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volume 7
july 2004

Three men on a radio ship


  The wet and wild history of Radio Caroline (21)
by Stuart Dobson
  On 19th November 1991 storms built up across Europe and by the early hours of the next morning force ten storms were battering the Ross Revenge, and eventually the main anchoring system broke. In the early hours of November 20, 1991, the radio ship grounded on the Goodwin Sands. The next day the tug Dextrous managed to get lines on the ship and towed it back to the Eastern Docks at Dover, where repair work was carried out. Stuart Dobson was there and tells us all about this dangerous adventure.
1 Right: The MV Ross Revenge

When the telephone rang, I didn't hesitate in answering it. I was expecting to be called by someone from the Voice of Peace. "Are you still interested in working onboard radio ships," a voice was asking me? "When do you require me to go out to the MV Peace," I inquired? The voice on the other end of the telephone said that his name was Andy and that he wanted me to go onboard the MV Ross Revenge, the home of Radio Caroline and not the MV Peace, the home of the Voice Of Peace. Andy then started telephoning me four or six times a day asking me to go out to the MV Ross Revenge. Eventually I agreed to go down to London to meet Ronan O'Rahilly and Andy at the Dome. I waited two hours for Ronan and Andy and was just about to call it a day, when they finally turned up. Ronan bought Andy and me a cup of coffee and Andy asked me a few questions. The only thing that Ronan wanted to know was if I could ready to go out to the MV Ross Revenge the very next day.

2 Onboard the Ross Revenge I had the great honour and privilege of working under the late Captain Ernie Stevenson. He was not only a great shipmate, but also my very best friend. Not only were we friends onboard but onshore as well. Even at on stage with Ernie and his wife Betty spending their holidays on my farm. When Ernie needed a hand with some engineering work, he would always ask me and as we worked he would explain what the particular piece of equipment did and how it operated. In fact it was Ernie who got me registered as a crewman. On one occasion Ernie and I were on the tender on our way back from the MV Ross Revenge when the engine developed a diesel blockage. While the tender drifted, Ernie set to work and got it unblocked. On several occasions I took the elm of the tender's on the way out to the Ross Revenge and back. If I had not worked for Radio Caroline, I would not have had great friends like the late captain Ernie Stevenson and his wife Betty, Peter Chicago, James Kay, Dick Palmer, Phil Mitchell, Norman Barrington, Steve Masters, Albert and Georgina Hood. With all of these shipmates I still keep in touch.
3 Left: Stuart Dobson (Photo © Stuart Dobson Archive)

I have many memories from my days on and off the MV Ross Revenge and here I want to tell you two of them. For the first one, I want to take the reader back to the Goodwin Sands. There, at 9.00 a.m. on Tuesday, November 19, 1991, I woke up in my bunk — this bunk being the lower one in room 2 onboard the Radio Caroline ship, the MV Ross Revenge. I went to the galley and helped myself to breakfast and a cup of coffee. Then I went a walk round the deck, the sea was quite calm. A short while later the sea became quite choppy and soon it was very rough and things began to slide around in the mess room, books, ashtrays and bugs fell off the table. Apples and pop cans started to roll around the floor as the ship was tossed from side to side. The waste bin fell over, sending all its contents over the place. In the galley crockery, cooking utensils and food started to fly around. We cleaned up everything and made sure everything was restrained from moving around as much as possible.

4 I went out to deck for a walk, dodging the odd wave that came over the side. I headed for the bow to watch the sea getting rougher. I was sitting in the port doorway under the bow deck, having a smoke watching the waves going over the side and break on the main deck. Occasionally a big wave would go right over the bow deck and break a few yards in front of me. Steve came up and informed me: "The gas bottles have come adrift. Will you help me to secure them?" I agreed and we made our way carefully along the main deck that was very slippery by the seawater being on top of the oily wooden deck. As the two-meter long gas bottles rolled and bounced around the decks, Steve and I ran after them trying to miss the waves coming over the sides. The whole operation was very dangerous, because when the ship rolled over the other way, the bottles were rolling and bouncing after us. Eventually, one by one, we managed to catch and secure them. Finally, cold, wet and covered in oil, Steve and I went inside to get cleaned and warmed up. Looking back on it, all this was rather funny, but certainly not at the time. On the contrary, it was really very frightening. Having watched a video and had some supper, at 2.30 that night I retired to my bunk leaving Neil and Christian on night watch.
5 Right: Ernie Stevenson (Photo © Stuart Dobson Archive)

