How I was press-ganged into becoming the Radio Caroline cook!

Jacques-André Widmer is a Swiss journalist. In 1964 he was based in Britain and thought that his readers back home might be interested to hear about the new offshore radio station that had just opened up. So he contacted Radio Caroline's office to arrange a trip to the ship. This is his story.....

Most of my friends won't believe it when I tell them about the extraordinary predicament I was put in back in the sixties, forty years ago precisely. I was then a young freelance Swiss journalist based in London, a correspondent for several Continental dailies and magazines. Quite an adventure when you are 22 and have to live on what you can sell. No wages, no salary, no social security - just find a story and hope to convince a paper to print it. So in 1964 I had the great idea of getting an authorization to climb aboard the Radio Caroline pirate ship to do a feature for the continental press. The very expression ‘pirate ship’ was promising and I thought it had a fairly good chance of being published. This is why I decided to do an exclusive illustrated feature on Caroline just after Easter 1964. Their headquarters were located in tiny offices in Soho. Some Swiss investors had shares in that weird financial and maritime adventure and I was made more than welcome.
Well, everything was neatly arranged and planned. I was to be picked up by the shabby tender which was used to transfer supplies out to Caroline. The radio ship was anchored in international waters off H.M. coasts and territories. I can't remember exactly which harbour it was (Harwich maybe, somewhere in East Anglia) where I was supposed to meet the tender captain. But before leaving Britain, I had to undergo the meticulous scrutiny of the custom officers. They eyed my camera with utmost suspicion and searched zealously through my meagre luggage. No drugs, no weapons, no bullets, no sword but a pen (supposed to be mightier than the sword!) Not much. After all, I was only supposed to be staying on board Radio Caroline for 24 hours...
After waiting for about six hours at the Customs and Excise Office, and being submitted to double-checks (they called the Home Office to check and recheck on my identity) I was at last allowed to leave the country and sail out towards the pirate ship. Obviously Whitehall and their civil servants did not appreciate any international publicity about this sheer act of piracy. You may smile nowadays about such sensitivities but, remember, broadcasting was seen as an exclusive privilege of government then. Caroline's ‘misdeeds’ were considered as taunting the country's authority and sovereignty. Broadcasting without a licence was seen as a breach of international law and no laughing matter. On board the tender, I asked the skipper about the weather conditions. Was he sure that he would be able to pick me up the next day to bring me back to the harbour? “Well, they just call me when they need supplies” he replied, with an ominous grin on his face. “We do have gales round here sometimes” he added. As we approached Caroline, I was told I would have to climb a long, wet and mossy rope ladder swinging above the sea to get onto the pirate ship. The hull could have done with a bit of painting. It was rather rusty. (They told me this former passenger ferry had been used on the Skagerat and Kattegat routes and had been overhauled recently.) It was not an easy endeavour to climb that ladder even with only a few light bags, camera and reporter's paraphernalia. (Good job my elder brother taught me rock climbing in Switzerland with a clothes line when I was a kid.) The way to the top was quite long and tiring. Climbing the steps of the ladder had left me breathless. Immediately I was greeted by the captain of the Caroline ship in person, a character cut out for acting in Mutiny on the Bounty. Dutch, I think, tough and weather-beaten. He called his entire crew together to introduce me and explain I was on board as a reporter but that nobody had to fear anything. I would not be staying for long and was not to commit any indiscretion. (He told me later that some members of the crew were not supposed to be on board; others ought to be serving prison sentences or had just come out of jail etc.) After all, this was a real pirate ship, wasn't it? I looked around for wooden legs and eye patches but saw none whatsoever.

Simon Dee, left, on the air. In the early days of the station, the records were played by a studio engineer. Photo from ‘Happy Birthday Radio Caroline’, published 1984 by Monitor Magazine.

I was allowed to move around the ship freely, interview members of the crew, take pictures from the hold to the main deck and visit the studio, the generators and the bar. My cabin must have been a first class one. There were no less than two portholes. Very homely apart from the noise and tremors of the generators needed to power the transmitter. The aerial was a huge thin metal tower, harnessed and buttressed by gale-resistant cables. As far as the broadcasting was concerned, there was only one presenter aboard. At the mike, there was the highly talented and tireless DJ by the name of Simon Dee. Humourous, handsome, lively, friendly, efficient and soft-spoken. He had a first class voice (I am sure he was acclaimed as a hero by all the beautiful young ladies of London when he had time off!) and was quite aware of speaking to a huge audience across the sea. The entire Greater London population was listening to Caroline. His favourite song seemed to be My Boy Lollipop. (I still love it by the way.) Obviously Mr. Dee was the intellectual on board and had a vast knowledge of pop culture although he did not look at all like a pirate. He told me he was a man-about-town normally but had taken this nautical speaker's job for kicks. It was all new and thrilling. (I remember I wrote a favourable piece on him as he was on friendly terms with the famous Lord Snowdon, husband at the time of Princess Margaret.) After 24 hours on board I had enough notes and pictures to do the story which I intended to send to several large circulation magazines on the Continent. But the captain told me I would have to wait a few more days before I could see land again. The tender would not come today. Nor tomorrow. Maybe in three day's time! Maybe! And there was no way to tell my wife I would be delayed. I was a bit surprised and must have pulled a long face. The captain's reaction was swift. Instead of twiddling my thumbs, I was requested to act as a ‘chef’ in the galley. I protested, I pleaded I was totally unfit for such a job - even for fun - I could not interfere with the officially appointed Indian cook and, what was more important, I had no talent whatsoever for cooking. He told me bluntly “You have a French accent, you cannot deny that! Thus you are French. French people are all good cooks. It's a well known fact. Go to the galley now and you will be responsible for the meals from now on. No reason for sulking and brooding!” I tried to explain I was a Swiss citizen, showing him my red passport with a white cross in the middle and not a French one. I reminded him I was on board as a reporter and not as a cook. All to no avail! The captain was a stubborn guy. I told him I would mistake frying pans for saucepans and roasting for braising. But this was no longer a request but an order. “I am the sole master after God on this ship” he added to make himself understood.
Well, I had no other choice but to go to the galley, explain the situation to the official cook, an Indian who uttered unintelligible words. He was very shy, thin and efficient. A good job as the space in the galley was scarce and smoky. We used coal for the stove. I tried to explain that the captain had ordered me to be the boss in the kitchen but I doubt he understood. He was much better than me at peeling potatoes and cooking on the whole. He would taste the soup, add salt and pepper. I would invent the menus. Sometimes he would say “Too much! Too much!” and I replied with the motto “enough is NEVER as good as a feast ...”

