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I remember my dad calling home when the ship was close to Britain. I hated those calls as a kid - hated telephones.
"Hi Dad. Over."
"Hi Jackie. Over."
"Here's Mum. Over."

I've been wondering lately (because of a children's novel I'm writing) how those calls worked. How they were made possible. And if they were private or not private - would people speak freely or not, in case someone else was listening?

And how close to the coast did you have to be - or did you have to be close to Portishead? or what?

I remember I was at sea one time and Dad was talking to someone French ashore. It was on the bridge using a hand mike with a button, and it involved saying "over" when you were done speaking. I remember because I was asked to show off my school girl french - and I think I was too shy in the end. So -- Is that where ship to shore calls were made - on the bridge of the ship?

Thanks so much for any help in filling out this detail that's blurry in my memory - if I ever even knew!
 

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Hi Jackie.

Welcome to the show, by the way. The questions you raise are interesting, in retrospect. See if any of the following helps.

The bridge R/T you mention was probably either a short range (VHF) set, or a medium range (around a few hundred miles) R/T. The former was used by bridge officers for ship's purposes, in harbour, calling for tugs, etc., but could also be used easily when within range of one of the coast stations scattered about the coasts of Britain and Europe, for good quality 'link' calls, or phone calls, to you and me. You called on Ch 16 (the distress and calling frequency which was constantly monitored) and then were transferred to another, dedicated channel for working into that particular station. If they were busy, you were given a turn number and had to wait, obviously monitoring the channel for them to call you back. Once onto the subscriber ashore, it wasn't necessary to say "Over", as these channels were send/receive simultaneously, or duplex, same as if you were ashore using the normal landlines. In my experience, they were very good quality setups indeed. That VHF set came into its own many times in my time at sea. It was used around the U.S. coast a lot in the same way as around Britain. I even used it on an almost daily basis when at a grain berth outside the city of Seattle, Washington, many times for people who couldn't get ashore and needed to say "HI!" to their loved ones. Such a lovely and easy to use setup, that.

As for the Portisheadradio bit, well that was a bit more complicated. It allowed you to make R/T calls from just about anywhere in the world, if the radio gear on the ship was adequate (some weren't fitted with H/F R/T, only medium range and morse, but that was in the earlier days before much more modern equipment became the norm.) In the early days, when I first went to sea in 1969, and for one or two years afterwards, if you were using this service, you had to book the call ahead of time via the R/O, or radio officer, who would then send details of the ship's position, callsign, etc. to the long range station at Portishead via a service message in morse. At the appropriate time, with the prospective caller sitting in the radio room waiting, (and the subscriber sitting at home, having been advised beforehand that the ship would be calling at a set time), the link with the Post Office Centre at Baldock, in Hertfordshire would be made via Portishead, and the circuit set up for the forthcoming call to be made. They had directional transmitting and receiving aerials at Portishead, which could be turned in your direction for best results.

It worked well, if sometimes a little difficult technically. It could be either duplex (two way, interruptible) or simplex (one person only, able to speak at a time, using your favourite "Over" and releasing the button on the telephone handset in order to hear the response and stop the transmission).

Sounds a bit complicated? Nah, it was nothing to us heroes in the radio room. Scary, the first time you had to set it up, if you were just out of radio school, where you had no experience in these sorts of things. As for privacy, well I didn't know of any back then, so you were always aware that anyone could be listening and probably were, so if you had anything really sensitive to talk about you probably either waited until you could get to a landline or just simply put up with it. I for one, always found other peoples' phone calls incredibly boring after a while, and would imagine that to be the case with possible eavesdroppers. Most calls were inevitably about the usual family things, or even more boring: ship's business. The R/O wasn't allowed by law to mention anything either heard or sent, whether on the R/T or even a morse telegram.

I believe there were sometimes 'scrambler' facilities available, but I never saw or encountered that capability. So you were perfectly able to overhear anyone's conversations at any time, just by tuning in to the appropriate frequencies, which were often quite busy back in the day.

