Part Eleven: The Mi Amigo Sinks
On 19th March 1980 the ultimate disaster struck. During a fierce storm the anchor chain of the mv Mi Amigo parted and the ship began to drift. The emergency anchor was dropped but, by the time the ship was
halted, she was over a sandbank.
The night the ship went down: The sinking of Radio Caroline
During my time on board Radio Caroline, we worked around the clock in shifts. But little did I realise what was in store for me that March afternoon in 1980 as I headed for my cabin and my usual siesta. “Every man has his 15 minutes of fame” and mine were soon to begin.
“You'd better get up, Stevie. We're off the anchor”.
Tom Anderson didn't seem unduly worried and indeed our ship, the Mi Amigo, had lost its anchor before and been adrift on several occasions.
Not when I was on board though! I was up in a flash and hurried upstairs to find out what was happening. There was a heavy sea but we were used to that and the radio station was broadcasting normally. However my first glance outside showed me that we were not at our usual location.
There should have been seven or eight crew on board. The make-up tended to be three or four English DJs, two Dutchmen who read the news and presented a live breakfast show for the daytime service aimed at Holland and Belgium, a transmitter engineer, a cook and occasionally a sailor. However, due to a mix up, although all those who were due shore leave had been taken off, there was only one replacement. Hans Verlaan was on his first tour of duty and had only arrived a few hours earlier. That left just us three Brits who between us knew the ship inside out, and the ship's canary. Looking back, I can see that, with the usual complement, lives could very easily have been lost but at that early stage none of us had any idea how the affair would end.
“We'd better get the emergency anchor down!”
Tom Anderson again and, yes, he knew how to do it. He had been on board the previous time it was needed.
There seemed to be no immediate danger so I told Tom I would, as a courtesy, notify the coastguard but not until the ship was once again at anchor. He made his way forward to the bows and my other English colleague, Nick Richards, went downstairs to see if there was any water in the bilges. There wasn't, but that was the only good news!
Tom Anderson was in trouble. The reserve chain was not wound around a drum or stored in a locker but lay in an untidy heap in the forepeak. The anchor itself was mounted above the chain on a slide and secured in place by rope binding. Using a large knife Tom had slashed through the ropes but, instead of sliding into the sea, the anchor sat stubbornly fast on the slide.
Watching from the bridge, that was the first time I became aware that this time things might not go as smoothly as before. I could see Tom struggling to get the anchor free and I knew just how easily he could get swept overboard with it.
The weather was steadily deteriorating but, just for a moment, there seemed to be a chance. Slowly at first, the reserve anchor was beginning to move. Tom had time to get clear. There was a rush of the chain, the anchor went down and the ship was no longer adrift.
Time to notify HM Coastguard. My call was immediately answered and, although at first the fact that we had moved was not known, our new position over a sandbank close to a busy shipping lane was soon confirmed. Then an unexpected question!
“We've got a lifeboat out” the coastguard told me. “Do you want to come off?”
Surprised, I gave him an assurance that all was well. The ship was back on anchor, I reported, and there was no need for anybody to leave. That information was accepted but I was again told that there was a lifeboat standing by in the area.
The six hours since I had been called from my bunk had disappeared. The time was now 9pm, low water, and the Mi Amigo sat ever so gently down on the seabed. For the first time in nearly three days the ship was lying quietly, there was still no water in the bilges, and there was time for a cup of tea.
We could now see the lifeboat about a mile away at the edge of of the sandbank and, although we didn't yet have any idea how quickly our situation would change, we would soon be very grateful that it was there.
The tide turned, the sea began to rise and once again there was movement in the ship. But what on earth was that awful banging? As the ship rose and fell with the tide, it was banging loudly on something which caused a series of shudders right through the vessel. (Probably what was left of the first chain was trapped between the hull and the seabed.)
“There's water in the bilges. We'll need the pump running”.
Nick Richards was as confident with the engine room as Tom had been with the anchor.
Well, let's hope everything goes alright this time, as well.
But the water continued to force its way in to the bottom of the ship. Nick had three very fast pumps running and the water was soon over the bilge plates, which meant the ship had taken in about two feet of water stem to stern.
Watching from my station on the bridge I saw Nick making his way along the deck towards the engine room door suddenly waist deep in a breaking wave. I knew then that we would have to abandon ship.
Neither of my English colleagues disagreed with my decision but, before we left, the radio station had to be closed down. None of us thought that the ship might be lost forever. We were more concerned about what could happen to the radio equipment if it got wet. Especially if it was still turned on! We were leaving because that was the sensible thing to do.
Tom and I made our way to the studio, and Nick went to the transmitter hold to switch off there. We left our new Dutchman in the mess room out of his depth in every way.
In a brief final message I told our listeners what had happened and why we were leaving the ship “... hoping that the pumps can take it” added Tom. And my final words: “from all of us for the moment, goodbye and God bless.“
And then the four of us were upstairs at the door opening out onto the deck. The time to go had arrived.
However there seemed to be no chance of the lifeboat coming alongside. The sea was much too rough. As the Mi Amigo rose on a wave, the lifeboat seemed to disappear in an adjacent trough, and then vice versa. Every time he tried to approach us only the extraordinary skill of the coxswain prevented his lifeboat from smashing into the Mi Amigo.
A first attempt to leave from the stern was quickly found to be impossible. If we were to get off, it had to the usual way over the side! Coxswain Charlie Bowry brought his lifeboat up as close as he dared. For a brief moment the two ships stood quietly side by side and Tom and I bundled Hans Verlaan into the arms of the waiting rescuers. After his shaky start in the business, Ton Lathouwers (these days he prefers his given name) went on to become president of Sky Radio and a billionaire!
However moments after we had passed him over to the lifeboat the raging sea had pushed the two ships one hundred yards apart. Nobody else was getting off just yet.
We looked at each other and then, with a guilty start, Nick asked “What about Wilson?”
The ship's canary was named after an earlier Prime Minister and we couldn't just leave him to his fate. Nick flew back into the mess room to get him.
Then, once again, the lifeboat managed to close in but this time Wilson in his cage was first across followed immediately afterwards by Nick Richards.
That left Tom and myself, and the weather was still getting worse. Quite a few minutes passed before the lifeboat managed to fight its way in and then there it was and it looked good! We couldn't both go. In case of an accident, one of us had to remain behind. Everything happened very quickly! The lifeboat was coming alongside. Tom and I turned to look at each other.
“Go on then!” I told him and helped him on his way.
No heroics on my part. It just seemed the thing to do. After all, I was the senior announcer even if he had worked for Caroline longer than I.
But now I was alone. Too late to wonder if I had done the right thing. I was standing on the top of the deck rail, hanging on for dear life to a stay attached to the broadcasting mast.
And there I remained until finally the lifeboat managed one last time to struggle alongside. Charlie Bowry had of course been making numerous attempts, but the storm was too severe and kept pushing him away. But, some twenty minutes after Tom had been snatched to safety, there they were again.
Still grasping the stay, I reached out my other arm. Strong hands clamped around it like a vice. I was safe, and my few minutes of fame generated by the attention of the world's press and other media were about to begin.
Footnote: daylight revealed that the Mi Amigo had sunk on the edge of a sandbank but part of the antenna was still above water.
Charlie Bowry received the RNLI's highest award for bravery.
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