The night the Maroons went up …
And my first thought was ‘Grace Darling’! Her image and dramatic rescues at sea clouded my thinking. I looked out our bay window, which overlooked the Harbour, I couldn’t see much – it was pouring down and all I could make out was the eerie glow of the maroons.
What in the hell was happening? Who or what was in peril on a dreadful night like this? I turned on the radio – nothing, only static. Now, I was worried. Where was 270? Why was it off air? I searched the dial and found the BBC but as usual it was broadcasting from London, not much use to us in Scarborough.
I put on every warm and waterproof article of clothing I could, grabbed the keys and ran downstairs to Myrtle, our 1960 Prefect. She had two temperatures, boiling and freezing, so we’d lined her with good old Australian sheepskins to survive a Northern winter. The old dear responded at once and down we weaved in the foul weather. I saw men battling to stand in the cyclonic wind, Neville our technician among them, so I staggered over to ask him why 270 was off air. Was that why the maroons went up?
Neville looked grim, and I was beginning to lose it, after all my dear husband Noel was out there on that bloody boat, alright, ship if you must. Were they sinking? All he knew was that there had been an SOS from an oil rig, Sea Quest. God, if something that big was in trouble what about us? He looked out at the heaving North Sea, “This bludy storm is probably a Force 9”, he shouted, “and that’s not good.”
“Christ almighty,” I yelled, “Isn’t there some way we can find out what’s happened to 270?” He shook his head.
It was the worst night of my young life. Twenty-four and I might be a widow! I had to find Wilf; he’d know or get something done, after all he was an MP as well as our managing director. I battled out to Scalby where he and Mrs. Proudfoot lived to find he already knew about the maroons but hadn’t thought to turn on the radio. I was trying to be calm but failing. Wilf made lots of calls while Mrs. P. gave me a brandy. They made up for some of their Yorkshire gruffness that night, insisting I stay and putting me to bed after another medicinal brandy.
I woke to a quiet, grey, murky morning. I raced downstairs to find the family at breakfast but subdued. Still no word – no one knew where the hell 270 was. It stayed that way for two more agonizing days. It sounds ridiculous in this satellite age, but no one knew whether she was afloat or on the bottom of the North Sea.
On the third day, the phone rang; the boys, the boat, they’d finally landed but everyone was in hospital, recovering from dreadful sea sickness. They arrived home at the end of the week bedraggled, pale and quiet, even the motley crew. Three of the DJs would not go back. Noel was okay, not quiet though, he was after the captain’s blood.
You see, while Bill Pashby, our Maritime Director was away Wilf hired this captain. Thing was, he was an oil-tanker man, and what did oil tankers do in storms? They ride it out, they are unsinkable. He forgot he was captaining a Honduran-registered trawler whose centre of gravity was mightily affected by the 154foot antenna.
Well, that was that. It was great fun being ‘pirates’, fighting the BBC monopoly, ‘fighting for free speech’. We might have 15 million listeners, but it wasn’t worth dying for. We sold Myrtle, to a good home I might add, sent the packing cases home by sea, the way they’d come. We weren’t sailing back, no, we were flying on one of those new Boeing 707s, Qantas of course: we hadn’t forgotten who we were, and with hard-won visas for the 48, we bid a fond farewell to Old Blighty.
We won, we warriors of the antipodean airwaves. Harold Wilson won the battle and closed the ‘pirates’ but lost the war. As Prince Charles was happy to discuss with me in Canberra a decade later, in 1977, the English were free at last to tune into a range of radio stations.