The shorter, or medium range R/T facilities were much simpler to use. You just called the coast station on either the distress and calling frequency (2182 kHz), or, if working into a British coast station, (and you were a British ship) the dedicated British ship-to-shore frequency of 2381 kHz and listen out for the coast station to give you a turn, or transfer you directly to the working channels if they weren't busy. The setup worked well enough, even if the quality wasn't always so good, what with interference and static and so on, and the service was often very busy, depending on the times of day or night, so it certainly wasn't always the case that you could just front up to the radio room and hope to get a line ashore straight away.

When the newer and more complex equipment came onto the market by the later '70's, some of the above got easier, and the long-range Portishead-via-Baldock thing was done away with, the operator at Portishead simply connecting to the landline there and then. The equipment was easier to use, more powerful and hence longer range capability, with usually somewhat better quality in the calls themselves due to the more powerful gear and differences in technical capabilities which came with that.

Hope all that was interesting. And also, all the best with your writing project. I'm doing a book myself, though not about the sea as such, though some of that will go in somewhere. How could it not!?

Best regards, Paul
 

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Discussion Starter #3
Ship to shore 1962 - had to wait to get close...?

Hi Jackie.

...
The shorter, or medium range R/T facilities were much simpler to use. You just called the coast station on either the distress and calling frequency (2182 kHz), or, if working into a British coast station, (and you were a British ship) the dedicated British ship-to-shore frequency of 2381 kHz and listen out for the coast station to give you a turn, or transfer you directly to the working channels if they weren't busy. The setup worked well enough, even if the quality wasn't always so good, what with interference and static and so on, and the service was often very busy, depending on the times of day or night, so it certainly wasn't always the case that you could just front up to the radio room and hope to get a line ashore straight away.


I'm doing a book myself, though not about the sea as such, though some of that will go in somewhere. How could it not!?

Best regards, Paul

Hi Paul and thanks for those details- all very interesting! I didn't know about the radio officer's role in it!

For the purposes of my plot - I want the captain not to to be able to call home until he got close enough to the coast. Maybe in 1962 the radio gear wasn't powerful enough to reach Portishead from far out? Can you say anything about that?

It's a kids book but I want the framework to be accurate where possible so I appreciate your help.


I don't know if there was another way for people on ship at sea to communicate with families? I mean we did get telegrams now and again. The ship in my story is returning from Murmansk, so then I wonder: there, in 1962, maybe it wasn't so easy to send a telegram home?

I can let that slide in the book, but it would be nice to know.

So Dad would have been in the radio room with Sparky - makes sense. For the purposes of the story - yes the conversation might have been a bit sensitive and so not fully divulged :) Interesting to think of it from your point of view!

Good luck with your book - if you want to PM me about it I'd be curious to know what your project is!

Jackie
 

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Hello Jackie, maybe the transmission could have been blocked out by the Northern Lights mucking up the ionosphere!

Just adding to what Paul said, there were also radio stations all along the Norwegian coast that could be used, although it was preferable to use a UK coast station if you were calling the UK due to cost. All the coast stations had call signs consisting of three letters beginning with the initial letter designated for a particular country, e.g. G for UK. Murmansk had a coast station, can't remember its call sign but all Russian stations began with U. The Norwegian stations began with L. A lot of the Norwegian stations had female operators - rare at that time in other countries.

John T
 

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And back to you, Jackie.

In '62, so far as I'm aware, the same, or a similar situation would've been in place. Telegrams were routinely sent to and from ships in those days, and the practice continued for a long time afterwards, until telex and other technologies took over later on, perhaps by the end of the eighties, though I'm not sure about that, as I was out of the sea business by '82, when telegrams were still very much in use.

There was a facility, called a 'ship letter telegram', or SLT, which was much cheaper. It was still sent as a morse message via a coast station in the UK, but from there, it was sent to the recipient by post, (1st class mail, if I remember it rightly), cutting down the charges by quite a bit, and was thus fairly popular when speed wasn't of the essence. You could get a lot more words into your message for your money.

Perhaps, in your story, the ship in question might not have had the long-range R/T option, only the medium and short range I referred to in my first message to you. If it was a small vessel, it probably might only have had the 2MHz, or 2182 facility, as well as a bridge VHF set for 'line of sight' use when right on the coast.

