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Thread: Brief encounter

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    Default Brief encounter

    I’d like to share a story that I hope might be of some interest to members.
    I was a Radio Officer (sparks) from 1976 till 1982. I’m born, bred & live in Sussex but I studied at Fleetwood nautical college, Lancs.
    Employed by Marconi Marine I went to sea at the age of 18 & sailed with various companies including Sugar line, Bank line, Ben line & Fyffes.
    In the 80’s I left Marconi & sailed foreign flag with United Arab Shipping Co (uasc). It was a sign of the times unfortunately, as the UK merchant fleet was in decline.
    One trip found me on an Iraqi flag ship working the east coast of the USA. The final port before returning to the Persian gulf was Baltimore where we had a partial crew change.
    One day out of Baltimore I was halfway through my evening watch. The watch involved sending & receiving routine ships traffic, transit & weather reports etc while constantly monitoring 500khz in the medium frequency (mf) band. That being the maritime calling & distress frequency. All communication on 500khz was in morse code and the range was anything from 300 to 1200 miles depending on atmospheric conditions.
    Amongst all the other routine traffic I heard a Greek ship (you can tell by the call sign) requesting QSP GKA. This won’t mean anything to most, but Q codes were used to expedite and shorten communication. QSP was a request for any station to relay radio traffic (GKA was the call sign of Portishead radio, the UK’s long range shore station). So effectively, they were requesting assistance to send traffic to the UK. This was a common occurrence. If you had a problem with your high frequency (hf) long range transmitter you could use your short range (mf) transmitter to seek help. There was no obligation to assist but it was considered a professional courtesy to help a fellow RO. It seemed that most of these requests came from foreign flag vessels (particularly Greeks) who had a bad reputation for running on a shoe string and using outdated unreliable equipment. On this occasion it seemed he wasn’t getting any takers.
    At this point I was joined in the radio room by the new electrician. He introduced himself as Joe Pearson. Joe was from Liverpool & wanted to send a SLT (ship letter telegram) to his wife advising of his safe arrival onboard. We chatted for quite a while. All the time I have one ear on 500khz, nothing out of the ordinary was happening, several ships were calling various American coast stations with routine traffic & of course our Greek friend was still asking for a hand.
    I told Joe that I was from Lancing a small town in West Sussex.
    Joe said that a couple of years back he had sailed with another RO from Lancing, one John Head. I didn’t know the name but it was quite a coincidence none the less. Or perhaps Joe just got the name of the town wrong? After all Lancing isn’t a particularly notable town.
    After Joe left the radio room I got on with the business of sending the SLT. Given that I was about contact the UK, I responded to the Greek & offered to relay his traffic. Upon completion I called him back to QSL (acknowledge receipt of his traffic by Portishead/GKA) this was standard procedure.
    He was very grateful & explained that he was a British RO on a Greek ship (this is all in morse). I told him I was a British RO on an Iraqi ship & my name was David Langley.
    He replied & told me his name was John Head.
    Now, perhaps you saw that coming & I suspect that most people probably won’t appreciate the enormity of the coincidence. After all, I had a very impressive array of radio equipment and communication was my primary role. But it simply doesn’t work that way.
    Back then we still relied on the ionosphere to bounce signals around the planet. Digital, global communication was unheard of. Morse was the preferred means of communication at sea and that lasted into the mid 90’s.
    We moved to an RT (radio telephone) frequency and John was as gob smacked as me when I explained the evenings events.
    I called Joe back up to the radio room & let him have a chat with John.
    Again, Joe didn’t really get that it was a big deal. No doubt he thought that I could just make a call (as one might do today) & speak to anyone anywhere (that’s why I rarely tell the story). But the reality was very different. Had this chance contact happened at any point in the future it would have been an amazing coincidence. Had it occurred 30 minutes earlier, the name John Head would have meant nothing to me.
    If the National lottery existed in the 80’s I would have bought a ticket, because the odds of winning the jackpot would have been comparable to this occurrence.
    John & I swapped addresses and intended to meet for a drink but it never happened. Our leave patterns never seemed to coincide. We kept in touch with the occasional post card (how ironic for 2 R.O’s to rely on a stamp) but never spoke again. Eventually we lost touch.
    Roll forward almost 40 years and just this week I decided to test the power of social media and posted via Facebook to a Lancing history site requesting info about John Head who lived In Lancing in the 80’s and was a MN R.O.
    I only had one response from someone who had known John. He advised that unfortunately John had died in a road accident back in the 80’s.
    So, no happy ending I’m afraid. Despite a spookily implausible brief encounter in the North Atlantic, we only spoke once & sadly never met.
    Ships that pass in the night, one might say.
    Last edited by David Langley; 17th March 2019 at 05:02 PM.

