On board the ‘bad ship Caroline’.
In the London Evening News of 14th March 1978 there was a double page spread devoted to Radio Caroline. Reporter Stewart Payne had gone out to visit the Mi Amigo to talk to the disc jockeys, the
first Fleet Street journalist to have been aboard for ten years.
STEWART PAYNE REMEMBERS....
I have a very clear recollection of my first visit to the Mi Amigo in order to write a double-page feature on Radio Caroline. I had joined the London Evening News in 1977 to work as a news reporter, having previously worked for a provincial evening paper. So this was my break into Fleet Street.
I already had a passion for offshore radio and had been a listener to Caroline and the other pirate stations since the mid-1960s. When the two Caroline ships were towed away without warning in 1968 I would scour my parents' copy of the Daily Express to find out what had happened. Its then correspondent in The Hague, Sue Masterman, provided some answers and it was partly from this experience that I decided I wanted to become a journalist. Being on the spot, finding answers to questions and being a conduit for news seemed so much better and much more exciting than waiting to be told.
In 1972 I was studying journalism in Sheffield when Caroline returned to the air and I remember going out onto the campus to try to pick up its first irregular transmissions.
From then on I followed its turbulent and eventful times, but only as a listener. Local paper journalism did not provide any opportunity to write about its activities. On arrival in Fleet Street I was determined to see if I could arrange to visit and go aboard the Mi Amigo. The Evening News had launched an innovative music and youth culture column called Ad Lib and its main writer was John Blake, who was receptive to the idea of an article on Caroline.
But how do you arrange a visit to a radio station that has no address or phone number and is based on a ship anchored in international waters? I was not going to gamble on just turning up alongside as I was very unlikely to be allowed aboard. So I started to attend the Caroline Roadshows and, after a time, gained the confidence of Robb Eden, who was then running things behind the scenes, and who remains a friend to this day.
Through Robb I met Ronan and we talked through the idea. This, too, was the start of a friendship and I remained close to Ronan for many years, until his illness and his move back to Ireland. It was agreed that I could go aboard and, on Robb's recommendation, I chartered a small boat they used from Brightlingsea on the Essex coast. With photographer Laurie Cottrell we headed out towards the Knock Deep channel. It was February 13th 1978, a bright, chilly day and a fairly calm sea.
I can recall we had Caroline playing as the Mi Amigo came into view - Mr Blue Sky by ELO - and it was a special moment for me - so long a listener but my first ever glimpse of the fabled ship. As we came alongside I was greeted by presenter James Ross and he gave me a helping hand as I scrambled up on to the deck with the aid of a lorry tyre and ropes slung over the side. It was the first, but not the last, time I was to make that slightly daunting leap onto the Mi Amigo.
In the mess room I met Martin Fisher, Mark Lawrence and Mike Stevens, a cook and several of the Dutch team. James was my guide around the ship, and we also became friends. I was later to repay the honour by showing him around my newspaper offices in Fleet Street, as his ambition was to get into journalism, which he subsequently did. Not surprisingly, the disc jockeys were reluctant to be photographed, but Martin did agree to be in shot, but with his back to the camera.
I was on board for several hours on what turned out to be the first of many visits I would go on to make to the Mi Amigo and, later, the Ross Revenge. At the time I noted in a diary: “A great experience and a personal ambition achieved”. I also noted that the album format music the station was playing was “excellent, and just to my taste”.
The article I wrote on my return was earmarked for a ‘two-page spread’, the best I could have hoped for. It was printed on Tuesday March 14th, 1978, with a picture by-line and an introduction which stated: “To visit the illegal vessel an ‘outsider’ has to take a clandestine trip across the choppy North Sea. An Evening News reporter did just that and was the first Press man to step aboard the Mi Amigo in more than ten years”.
Ronan and Robb were delighted with the piece, and it gave away no secrets about how Caroline was being tendered and supplied. I was invited to go back, which I did for another two page spread marking the station's 15th birthday and published on April 14th 1979 (see over page). I also spent several lengthy periods on the Mi Amigo in the late 1970s when my Fleet Street shifts on the Evening News started to dry up and, again, I remain in contact with many of the disc jockeys I was on board with to this day.
Ronan was also delighted that the birthday article contained an interview I did with him on Loving Awareness. I could not get him off the phone for weeks! A great deal of my spare time - I was single and living in a rented flat in London at that time - was spent with Ronan, Robb and others around Baker Street and the King's Road. And when Caroline experienced its many emergencies, I was able to charter ‘Press trips’ to make undercover visits to sort out driftings, leaks and other emergencies.
But that, I guess, is another story. Sadly, neither the Evening News nor Ronan and the Mi Amigo are still with us. But Caroline has survived, albeit in a very different form, and that is no small achievement.
Best wishes to all in the Caroline family.
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