Roy Sheeran's Memoirs
Roy Sheeran worked aboard the mv Galaxy as an electrical engineer soon after the ship's arrival off the Essex coast, late in 1964.
Roy (pictured right at the Felixstowe offshore radio exhibition, 2014) has very kindly shared his memoirs and photos with us.
(Some of the photos have appeared already on the Pirate Radio hall of Fame, courtesy of John Lait.)
I was working for Christy Electrical when I was asked by our Manager if I would like to go and work on Radio London, the pirate station, to help resolve electrical problems on the ex-American Minesweeper. After WWII, the ship had been sold to Greeks who took off the pieces they wanted, then sold it on to Radio London. The ship had arrived at its anchorage three miles off Frinton-on-Sea in December 1964.
I thought about going to work on the Galaxy and when the Manager told me it was good pay, 20 hours per day, 12 hours of overtime and on Sundays, 20 hours plus another 20 for overtime, it worked out well into over 100 hours a week. "Yes Sir, can I start tomorrow!" I said. I was 26 years old, and was assisted by a 19-year-old apprentice, John Lait.
The next day we both loaded things we might need and jumped on the tug from Ipswich Dock slip and left to sail round the WWII fort outside of the three-mile area, to where the Radio London ship was anchored.
Once we boarded, we found other tradesmen on the ship carrying out carpentry down below to make partitions and double-height bunk beds. There were Haitians who kept the ship floating, an American who organised the running, and Swedes who helped look after the technical side of running the transmissions.
The crew was required to keep everything on the Galaxy running smoothly, from preparation of food to the usual ship-board ancillary services. It consisted of the Captain, engine officer, cook, steward, greasers and deck hands. The Galaxy had been sailed across the Atlantic by an American and Haitian crew, but they returned home soon after the ship's arrival and the Dutch crews took over.
(Right) mv Galaxy. Photo: EADT
In the beginning, Radio London was serviced from Ipswich Dock by tug, and all the supplies came from Ipswich. The station was then served by a converted Dutch fishing kotter, sailing under the flag of that nation and with a Dutch crew. Every three weeks, it made the passage to Holland and as well as transporting crews on leave and back, she collected various provisions, including duty-free beer and cigarettes. The tender was originally based in Harwich, but later moved to the Port of Felixstowe.
The bunk beds were not very safe and I was on one of the top ones. Underneath mine was a Haitian who kept playing with a slide rule. I said to him, "What are you playing with that for, because it has not got a cursor, so you cannot calculate anything on it?"
"Well look," he said, "I can work out 5x3 equals 15!" I told him he could work this out in his head. From then on I called him 'Cursor,' then the name stuck and everyone called him that for all the time he was on the ship.
Cursor needed his name, as the Captain asked him to balance the ship because she was leaning and had to be corrected by pumping water from one tank to another. What Cursor did was pump seawater into the fresh water, which meant none of the crew could use anything for drinking or making meals. Our supply boats brought out bottles of water from Harwich for immediate use, and the Dutch delivered a large water tank. When they arrived they pumped the fresh water tank which had been cleaned on the ship. Cursor had to go back home.
In the early stages of setting up the transmitter we discovered that it lit 8ft fluorescent tubes that were not connected to any cables or controls. You just had to put one hand on the lamp and then by sliding your other hand up and down the lamps, they lit up! (It did not cause any danger.) We found when we lit up these lamps, that the lights could be seen from ashore and some people flashed their car head lights at the ship.
Roy, holding one fluorescent tube, with another tube held by a Dutch Engineer, to make a cross.
John Lait holding two fluorescent tubes.
The transmitter was fitted on the aft deck, which was also where we came on and off the Galaxy. After a few months, the existing anchor was changed for what they call a mushroom anchor. It can never be retrieved because it screws into the sea bed. The original anchor did break after we had dropped the new one, and before the anchors changed over. As soon as we had a list on board, we were asked to block the old chain, because the crew moaned about the rattle that made such a noise down the tube that they couldn't go to sleep.
Our first electrical job was to take apart a large duct fan which was very important as the ventilation was required to take away heat and fumes from the large engine room, one deck down. The fan had to be sent to Colchester to be rewound. When it was returned to be reinstalled and connected, it proved a problem to get down into the engine room due to suction taking the air out of the engine room, which it should do.
Lots of circuits were not working and none were marked in the distribution boards. Also, to find some boards, we had to trace the cables and ascertain what they were for. John and I were looking up most of the time to see what cable tray had cables on them and what went where. At one time I turned round to speak to John, he had disappeared, then a voice said, "I'm down here". Because he was not looking, John had disappeared through a trapdoor that had been left open and he fell down to the next deck! Although I did laugh, he sustained a couple of bruises. Otherwise, he was OK, but we learnt to be more careful.
As we really didn't have enough room in our sleeping area for the two of us, I asked the Captain if we could take out all the unused equipment in the Wireless room on the Main Deck and make it into our own cabin. "Yes," he said, "Do what you want." So we stripped out everything that wasn't required, dumped it in the sea, and built our new quarters as we wanted. We had a porthole and could see everything that went on at sea level, and we made a safe where we could keep our beers and cigarettes.