At 4.15 that night I was awakened from a deep sleep by Ricky Jones banging on my cabin door and shouting: "Get dressed, get your life-jacket on, we are aground on the Goodwin Sands, so straight to the bridge." I put on plenty of warm clothes with my oilskins on top of them then my life-jacket. And I arrived at the bridge to find the rest of the crew there. At different times Neil and Steve went to check the hull in the engine-room. At all times when leaving the bridge we moved about in pairs. Christian and I checked the water tight-doors doors into the steering room. The crew from the tug Dextrous informed us they would be with us in an hour. A helicopter arrived and asked if we wanted to be taken off the ship. We thanked them and said we were waiting for the tug as nobody wanted to leave by air. The helicopter crew said that they were going back to base to refuel. The Ramsgate lifeboat was standing off us. While we were waiting for the tug, the waves crashed over the ship hitting the bridge windows. When the hour was up we were in touch with the Dextrous on the ships radio. They said that it would take another half hour for them to reach us. And then, as the MV Ross Revenge rolled, she began to keel over to the starboard.

6 After the half hour had gone we again got in touch with the Dextrous who said the bad weather was holding them up. It was decided as the radio ship was tilting further and further over, to ask the Ramsgate lifeboat to take us off. However, as they began to approach us on our starboard, they ran aground. The Dover lifeboat was on its way and the helicopter also was on its way back. When we heard the helicopter we filed outside. As we went through the doorway on the starboard side of the bridge, the wind and spray hit us. Holding onto the rails because of the list a Royal Air Force man was being lowered from the helicopter. We all crossed the wet sloping deck and hung onto the transmitter mast. As the waves crashed over us, the RAF man was lowered on to the back of the boat deck. Neil escorted Wendy across the deck to the RAF man, who put each of them into a harness, and then they were winched up. Next, Steve and Nicky made there way across the deck and were winched up too.
7 Left: RAF-helicopter at the Ross Revenge

While all this was going on, Chris and I were hanging onto the rear broadcasting mast as the waves smashed over us. Now it was our turn. Chris led the way with the wind blowing that hard, we had to lean into the wind to be able to walk. With the deck on the slant down to the starboard, I slipped on the wet deck and slid down to the starboard rails. Fortunately, I hit one of the rear mast sections, which had never been put up. From there I managed to crawl to the back. Chris was already in a harness and the RAF-man was able to drop the harness loop over me and attached himself. I shut my eyes due to suffering badly from vertigo. I felt my feet leave the deck and then they got stuck under the safety rail. With the helicopter pulling and my safety boots refusing to bend, something had to give way. I started to fall out of the loop, but the RAF-man grabbed my life-jacket and stopped me. The helicopter moved away from our stricken ship while we were winched up. When we were at the helicopter door the RAF-man kicked us safely in.

8 Inside the helicopter we took off our life-jackets and put on our safety belts. In no time at all, we were landing at the RAF-base. We were taken inside and given a shower. Steve, Wendy, Neil, Ricky and Chris were all given flying suits to replace their wet clothes. I did not need one, as I was warm and dry due to the oilskin I was wearing. We were interviewed by the Customs and Excise and the Police. Next the press, television and radio Reporters came to interview us. The television people filmed us and the press cameraman took loads of photographs. We were picked up in two cars and taken to a friendly house, where we were given food and coffee while watching the news on the television, which included our rescue. A few more photographs were taken and I was asked if this experience had put me off the sea or would I be willing to go back to the Ross Revenge if she was salvaged. Of course I said: "Yes."
9 Right: Ricky Jones

Another memory really should go under the caption: "Three Men on a Radio Ship." It was just a few minutes before midnight on Saturday, September 18, 1993, when we pulled up outside the gatehouse of the Granville Docks in Dover. As we drove around the harbour, we could see the beckoning lights of the Ross Revenge. It had been a six-hour drive to reach the radio ship and we were both very tired and more than ready for a cup of tea as we climbed the gangplank on to the deck. After our tea we unpacked our gear into our cabins. At the time of our arrival Steve Masters, Simon Cowper-Smith, John "24 Volt" Doughnut and John were onboard the Ross Revenge. The next day was an average workday and Simon filled me in on what had been happening while I had been away. The two Johns departed at 2.00 p.m. and Doughnut sometime later. Simon asked if my brother was staying. He answered for himself, that he was probably going home. Simon then gave me the keys, saying that Ernie would be arriving sometime the next afternoon. Simon and Steve left the MV Ross Revenge at about 11.00 p.m. Later my brother decided to stay to meet Ernie again. The next day at 2.00 p.m. Ernie arrived and after a long chat about the old days on the high seas and a cup of tea, Ernie unpacked his gear and then had dinner and planned our work for the next day.

