Part Eleven: The Mi Amigo Sinks, continued
Memories of March 1980
Although at the time all was perfectly clear, with the passing of time and the onset of old age, memories do fade so please excuse any inconsistencies!
There was a time when, in an extra attempt to confuse the authorities, tenders did not necessarily both bring and take new crew on the same trip. We had had a tender that supplied and tendered the Mi Amigo, taking the crew off and
leaving only four of us on board, three English and one Dutch. The English were Stevie Gordon, Nick Richards and myself. The lone Dutchman was Hans Verlaan. We were told that the new crew would be arriving in the next day or so.
That arrival never occurred!
As the Caroline service was overnight in those days, we tended to sleep late into the morning. On the morning of the 19th of March I was woken much earlier than usual by a rather worried Dutchman telling me that there was
“something” very close to the ship that wasn't normally there! So I got up and ventured outside ... where, very close, was an old wartime beacon structure. As it was a permanent structure, it was obvious that we had, at
best, dragged anchor. However the distance between the Mi Amigo and the beacon changed ... we were still dragging or, as it turned out, not at anchor anymore.
Stevie contacted North Foreland Radio to try and ascertain our position, and what they said confirmed our worst fears.
Time to release the emergency anchor! This had sat on a slide on the starboard side of the ship for many years with its chain stored in a series of 45 gallon oil drums on top of the superstructure. However release didn't go as planned.
Ropes were cut but the anchor stayed rusted to the slide. When it eventually did drop overboard the chain was obviously also very rusty and followed the anchor overboard in lumps of encrusted metal. Whilst dealing with this, we were
also continually monitoring the ship's pumps as the poor old “lady” had a few leaks. We were taking water, but not too seriously. But the weather was getting worse. North Foreland Radio told us that they were asking for the
Sheerness lifeboat to be launched, despite us trying to assure them that it wasn't necessary.
The lifeboat duly arrived with the weather still worsening but we were quite determined that we were not leaving our ship. However they insisted that they remained on station due to the conditions. It turned out to be a good decision on
their part. While the lifeboat crew were waiting we continued with normal programming. As the weather worsened we started to take more water and the Mi Amigo started to bump on a sandbank as the tide receded. This worsened our water
intake and we had to run auxiliary pumps as well. As we were not able to keep ahead of the water ingress, the lifeboat coxswain (Charlie Bowry) took the decision to try and attach a breeches buoy line to the stern of the Mi Amigo, but
the weather and sea conditions had become much worse and that proved impossible.
We, the four on board, made the collective decision that we would have to leave the ship, hoping she could hold on the spare anchor and that the pumps could cope.
So the ‘farewell’ live broadcast was made. It was by now after midnight so the drama had extended into March 20th. It turned out that we were sitting on the edge of a sandbank and that the only way the lifeboat could take
us off was to slalom along the starboard side of the Mi Amigo (there was not enough depth of water on the lee port side). This was a very risky operation as it put the lifeboat at great risk of being smashed into the almost stationary
Mi Amigo. We were asked how many people to come off and replied four. We were told one approach per person, and that that each individual was to stand on the bulwarks, holding onto a mast stay, and jump for the lifeboat only when they
shouted us to do so. One of us at a time ... no belongings! Hans went first, then Nick, I was going to be next but there was our canary in his cage that needed saving! On the third approach a canary in a cage was thrown into the arms
of lifeboat crew members (something they weren't happy with at the time but it had to be done!). I went next and finally Stevie. We had to go below on the lifeboat but were assured that the crew would let us know what was going on.
After about 20 minutes we were told that the lights on the Mi Amigo had gone out, indicating that the water had cut the generators and in turn losing most of the pumps.
I really don't remember much about the voyage back to Sheerness, other than the lifeboat crew forgave us for throwing the canary and thus obliging them to make an extra pass.
It should be noted that Charlie Bowry later received an RNLI medal for the rescue and for many years had a painting of it on the wall of a pub which I think he ran.
On arrival at Sheerness we were met by the police who ensured that four bedraggled and cold DJs were given hot drinks and some dry clobber! I, alone, was arrested - nothing to do with Caroline I might add. I had evaded a court
appearance on another trivial matter by virtue of being at sea and there was a warrant out for my arrest! So I missed my appearance on TV. I think it was with Sue Lawley which Stevie told me later had made his day!!
All in all, it was a very sad couple of days but, as Stevie and I said on that final live broadcast “the crew are now leaving the ship, but I'm sure we'll be back ... somehow” It wasn't to be with the Mi Amigo, but we all
know how Caroline returned and is still with us today!
Massive thanks to those brave souls on the Helen Turnbull (the Sheerness lifeboat) and to North Foreland radio for being our contact on shore.
“Loving Awareness is Free”
February 10th 2020.
