Stories of the Australian Coastal Radio Service


Tropical Tales

On the night of 24th December, 1974 (Christmas Eve) I was the duty officer at Townsvilleradio/VIT from midnight to 0700 there was only one operator on duty. In those days we monitored 500khz as well as 2182, 4125 and 6215khz (A3J).

The shift was fairly routine and involved sorting and filing the previous days traffic, preparing the "ships in range" list as well as working the odd ship and taking weather observations from the automatic weather stations.

I could hear Darwinradio/VID and Thursday Island Radio/VII alternately sending TTT Cyclone warnings but didn't take a great deal of notice as it was thousands of kilometres away. Around 0300 I was suddenly jolted out of my seat by a QSA5 signal on 6215khz (The R/T calling and distress frequency).

MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY THIS IS MUTUAL ENTERPRISE - OVER!

For a split second I thought "better wait until the nearest coast station replies" but then, hang on, his signal is so strong WE are probably the nearest station! I hit the TX HT button and swung out the microphone.

VIT - MUTUAL ENTERPRISE THIS IS TOWNSVILLERADIO ROGER WHAT IS YOUR POSITION, OVER.

M.E. - MY POSITION IS DARWIN HARBOUR THERE IS A CYCLONE OVERHEAD. WE NEED IMMEDIATE ASSISTANCE, OVER.

VIT - CONFIRM DARWIN HARBOUR?

M.E. - AFFIRMATIVE!

VIT - ROGER STANDBY

"Why wasn't VID answering?" I wondered. Slack!

VIT - DARWINRADIO DARWINRADIO THIS IS TOWNSVILLERADIO 6215KHZ DO YOU READ?, OVER

No reply from Darwin but then the telex machine suddenly burst into life and it was Darwin. I knew the operator on watch was Laz Eliou.

The telex chattered it's grim message:- VIT DE VID I CAN HEAR YOU WORKING THE MUTUAL ENTERPRISE ON 6215 BUT WE CAN'T ANSWER. CYCLONE TRACY IS OVERHEAD AND ALL OUR AERIALS ARE DOWN. WE ARE OFF THE AIR!

I grabbed the "Red" phone - our hot line to the Marine Operations Centre, in Canberra - and explained the situation to the duty supervisor. He said, "Ah yes, we heard there had been a bit of a blow up there!" We discussed what could be done for the Mutual Enterprise but agreed there was little to do as no rescue vessel could contemplate putting to sea until the cyclone had passed.

VIT - MUTUAL ENTERPRISE THIS IS TOWNSVILLERADIO I AM AFRAID THERE IS NOTHING WE CAN DO UNTIL THE CYCLONE PASSES. YOU WILL HAVE TO RIDE IT OUT. OVER.

M.E. - ROGER NO WORRIES, MATE, OVER AND OUT!

He didn't seem to be at all perturbed by the fact that we couldn't help him.

(Three years later, after I was posted to Darwin, we operators from VID went on board the Mutual Enterprise, a prawn trawler operating in the Gulf of Carpentaria, but it was a different skipper. I related the story of Christmas Eve, and we went away with boxes of prawns and cartons of beer!)

History shows that severe tropical cyclone "Tracy" - a category four cyclone - completely devastated Darwin City which had to be evacuated. VID was off the air for about five days. The coastal trader NYANDA came alongside after lying off shore waiting for the cyclone to pass.

Devastation

VID station manager, Bob Hooper awoke that Christmas morning and viewed the devastation surrounding him. There was still heavy rain but the wind had died down. He jumped into his four-wheel drive Toyota and headed for the station ten minutes away. The journey took him 50 minutes! The road was strewn with fallen trees, debris and power lines.

He found the station was home to about 15 people from an adjoining block of flats which had been demolished. Part of the roof of the transmitter room was missing and water was coming in. There was no mains power but the station generator was online. There were no phone or telex lines and the city was completely cut off. The rest of Australia, still awakening to Christmas day presents and hangovers, was still oblivious of the plight of Darwin.

Bob went outside and switched on his amateur radio transceiver. After ten minutes he had raised another amateur in Perth and asked him to contact the Sydney head office of the Overseas Telecommunications Commission and explain the situation. After some time Sydneyradio/VIS had brought up a 40kw transmitter and rhombic antenna pointed at Darwin.

VID staff was given permission to utilise the radio room of the NYANDA and operated with the callsign VID2 until the station was back on air. Major-General Allan Stretton, who was in charge of relief and evacuation operations established his headquarters on board the NYANDA.

For the next five days all official traffic in and out of Darwin was handled by VID operators onboard the MV NYANDA on CW. Government and Military traffic to and from Major-General Stretton went on CW. At VIS, a special roster was made up to work VID2.

Amateurs play a vital role

Meanwhile at VIT, I received a phone call from a local amateur operator who had contacted an amateur in Timika, Irian Jaya, Indonesia. VID had a private TOR circuit to a mining company in Timika and because the station was off the air, they wanted to establish a CW sked with VIT. By next morning we had a CW sked going with Timika.

Unfortunately at VIT we had no re-perferation facilities on our telex machine so we couldn't prepare a 5-unit tape to send to line. We ended up taking down the traffic by typewriter and then punching up the traffic again 'live to line' to the telex number!

Officially we were only supposed to be taking traffic of an urgent nature but many messages were over 1000 words and were obviously of a non-urgent nature. Fortunately the operator in Timika, who was an American, was an excellent CW operator.

As well as these extra duties VIT and VII took over VID's skeds while the station was off air. This involved transmitting a long list of missing vessels and persons who had disappeared during the cyclone.

Flat out like a lizard drinking!

In those days VIT was a very busy station. We had a six-man roster but only five operators which meant working many overtime shifts. There was only a single operator on duty. You had to be a Houdini to get everything done. As well as taking MF traffic live on the teleprinter using the Australian TRESS system we had to copy coded weather reports from the Automatic weather stations (AWS).

These would pop up automatically at predetermined times. If you were working a ship you had to break the ship and copy the AWS as there were no repeats.

You had to find time to punch up your CQ weather tape on the old "punchen-banger". The five-unit tape was then inserted into the "HELL" machine which converted it to morse. While the tape was going to air on CW this gave you time to catch up on sending traffic to line on the telex or TRESS, catching up with your logbook and maybe grab a cup of coffee if you were lucky!

When the tape stopped there was a pile up of ships calling on 500 to get their traffic. You send them all up to the working frequency 425 and start working through them. Meanwhile traffic is coming in on the telex and TRESS which needs to be checked, words counted and callsigns for ships looked up and entered.

Outpost Radio

Then we had the Outpost radio skeds. These were cattle stations or island communities equipped with a small transceiver and usually low power - around 25 watts. They usually had telegrams to send by voice. If you were working MF when the sked came up, you had to break the ship and ask him to QRX, change up to the Outpost radio frequencies and call them in turn. The style of operation was completely different to working ships. Very "laid back." So you had to change your style to accommodate them.

The other Australian stations (other than Sydneyradio) were known as the "outstations". On the outstations, you were MF operator, radiotelephone operator, landline operator, phone operator, typist, secretary, technician, and general know-it-all.

You remembered ships callsigns, skippers names, telephone numbers, agents names etc which saved time looking them up. In other words you had to be a walking, talking encyclopedia!

Peter Hewitson, VIB

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