10 First thing next morning Ernie, Keith and I set about finding the deadlights that were not in position and freeing up the ones that had rusted up. Covers were made up to fit over the vents. Later that day Howard Beer arrived to help us haul the anchor and 550 feet of chain onboard. The next day was very wet as Howard, Keith and I inspected the anchor, which was sitting on top of the chain. A lot of grunting and heaving was needed to move the two-ton anchor off the chain, only to find the lengths of chains were in knots. Eventually they were removed and the lengths joined together. Keith and I went to the anchor locker, while Ernie and Howard lowered a rope, which was tied to the bit of anchor chain that was left. Using the winless Ernie winched the old chain onto the focsle. Something that could not have been done until the day before when Ernie, Keith and I spent the afternoon freeing off this unit. The old chain was lowered over the side onto the quay side and the new chain and anchor were joined to it. Then it was hauled on to the ship, while Howard guided the chain in. Keith and I were busy in the chain locker, laying out the chain and preventing it from mounding up and getting jammed. While the anchor was still on the quayside, Howard, Keith and I put a rope round the anchor and pulled so that, when Ernie pulled it on the winch, it did not hit the side of the ship.
11 Left: Ross Revenge in Dover (Photo © Hans Knot)

The next day Ernie and Howard set to work on getting the main engine started. Keith and I started tank topping in the transmitter room and then the focsle where a tank had to be emptied. That went down three levels to the bottom of the ship. I had to climb down two ladders and, to reach the bottom, I had to climb the sides of the ship because there was no ladder down there. Ernie and Howard had the main engine running. Then it was time to retire for dinner and retire for the day. The following day Howard was away, which just left the three of us again. Keith and I continued tank topping in the engine room. At the aft of the engine room there are four cod liver oil tanks. That we tackled one by one, not knowing what was in these tanks. When we were slackening the nuts on the first tank we found out. Old cod liver oil, gallons of the stuff, eventually we got the top off and I climbed into the tank to have a look. There were great big balls of congealed cod liver oil floating in the liquid. The tank had not been opened for twenty or so years. You can imagine the stench we were working in.

12 In the focsle on the port side on the third floor down the aft of the room which houses the anchor locker, is a very small trapdoor, which Keith and I could only just squeeze through. Down there in a void between the tanks there is no room to stand up being only about 3 foot 6 inches high and only just about enough room for two people to squeeze into. Keith and I spent three days down there, cutting the bolts out due to them being rusted solid. With only an electric bulb on the end of a wire, using a disc cutter to cut the nuts carefully out not knowing whether the tanks were full or empty. Eventually water started to squirt out. We quickly replaced the bolts we had cut out with new ones. From then on, each time we cut a bolt, we replaced it. Eventually we had replaced all of them. Then we loosened them and got out of there as fast as we could also remove the power cables. The water was pumped out over night. Then Keith and I would start all over again. The next day, Ernie and Keith moved the command lamps from on top of the Monkey Island to the top of the funnel. Meanwhile I was busy mixing some concrete to seal around the anchor chains. This was done by ramming some old rag around the chain in the mouths of the anchor hawse pipe, then sealing it up with concrete. This was a necessary requirement for the Department of Transport. At the end of the day Ernie left the MV Ross Revenge bound for home. Keith and I did likewise with a date set for the three of us to return for another assault on the task list.
13 Right: The MV Ross Revenge in Dover (Photo © Paul Myers)

