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volume 7
july 2004

Dealing with the "Radio Caroline Dis-organisation"


  The wet and wild history of Radio Caroline (19)
by Phil Mitchell
  This chapter of our series on the "Wet and Wild History of Radio Caroline" has been written by Phil Mitchell, who not only worked for Radio Caroline on the MV Mi Amigo, but also did a lot of experience on land based pirate stations; not forgetting in international waters off the Israeli coast on the famous Voice of Peace, which was set up in the late 1960s from a former Groningen coaster, called the MV Cito by Peace-fighter Abe Nathan.
1 Left: Mi Amigo (Photo © Rob Olthof)

To say I was excited would be an understatement by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, I had worked on plenty of "land based" pirate radio stations in the past, WFRL, Radio Kaleidoscope, NOVA and a number of others I'm not quite so proud of and would rather not mention. But this was altogether different; it was the big one. The job that other deejays would only ever dream of: the very radio station that influenced my teenage years. I had been offered a job on Radio Caroline. It was a chilly autumn afternoon in October 1974 when three of us, Simon Barrett, James Ross and I, met Ronan O'Rahilly in a pub on the Kings Road, Chelsea. He furtively furnished us with hastily scribbled details of contacts and addresses necessary for our trip out to the "Mi Amigo" and then left in a hurry for a meeting with, we were later informed, George Harrison. It was all so wonderfully cloak-and-dagger in those days. In later years I often have a little laugh to myself when I recall the extreme lengths we went to keeping the details of our departure secret.

2 The majority of the travel arrangements were left to us: passports, tickets for the ferry to France, negotiations with the tender Captain and so on would all become second nature in time. But for the time being, this was all new and exciting to me. Within the short space of a two or three days, we landed in France, each of us heavily laden with large, dark blue "British Airways" bags, crammed full of albums for Radio Caroline's record library. After traipsing around for a couple of hours, we eventually found the tender Captain in a bar in the waterfront area of Boulogne, where he was enthusiastically consuming vast amounts of red wine. Although we had only disembarked from the ferry a few hours before, all of us were keen to put to sea again and get out to the ship. I will never forget our looks and feelings of disappointment when we enquired about our departure. He muttered something to the barman, which none of us could fully understand, but contained a fair amount of French expletives and seemed to be a subject of great hilarity between the two men, and then glared at us through his heavy, bloodshot eyes, before slurring bluntly: "Non, not today!" Dismayed by his decision, but undeterred we left the bar after arranging to meet him the next day.
3 Right: Phil Mitchell

We managed to scrape together just enough money between us to spend our first night in a small fleapit hotel in the town, but for the following three nights we were forced to sleep rough on the tiled kitchen floor of a benevolent Frenchman's house who was sympathetic to our plight and a Radio Caroline fan. We sustained ourselves on sticky buns of questionable origin, sweets or dried fruit and French sticks and cheese, until the Captain was sober enough to make a rational decision regarding our departure. I had been informed that the tender journey usually took about eleven or twelve hours in good conditions, but could take anything up to twenty-four hours if the weather was bad. This in itself was a daunting prospect, but despite our disappointments and hardships of the previous four days, we were all eager to get underway. It was 2.00 a.m. when, carrying fishing rods to disguise our actual reason for being at the quay at that time of the morning, we finally boarded a very small, smelly fishing boat and put to sea. Despite the discomfort of the sparsely fitted boat, we were ecstatic to be on our way at last. The sea was a little choppy, but that didn't worry us and our spirits remained high until we passed Cap Gris Nez and the weather changed for the worse.

4 The little boat shuddered unnervingly, made horrible creaking noises and was tossed and buffeted until I felt sure it would fall to pieces beneath our feet. The Captain ignored our communal retching sessions over the side, apart from shouting at us to improve our aim when we threw up. He resolutely hung on to the wheel with one hand, while swigging wine from a bottle with the other, which he also used to bash a sticking compass from time to time. We had endured a nightmare roller coaster ride across the North Sea for around twelve hours, when suddenly, the clouds lifted, the wind dropped and the sun began to shine. The sea almost instantly calmed and we found ourselves surrounded by a low swirling mist, which rose eerily from the millpond sea. Our stomachs felt raw and the violent tossing of the boat had exhausted us, but even through all that, we felt like brave pioneers who had fought long and hard against the elements.
5 Left: Phil Mitchell

