The above photo needs no introduction.
You know the spiel by now.
25 years ago today/tomorrow, the night of the 15th/16th October 1987 saw The Great Storm, or The 1987 Hurricane, or whatever you would like to call it. Millions of trees uprooted, millions in property damage, 18 people killed, road, rail and power disrupted, and none of it forseen or foretold by the met office.
Amid great sniggering, the clip of Michael Fish reading the weather forecast on BBC TV at lunchtime on the 15th will be played, with him saying there is no hurricane coming, and the talk will be of how utterly the Met Office failed to prepare the Great British Public for the terrible storm.
That’s the collective memory, and everyone knows it is true.
Except . . it isn’t.
I was there, and I was right in the teeth of the storm in all it’s fury, and I had been watching that lunchtime weather forecast, and I had heard Michael follow his comment about there not being a hurricane (technically true) by telling everyone that there was going to be some very stormy weather overnight. Ah, but they never play that bit of the clip do they?
But more than that, I was expecting him to say this, and I knew several days earlier that the morning of the 16th would see a great and violent storm coming in from the southwest . . because the Met Office had told me, and other BBC viewers. Far from being unprepared, we were well prepared for a storm, and although, yes, it was much more severe than we expected, it is wholly unfair to say that the nation was not warned.
The nation was, you see, mostly indifferent to the weather warnings over the preceeding days, and much more concerned with waiting for Neighbours to come on after the news bulletin. But the warning was there, as far back as the previous Sunday.
I should clarify here that myself and my colleagues on board Radio Caroline were always very attentive to the weather, and always watchful and mindful of what it was going to do, as in our exposed anchorage 18 miles off the Kent coast the weather had a profound impact on our day to day life – on our level of comfort, on the ease of our doing our jobs, on our prospects of being resupplied at any given time, and on the quality of our sleep. So we were very attentive and invested in the weather forecasts.
You might expect me to tell you of the amazing struggles to stay on the air during the great storm, and the frightening moments and waves as tall as buildings that we encountered that day, but that is not the purpose of this article. I’ve written about it in my book Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, and there is another account of it written by myself, which you can read for free online at Soundscapes (EDIT: for some reason the article cannot be directly linked from here, but if you google “soundscapes conway hurricane” you will find it)..
No, this piece is my attempt to shout my truth unheeded into the wind yet one more time, and try to tell you that the story of Michael Fish and the sleeping Met Office is . . just a story, a popular narrative.
Unfortunately, it has over time become THE Story, the only one that is told.
So, did the Met Office warn about the storm, and how far in advance did we know?
We knew as far back as Sunday 11th October, four or five days earlier, that we were in for an almighty storm in the early hours of Friday 16th.
Needing to be conscious of the weather, and as Caroline’s Head of News, one of the things I never missed was the Farming Programme on Sundays on BBC1 (not sure if it was called Countryfile back then, but it was essentially a more down to earth and less jazzy version of the programme that still runs to this day). The programme always featured a long-range weather forecast for the next 7 days, and this was highly useful to us on Caroline for assessing if we were going to have some bumpy days, and when there might be a weather window for supply boats to reach us.
I was particularly conscious of the forecast on that particular Sunday, as we were short staffed (two presenters down), running short on certain supplies, and crucially had not received new records for a number of weeks (pretty essential for a contemporary music station). The large supply ship that came out from France that weekend did not have these people or items, but brought a message with it that there would be a small boat coming from the UK on Friday with fresh staff, supplies, and music.
Looking at the long-range weather forecast on the farming programme, we knew that this was just a pipe dream, and that there would be no new supplies on Friday – the weather would be far too rough for even the much bigger French tender to come to us, never mind a small fishing boat.
So although the ferocity of those mountainous seas at daybreak on Friday, 25 years ago, did astonish us, we could not, truly, say we were not warned.
Next time you see the clip of Michael Fish, and you hear the story about how forecasters did not predict a storm, don’t believe it.
I’d like to believe that my personal truth would counter the popular myth, but i know that, like on that morning a quarter of a century ago, my words will be lost in the howling wind.
I think it was John Denver who sang the words “He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he’d never been before” (the song: Rocky Mountain High)
As Steve Conway I was born on the 6.30am news headlines exactly 25 years ago this morning, in the winter of my 23rd year, having just arrived at a place that would become home to me for a number of exciting drama and emotion packed years, and a sort of Tir Na Og or mystical lost land for me to look back at later in life.
This is a way of saying that today is the 25th anniversary of my joining Radio Caroline back in the days when it was offshore. Before that that day I had another name, but the practacalities of working on a radio station that was outside the law (not against the law, but actually outside it) made a name change advisible, and so Steve was born as a fully fledged adult, and Steve I have been ever since.
