No.5: Ray Clark in conversation with Peter Chicago

Ray Clark has interviewed a number of the people involved with Radio Caroline. Extracts from these conversations were used in his book Radio Caroline: The True Story Of The Boat That Rocked (reviewed here).
We are very grateful to Ray for allowing us to publish some of his interviews on The Pirate Radio Hall of Fame.
This conversation is with Caroline's long-serving engineering supremo Peter Chicago. Peter acquired the Chicago nickname while working on Radio Northsea International in 1970 and has been known by that name ever since.
In the interview he remembers the excitement of taking the mv Mi Amigo back out to sea in 1972 (details here), the search for a new ship after the sinking of the Mi Amigo, the return of Caroline from the mv Ross Revenge and the Dutch raid on the ship in August 1989.

Peter Chicago

Peter Chicago. Photo by Onno van Buuren. More of his pictures here.

PETER CHICAGO: I was working on Radio Northsea and I think we'd really forgotten about the Radio Caroline ships. We were in and out of Holland all the time and, as we came into Amsterdam, we could see the two masts of the ships in Amsterdam harbour. We'd also gone to have a look at them and really we thought that's where they were going to stay. But one day the Dutch crew were getting quite excited and we asked them what the story was on the news and apparently the Radio Caroline ships were going to be sold and auctioned. Of course all the English on board the ship at the time got very excited, you know, who was going to buy them, what was going to happen to them.
Well, after the ships had been auctioned I went to Amsterdam to find out who had bought the ships. I was told that the Caroline North boat had been bought by a scrap dealer, somebody called Rijsdijk, and that the boat was going to be scrapped or possibly already had been scrapped because I was (there) a few days after the auction, but the Mi Amigo had been bought by a Dutchman who was going to turn it into a museum.
Well, I went and tracked the boat down - no easy task. You think of a harbour as being quite small but they're so extensive and to find different parts of a harbour by road can sometimes be more difficult than finding it from the waterways, but I tracked the boat down and I met a Dutchman who introduced himself as Gerard van Dam. He proudly showed me round his ship and explained about the museum idea but, when I told him who I was and I was the chief engineer on the Radio Northsea ship, he became a little bit more interested and took me into his confidence. He said, well, really the idea was to get the ship ready to broadcast again and could I take a look at the radio transmitters and tell him what the possibilities would be of getting them working.

Peter Chicago

Peter Chicago on the deck of the mv Mi Amigo. Photo from ‘Caroline - A Story in Photos’, published by Three Master Productions.

Well, I went down below. I had actually been on the ship before, before it had been sold, and had a very bad impression of the general state of things, but this time with a bit more light to see what was going on it became obvious that, although a lot of smaller components and bits and pieces had been broken and taken off, the basic parts of the transmitter were all there and, the more I looked at it, the more obvious it became that without too much money being spent they could be put into operating condition again.
Anyway, Gerard seemed very interested, asked me to come back again and I think a few weeks later on another shore leave I turned up on the boat and this time he introduced me to a grey haired old gentleman whose face was vaguely familiar to me but I wasn't quite sure. To cut a long story short, it turned out to be (Caroline founder) Ronan O'Rahilly, again very interested in knowing what the state of the transmitters was and how much money would be required to put them into operating order. Well, that's where it started.
Before there could be any thought of broadcasting again the boat itself had to be got out to sea and there were a lot of question marks over the condition of the boat. Gerard promised to have the boat dry docked and Ronan was trying to organise as much money as possible to make it all happen. In the meantime there was a group of volunteers on the boat, some English, some Dutch, trying to keep things ticking over, most of them believing more in the museum idea than the broadcasting idea.
Anyway I kept turning up on the boat every time I was on shore and nothing seemed to change and I really wasn't at all hopeful that anything would come of this; it seemed like a lot of well meaning amateurs doing lots of superficial work, nothing that was going to really change the status of the boat and, more importantly, no sign of it being dry docked.
Well, I turned up one time and Gerard proudly announced that the ship had been in dry dock. He showed me a large hole in the corridor between the cabins that had been broken out and he said that's where the harbour master went down to look at the keel and he had to break the floor and sort of look to make sure the boat wasn't collapsed on the ramps. Anyway, I looked outside the boat, there was no real evidence that anything had changed, the slimy green watermark was in exactly the same position it had been before, but Gerard was very definite it really had been dry docked and it was all OK - it would go to sea. Ronan as well chose to believe that this had all happened and plans were made to actually drag the boat out to sea, to tow it out.
Well, I wasn't going to hand in my notice to Radio Northsea until it really did become obvious the boat would go somewhere. I still half-believed that the whole thing would peter out, that the Dutch authorities might prevent the boat leaving, but one time I turned up on the boat and I was told there was a tug boat booked, that this was it, we were going. So I put my stuff on board and we waited and, sure enough, in due course a tug boat turned up and we started heading out to sea. We still didn't really believe it was happening. I remember we got about a mile outside IJmuiden and the tug captain stopped and said that he wasn't permitted to take us any further out, that his licence would only permit him to take us one mile offshore. We were horrified. This was no good at all because, once we were sort of off the coast, the Dutch authorities would obviously realise the intentions were to broadcast and unless we were safely outside the Dutch limit they would obviously insist that we go back inside again. Well, needless to say this was a ploy for money - the man wanted a lot more money if he was going to take us the extra two miles. I remember Gerard had to leave the ship and go ashore and I think he borrowed the money from his mother but somehow or other the funds were found and we were taken that two extra miles and we dropped our own ship's anchor.
We still didn't quite know whether to believe we were three miles out because there's lots of very tall factory chimneys and big buildings onshore and it was all so brightly lit, it looked as if you could reach out and touch some of the lights. We really didn't believe we were three miles out but, well, we kept our fingers crossed and that was it. We were out there for the night. I can remember one of the first things that we all did once the tug boat disappeared was to strip down to our undies and dive over the side and go for a swim and kind of celebrate the fact that we were out there and free.
I think we were off IJmuiden for probably a whole day before a tug boat, or in fact I think it was a fishing boat, arrived to tow us down the coast towards Scheveningen which is where Radio Northsea and Radio Veronica were anchored. When we got to that position we anchored about a mile and a half from each of the other ships. We were in a triangle with, I think, Radio Veronica maybe the furthest out from the shore and each ship being about one and a half miles from the other ship, so it was quite companionable.
Just an incidental fact, we were out at sea all this time but we had no working power generators. We were struggling round the boat at night with oil lamps and torches and we had no generator whatsoever. As we dropped anchor off Scheveningen, I noticed that if I held a fluorescent light tube near the aerial feeder, our own aerial feeder down to the transmitter room, it lit up with the power that was being picked up off the Radio Northsea transmitters. They had a 100kW transmitter which was operating at about 50kW output at the time and it was inducing a sufficiently high voltage on to our aerial feeder that I was able to light up a fluorescent tube, so we taped this up on the feeder and it was the only external lighting that we had on the boat. I remember the first night, when Radio Northsea closed down, somebody on their ship was observant enough to realise that, as they switched the transmitter off, so our one external light extinguished and they were kind enough that they switched the transmitters back on and they left them on all night in order that we had some light to get through the night. I mean, all of the crew and the disc-jockeys on Radio Northsea were all quite enthusiastic about seeing the Caroline boat out at sea again and there was an enormous amount of camaraderie and friendship from the other ship. Not so much from Radio Veronica. They could just see it as being trouble for them - that there was another radio ship out at sea - and really they kept their distance, but everybody from the crew on down to all the disc-jockeys on Radio Northsea were all wonderfully enthusiastic and happy to see the Radio Caroline ship back out at sea again.