The Caroline crew studying their press coverage. Photo from ‘The Radio Caroline Picture Souvenir Book’, published 1977 by Music Radio Promotions.

Believe it or not, this is how your narrator became the official cook of Radio Caroline. I did the best I could, serving generous rations of lamb cutlets, ham, steaks, roasts, vegetables, rice with plenty of onions, garlic, pasta, etc. I would carry the hot bowls of soups to the captain's table and serve the crew. I even introduced dessert and sundries. And decent coffee. I was totally flabbergasted after the first meal as they gave me a round of applause! The crew kept showing unanimous appreciation of my meals. (They must have been underfed before I set foot onboard.) The captain had a hearty appetite too. Needless to say the tender did not turn up on the third day because of bad weather or some other ‘political’ reason. While I was on board, the Council of Europe had taken up the Caroline issue following a UK complaint and was about to debate the future of ship-based broadcasting. But there was great joy on board. I discovered later that the Radio Caroline story made the Fleet Street headlines for a whole week. (Nice to see that public opinion is inclined to be on David's side, resenting Goliath's nasty role.)
After a week cooking for Caroline's crew, the captain insisted on appointing me as the official cook on his ship and put me on the payroll. Quite good wages were offered. A fortnight on board and one week off. He insisted. I declined politely, saying my young wife Lisa was waiting anxiously for me in London. I was due to stay only 24 hours onboard and it was now the seventh day! She had not heard from me (no mobile phones then). Then the Captain discovered the flaw. He inspected the foodstuff levels. “We are running short of meat!” he shouted hopelessly, as if we were about to sink. “There is not a single tomato left in the hold! No more onions! No more apples, no more oranges! No more coffee! No sugar left! That was supposed to last for a fortnight! Shame on you!” (that was aimed at me.) I was scolded publicly in front of the whole crew as if I had been his ship's boy. He did NOT throw me overboard but I was really scared. Those who read piracy stories will understand me perfectly. I tried to plead not guilty and pretend to be sorry for the sudden shortage. “Nobody has stolen anything, I swear” I said pathetically. “Everything has been eaten by your crew and, if you don't mind me saying, by you too ...” “What's to become of us?” He mumbled and complained about budget restrictions and food squandering.
One thing is certain; there was never any shortage of beer or whisky on board that pirate ship and I am about to tell you why. At the captain's request, I promised I would not reveal this in my articles about Caroline. Up until now I have kept my promise. Forty years after the event, I think we can accept that the statute of limitations on things that happen in international waters off Great Britain has run out so I do not feel I am breaking a promise. The Captain's secret was as follows: “Jacques” he told me “never print the facts you are going to witness now. A ship will stop half a mile away from here in twenty minutes time. You will see things you are not supposed to witness. Do no write about these.” Twenty minutes later we saw a huge ship stop some distance from our deep water mooring. After a few minutes, a rowing boat approached silently in the moonlight. Romantic and deliciously prohibited. When the rowing boat came alongside, sailors started unloading the cargo - crates of tax-exempt bottles of whisky and beer, cigarettes and cigars. These untaxed and unaccounted-for supplies would last longer than a fortnight. Wasn't that the main thing?
Miraculously the tender turned up at the end of my week on board Caroline as a cook-reporter. The food supply was topped up and I could go home at last. The Indian chef was back in charge of his galley. What about the articles I wrote? As far as I can remember, I got one published in a Swiss radio weekly (Radio-Je-Vois-Tout) and one in a Lausanne daily (Feuille d'Avis de Lausanne now called 24 Heures). These articles were syndicated to the French speaking press of the world by the Scope agency. Sadly I have no copies of them but I may have some black and white negatives of Caroline somewhere in my numerous archive-drawers. I'll try to find them. By the way: I am now 63. Caroline? Very incredible and still vivid memories in my mind.

Jacques-André Widmer,

Many thanks to Jacques-André for a fascinating tale.

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