And, in a way, it was a rebirth of sorts, because joining Caroline so radically altered my life that the date 24th February 1987 is a dividing point in my life, which was very very different in shape either BC (before Caroline) or AD (after the drifting of November 1991 that ended my offshore years).
And what of the 4 years in the middle? They were, in a way, outside normal time and space – life on board a pirate radioship in International Waters being so strange and cut off from normal society, but so physically, socially, and emotionally intense that those involved seem to exist in their own little bubble. For a proper detailed description of those strange years, I would refer you to my 2009 book: Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, and my forthcoming prequel, sequel and midquel “Running Away From The Circus – Everything I Know About Radio I Learned By Screwing It Up”
No, what the anniversary has really made me think about this morning is time.
25 years – a quarter of a century. In one sense it has passed quickly, but in another, it is a very long span of time, especially if I view it in terms of the changes in the world in which I live.
I’m not talking about the micro world of radio – though that has changed dramatically, offshore pirates now a thing of the past, onshore radio multiplied in number by a huge factor – nor am I thinking about the political world, which, to be honest, despite governments coming and going, wars and alliences changing, is curiously unchanged from 1987 (I have a couple of my Caroline news bulletins on tape, and apart from the names of the participants, many of the actual stories would seem perfectly normal if broadcast today, indeed an old bulletin might almost be played out instead of a new one with few realising there was something wrong).
I’m thinking of the more general world as it personally affected me an an individual, then and now.
Information has been the defining change of those 25 years. In 1987, information was something which you were given, in limited quantities. It was not something which, in the run of the mill that you accessed, unless you have a job which specifically involved accessing files and databases.
On board the radio ship we had a television (and no, we didn’t have a licence for that either!) and it gave us the diet of entertainment and slices of news that were deemed suitable or needed for the population at large. There was no hint of customisation – you had the choice to watch or not, but could not influence that content in any way. Also on the TV was teletext, a few hundred pages of information judged to be of popular appeal, so you could look up things like sporting results, the current UK Top 40, news headlines, weather etc. No deeper dive into this information was possible, and there was no such thing as search.
Onshore it was not much different. You could go to a library, but getting hold of any kind of information outside the daily norm required a lot of effort. What exactly was said during a debate in the House of Commons last night? What are the times of the bus that goes past my friends house in a city 400 miles away? What is the history of Danzig before 1939? All of these kinds of questions were, indeed, capable of being answered, but not on the spot, not at 8am on a Sunday morning, and often not without considerable time and effort.
When I made the snap decision to join Caroline, my family and friends back home in Ireland did not find out about it for many weeks. There was no Facebook to keep in touch, no text messages, and no way for them to listen to me even if they had known I was on there.
Whenever I wanted to take a trip back to Ireland to see them, booking it was a big undertaking. I had to visit a travel agent or ferry or airline office, where first of all I would have to wait, patiently, while many other people in front of me were served, slowly. Then I would explain my needs to a person seated in front of a booking system which I could not see, and they would outline the various options of flights or ferries to me. I had no way of seeing those options myself, no way of knowing if what I was being told and sold was really the best for me, or the best for them.
When I went home to ireland, I was in a different world from the UK. No Caroline, no London Evening Standard, no access to my London friends other than making an international phone call (house to house in those days) which would seem . . well, strange.
I don’t have to tell you how vastly different all these things are now. I listened to Caroline on my way to work on the bus this morning in Dublin in clear FM quality via my smartphone, which will also give me the Evening Standard if I want it, let me search and book my flights, even act as my boarding pass. Any of the pieces of information I mentioned above are at my fingertips instantly. Travelling is hugely different, through apps and alerts I know what is going on at airports, can be certain when the next bus or tram is arriving, and can text Geoff in Surrey to tell him that I’m just about to get onto a fishing boat in Harlingen, Netherlands. Or research the history of Danzig should I be hit with a curiosity to do so at 8am on a Sunday morning.
When we look forward in time, we generally don’t see and can’t see the real changes which are going to happen. We think of faster planes and spaceships and wars for water, but we can’t forsee the changes that are gestating which will affect the more intimate, everyday world we live in.
There are other ways of predicting the future however. A couple of the Dutch crew on the Caroline ship had this thing going with a piece of string and a weight which they used to divine the future for the small but important events – such as when the next supply boat would arrive (FOOD! NEW FACES! NEW RECORDS!), who might be on it, and other such things.
The future was predicted based on which direction the string would move when held with the weight on the end, and whether it would stay absolutely still or move around.
The fact that we were doing this on board a ship which even in the calmest weather would move gently may tell you that we were not neccessarily applying the strictest of scientific methods here!