Andy Archer, Samnatha Dubois, Robb Eden, Peter Chicago

Left to right: Andy Archer, Samantha Dubois, Robb Eden and Peter Chicago in Scheveningen. Photo from ‘Radio Caroline, Offshore Picture Souvenir’, published by MRP Books.

RAY CLARK: How would you describe the Mi Amigo, the condition of the whole thing when you were in that position three miles of Scheveningen.
PC: When we got out to sea on the Mi Amigo it was really almost a wreck. The cabins were in a terrible state, we had no decent mattresses on the beds, none of the kitchen equipment really worked. We had no working power generators because Gerard had bought an ex-army generator which had given power during the time the ship was on shore but, Murphy's law applying, once we got to sea the generator packed up and it took us about a week to get it sorted out and power back on the ship. So really we were out there with a ship in unknown sort of seaworthy type condition. We didn't know the state of the hull. It became obvious it had never been dry docked and very, very sort of poor accommodation standards but we were just so excited to have the ship out at sea and, once we got it there, we put in an awful lot of work and we really got the ship turned around in the coming months. I think we spent about three months solidly working, getting portholes to fit, and getting the water system running properly and getting the power generator sorted out.
RC: Can I take you on a few years now, Peter, and the Ross (Revenge). Was the Ross the first ship that you went looking for as a replacement for the Mi Amigo? And what was the tale of finding the Ross?
PC: Once we decided to seriously look for another ship to replace the Mi Amigo we got in touch with Greenpeace but, much as I would support Greenpeace, I can really say that they weren't very helpful to us at all. They didn't take the request seriously and, although they must have had a lot of ships on their books, ships that they might have been offered themselves, they really didn't forward any of the information to us, so we contacted people up in Hull and Grimsby, the fishing ports. We did go to look at quite a big factory fishing vessel, the Lord Nelson, and it was a very big impressive ship. The taxi driver that we took from the station volunteered the fact that he'd actually been a member of the crew on board the Lord Nelson so he was able, once we got there, to show us around.
We were very interested in the boat and we contacted a dry dock facility to investigate the cost of dry docking the ship. We enquired as to what sort of money it would probably cost to put the ship into seagoing condition, because this is something that had happened quite frequently with ships that had been laid up a long time and had been bought. He was able to advise us that probably £20,000 to £30,000 would have had to have been spent to get the ship into a viable condition - but he volunteered the fact that there was a ship available that had had all this work done and his own angle was that he'd done the work and hadn't been paid. Well, in short, the boat in question was the Ross Revenge. He told us where the boat was lying. It was up in Scotland and, in short, he put us in touch with the owners who totally ignored all efforts to contact them. Eventually we managed to track down the bank that had put up the money to buy the ship in the first place and we made an offer directly to them. That was how we came to buy the Ross Revenge. As I say, it had had all the dry docking work done, all the electric motors had been overhauled, so we were lucky in the respect that, well, a year before we bought it all this work had been done. We did discover some problems with the ship which was inevitable because it had been laid up for about six months at the time that we started to look at it.

Interview continued over the page.
Back to the interview with Carl Conway.

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