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    Default Re: Brief encounter

    I am originally from Lewes.

    Not sure if you've been or indeed if it is still there but the Amberly chalk pits museum always had an impressive radio exhibit.

    SDG

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    Default Re: Brief encounter

    I didn’t know that & I’ve never been, although it’s on my doorstep. I’ll make some enquires.
    Thank you.

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    Default Re: Brief encounter

    Fascinating story. Thanks for relating it David.

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    Default Re: Brief encounter

    Hi David.
    What a fascinating tale, one which would make a good talk. There are so many great stories that could and have been told around our sea-time, thanks for posting it. I was going to go for a wireless operators ticket in North Wales but always sailed before a vacancy came up.
    Cheers Des

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    Default Re: Brief encounter

    I thought when the names Langley and Head were mentioned on the MF, some eavesdropper was going to come out with a secret confidences in code with the head of the US special operations and the ship . Good job the press didn’t get a hold of , or would of been a conspiracy. Very interesting story. Cheers jS
    Talking about guarded messages ...it was the intention of one company I was with to exchange the Chinese crew for Indians on arrival Japan. It was still in the realms of uncertainty and to send a message to the ship via radio was a bit like causing a lot of trouble as the wireless operator was chinese.so arrangements were made that if the crew change was on , a brief message of “ your life rafts will be changed in Japan”. Don’t think the Chinese were that stupid though as they still sat down in Japan and refused to leave the ship until properly reimbursed. JS
    Last edited by j.sabourn; 18th March 2019 at 12:50 AM.

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    Default Re: Brief encounter

    When we signed on ships they were two year articles and most of us hoped and prayed that it wouldn’t come to that. With a chinese crew they expected to be on the ship 2 years and adjusted their lifestyle to that ritual. This happened twice to me one after the other in two totally different company’s and to make matters worse it was the same chinese Bosun and third mate in both similar cases , they seemed to follow me around , would have thought they would have kept well clear after loosing their jobs the first time to Indians , the second time was to philipinos. As said in a previous post there is no feeling on a shipowners behalf, he hires and fires on business views, here today gone tomorrow. JS
    Last edited by j.sabourn; 18th March 2019 at 05:47 AM.

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    Default Re: Brief encounter

    #7... memory wrong on that one just realised , was same 3 mate in both cases, he had his brother as Bosun in the second instance, but whether his brother was there as a crew member in the first national crew change canít remember. In the second crew change we never had a 2 mate the whole time I was there for about 11 months. JS.
    Last edited by j.sabourn; 18th March 2019 at 07:45 AM.

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    Default Re: Brief encounter

    It was suggested I write a book about my time in the ambulance service. Trouble is most people wouldn't believe the stories I had so never bothered.

    I think I posted it before but as a kid I was a keen shortwave listener, I stumbled across Portishead radio and called them for a propagation report. I don't know his name but some kind operator there faxed me one every week for as long as I can remember.

    SDG
    Last edited by Shaun Gander; 18th March 2019 at 02:55 PM.

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    Default Re: Brief encounter

    Shaun, there are so many stories of those in the emergency services that rea never told.
    In a similar manner to those of us here, we all saw things that so many would never believe.
    Very often people do not want to believe or understand as they consider such stories as not being the full quid.
    But as those who have been there know the truth.
    Happy daze John in Oz.

    Life is too short to blend in.

    John Strange R737787
    World Traveller

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