After a string (!) of successful predictions they started asking it some bigger questions.
Who would find love? Who would marry? When would the Ross Revenge make its final broadcast at sea? (the string correctly predicted 1990, but then wrongly told us that the ship would be bought by the Voice of Peace and move to the Israeli coast).
The human curiosity for the future is strong, despite our almost always predicting it wrongly. Looking back today at this junction in my life a quarter of a century ago, I can’t help but wonder what changes there will be in the next 25 years of Steve Conway. Hopefully, when “Steve” is 50 he will still be alive (his body will be 73, so that’s a reasonable hope). Beyond that I can’t really say what will happen.
Whereas before, everyone talked of flying cars, now in the information age we predict brain chips. People will be able to access everything without any external devices, our memories will be preserved forever . . .
But perhaps we are failing to see the real future, and the changes to come will be just as unexpected and profoundly altering as the ones of the last quarter century.
I just hope they are as liberating.
Anyone got a piece of string I can borrow?
The past is indeed another country, but the future is a map that we can draw for ourselves if we dare.
It was 20 years ago this morning, (20th November 1991) that I came to the end of the roughest night I had ever known in all my years at sea with Radio Caroline, and faced what I came to believe would be my last ever dawn.
Aground on the infamous Goodwin Sands, which have claimed hundreds of ships and thousands of lives, we were gradually rolling over, each wave pushing us a little closer to the tipping point where the ship would capsize. Ironically, although there was not enough water to float her, there was more than enough to flood into her and fill her up if we went sideways . . more than enough to drown in.
The waves were towering in the North Easterly Force 11 winds, the seas icy – we wouldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes if we went over.
The brave men of Ramsgate Lifeboat had already tried to rescue us and failed, running aground themselves, losing a man overboard in the process (happily quickly recovered by safety line). Now we were waiting for the helicopter, but it seemed we would be in the water before it arrived . .
Certain that we would be drowning in minutes, the floor beneath us already at a 45 degree angle, we hugged each other, shook hands, and said goodbye. We knew we were going to our doom . .
The story of that morning, and our eventual rescue by the RAF helicopter R166 is described in detail in my book Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, but even the printed word cannot do justice to the memories which are still vividly seared onto my brain, even all these years later.
I absolutely believed that I was about to die, and that morning, and in particular that moment, has changed my life since then.
The 20 years I have lived since that morning on the Goodwins is a bonus, and the older I have got, the more I have appreciated this, and the more I have lived my life with zeast and purpose. The sudden seeming end of Caroline in 1991 (though not the final end, as it has bounced back and is adpating to a new age) instilled in me a knowledge of the impermanance of states of being, and ensured that when I got involved with Phantom FM in later years I treasured each moment, and drove myself to both give and take the maximum from every day that I worked there.
In life too, I reach out with lust for living to take the most from each day, and push myself to do and experience more and newer things.
Life is a bonus, and I am determined to spend that bonus to the full.
Many people around me comment on my seemingly unflappable calm when faced with difficult situations. This too comes from that morning on the Goodwins, for as I see it, I have been minutes from an icy drowning death, so why should anything that happens in a more normal work or life based situation cause me to panic?
Time has been kind to Radio Caroline too, and that morning, seemingly a point of closure for the station was to be in fact the first step in forcing it to adapt to a new path, which though seemingly bleak for much of the 1990s, has blossomed in latter years into an unprecedented period of stable broadcasts, with new technology enabling the station to be heard in undreamed of quality in previously unreachable countries.
20 years on I have spent the night of the 19th/20th November sipping wine with close friends, and thanking my lucky stars for all the richness of life and the benefits of new technology that both I and Radio Caroline have enjoyed in the last 20 years.
It’s right to raise a glass and look back, but the biggest gift of all is to be able to raise my gaze and look forwards.
20 years on from the most terrifying morning of my life . . aground on the Goodwin Sands with hopes of rescue seemingly dashed as the crew of the Ross Revenge shook hands and prepared for the ship to roll over . . .
Seven Towers Agency, East Wall for All and The Sean O’Casey Community Centre present:
Radio Caroline, former Phantom FM DJ and Best Selling Author
Reading from his book
Shiprocked, Life on the Waves With Radio Caroline
Sean O’Casey Community Centre, East Wall, Dublin.
7pm Monday 21 November
free parking, admission free
20 Years ago this November, Dubliner and East Wall resident Steve Conway survived the shipwreck of the Ross Revenge, the last of the Radio Caroline off-shore Radio Ships. Reading from his book, Shiprocked he tells of this event and of his life on the famous Pirate Station, Radio Caroline.
