No.16: Ray Clark in conversation with Peter Philips

Ray Clark has interviewed numerous people involved with Radio Caroline for his documentaries and his book, Radio Caroline: The True Story Of The Boat That Rocked (reviewed here).
One of the interviewees was eighties Caroline man Peter Philips.
Peter joined Caroline in February 1985, initially mainly as a news reader. He later became a DJ and then Programme Controller. As can be seen below, he was also frequently called upon to help maintain the aerial mast.
We are grateful to Ray for sharing this fascinating insight into life on board the mv Ross Revenge. The conversation started with Ray asking Peter for memories of his time on the ship.

Peter Philips

Peter Philips. Photo courtesy of Caroline Martin. More of her pics are here.

PETER PHILIPS: I was trying to think of a good story and one that comes to mind is... We had some really awful tenders over the year out there and one of the worst ones that I can remember... We were desperate. We had been desperate many times and this was about as desperate as it got. I think there were about four of us on board and there should have been about twenty (laughs) and we'd been running about 10 hour programmes each. Nobody had slept for weeks. Eventually this tender arrived and it looked like the boating equivalent of one of those hippie caravans that you see going across Afghanistan or something. It had got painted peace signs on it - no windows mind you - and no other paint worth speaking of. This thing was an absolute wreck. It emerged out of the gloom - and it was a pretty gloomy day. There was quite a heavy sea, heavy enough in fact that it was unable to pull up alongside so we had to tie it to the stern. Desperate as we were, we sat with this thing tied up to the stern for another couple of days until it was possible to drag it alongside. And when we finally did drag it alongside, it emerged that what it had on board was not people but a crane. A hired crane. I don't know whose idea it was to send us a crane but whoever it was had overlooked one fundamental fact which is that to lift a 2 or 3 ton hired crane off a boat, you need a hired crane - which we didn't have! (laughs) We couldn't get this thing off. We tried. We spent another couple of days trying to hoist this thing off. We finally, using the equipment we had, we got it about 2 inches off their deck and the boat, of course, was still going up and down. It went down; the crane didn't; the boat then came back up and punched a hole in the deck of this boat (laughs) and the owner of the thing was not terribly impressed. He'd been shipping water as it was and this was just adding insult to injury. So he demanded that we put it back where it came from and he would make good his escape at the earliest possible opportunity. So we said could we have the fuel that he'd bought us - because he'd got about 5 tons of diesel on there - and he said no. He was shipping water sufficiently fast that he really didn't want to pump anything off. He just wanted to go. And so he tried to start his engine and found that it wouldn't actually go. It was making an awful noise even just on turning it over. So he said could he have some lube oil. We only had one can of lube oil left. We were actually rather hoping that he'd have brought us some more. So we gave him our last can of lube oil - which meant we had to switch the station off because we had nothing further to run the generators with. Two out of the remaining four people went off with him and nobody came back on. They set off. (laughs) We weren't really sure if they were going to make it back to port and, quite honestly, the mood we were in, I don't think we much cared! We later heard they had taken about a week to get back because they got stuck on a couple of sandbanks. Whoever it was who owned that boat was one hired crane ahead of the game, about 5 tons of fuel and a can of lube oil - and that was that. We never saw him again - and never wanted to!
RAY CLARK: Nobody would believe it really, would they?

click to hear audio Peter Philips from early in his Caroline career, on the evening of 6th April 1985. This clip is taken from a recording posted on the Internet Radiocafé, now known as the Radiotrefpunt (radio meeting point) forum, by Vincent. Our thanks to him (duration 2 minutes 44 seconds)

John Tyler and Peter Philips

The two mast climbers, John Tyler and Peter Philips, at Caroline's 45th birthday party in 2009.