It was 7.00 p.m. on Tuesday, 12 October, 1993, when Keith and I started off in my car for Dover. We had left it to this late to try to miss the rush hour traffic. But in the end we failed to do so because it was not till 1.00 on the early morning of Wednesday that we drove alongside the MV Ross Revenge in Dover. At the gatehouse the security guard had easily recognised us as the returning crew of the MV Ross Revenge and had let us into the harbour. The morning breeze felt quite cold as we climbed the gangplank on to the boat deck. We had seen Ernie's car parked up and knew he was already onboard. Eventually were let in and we had a cup of tea and were told that Ernie had retired about an hour earlier. Keith and I collected our bags out of the car and took them to our cabins and unpacked. After the six-hour journey we were quite hungry and made ourselves something in the galley. It was about 2.00 in the night when we retired to our cabins. Later on that day, during breakfast, Ernie asked us if we knew the Department of Transport were coming to inspect the ship tomorrow. I told him I was aware of that — this visit being the reason why Peter Moore had phoned me to make sure we would definitely be onboard. Keith and I went to work on the doors making sure they were water tight and freeing off the door latches that had rusted up. Then Ernie and I finished putting cover over the vents. All three of us worked right through until 4.00 p.m. when Ernie retired to his cabin leaving me to pump the diesel up to the day tank. It was about a half hour later when Keith and I managed to retire to our cabins.

14 The next day Ernie was already up at about 8.30 a.m. and gave Keith and me a shout. Just after breakfast Peter Moore and our surveyor had arrived. Later on at 10.00 a.m. the two men from the Department of Transport arrived. Over a cup of tea we were all introduced to each other and then the seven of us went on a tour of the ship starting at the focsle. The senior man from the Department of Transport told us of jobs that we had to do in order for the ship to be allowed to leave Dover Harbour. At 12.00 a.m. the men from the Department of Transport left for their dinner. Keith and I paid a visit to the fish and chip shop to purchase our dinner. At 2.00 p.m. the officials returned and went back to the tour of inspection, Keith and I were required to move things around. The senior man seemed surprised at all the work that had been completed since the last inspection. They departed at 3.00 p.m. Over dinner that night, we talked how we had painted the Plimsoll lines. How I said that the plug in the small boat should have been replaced before launching it. And, how the small boat had started to sink, upon Howard getting in. "I think you should have this drain plug in, Howard," I had told him. "Why? Have you got it, Stuart," he replied. "Everyone said it was not needed," I said. "Well it is, please give it to me before the boat sinks," said Howard. I threw it to him and told him I knew it should have been in there from the start. Howard quickly fitted it and bailed out the water from the bottom of the boat. I threw him a rope down and pulled him around to paint the Plimsoll lines. Meanwhile Keith had given him the paintbrush and paint. Howard managed to paint them without getting wet.
15 Left: The MV Ross Revenge in Dover (Photo © Paul Myers)

The next day Keith and I started to replace tank tops down in the engine room, the transmitter room and the focsle, and so on. With there being a lot of tanks, it took a long time. One of the tanks in the focsle had to have new studs welded on for the tank top to be refitted. Ernie took his time to prepare and run up the main engine as this would be the last time it would be possible as the vents were going to be welded up next day for the move. That night over dinner Ernie, Keith and I talked about the old days out on the high seas, when Ernie was aboard the radio ship and Keith and I took out the supplies on different tenders. The next day Keith and Ernie set about welding up the vents on the funnel.

16 The rest of the time I was on board the MV Ross Revenge on this stint, was spent welding up the vents on the funnel. Ernie asked Keith if he would stay, as he had not said he would stay. Meanwhile after I took some sleep, I started on the journey that would take me nearly four hours. Later that morning Keith and Ernie started to mend the hole in the galley wall. This was not a simple job as the hole had been made for the sink drain. The pipes in cabin 3 had to be unblocked. These pipes were behind the false wooden walls. His first attempt to do this was from a boat moored along side using various methods, that all failed. He was then forced to strip the wood back to get at the pipes. When he had done all this, he found a lot of tea bags, knives, forks spoons and so on in the pipes. The pipes themselves were very rusty and full of holes and from the mess had been leaking for years. All corroded pipes were cut out and new parts were made and were welded into the rest of the system by Ernie. Albert who had arrived two days previously, had been giving Ernie and Keith a hand due to the pipes being hard to get to. Albert had arrived with clean laundry and was collecting dirty laundry along with Keith. Keith was originally going home with Ernie, but Ernie had decided to stay longer to see the MV Ross Revenge leave Granville docks, being towed by two docks out of Dover. The next job Keith tackled was the hand washbasin in the galley, which had been blocked for years. To this end some of the woodwork in cabin number 2 had to be removed. When the pipe was removed it was found to be blocked with fat. Keith cleaned out and reassembled the pipe and woodwork, and then all that was left was to divert the pipe from the hand wash basin to where it used to be. Keith returned home with Albert from where I picked him up. This was the last time we both saw the Ross Revenge in Dover, the next time we returned she was at her new moorings in the River Blackwater at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex.
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