Published: 10:22, 19 March 2020
| Updated: 14:23, 19 March 2020
It was the original ‘ship that rocked.’ But 40 years ago today (Thursday)the Mi Amigo, home to original pop pirates Radio Caroline, finally disappeared beneath the waves in a violent force 10 storm.
In a daring rescue which lasted 12 hours in appalling weather, the crew of the Sheerness lifeboat saved the lives of everyone onboard – including the ship’s canary.
Leading the operation was colourful RNLI coxswain Charlie Bowry, who was later presented with the Institute’s coveted silver medal.
It was during the day that the radio station’s 60-year-old ship started dragging its anchor and drifted 10 nautical miles onto the Long Sand sandbank off Southend.
As the tide rose, the ship started to float free. But the bottom of the boat began being buffeted on the seabed with such a force the steel plates sprung a leak and water gushed into the engine room.
When the bilge pumps couldn’t cope, the three British DJs and a Dutch engineer called the Coastguard who dispatched Sheerness lifeboat the Helen Turnbull.
The ship had been broadcasting wall-to-wall pop since Irish businessman Ronan O’Rahilly hit upon the idea of breaking the BBC’s monopoly of music and launched Radio Caroline on Easter Sunday, 1964.
He named the station after Caroline Kennedy, daughter of American president John F Kennedy, and used the airwaves to plug bands, financed by advertising.
DJ Tom Anderson, who was on board when the ship started to sink, later revealed the state of the Mi Amigo in its final days.
He said: “The engine didn’t work properly, we had a rudder that slapped around all the time and we had no wheel to steer with. But we had a radio station that worked.”
Caroline later returned to the airwaves on replacement ship the Ross Revenge and managed to keep broadcasting until November 5, 1990, when it ran out of food, diesel and records because of the UK government’s blockade of supplies.
The Ross Revenge ended up moored at Queenborough and then Chatham, before moving to Essex where Caroline continues to broadcast, legally, on the internet and 648AM.
The last words broadcast from the Mi Amigo were from DJ Stevie Gordon just before midnight on March 19, 1980.
He told listeners: “Due to severe weather conditions, and the fact that we are shipping quite a lot of water, we’re closing down. The crew are at this stage leaving the ship.
“Obviously, we hope to be back with you as soon as possible but we’d like to assure you all on land that there is nothing to worry about.
“We are all quite safe.”
His colleague Tom Anderson, who had joined him in the studio, added: “Yes, it’s not a very good occasion, really. I’ll have to hurry because the lifeboat is standing by.
“We are not leaving and disappearing. We are going onto the lifeboat and hoping the pumps can take it. If they can, we’ll be back. If not, well, I don’t like to say it.”
With that, Stevie took back the microphone and added in sombre tones: “I think we’ll be back one way or another but now from all of us goodbye and God bless.”
Outside in the gale, the crew of the Sheerness lifeboat was waiting to pluck them off the stricken ship along with the ship’s canary Wilson, named after Labour prime minster Harold Wilson who had brought in the 1967 Marine Broadcasting Offences Act which had turned them all into pirates.
Also abandoning ship was fellow DJ Nick Richards and Dutch engineer Hans Verlaan.
Throughout the ordeal the DJs played a tape of pre-recorded music and gave out live weather broadcasts every hour, along with a sequence of secret coded numbers telling managers on land the true state of the ship.
Afterwards, Stevie Gordon admitted: “The lifeboat man had been urging us to come off.
“Moving from the ship to the lifeboat was probably the most frightening thing of it all. But we even saved the ship’s canary. We’d had one on board since we reopened in 1972 but this was a new one. We’d only had him six months.”
The DJs had to leave behind records and tapes including singles autographed by The Beatles.
Twenty minutes after the men were safe, the water reached the generators and the Mi Amigo was plunged into darkness.
Charlie Bowry junior still remembers the day his dad was called to rescue Radio Caroline pirate presenters from their sinking ship.