PP: We had many situations where some work needed doing on the mast and there weren't that many people who were keen on climbing that thing. You are probably aware that this thing was about 300 ft. tall and it was a ship at sea and consequently it wasn't 100% stationary. There really weren't many people who were prepared to climb it but, at the time when some work needed doing, the only two people who were on board who would do it were myself and a guy called John Tyler. It wasn't a very nice day. John and I got all togged up with thick coats, thick pullovers, the safety harnesses, the full works and we went up to have a warming cup of coffee before shinning up the mast. We went into the mess room and they were watching something on the television. We weren't quite sure what it was. We sat there fascinated by this. It was a nice clear picture on the television and there was just a shot of some sea, some waves and occasionally a seagull went past. We couldn't work out what this was. We thought it might be one of these sort of rather relaxing Channel 4 nautical programmes or something but there didn't seem to be much commentary. We stood and watched it while we were drinking the coffee. It gradually dawned on us that what we were actually watching was the North Sea being piped in live from a video camera that (Dutch DJ) Ad Roberts had fixed up and it was actually out on the deck. They had wired it into the television. The reason we worked out that is what it was is that he eventually trained it on the mast - and we rather recognised that mast! It became clear that what they intended to do - there must have been a dozen of them - they were just going to sit around watching the television whilst we climbed the mast, presumably in the hope that one or both of us would fall off so they could say they'd seen it (laughs) and they'd maybe even videoed the moment of disaster. We got a bit cross about that and demanded that a few of them actually came out and lent a hand. So we actually got a support team down on the deck but nobody else would go up the tower.
RC: What sort of work was needed to be done on the tower? How did you go about it?
PP: Well the main things that needed to be replaced was stays. This tower was held together by an absolute masterpiece of stays. They were simply wires which led down from various points on the tower to various points on the deck. They all had to be insulated. What that boiled down to is that at intervals along the stays there were inserted porcelain insulators so that no current came down from the tower and electrocute the people down at the bottom I suppose (laughs). I don't know the technical ins and outs of why the wretched things were there but the point is they were and, if you had a misty day or worse still a rough day so that salt or water or both got coated across the surface of the porcelain insulator, you'd get flashover. You'd get sparks which would either burn the wire or crack the porcelain or both. So after a few rough days there'd usually be one or two of these stays that needed replacing. One you didn't mind too much about because there were several hundred of them up there and you felt you could maybe manage without one but, when you got half a dozen or more at critical points that really looked as if they were shaky and broken and needed taking out, somebody had to go up and do them. If you were lucky it was only a hundred feet up. If you were unlucky it was one of the top ones and you were 300 ft. up. And obviously there were not many people who were very keen on doing it. In my time there was myself, John Tyler and Mike Watts. The tower was a lattice tower and there wasn't actually a ladder. You had to climb up the lattice and as it got narrower it became increasingly easy to climb up. Obviously the first bit of it... I suppose the gap between the lattices was probably about 5 foot or something which took a bit of a hoist to get up there. By the time you got up to the top it actually was like climbing a ladder. The first fifty feet were the worst to be honest. The first time I ever went up there, I went up 50 ft. and I sat there for about 10 minutes thinking “I'm never going to go any further than this. I'm not going to get out of here alive!” But after you'd got past that, the rest of it's easy because there's no difference really. If you fall (laughs) from any point beyond that, you're still going to hit the deck. It's still going to be curtains. So comparatively easy to get up once you'd got past the initial fear threshold. And actually it was rather nice up there. The people down below didn't know what they were missing. You got a terrific view from up the top of that tower. You could see - I don't know - you could probably see half of Britain from up there and it looked so close.

A video by Ad Roberts shared on YouTube showing Peter and a Dutch crewman called Harry working on the 300ft aerial tower.

RC: What about movement?
PP: Yes, you'd get a bit of movement but that wasn't too much of a problem because you expected that and you could just follow it through. And you had a certain amount of faith in that tower. It never really frightened me, the movement. The thing that was worrying was because the tower was so large it was considered by the local air force base to be an excellent thing to go and fly round. These trainee pilots, in whatever the latest fighter plane was, would come out of nowhere at something in excess of the speed of sound and go past the tower maybe 2 or 3 feet away from it just in order to show off or test their piloting skills. I couldn't speak for why they were doing it. All I can say is that they did do it and you could see the whites of their eyes sometimes. You'd be up there and this thing would go roaring past. That really was decidedly worrying because it was so unexpected. You'd have to cling onto the tower and just collect yourself for a little while after that happened. There were never any incidents. We always thought there would be. We were often convinced that these chaps were bound to hit the rigging or the tower or both but they never did. So I suppose they must have been quite good pilots really.

