mike donned their climbing gear, and set off up the tower, Mike concentrating on repairs to the lower sections, Peter climbing the full 300 feet to the top, and working his way down. It must have been terrifying for Peter, 300 feet up in the air at the top of that mast, as the ship was still moving from side to side, so he must have been describing quite an arc through the air at the top. We could barley see him as a little blob way above us.
7 Right: Peter Phillips (photo: Offshore Echoes Magazine)

Back on the air again. It took eight hours of repair work, seven of which Peter spent up the mast, before all the damage was repaired. He and Mike put new stays on to replace the broken ones, replaced some insulators which had burned through, and repaired some damage to the aerial at the top, where it had become tangled. Even so, by the time they came down, only the most basic repair work had been done. Mike sent a message to land via Chicago's emergency system, saying that the mast had been tremendously stressed by the hurricane, and that it was essential that a team of riggers and welders visited us as soon as possible to inspect for metal fatigue or cracks. Finally, at 11:30 pm, we came back on the air, with a short broadcast from Peter reassuring the listeners that the ship had survived the big storm in one piece, and that the station would be on the air the following morning as normal. They then turned the transmitters off for some further work, so although it was Friday night, I got to sleep the entire night for once. The next day the ship got back into a sort of shattered normality, things going much as usual, but everybody still tired and drained from the exertions of the previous day.

  The weather stayed a little lumpy over the weekend, but by Tuesday morning it was calm and fine, and we started looking forward to our promised tender again. Tuesday lunchtime arrived, and I had just finished watching "Neighbours," and was walking out of the messroom to go to the galley, when the tender bell rang just as I was passing right under it, causing me to jump out of my skin. There was an English fishing boat on our starboard side, chock full of people, goodies, and news from shore. Relief was at hand ... or so we thought. Little did we know that what happened during the next twenty minutes would play a key role in our next major crisis a month later. But that, as they say, is another story!
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