March 20th 1980
It still is the most memorable thing I've done with my life. And now on the 40th anniversary of that occasion we all thought would never happen, most of the events from March 19th and 20th are as clear as they ever were.
March 19th 1980 was a Wednesday and just a grey day. One day tends to blur into another at sea unless there is an event of some kind. On this particular day Tom Anderson and I had been doing some engineering work through the night.
Once we had finished we decided to get some sleep. Tom was first to head off and an hour or so later I went off to my cabin. I stopped off briefly to tell Hans our new Dutch crew member he should wake one of us if he needed help with
anything (after all, he had only been on board for a few days). Stevie Gordon had turned in after his show.
The next thing I knew I was being woken by Tom Anderson around midday on March 19th. “You need to get up, the anchor chain has broken” he said. Within seconds I was dressed and made my way up on deck (I was sleeping in one
of the cabins underneath the ship's bridge at the time). Despite the sea conditions only being choppy, the sight of a navigation beacon being so close to us was truly frightening.
The first thing we needed to do was release the emergency anchor to stop any further drifting. The spare chain and anchor had been attached to a purpose built slide for many years and over time it had become corroded and fixed solid
to the slide. Tom and I took turns with a sledge hammer to try and release the anchor. Eventually it was free and slid over the starboard side of the ship. Next we contacted the coastguard to alert them to the fact that we had moved
from our usual position of the Knock Deep Channel. We discovered soon after that we were on the edge of The Long Sand. The coastguard estimated that at low tide we would have several metres of water under the hull of the ship and that
they were launching the Sheerness lifeboat which would stand by us should we need their help.
Several hours passed where we could do nothing other than wait for darkness and the low tide. We had begun to give out code numbers on air, firstly on the Dutch service and later on the night time service.
At around 6pm all four of us had gathered in the galley drinking coffee when we began to feel the hull of the Mi Amigo lightly touch the sand bank that was underneath us. The banging became more intense and then slowly stopped as we
began to float again. We checked the bilges to see if we were taking in any water but all was good. Throughout the evening we had regular contact with the coastguard and also had the company of the Sheerness lifeboat which was a short
distance away. On air we ran storm tapes during the evening and continued to update the office with new code numbers during the weather forecasts. By this time it was dark and we realised just how close to a shipping lane we were.
The coastguard was informing other shipping of our dilemma and to be aware of where we were. It's worth pointing out that, at this stage, none of us ever thought that we were in serious danger or that the ship would sink that night.
We weren't being heroic. It was just that ship always gave everyone a sense of safety and security. There wasn't a lot we could do during the evening other than check the bilges regularly and maintain radio contact with the authorities.
Tom and Stevie were on the bridge updating the coastguard when I went to talk to them. As I walked along the deck towards the bridge I passed the door that led to the engine room. All evening that area of the ship had been perfectly
dry but not now! Although below the level of the plates that made up the flooring in the engine room, the entire area below the plates had water swirling around in it. There was a spare diesel pump in the front store of the ship so
I quickly ran to get it. In my haste to get there quickly, I failed to see the metal slide where the emergency anchor had been kept and cracked my head hard on it. The pump was difficult to start but did eventually burst into life and
began pumping water out and over the side. Next we put the electric pump into the engine room in an attempt to dry the area and find out where the water was coming in. I went to the bridge to let the others know that we were now taking
in a considerable amount of water.
It would have been around this time that the crew of the Sheerness lifeboat were encouraging us to abandon the ship. They must have seen us struggling to prime one of the pumps on deck so they shone lights onto us to help us to see
what we were doing. The continuous music tapes were still being broadcast and it was my turn to go and repeat the numbers from the code list. To make it easier to rewind one reel of tape before playing the next one, I put on an
instrumental track by Vangelis called To The Unknown Man. It was the last piece of music I would play from the Mi Amigo and whenever I hear it now it has a mood of impending danger and sadness. Once that track had finished I
put the next storm tape on and went back up on deck to see how the pumps were coping.
The lifeboat crew had suggested that we all get a bag of belongings together and make our way to the back deck where they had hoped they could get us off but the state of the sea prevented that. One moment the lifeboat was in a trough
below us, seconds later, they were above our deck. It was decided that we should close down the station and take the advice of the lifeboat skipper and for safety's sake go with them. I went back to see how much water was coming
into the engine room and could see that it was coming in faster than we were able to pump it out.
As I made my way back into the main living area of the ship I could hear our theme tune Caroline by The Fortunes just fading away. Stevie and Tom had just officially closed the station and one of them called out that we should
switch off the transmitter. As I was closest I said that I would do it and walked through the mess room into the Dutch studio and through a door that lead to the transmitter room. As I went to turn off the transmitter I paused and
wondered if this might be the final time it would get switched off so, for that reason, I paused and counted to ten before flicking the switch then climbed back up the ladder from the transmitter room to join the others. Everyone was
on deck and paying attention to the instructions of the lifeboat skipper. We were told to stand on the side of the ship and when the lifeboat passed close enough they would tell us to launch ourselves at them and they would catch us.