As to your reference to power: it wasn't so much the power of a transmitter which was important, more the frequency band capability built into the main transmitter onboard. Some smaller ships, trawlers and coasters, didn't have the longer range afforded by what was known as HF, or High Frequency bands, in the MHz range (for ships: 4, 6, 8, 12, 16 and 22 MHz) for working at longer and longer ranges according to atmospheric conditions and distance from the station called.

(MHz is Megahertz), that is, for example: 12.589 MHz - a typical 'working frequency' in the 12 MHz band - would be smack in the middle of the higher range bands, or shortwave, if you like. It would equate to 12,589,000 Hz, or cycles per second, which is quite a lot if you think about these things!

Good luck with your work, I'll get round to PM'ing you when I get a few moments free from.... er... writing!

Paul
 

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I'm guessing the ship would have been a 15,000 grt iron ore carrier heading for Middlesbrough. Taxis waiting at Eston Jetty to take the lads down "over the border" to the Captain Cook or the Robin Hood or maybe just a quick jog to the Junction in South Bank for those who couldn't wait. Haw haw, But hey ... I don't want to write your story for you, Jackie!

Just kidding. John T
 

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Hello Jackie

I was at a UK Coast Radio station late 60's onwards, and seagoing before, so if you would like any more background I would be pleased to help. Have a look at this site http://www.coastalradio.org.uk/ukstations/humber/humber.html There is a brief history if you click on the link at the end.

It was early days for VHF in the early 60's so may not have been widely available. An MF call through a non-UK coast station would involve a complicated and expensive landline call from the foreign station, so may not have been a first option. He would have to wait till within range of a UK station.

David

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Discussion Starter #8
Coast radio station - thanks!

Hello Jackie

I was at a UK Coast Radio station late 60's onwards, and seagoing before, so if you would like any more background I would be pleased to help. Have a look at this site http://www.coastalradio.org.uk/ukstations/humber/humber.html There is a brief history if you click on the link at the end.

It was early days for VHF in the early 60's so may not have been widely available. An MF call through a non-UK coast station would involve a complicated and expensive landline call from the foreign station, so may not have been a first option. He would have to wait till within range of a UK station.

David

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Thanks, David, for the link and the history and the info you provided! I love looking at all the old radio stuff. As a kid if I was ever bored at sea, I could always find Sparky upstairs from my cabin, his cabin being near the radio room - and pester him! Happy memories of being aboard from toddler days in the fifties to teenage years in late sixties!

I have zero technical knowledge - but my dad loved building radios so I was around valves and stuff quite a bit, and love seeing the photos.

I think my dad would have been happier as a radio officer, in a lot of ways, than as a captain. Anything electronic, he was all over it! He was building PC computers for friends well into his nineties!

Jackie
 

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Discussion Starter #9
Telegram

Hm.... So short telegram, followed by phone call maybe... Thanks for this useful bit of info, Paul
And back to you, Jackie.

In '62, so far as I'm aware, the same, or a similar situation would've been in place. Telegrams were routinely sent to and from ships in those days, and the practice continued for a long time afterwards, until telex and other technologies took over later on, perhaps by the end of the eighties, though I'm not sure about that, as I was out of the sea business by '82, when telegrams were still very much in use.

There was a facility, called a 'ship letter telegram', or SLT, which was much cheaper. It was still sent as a morse message via a coast station in the UK, but from there, it was sent to the recipient by post, (1st class mail, if I remember it rightly), cutting down the charges by quite a bit, and was thus fairly popular when speed wasn't of the essence. You could get a lot more words into your message for your money.

Perhaps, in your story, the ship in question might not have had the long-range R/T option, only the medium and short range I referred to in my first message to you. If it was a small vessel, it probably might only have had the 2MHz, or 2182 facility, as well as a bridge VHF set for 'line of sight' use when right on the coast.