The 48-year-old, from Minster recalled: “I must have been eight or nine at the time. We were living in Wards Hill and my dad had a VHF radio at home.
“I think he realised the Mi Amigo was in trouble and so, as coxswain and mechanic, he ordered the launch of the Sheerness lifeboat Helen Turnbull.
“I didn’t realise how serious it was until that night’s episode of Dallas on the TV was interrupted by a newsflash saying Radio Caroline was sinking.”
His dad and the rest of the crew, comprising second coxswain Arthur Lukey, assistant mechanic Roderick ‘Ricky’ Underhill, Malcolm Keen, Ian McCourt and William ‘Les’ Edwards, spent the best part of 12 hours at sea trying to save the DJs.
Charlie junior still has his father’s original typewritten report of the rescue.
The official call didn’t come until 6.16pm although the lifeboat was already on an exercise. As it battled through the sea the waves completely swamped the top of the wheelhouse. The lifeboat reached the stricken ship at 8.25pm.
At 11.05pm Mr Bowry wrote: “The ship could be seen rolling and pitching violently. Three crew members were on deck plus one in the wheelhouse. Heavy and confused seas were throwing the lifeboat in every direction.”
At one stage the deck of the Mi Amigo towered 20 feet above the lifeboat. It took four attempts to pull the youngest aboard the lifeboat and another five to get the second aboard.
Mr Bowry said: “The crew member with the canary dashed along the deck from where he had been sheltering and flung himself aboard the lifeboat. His actions caught us by surprise as the lifeboat was flung against the ship’s side, bending our outboard guardrails.
“We told the remaining occupant not to jump as there was a danger of him being crushed between the two vessels.
“He was standing on the gunwale clinging to a stay and at times knee-deep in water. It took three more attempts to grab him.”
The pirate DJs arrived back at Sheerness at 3.41am where they were questioned by police.
Seamen often say ships have a personality of their own or that a ship is an ‘unlucky’ vessel.
The Mi Amigo certainly had an adventurous life despite her origins as a workaday sailing schooner built at Kiel in 1921, operating in the Baltic.
She was commandeered by Nazi forces in 1941-3 and began her career as a radio broadcast vessel off Danish waters in 1960 before Radio Caroline was born in 1964.
In 1963, she was stripped of broadcasting equipment in America while her owners planned to convert her into a luxury yacht. But the project ran out of cash.
Money matters became a common problem as her various owners skimped on maintenance to keep her afloat.
She was prone to leaks, engine breakdowns and storm damage and ended up being impounded at least twice.
During her years operating in the Thames Estuary between Kent and Essex she proved to be extremely vulnerable to running aground as she had little power to steer herself out of trouble when her anchors invariably broke.
She drifted ashore at Holland Haven near Frinton in 1966, struck the Long Sand Head in 1975 and 1976 and then eventually sank after striking the Long Sand once more in 1980.
Her 165ft (50m) mast remained visible until it crashed into the sea in July 1986. The wreck remains in the Estuary.
During her time she had been home to a number of pioneering presenters including Dave Lee Travis, Tony Prince, Johnnie Walker, Spangles Muldoon and kmfm’s own Tony Blackburn.
Former kmfm DJ Johnny Lewis, who is still a Radio Caroline jock, recalled: "Forty years ago only seems like yesterday. What a night that was!
"I was on land but I knew they had problems on the ship. I was with others ready to try to get out to the ship from Ramsgate but the weather was just too bad.
"Once we knew the crew had been taken off by the Sheerness lifeboat we headed to Sheppey.
"One they were released we took them back to London.
Johnny, who lives in Sandwich, said: "It was a very sad sight on the news the next morning with pictures of just the mast above the water.
"The funny thing was that during that winter we had been more worried about the mast coming down than the anchor breaking!
"On my first trip out to the new Caroline ship Ross Revenge in early 1984, which was from Sheppey, we sailed past the mast of the Mi Amigo which I think eventually came down in late 1985. It was very sad."
His own website is www.roundsandsounds.co.uk