In a force nine gale, it was a problem getting into some parts of the ship if work had to be carried out. For example, several times we were required to go to the main engine room, which had to be kept running constantly. In the middle of one night, Roy, who was a 2nd Engineer, woke me to go to the engine room. Still wearing pyjamas, I went to repair the oil burner, used for providing hot water. It was always breaking down, as it was very old and there were no spare parts. The main problem was the probes that made the arc to light the flame, in order to heat the water. These probes were old and needed adjusting several times. It was easier to take them out of the boiler, shut down the fuel and switch on the probes, adjust the arc, then put it back.
On this occasion, I was holding the probes with a piece of rag to see if the arc was right, but the rag I'd used was wet with fuel. It gave me quite an electric shock that made me jump about a bit! Roy, the 2nd Engineer, went running off - because he didn't not want to die, he said - but the burner did work OK again!
(Left) Part of the switchboard in the main engine room
Something I had never done before was to parallel two generators because if one diesel engine broke down, the spare diesel generator had to be connected to make the ship's electricity supply adequate. I did find a book which explained how to parallel, and after a few tries, it worked. Another problem occurred soon after and the 1st Officer, Walter, dealt with the other engine. He repaired the diesel generator for use exclusively for the transmitter, and was mounted on the bridge outside. It was not covered, and there was a storm with a high wind and rain was running off the wheel house and being sucked into the generator, which did not last long. Everything in it was burnt out. To keep the transmitter in use, I had to go down into the bilge, wearing rubber boots which filled up with oily water. Under the main switch panel, existing cables had to be disconnected. Then I had to reconnect the transmitter supply to another ship generator, meaning that some other services had to be cut off. The generator then had to be dismantled and sent to Colchester to be rewound, returned and reconnected ASAP.
At this stage the London Company thought that soon our electrical engineers would have to be replaced by non-UK labour and supplies from the UK would cease. Our then-Postmaster General, Mr Wedgwood Benn, claimed that due to frequencies being blocked by the floating broadcasters, they would have to be banned. If this happened, existing British workers on the Galaxy would have to be replaced by Dutch engineers. The supply boat would have travel to and from Holland, because access from Harwich was going to be outlawed. Luckily, the electrical labour-force said they would remain on board until the law told them, "That's it!" and the Bill to outlaw the marine broadcasters was a long time coming. It was to be a slow changeover, so we carried on until they asked us to leave.
One Sunday afternoon I was going round the ship checking the electrical equipment while the Dutch engineers were having an afternoon nap. When I reached the aft engine room I saw that it was becoming flooded, nearly up to the generator, so I rushed to wake up the mechanical engineers. When they got there, one seacock was found have been left open by someone carrying out maintenance. Just in time, the valve was closed and then the flood water could be pumped out quickly.
(Right) The completion of the other switchboard
Initially, the station broadcast from 6.00am till 9.00pm to allow for testing and to gauge reception reach. After a few weeks, transmissions switched to 24 hours.
When we had embarked on the Galaxy, two Marconi steeplejacks had been there, fitting safety cables to the aerial. They carried out the work and left the next day. Some days later, the navigation light on the top of the 165ft aerial failed, and the Captain asked could I please climb the aerial to replace the lamp, which was a safety feature. I said I could only climb the aerial after 9.00pm when the transmitter was shut down. I thought it would be safe if I used a safety belt and had a floodlight pointing up the aerial, so I could place my feet on the bolts screwed into the circular aerial for climbing.
The night was dark, but it was a clear sky and when I reached the cross bar, I was watching a really bright star that one time was over to starboard then over to port. The sea was calm, so that was not much of a problem. I had hung a small bag round my shoulder which contained a few tools and a couple of lamps. However, I caught the strap round one of the foot bolts and in trying to free it, the strap caught my wrist watch and it fell. I heard a splash and that was 'farewell watch'.
Near the top of the mast, there was nothing but a 10-foot piece of water pipe, with no foot clamps. I was supposed to shin up to reach the lamp. That was so dangerous that I called down and said that I could not do it, so the Captain told me to come down. (In the photo of the Galaxy above, you can see the mast transmitter and where the highest of the guide cables were fixed, the clamp that holds the top cables, above the spar, is where I had to stop.)
A Dutch deckhand called Peta asked me, "Why didn't you do it Roy?" He reckoned he would do it the next night, so he went to tell the Captain. During the following day, he was getting nervous, but he was not going to say no. Only beer was allowed on on the Galaxy, but one of Peta's deckhand friends had brought him a bottle of gin on the supply boat on the quiet. By the time he had to climb the aerial, he was in another world!
I told Peta he should not go up in that state, but he did, changed the lamp, then came back down as far as the spar and sat on there singing! The other deckhands and the Captain kept calling him to come down. Eventually he did, they realised he was drunk, and he stayed in bed for the next day. When Peta was back to normal, I told him, "You will have to go up the aerial again, because you have left off the retaining ring on the red glass." He replied that he was not going up there again.