As to your reference to power: it wasn't so much the power of a transmitter which was important, more the frequency band capability built into the main transmitter onboard. Some smaller ships, trawlers and coasters, didn't have the longer range afforded by what was known as HF, or High Frequency bands, in the MHz range (for ships: 4, 6, 8, 12, 16 and 22 MHz) for working at longer and longer ranges according to atmospheric conditions and distance from the station called.

(MHz is Megahertz), that is, for example: 12.589 MHz - a typical 'working frequency' in the 12 MHz band - would be smack in the middle of the higher range bands, or shortwave, if you like. It would equate to 12,589,000 Hz, or cycles per second, which is quite a lot if you think about these things!

Good luck with your work, I'll get round to PM'ing you when I get a few moments free from.... er... writing!

Paul
 

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Welcome to SN Jackie and good luck with your novel.
It might be worth noting that circa 1960 on Radio Officer manned UK general cargo ships IF (Intermediate Frequency) radiotelephone was not exactly commonplace and more the prerogative of coastal and fishing vessels as theHF (short wave) RT service you mention above mainly used by passenger vessels.
 

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A good estimate of medium wave (MW or 2 MHz) range would be about 170 km daylight and about 300 km at night. VHF which nominally had a range of up to 50 km (day and night) was just coming into use in USA where I'm from in the middle 1960s. Also during that period was the conversion from the double sideband full carrier (A3G) transmissions and receptions on 2 MHz to Upper Single Side Band suppressed carrier (A3J) which remains in use but which because the carrier had for all intents removed required extremely careful tuning of receiver frequency to avoid sounding like "Donald Duck". Small ships sailing without radio officers were fixed frequency controlled but often there was a small adjustment available for reception called a 'clarifier' for perfecting the tone of the received signal, The older A3H transmissions did not require this exact frequency tolerance because it was transmitted with a full carrier enabling perfect demodulation of the signal.
 

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With an AEI T10A main MF transmitter, the RT was only 60 watts. So with all the static and interference about then, you would have to wait till much closer to the UK coast to get a good connection. Also don't forget it is a radio link to which anyone could have been listening, especially the ship next in turn. Calls were by no means secure.

David

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I remember my dad calling home when the ship was close to Britain. I hated those calls as a kid - hated telephones.
"Hi Dad. Over."
"Hi Jackie. Over."
"Here's Mum. Over."

I've been wondering lately (because of a children's novel I'm writing) how those calls worked. How they were made possible. And if they were private or not private - would people speak freely or not, in case someone else was listening?

And how close to the coast did you have to be - or did you have to be close to Portishead? or what?

I remember I was at sea one time and Dad was talking to someone French ashore. It was on the bridge using a hand mike with a button, and it involved saying "over" when you were done speaking. I remember because I was asked to show off my school girl french - and I think I was too shy in the end. So -- Is that where ship to shore calls were made - on the bridge of the ship?

Thanks so much for any help in filling out this detail that's blurry in my memory - if I ever even knew!
One trip in seventies, Christmas eve, decided to book phone call home to mum and dad, sparky said we are third in the queue.....behind HMS Ark Royal and QE2 so could be some time!
Finally got call from radio room so spoke to mother who had picked phone up but could not get on with the simplex system of "over".
A few words with dad and that was it until sitcom came in! And that was expensive.
Dannic
 

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I was never called "Sparky" as R/O (1965-1971).
It was always "SPARKS".

In 1967 I made a radiotelephone call from the Pacific Ocean north of Australia bound for Japan.
It was to my twin brother's wedding reception in UK.

I doubted that I would be able to get the call direct via Portishead/Baldock so I booked it via Sydney Radio VIS at enormous cost for the undersea cable link.
The call suffered terribly from interference (QRM) from - you've guessed it- Portishead on the same frequency!!

Luckily the R/O at Sydney knew I was the R/O on board and as was customary only charged me the minimum 3 minutes for the 10 minute call.

Incidentally some passenger ships and a few coast stations (eg Landsend Radio GLD) were fitted with privacy equipment on 2MHz. Not exactly scrambled but it certainly made the calls incomprehensible to the casual listener.
 

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I had a sign up in the Radio Room which said "The only person in the world who isn't listening to your phone call is the bloke sitting next to you reading a book !"
 
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