You never know what’s just around the corner

(originally posted on 25th Nov 2007)

So here I am sitting in Phantom Towers waiting to do my usual Sunday evening 7-9pm slot. Life is pretty good at the moment, I’m enjoying work, loving Phantom and managing to get by OK in all the other areas of my life.

It was only as I signed in to the building this evening that I realised the date – 25th November. Exactly 20 years since a very eventful day when a lot of things changed . . .

Life was pretty good at that time too, at least up to that day in November 1987. I’d been working on board Radio Caroline for about 9 months at that stage, and had progressed from bumbling newbie newsreader to something at least passably presentable in the newsroom. I hadn’t really got the hang of being a music presenter or DJ though, despite some overnight stints at weekends I wasn’t very confident, and it was probably a good thing that Caroline’s format demanded that you keep your mouth shut most of the time.

(the full story of my years at sea with Radio Caroline is in the book)

I had just come off the ship about two weeks earlier, after a marathon 101-day stint at sea, which had included being on board for the famous October 87 “Hurricane”.

Caroline’s owner, Ronan O’Rahilly had roped me in to do some running around on land while I was on shoreleave, as there was so much going on at the time.

Caroline in 1987 was going through a very strong period, our main English service on 558 was running reliably and had increased power the previous May, the Dutch station on 963 was paying all the bills, and we had just started test transmissions on shortwave, with the aim of launching a new service in Dec ember which could be hired out to religious broadcasters to bring in even more money.

Even bigger things were afoot – a new 50kw medium-wave transmitter was on its way from the US which would more than quadruple our power on 558, and allow us to use the existing transmitter on another frequency to launch yet another new service, probably a 24×7 country music channel.

We had just done a deal with MAN in germany to supply a new half a megawatt generator we we need to power all the extra transmitters and studios, and all sorts of other stuff was going on.

On the 24th November, I worked busily recruiting extra staff for the winter – always difficult to get people to live on a pirate radio ship in the winter months – and running other errands for Ronan.

That evening two major pieces of good news came in – a new advertising contract with Island Records, and another with the government of a Caribbean nation who wanted a two-year campaign to encourage tourism.

Things just couldn’t be better.

When I woke up the following morning, on the 25th of November, it was all gone.

Our 300 foot broadcast tower, the tallest mast on any ship in the world at the time, had come tumbling down in the middle of the night, apparently fatigued in the October Hurricane, breaking off at the base just 3 inches above deck level, and plunging into the sea. Parts of the mast and the dozens of steel stay-wires had caused enormous damage all over the ship as they fell, while in the transmitter room, a giant feed-insulator had plummeted from the ceiling destroying tens of thousands of pounds of equipment below before smashing into pieces.

It was just about the worst possible thing that could have happened to us at the time short of an actual shipwreck, and it not only put us off the air, but inflicted long term damage to our plans which never really healed in the remaining 4 years that Caroline was at sea.

When we came back, we were on such pitiful low power that we could hardly be heard, and it took 3 months of hard work in the bitter cold of a north sea winter before we had built new masts and an aerial system good enough to return us to our previous coverage. And this happened at exactly the same time as BBC Radio 1 were getting their own FM frequencies for the first time, encouraging a mass migration away from mediumwave

The photo above is ironically one of my favourites, despite being so dark and gloomy. It is taken a couple of weeks after the disaster, and shows engineer Mike Watts and myself (I’m the one on the right) standing on the back deck of the Ross on a very bleak and cold December morning, with damage caused by the fall still clearly visible around us. In the background you can see the tiny temporary aerial array (dubbed ‘the coathanger” ) which was rigged to get us back on the air on very low power. I love this photo because, for all the sunny images of brightly painted ships and smiling DJs, this cold, weary, shattered look is part of what those days were about too.

We did recover over a period of months, (see photo below for our more permanent repair work – all built at sea) but the grand plans and the big advertising deals had been lost in the meantime.

I was to stay with Caroline on and off for another 4 years, eventually being one of the final crew on board when we were shipwrecked in 1991, also in a November gale.

I learned many lessons from Caroline in my time there, but the one that is strongest is this: always treasure what you have today, and give it your all, for you never know what is just around the corner.

It’s always at the back of my mind, but it’s on cold November nights when the wind blows strong, that I remember it most.

However, despite everything, some good came from that bitter winter. So many staff had chosen to leave Caroline when the mast fell and times got hard, that I was left with no option but to become a full-time presenter on daytime slots on the station, as there was simply no one else to cover the programmes. And somehow, the fact that it was either me or nothing, made me lose my fear of being on air as a DJ, and I gained confidence and never looked back

Out of all adversity, some good will come, and that’s something I learned from Caroline too

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