Radio ship leaves lay up

29 Aug 2014
'GPS Avenger' tows 'Ross Revenge' out of Tilbury dock with 'Horton' steering at stern

'GPS Avenger' tows 'Ross Revenge' out of Tilbury dock with 'Horton' steering at stern

Fifty years after the launch of Radio Caroline and the birth of pirate radio, the ex-Radio Caroline ship 'Ross Revenge' has been moved from its berth at Tilbury docks to a midstream mooring in the River Blackwater. The vessel has lain at Tilbury for some 10 years during which it has been lovingly restored.

The towage was handled by Chatham-based GPS Marine, using their recent acquisition, the GPS Avenger, a 27 m Damen Shoalbuster 2709 that the company purchased 'from stock' at SeaWork in 2013. Avenger was assisted by the 1968-built, 16m Horton, a familiar sight on the Thames, which had towed the radio ship on several occasions in the past under the command of previous owner Andy Wood, who helped organise this movement. Horton is now operated by Palmers Marine Services of Gravesend.

Ross Revenge was the fourth ship to be home to Radio Caroline, operating outside territorial waters some time after the pirates had been criminalised under the Marine Offences act of 1967. At 67m loa with a beam of 10.3m, the vessel was originally the largest conventional side trawler ever built and held the record for the world's biggest catch. It has had a long and varied career including several dramatic incidents.

Built in 1960 at Bremerhaven for the Icelandic Government, as the Freyr (RE1) the Gross Tonnage was 980 tonnes. The ship's Werkspoor 10-cylinder engine developed 2400hp providing a maximum speed of 18–22 knots

It was purchased by Ross Fisheries in 1963 and, working from its home port of Grimsby, later took part in the second Icelandic cod war which lasted from September 1972 until November 1973. A third conflict took place later with Britain deploying some 22 frigates, tugs and support vessels to protect the UK fleet. Vessels were rammed and shots were fired.

In 1976 Ross Revenge landed a catch of 3,000 kits (approximately 218 tonnes) of Icelandic cod at Grimsby, which sold for a world record price of £75,597. Britain’s large-scale fishing industry, however, did not survive much longer. After serving as a diving support, salvage and recovery vessel from 1979 to 1981, the vessel was taken to the Cairnryan breakers' yard in Scotland but was saved from destruction in 1983 by Radio Caroline and outfitted as a radio ship, complete with 300-foot antenna mast (another world’s largest) and 50kW transmitter.

The radio broadcasts began on August 20, 1983 and for eight years Ross Revenge was anchored outside territorial waters at the edges of the Thames Estuary, broadcasting to up to 23 million listeners and being involved in various maritime adventures. Finally the vessel went aground on the Goodwin Sands in 1991 but was recovered and towed into Dover. Since then it has been cared for and maintained by Peter Moore, an engineer who chose Caroline as “a bit of a distraction”, along with a voluntary support group of some 50 enthusiasts who have spent years preserving and restoring the ship. The ship has been moored at Tilbury, Southend, Queenborough, Rochester and the River Blackwater, on a mooring which it has now returned to.

Most of the volunteers' work has been concentrated on the studios, radio equipment, transmitters and communal spaces. The structure of the ship was secondary, but once the plans were laid to move out of Tilbury dock, Peter Moore says "It was time to stop that and turn it back into a ship. The first surveyor left a mighty list of tasks and his parting shot was ‘Apart from anything else she doesn't look very pretty’.” That turned into a challenge for the volunteers. With 4600 sq ft of hull to paint they took it back to bare metal first. Ultrasound scans from the inside showed no part less than 12mm, on a ship built with extra hull thickness for working in ice.

The anchor windlass was overhauled and another genset was added to the six already in use, with solar and wind generators to ensure there would always be lighting available. "The surveyors for Knighthood Insurance wanted to be sure of everything so we fitted automatic salvage pumps in every compartment, upgraded the fire fighting equipment, fitted multiple VHF radios, etc. There were two surveys and for the towing certificate both tugs and the towing arrangements were inspected. It also passed the Stability test as one of the most stable vessels ever seen." The mooring close to Bradwell nuclear power station was prepared in advance by 'Noddy' Cardy of Malden. There are two 3 tonne anchors with 200ft of chain on each and a central swivel, while the ship's own anchors and chain have been kept in good order.

Some day soon Ross Revenge is due to be opened to the public with guided tours of the refurbished sound studios, record library and broadcast equipment. In the meantime the public will be able to take a boat ride out to view the ship.

Peter Moore's dream is ultimately to restore the ship's main engine, which has not been run for two decades, and to use the vessel as a radio station once again. But he has been waiting four years for OFCOM to allocate a frequency for AM broadcasting and concedes they may be restricted to DAB. When the surveyor had cast doubts on the two existing radio masts they were taken down and Radio Structures Ltd built and installed the new mast as a PR exercise.

For this stage in the resurrection of Ross Revenge, Moore has high praise for Knighthood Insurance who, he said “have been marvelous. GPS and Palmers went that extra mile for us, along with Andy Wood. The Port of Tilbury stayed the right side of nice but on departure they were pleased to see us leaving."

By Graeme Ewens

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