Steve will also read a preview excerpt from his new book, due out next year, that covers his career beyond Caroline, including the 10 years spent working for Dublin’s alternative station Phantom FM / Phantom 105.2
This event is free, but an opportunity will be available to give donations and to RNLI and Sean O’Casey Community Centre.
Just a very quick note – I’ve paid for a couple of upgrades from WordPress to enhance the enjoyment of your visits.
As of today, we are ad-free, so there will no longer be adverts popping up for services that are beyond my control.
I’ve also upgraded the storage space which adds the ability for me to directly host audio on the site, so I can now include clips of off-air recordings etc if they add to the article.
By way of trial, below is a clip from half a lifetime ago, back in my newsreading days with Radio Caroline, at sea on board the ship Ross Revenge. The microphones and audio processing used on Caroline were very good at pulling in background noise whenever there was silence, hence the fact that on music programmes we tried to always speak over song fades and intros rather than dead air. This was not possible in the news of course – just listen to the amount of ambient ship noise (mostly generator rumble) being pulled in behind me on this bulletin – not to mention how dilligently the system amplified my between sentence wheezes!
We could have used a news bed (music behind the news) but a huge poportion of the audience find this really intrusive, so we lived with the background noise instead! The location of the newsroom just off the bridge, the closest to the generator room of any of the on board studios, did not help either. The best studio on board for silence was studio 2 (the “overdrive” studio) situated right at the back of the ship. On the clip, the news is followed by Peter Philips reading the latest Lotto 6/49 results (the Canadian Lottery was our biggest advertiser at the time) – this would have been pre-recorded in studio 3, and you’ll note that although generator noise is much reduced, it can still be heard in the background between sentences.
Anyway, I shall add in the odd audio piece here from time to time, and hope that you continue to visit and enjoy this blog.
I’m now halfway through my week on board the Ross Revenge at Tilbury Port in Essex as part of the 11 days of live ship- based broadcasting to celebrate Radio Caroline’s 47th birthday.
I’m having a great time on board, along with other ex-offshore folk such as Dave Foster, Bob Lawrence, Cliff Osbourne, Jeremy Chartham and others. And we are joined by a new generation of people who have come to Caroline in the post-offshore years, including an amazingly talented presenter and engineer called Ollie, who is about the age that I was when I joined Caroline, and keen as mustard.
Caroline has been on Sky for 12 years, and these days gets a huge proportion of listeners online through streams and apps, and we have emails coming in from all around the world.
So why keep the ship? What purpose does it fill when we are no longer required to be in international waters in order to reach out and touch our audience? Those are questions that would be asked in the business world, where the upkeep of the Ross Revenge would be an “opex” problem.
Well, ignore for a moment the fact that this ship, and the others that preceeded it are to an extent hardwired into the DNA of Radio Caroline. Ignore the fact that every room, every corridor and every nut and bolt on the ship is infused with our history, our memories, and our dreams. Ignore these things, as although they are substantial and important, that could be said to be based on emotion and sentiment.
Even without tear things, returning to the ship to broadcast brings a unique benefit to the station which translates into better programmes and a better “buzz” for the audience.
Living on board during a broadcast, presenters who never normally see each other are forced into close proximity and develop a bond that dies wonders for the overall sound of the station. We wake together, breakfast together, work alongside each other all day, listen to each other’s shows and spend evenings laughing and debating in the record library, where old tall tales and new music releases are swapped in equal measure.
We bounce off each other musically, emotionally, technically. We share our passion and as we share it, that passion grows. A passion for music, for radio, for communication.
The ship is the soul of Radio Caroline, and the ship-based broadcasts let us get in touch with that soul, and drink deep at the well of friendship and creativity.
There are some thing that never appear in the financial entries of a corporate spreadsheet, but which are beyond value nonetheless.
As I write this, Cliff Osbourne is playing “Goin’ Back”
“A little bit of freedom is all we lack
So catch me if you can, I’m going back”
M.V. Ross Revenge
(March 17th 2011)
After 11 very happy and eventful years with the Dublin Indie-rock station Phantom, I presented my last show on St. Patricks Day. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with Phantom, but increasing time pressures from my other activities mean that I have had to make some choices about what to focus my energies on.
(edit: see the “On-Air” tab on this site for details of where to find me on the radio these days)
I have very many happy memories from my 11 years with Phantom, and I will post some of them here over the next little while.
For now I’d like to thank everyone from all of the eras of Phantom, pirate to temporary to commercial, for making me so welcome, and to wish the great team charged with taking the station into the future all the success in the world.
I’ll leave you with a little memory from my early days with the station, when we broadcast from a secret base above Whelans of Wexford Street, and an “unexpected splash of colour” on the breakfast show:
Phantom Breakfast – Aug 2001 (click to play – format: mp3)
Those were the days my friend . . .