In November 1987 the massive aerial tower on the Ross Revenge collapsed. Ray's question is missing but we assume he asked Peter what they did next.

The 300ft aerial mast on the Ross Revenge

The 300ft aerial mast which collapsed in November 1987. Photo courtesy of Richard Jackson.

PP: After the main tower had come down we scratched our heads a bit and tried to think of a good way of overcoming this problem (the lack of an aerial mast) - at least on a temporary basis. It was (Chief Ship's Engineer) Ernie (Stevenson) who pointed out that we had an old pipe running the full length of the ship that conceivably could be used for something. He didn't initially tell us that it had been used originally, when the ship was working as a trawler, for carrying liquefied cods' livers from the back deck, where they were processed, down to a tank at the front of the ship where they were stored. It had probably been 25 years or something since it had been last used for that purpose. But they were all still in there and, when we cut the pipe out with a welding torch, the ship smelt from top to bottom of fried cods' livers. It stuck. (laughs) It was one of those smells that you couldn't get rid of. It got into the walls and the carpets and everything. But we'd come that far and we persevered. We took this pipe off and, using a high-pressure hose, we squirted it through and pumped the remaining cods' livers overboard where presumably they fed something or another. Probably gave it a nasty dose of salmonella or something. There's probably a couple of crabs holding their stomachs down there I expect! We cleaned it out and we stiffened it a bit by putting brackets on it and bits of angle iron and so forth so that it didn't wobble too much. We welded a crossbar to it so that we could anchor it and we then welded this whole assembly to the original ship's crane. We dangled the whole lot overboard while we did it. Once it was done, it was easy. It was a bit of a game getting this thing put together but once it was done we simply raised the crane and up it went. It was quite a moment. We'd worked on this thing for weeks. We'd been running (the transmitter on) about 2 watts. It may not have been that low; it may not have been that high but it was a very ridiculous signal that we were running. Then, all of a sudden, we had this tower up there and we felt that we could put some significant power out and actually be a proper radio station again. The only snag was that, as soon as we switched on, the wire fouled something and burnt out. It fell to the deck and somebody had to get up there and replace it. There wasn't a ladder and we couldn't get the wretched thing back down again because we'd anchored it by then and all the wires were in place. It would have been an awful job to get it down. It wasn't even clear at that point whether it would have come down in one piece. So we had a pulley up there - we'd had the foresight to put a pulley up there - and there was one piece of wire running through the pulley that hadn't burnt out. Or at least we thought it hadn't burnt out. We hoped it hadn't... And so they attached the end of this piece of wire to one of the trawl winches and they attached the other end of the wire to me. And they just switched it on and we waited to see what would happen. (laughs) And up I went. I'm very pleased to say that all the knots that were attached to me held, the wire didn't part and I got up to the top there, armed with all my bits and pieces, and reattached the feeds and ropes and all the various things that needed to be up there that had fallen down. I managed to get down in one piece. It was a very nerve-wracking experience. I was more frightened on that tower than I'd ever been on the big one, even though this cod liver oil pipe probably wasn't more than 100 ft. tall. I was a fraction of the height off the deck that I had been previously but it was very much more unsettling. But we did it. We got that one organised. We hooked it up to the bridge and that was our first attempt at properly broadcasting again after the main tower had come down.

The Ross Revenge with two new masts

The Ross Revenge with the two new masts. Photo by François Lhote from Offshore Echos magazine.