The Captain started to express doubts whether he could find the MV Mi Amigo in the mist, even suggesting at one point that we should turn back and try again tomorrow. But we were having none of it, and determined that we should not give up, particularly after enduring that awful, sick making, sleepless night. I suddenly remembered that I had a radio in my bag and insisted that with this invaluable piece of equipment, I could easily find the ship by direction finding. The Captain mumbled incoherently to himself for a while and then began swearing at us under his breath, before reluctantly agreeing to give it a try. If truth were known, I had no idea whether or not I could actually do it, but I had seen it done and I thought. "What the hell! We've come this far by what seemed to be the seats of our pants, how hard can it be?" The Captain glanced at me dubiously as I clambered up onto the bow, tuned the radio to Caroline's frequency and then rotated the radio until I found the null. "That way," I announced authoritatively, waving vaguely ahead, "Caroline's over there." Quite honestly, I had absolutely no idea whether the Mi Amigo was in front or behind us, but it seemed to me that someone had to make a decision and I was it.

6 More by luck than judgment, we successfully navigated our way around the sand banks of the Knock Deep. Then, more than three hours later, it appeared. Like some monstrous monolith, the sixty-metre antenna mast of the MV Mi Amigo loomed above the mist. It was the most wonderful sight when we finally broke through the mist and breathed a heavy sigh of relief as we saw the little red and white ship rolling steadily in the gentle swell. Once alongside, I jumped aboard the Mi Amigo into the arms of Captain Donald and began imparting the horrors of our journey to the deejays we were replacing. To my initial surprise, they were singularly unimpressed by our ordeal. But they were all old hands at dealing with what I eventually named "The Radio Caroline Dis-organisation." Once on board, I just couldn't contain myself. I just had to see absolutely everything. Here I was on the very ship that had defied the government almost continuously since 1964. "This is the stuff dreams are made of," I remember thinking as I hastily stowed my gear in my appointed cabin, which was a dump, but that didn't seem to matter at the time, and began exploring the ship. It was exactly as I had seen it in magazine pictures and photographs from the 1960's. Maybe not quite as glamorous as I had imagined; but that didn't seem to matter, I was there!
7 Right: Dioptric Surveyor seen from the deck of the MV Ross Revenge (Photo © Jaap Jansen)

Later that evening, at 10 p.m., as I opened the door of Radio Caroline's main "on air" studio to begin my first live program, I felt that I had hit the big time at last. I couldn't wait to explore the Mi Amigo; I wanted to see every nook and cranny. This was the little ship that had defied the Government for so many years, disappeared into oblivion when the Wijsmuller Company snatched it in the late 1960's, then reappeared like the proverbial phoenix in the early 1970's. I had closely followed Caroline's fortunes throughout the years with such zeal that from the moment I stepped on board, I felt that I knew it inside out, but it took me a few days to figure out why everything about the station had an uncanny familiarity about it. Finally I twigged; it was because virtually nothing had really changed that much since the 1960's. The studio, built in the 1960's on the upper deck behind the mess was still controlled by an old valve operated Gates, four channel sound mixer, which, during warm weather, produced so much heat it made the studio feel like a sauna. But despite the oppressive heat, you really had to keep the porthole shut while you had the microphone switched on, otherwise the listeners could hear the continuous drone of the generators in the background.

8 The turntables were Garrard 501's, I think the 1960's originals were 401's or older. Wonderful old reliable clunkers they were, in fact, I still have one at home, which I keep purely for sentimental value. But, they were ancient technology, even in the 1970's. They took a good turn and a half to reach full speed and once they got moving, could rip your arm off if you made any attempt to stop them. However, it was the old open topped Spotmaster cart machines that gave us the most trouble. These machines were cranky at best. Held together with chewing gum and string, they seemed to be intent on thwarting any attempt at smooth programming rather than do the job for which they were designed. I remember hearing Simon Dee once waxing lyrical about these things. He said how wonderful it was to have this facility of being able to bring up jingles or commercials instantly. But by now these almost "Jurassic" era machines were old, worn out and I rapidly began to suspect, possessed by some fiendish radio station gremlin. They seemed to defy any sense of rationality. If you were lucky, they would merely play the tape at completely the wrong speed, making the jingle sound like a manic Donald Duck. At their worst, and usually at a my most unprepared moments, the damn machine would grab the tape, wrench yards of it from the cart, proceed to devour it, then spew it out over the studio floor at an incredible rate. Only the occasional bouts of bad weather could cause worse problems, but having said that, we were only ever forced to play pre-recorded program tapes once because the weather was too rough to continue live programs.
9 Left: Peter Chicago

During very high seas, the waves would often wash over the deck and soak the undersized insulator, which connected the transmitter to the antenna. This would cause the transmitter to arc, which caused a crackling sound on your radio. However, if a large amount of water hit the insulator the transmitter would completely shut down, which would send us scurrying for the engineer to reset the controls and fire it up again. Despite these little problems, life aboard the Mi Amigo was everything I expected it to be. Food was good, beer plentiful and as many ciggies as you could smoke were free. I was, for the most part, happy. Simon Barrett, James Ross and I had a good, professional working relationship and although I say it myself, we produced some good programs and original promotions.

