Don Stevens: My First Day On Caroline

The story of our adventures in France and Belgium, the police chases and our arrest and confinement in Boulogne Castle have appeared elsewhere over the years, but, I will write a definitive article here for the book in the near future. Clearly, we still could not get to Radio Caroline, and, with Tony Allan furious still at Simon Barrett, we came to a crossroad. Tony did not want to work with Simon and decided to leave Belgium for Amsterdam, inviting me to go with him. Seeing my surprise, Tony said perhaps I was right, you better get out anyway you can, here’s the money, less travel expenses, do what you two can.
My aim was to get out to the ship any way we could, so I told Simon we go back to Boulogne, and try again from there, he clearly was not keen, but we had to get out, the lads on the ship had been out there for over 11 weeks.
We arrived back in Boulogne by bus, they are usually full, the trains are virtually empty and we would have been spotted by the police straight away, on a bus, we get into the town centre without being spotted. From the bus station, we sneaked back to Alain’s cafe, he jumped out of skin when he saw us. Alain quickly hustled us in to the back, and told us we should not be in France, he had already had a hard time by the Police. Finally, after much debate, he agreed to get the boat to sail in the morning, we had to stay hidden in the cafe. All was fixed for the morning. As it was late afternoon, Alain showed us his ‘passion room’ upstairs, and Simon and I went to sleep on the huge King Size bed.

I was roughly shaken, the room was dark, Alain was shaking me, and whispering for me to get up and come downstairs, no lights. I got up, shook Simon, and grabbed our bags of records and shuffled downstairs, almost falling down the stairs. In the cafe, Alain had placed some rolls and coffee and exhorted us to eat up quickly, the car will be here soon. I noticed it was 3am on the clock. I wolfed down rolls sipping coffee between bites, I knew that being at sea on an empty stomach is a bad idea, fill up, and avoid being seasick. Simon finally came down, but did not eat as much as me, the car had arrived.
Out we crept, put everything in the car, and off to the harbour, well, to the very end of the harbour to a small group of fishing boats, this was the stop point. Out we bundled, to the edge of the quay, and I found myself staring at what was virtually an inshore launch. The skipper raised his arms up for the bags, I passed them down, warning of their weight, he nearly fell into the water when he got purchase on the handle. We came down the quay wall ladder, and on to the boat. No sooner were we aboard than the skipper fired up the diesel and pulled away, he’d unhitched the boat while we were boarding.

All was dark in front, behind us, Boulogne was aglow with lights on the streets and the ships. The skipper lowered his aerials and masts to avoid detection by radar, and he opened up the motor to about 25 knots. It was very cold, this was February, the last week of the month, and we were lucky that it had been a wet month so, it was warmer than it might have been normally. We hugged the French coast and then Belgian coast and then, at about a position just north east of Dunkirk the skipper turned north and begun our journey to the Thames Estuary, and asking us if we knew the location of the ship. I thought he had been there before, but, he had not, he was a smuggler who usually ran illegal immigrants for Alain to England, this was a whole new ball game for him.
Simon had a radio in his bag, so, I asked him if we could use it to ‘find’ the ship. Simon thought I was crackers, but the skipper liked the idea, and we put it in his little cabin and I tuned into Caroline, which was now broadcasting the first hour of Radio Mi Amigo. Turning the set physically until I reached the weakest signal we followed the direction of the radio.
The skipper was anxious about an hour later, and I soon saw why, we were very close to open expanses of sand, and the skipper decided to turn east and head for deeper water toward Belgium. We had been beside the Goodwin Sands, a grave for many a ship over the centuries, but, back in deeper water, we were being bounced all over the place.
Sunrise and we were back ‘DF’ing’ Caroline and the sun behind us, it was now about 8am, and suddenly, in the distance, we could see a small sliver of white on the horizon, reflecting the sun rise. Closer we moved, and then we could make out a mast, it was the Caroline, we were delighted, but the skipper, he was ecstatic, it seems, we were low on diesel and he was afraid we were going to get stranded at sea. He had not calculated the diversion on the Goodwin Sands or that Caroline was so far north in the Thames Estuary and he was hoping to get some fuel from the Caroline.
Closing in now on the ship, the skipper circled at a distance to make sure we were not being watched, we listened for aircraft, no sound, and the only ship was the lightship, on the horizon, so we steered for the starboard, the senior side, of the ship, putting the ship between us and the lightship. Our manouvering brought a reception committee up on the deck, it was a mild morning, the sun was bright and quite warming, and the sea had become calm. I saw a very tall man in chef’s whites, a shorter stockier man in overalls, a lean but muscular man with a sharp eye and bald with his hair cropped and a seaman. I soon learnt that the chef Joost, the second guy was ships engineers, a quite man, the sharp eyed dude was the Captain and he was hailing us now. Once he was satisfied we were from Caroline he began to unchain the entrance and indicated us to come alongside and come aboard.