A couple of weeks after that we were sent a Versatower. I don't know where that one came from but you know these things that you see on motorways that they put floodlights on. They usually carry them around on trailers. You just wind a handle and up they go. Well somebody sent us one of those out and we welded it to the back deck. And of course it's alright on motorways (laughs) but it was no use at all on a ship because as the ship moves these things just clatter about... I expect somebody thought it was a tremendously good idea... Actually I'll tell you who it was. It was (station founder) Ronan (O'Rahilly) who never really had a terribly good grasp on reality! (laughs) He sent this wretched thing out and we put it up. Of course as the ship moved from side to side this thing clattered and bent, and it was absolutely useless. So what we had to do was disable all the winding mechanism and just weld plates onto it. Weld it absolutely solid. So all the advantage of it being a telescopic aerial was completely lost but we did manage to make it solid. We stabilised that and we put ropes and wires and insulators and all the bits and paraphernalia onto that and there we were. We had a two tower system. We put a broadcast aerial between those two towers - the cod liver oil pipe at the front and the Versatower at the back. I think people thought we'd rebuilt the main tower. We managed to get out a terrific signal from there. We were hoping that would last for a couple of months. We had been promised a new aerial and that was supposed to last us until then but I think the thing was still there a couple of years afterwards. That lasted far longer than we ever thought it would and, when it came down, it wasn't the weather that brought it down. I'm really rather proud to say - because I had a hand in its assembly - it was dismantled and it still exists. Both ends of it still exist although I don't know if they are necessarily still on board. I couldn't say what happened to them but they didn't bend; they didn't break; and they did the job very well.

During the night of 15/16th October 1987 a terrific storm, often referred to as a hurricane, lashed the United Kingdom. Peter was on board the Caroline ship at the time.

PP: Yes, I was actually on the air the day of the hurricane. I was fast asleep. Normally, doing the Breakfast Show, I would have expected to get up around 4 o'clock in the morning or thereabouts and that morning the engineer, Mike Watts, banged on my cabin door rather before 4 o'clock and said “you'd better get up. There's a hurricane going on outside.” Well I didn't believe him. The reason being that normally a ship would move a bit but in the hurricane the mast was actually behaving like a sail and was holding us completely still. So, as far as I could make out, there was nothing going on out there at all. Mike said that there was a hurricane blowing out there but (laughs) I said “get out of town, Mike” or words to that effect and rolled over to go back to sleep. But he said “no, no. You have to get up. There is a hurricane blowing out there.” I was sufficiently awake by this stage. I thought “I'll humour the old fool. I'll get out of bed and have a look.” (laughs) I got up, in no particular hurry, still not really believing a word of it. I got up to the mess room and normally it would have been dark at that time and indeed it was dark because it was only about half past three in the morning but through the mess room porthole you could see sheets of white of some sort going past. You could tell that there was something out there that was moving and it was very white and it was very close. The more you looked, the more it became clear that what it actually was was sea spray - and an awful lot of it. You couldn't see a thing through it. As the sun began to rise, it became absolutely clear that that's precisely what it was. You couldn't see a thing through it. It was just a solid wall of sea spray. That told us that maybe there was something going on out there - told ME there was something going on out there. Other people already knew! We switched on the radio to see how it had affected people and there was nothing on. We checked round the various BBC stations and the ILR stations and none of them seemed to be on. We found some distant transmitter that was giving out stories of no trains, no buses, no cars, motorways closed and this sort of thing. I didn't really know whether to believe this or not. I was on the ship. I didn't know and there was only this one station telling us this story. For all we knew it could have been running a play or something. Then we tuned into the ship-to-shore, channel 16, the coastguard, and we started hearing stories of boats on beaches, ferries not running and this sort of thing. We began to think “yeah, maybe this really is true. There actually is a hurricane going on out there.” So we thought we'd try the transmitter and see if that worked. We switched on and, sure enough, it worked and we thought “if the BBC isn't on and the commercial operators aren't on, this is a bit of an opportunity. We'll pick up a few listeners this morning. It'll be a bit of a hoot.” So we did the Breakfast Show. We switched on and just pretended it was normal. We ran a few travel reports basically saying “don't” and, from our point of view, it was very straight forward because the ship was sitting absolutely still. There was no problem at all. The view out of the window was somewhat restricted by all this water that was flying past but it was a pretty easy show to do apart from just one point where a stay broke loose and started flapping about and banging against the feed wire. The feed wires are the things that go up the side of the mast and basically I think they carry the whole signal and, if you've got a stay that is banging against a feed wire you get a lot of sparks and one or two problems. But by this time I was getting a bit gritty and I thought “I'm not going to have this” so I told my listener that we'd have to switch off for ten minutes to sort out a minor problem. We switched off the transmitter. I tied a long piece of rope around my waist and tied the other end of it to a deck rail. And I went out on deck. It was impossible to walk out there. I've never felt anything like it. The wind was so strong. The only way of making any progress was to hold onto the deck rail and pull yourself along so your legs weren't really doing very much. Mostly it was arm work. But I pulled myself up the ladder and got up to the top of the bridge. I could see this stay flapping about in the wind. I couldn't reach it. I went up to the tower. Held onto the tower and threw a piece of rope at it. I flew this piece of rope rather like a kite until it met the feed wire somewhere out there. The wind did the rest. The two bits of stuff, the rope and the stay, just wrapped themselves around each other and I was able to pull the whole assembly back in. So I got hold of this stay eventually, pulled it back in, tied it up as best I could - not that my knots were as good as Ernie's but I did a reasonable job - and I lashed it down to something. I can't even remember what I lashed it to now but something so that it was pointing away from the tower and wasn't flapping about so much anymore. Climbed back down into the ship, told the engineer that we were ready to switch back on again and on we went and carried on with the show. We got through that Breakfast Show. People to this day still ask about that, funnily enough. They say “oh it must have been terribly exciting doing that show” and I tell them “no, actually. It wasn't.” It was very stable that day. We weren't being thrown about at all. That's just the way it is in a hurricane. The only time when you start getting problems is after the hurricane when you have to ride the swell.

