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.
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.