This took much longer than any of us had imagined as the two vessels could easily have smashed into each other. Hans was first across. He jumped and the crew grabbed him then quickly passed him towards the safe area of the lifeboat.
I went next. It was all over in a flash, quickly followed by Wilson II (our canary) in his cage, then Tom and eventually Stevie.
Once we were all safely away from the Mi Amigo the crew told us that, if we wanted, they could wait a while to see if the weather moderated. However after about twenty minutes the door to where the crew were opened and someone called
down to tell us that all the lights on the Mi Amigo had gone out. We all looked at each other in disbelief and no one said a word. Other than being given some brandy to warm us, I can remember nothing from that journey to Sheerness.
When we did eventually arrive on dry land and climbed out of the lifeboat, the most noticeable thing we saw were all the UK police cars waiting to escort us to the police station.
We were taken to the staff canteen where there was endless tea and coffee while we waited for British Home Office staff to arrive from London. This was too good an opportunity for them to pass up as they now had four people that
couldn't claim to have been out on a fishing trip, so they did grill us, asking to know every detail of the operation. We were told that we would be contacted in due course and may be prosecuted under the Marine Offences Act.
It wasn't until the following day that I realised the fate of our beautiful ship. ITN had sent a film crew out at first light to report on the sinking and as they flew over the ship, all that was visible was the aerial.
I'm sure everyone in the organisation, both on the Dutch service and our English service, watched in disbelief.
Several months later I was asked to attend a meeting at a police station where it was explained to me that “now Radio Caroline has ceased to exist” it was felt that it would not be in the public interest to press charges.
For months afterwards I would wake in the night having had a nightmare about the sinking. Sometimes it involved the four of us climbing the mast to stay safe until the help arrived, or being trapped below deck as the ship filled with
water. Thankfully none of that ever happened and we did all survive.
Just after midnight on the morning of 20th March the last track, Rod Stewart's The Killing of Georgie was faded down and the familiar strains of the
station theme Caroline by The Fortunes started up. Stevie Gordon and Tom Anderson shared
the final announcement. Radio Caroline was closing down and the crew were having to abandon ship. They were the last words heard from the Mi Amigo.
Thanks to Nick Richards for this photo of the lifejacket he wore on the night he was rescued from the mv Mi Amigo.
Stevie and Tom closing Radio Caroline down for the last time from the mv Mi Amigo. This recording was kindly shared by Scotty on the Internet Radiocafé forum, now known as the
Radiotrefpunt (radio meeting point). Our thanks to him (duration 1 minute 35 seconds)
Along with fellow DJs Nick Richards and Hans Verlaan, and Wilson the pet canary, Stevie and Tom transferred to the lifeboat. Very soon after they had left, the ship's lights went out. The rising water had reached
the generators. And, soon after that, the Mi Amigo sank beneath the waves. By daybreak just the aerial mast was visible, sticking up above the surface of the North Sea.
The ship was built in 1921 so was nearly sixty years old. She had housed radio stations for the final third of her life - first as Radio Nord, then Atlanta and finally as Caroline (with periods as Radios 199, Atlantis, Seagull, Mi
Amigo, etc.). Now the sea had taken her. Caroline had been silenced, not by the governments of Europe - despite all their legislation - but by the water which had carried her for so long. Although sad, it had been a tremendous
achievement to survive for so many years and Caroline was celebrated. Front page news stories in the papers, radio and television interviews - everywhere one looked or listened it was Caroline - everywhere except where it should have
been: 319 metres medium wave. But, as Stevie had prophetically said during those last dramatic minutes on air “I think we'll be back, one way or another......”
Forty-one months later, in August 1983, Radio Caroline returned to the air from a brand new ship - the mv Ross Revenge. Tom Anderson presented the opening programme. See ‘Caroline in the 80s’ part
Five years after the sinking, Nick Richards was on the new Radio Caroline. In this recording from 19th March 1985 he re-lives the last night of the Mi Amigo in conversation with Fergie McNeal.
This studio recording was shared by Vincent on the Internet Radiocafé forum, now known as the Radiotrefpunt (radio meeting point).
Our thanks to him (duration 15 minutes 19 seconds)
With many thanks to Stevie, Tom and Nick.
(The photos of Stevie and Tom are from Facebook; the photo of Nick is a screen-grab from a BBC TV news bulletin.)
Back to the previous page.
Some of the press coverage of the Mi Amigo's sinking is over the page.
The RNLI's account of that night is available on their website.
‘Caroline in the 80s’ part one.