10 I had been on board for about three weeks when the Dutch tender arrived with food supplies, fresh water, diesel fuel and a new crew. Among them was Peter Chicago, who was then the chief transmitter engineer. I had wanted to meet him for some time, as I knew of his reputation and had great admiration for his work on aboard the MEBO II. I can't say I was disappointed; he was a brilliant and inventive engineer, although he could sometimes be a little abrasive and pompous. That was just his way and to be fair he was under a lot of pressure, but on his better days he had a wicked sense of humour. We would break the day-to-day monotony by carefully planning and carrying out the most outrageous practical jokes on each other. Some of which, I have to say, were so disgusting that I couldn't possibly reveal them here — or anywhere else really, you just had to be there. However, one of the more harmless, but nevertheless cruel practical jokes took place late one night.
11 Right: Caroline deejays Mike Baker, Andy Archer en John B. Maier (1974)

A certain deejay, who shall remain nameless, had often delighted in watching me squirm as the recipient of his twisted sense of humour, decided to feature the Rolling Stones on his program and play half an hour of their music, non-stop. When Chicago and I heard this, we secretly cued a tape of more Stones music in the Mi Amigo studio, then waited patiently for him finish his feature. That half an hour passed very slowly, but our patience was rewarded when at the very moment he opened the microphone to back announce the feature, Peter switched studios and started the tape so that the listeners would be unaware of what was about to happen. As the poor unsuspecting man began his announcement, I burst into the Caroline studio pretending to be drunk. I will never forget the look of sheer horror on his face when I grabbed the microphone and began slurring obscenities into it, or the panic that crossed his face after he'd managed to wrestle the microphone from me, push me to one side and hastily start one of the turntables. But I was not content with reducing him to a shambling wreck, oh no! I scraped the stylus noisily across the record, removed it from the turntable and walked out of the studio with it. He was sweating profusely, frantically trying to explain to his non-existent listeners what had happened and cue another record at the same time, when both Peter and I returned laughing our socks off to tell him that he wasn't on the air anyway. It took a little while for the penny to drop, but I think he saw the funny side of it, eventually. Nevertheless, the very next day he insisted to anybody who would listen that a bolt should be fitted on the inside of the studio door. I don't think he ever really forgave me for that one.

12 After months of only being able to broadcast in the evenings, we were excited to learn that we were to begin broadcasting on two frequencies. Caroline was to be on 389 metres during the day and on both 259 and 389 metres in the evenings, from seven in the evening when Radio Mi Amigo closed down. At last, we assumed that we were going to be able to begin restoring Radio Caroline to her former glory as an all day music station. Chicago was in his element as he beavered furiously, building the diplexer to connect two transmitters to the same antenna and after a few weeks, he was ready to begin testing. These tests were initially performed at night when both radio stations had ceased normal programming, but very soon after, we were running both transmitters during the day. Radio Mi Amigo on 259; and non-stop music from Radio Caroline on 389. Despite our repeated pleas, Peter would not let us begin programming on the new frequency. None of us could understand why until we returned to England, only to find that the ancient 10-kilowatt transmitter used for 389, could only just be received on the south east coast barely eight or so miles away. The experiment at this time was a complete failure and tests were abandoned soon after and any ideas of daytime programming shelved, as parts necessary to get the transmitter working properly were either not available or not affordable. We were at our lowest ebb at this point. All Chicago's work seemed to have been wasted and our efforts and plans to make Caroline an all day station were, at least temporarily, dashed.
13 Left: MV Mi Amigo (1978)

The following year, after I had left Caroline to join the Voice of Peace in Israel, Chicago did eventually get the 389-transmitter going at somewhere near full power, and some worthwhile transmissions were made, but I was long gone by then and sunning myself in the hot Mediterranean sunshine on the MV Peace. I want to finish this chapter commenting on the remarks being made regarding my arrest: I was not actually arrested at Dover customs, but stopped and questioned for an hour or so until I insisted on having a solicitor present if I was to be questioned any further. I was quickly told I could leave at this point and I asked, hypothetically: "Why are you making all this fuss about a simple radio station that doesn't seem to be doing any harm?" The answer came from the Home Office official: "Why? Because we can't have these people cocking a snook at us!" To which, as I made my exit, I replied politely: "Seems more like they're cocking a leg at you, sir."

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