click to hear audio Peter Philips and breathless news man Steve Conway from the Breakfast Show of 16th October 1987. Recording kindly provided by Brian Nichols (duration 2 minutes 18 seconds)

PP: So we just carried on with normal programmes during the course of that day and we were still on up until about 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon. By that time the wind had been blowing so hard, for so long, that the feed wires which go up the side of the tower had stretched somewhat. You can imagine what they were like. They are about 300 ft. of copper and there were four of them going up the side of the tower that was being buffeted by this hundred-and-something mile an hour wind. They were probably 10 ft. longer than they had been the previous day. They were so loose that they were banging into things if the wind caught them. They were hitting the tower and they were hitting the stays and they were hitting anything else that there was to be hit. The only thing we could do was to shorten them and that involved switching off again. So we turned the station off. We made our apologies and we switched off and we said we'd be back. It took quite a long time. It probably took us until 10 o'clock at night to get these things straightened out. We cut them and shortened them, re-tied them and did all that was necessary. Once it was all back together again we were very, very cold and very, very tired, and pretty fed-up really. We thought “we could switch on” but nobody there was in the mood to do a programme at this stage, least of all myself. We sat down for about ten minutes, quarter of an hour, had a cup of coffee. Then we switched on, played a few records for about another quarter of an hour and then I just went on and said “if anybody's worried about us, we've just switched on to say don't worry. We're still here and we're doing fine but we're tired and we can't be bothered to do another thing tonight so we'll see you tomorrow.” I don't think those were exactly my words but that was the gist of it. We made this announcement. We duly switched off and duly switched back on the following day, and carried on business as normal. As it turns out, it later emerged that some damage had been done to the tower and that may have been at the root of why the thing fell down a couple of months later. But at the time we were happy that all was well. And so it was for some while afterwards.

Peter Philips in the Caroline newsroom

Peter Philips in the Caroline newsroom. Photo courtesy of Paul Graham. More of his pics are here.

Back to Ray's chat with Keith Hampshire.
Ray's conversation with Caroline engineer Carl Thomson is over the page.

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