Our skipper pulled in close and came up on to the wall of tyres that protected the ship and I was amazed to see how low the ship was in the water. We virtually steeped across, from our launch to the ship, and Simon went first, he was known to the Captain, it was Simon’s Afro hairstyle that convinced the Captain we were friendly. I passed the bags of albums across to Simon, one at a time, the Dutch guys grabbed them, and then I came aboard. I was finally going realise a dream I had nourished since 1964, I was going to stand on the deck of the motor vessel Mi Amigo, one of the most famous radio ships in the world, and the home to more radio stations than any other ship. I thought to be respectful, so, I extended my hand to the Captain and introduced myself, he had an amused look on his face, but, he shook my hand and welcomed me aboard, I thanked him, and he began to stare at my feet. Was I wearing jackboots, and I replied they were US Cavalry pattern boots from Canada, he remarked that I might like to tip toe round his ship, and gave me an amused look.
After explaining the skippers need for diesel to the Captain, Joost, introduced himself, the engineer had gone to get the diesel, and he turned out to be a very amiable giant of a man. His beard made him look older than he was, but I reckoned he was in his early twenties, but a very tall blonde man, he’d have made a great Thor.
The starboard side is the right hand side of the ship facing the bow. Joost took me in through the door in the white structure on the ship, and this lead into a hallway, with stairs to the immediate left, leading down below. to the right was a door leading into the dining area and studios. To the left, past the stair was the galley, which was Joost’s domain. He was so tall he had to walk around with his head facing down and the ceiling brushing the back of his head.
Simon has disappeared downstairs, he had a cabin form his previous visit, and he had gone down to wake up the DJ’s we were replacing.
Joost told me to leave my bag in the hall and go and visit the studio, one of the English guys was running the Radio Mi Amigo shows. I went in to the dining room, it was just as I had seen it in so many photographs over the years. I went to the far wall and faced the door I had just come through, and yes, it had not changed. The TV set was still on a shelf in the right corner, high up, the chairs were all as I had seen and the long table in front of me was as it had been on Radio Nord.
Suddenly the door to my right burst open, from the studios, and out bounced a guy with long curly blond hair and glasses, and introduced himself as Johnny Jason, I replied with my name, and he asked me to come in and take over the Mi Amigo operation. I entered the door which was a corridor to the large studio at the end. On my right was a studio with two turntables, a couple of NAB cart machines and two Revox A77 reel to reel tape decks, and seeing the radiator and porthole I knew that this had been the Radio Nord newsroom, the Radio Atlanta on air studio, and the first on air studio for Caroline, though it later became the newsroom.

photo Theo Dencker

Johnny explained it was the live studio for Radio Caroline and for the first hour of Radio Mi Amigo and during the day it could be used for production. He then explained the system of recording some of your programmes to be played when you left the ship, and he showed me his tapes which I was to play from that night to allow him time to re-enter Britain. Then into the large studio, which was formerly Radio Caroline South’s main studio, now, it was the Radio Mi Amigo studio, but, how different it was now. A Gates Studioette Mixer sat at the top of a ‘U’ shaped desk, with two Garrard 301 turntables with what looked like home brew arms. A Spotmaster record/play NAB cart machine sat above the mixer, and on the left was a couple of Revox A77 tape decks. The real business was the two Bang & Olufson cassette tape decks, side by side on a rack on the left hand side, with a Revox tape deck below them. These played the programmes from Radio Mi Amigo, which were recorded at their studio’s in Playa De Aro, Gerona, Spain, and were delivered by special tenders on a weekly basis. These tenders also changed the Dutch crew and brought water, fuel, food and provisions plus records, magazines and other details, but they worked for Radio Mi Amigo, Caroline did not use them.
Johnny Jason,JJ, showed me the technique for changing programmes, how we had the ‘Mi Amigo ‘Lieveling’ on the cart machine (Lieveling roughly translates to my darling or dearest and is the name used for the stations pick hit of the week, it was this that made Donna Summer famous when Mi Amigo made her ‘Hostage’ a Lieveling) and as the cassette was ending, fade down, fire off the ‘Lieveling’ cue the next hour, ‘Lieveling’ is finishing, fader up and start the next hour. Then, cue the next hour, and cue and have ready the next hour, just in case of a problem.
Our ‘Lieveling’ that week was ‘Love to Love You’ by Donna Summer, this being February 1975, Mi Amigo was always proud of the support they gave Donna Summer, and she confirms it when asked in interviews. She was a frequent visitor to Caroline and Mi Amigo offices in Holland before the Act was passed in 1974 in Nederland.
With that, JJ had to dash off to pack, then he skidded to a stop. and invited me to use his cabin while he was ashore. Fine with me so I followed Johnny through the dining room, grabbed my bag in the hall, and followed JJ down the very steep stairs. At the bottom was a corridor, turn left to the crew cabins, toilet and shower. Turn right, for more cabins and the ships record library, known as the ‘discotheque’ which was at the end of the corridor. JJ’s cabin was the last one, on the right just before the ‘discotheque, the starboard side. JJ slept up on top bunk, so, I suggested we leave it like that, I’ll bunk below. Thats DLT’s old bunk, JJ told me, and when I lay down later I noticed graffiti carved into the wooden base that DLT had been there in 1966.
JJ ran back upstairs, I threw my bag onto my bunk and followed him up. JJ remarked my boots were a trifle noisy and he said the Captain would prefer I tip toe at night, I told JJ that the Captain had already made that point. Back in the dining room I was introduced to Bill Danse, the transmitter engineer, who maintained the rigs with Peter Chicago, who was on shore leave. I struck up an immediate rapport with Bill, we worked together for a number of years on The Voice of Peace, off Israel, but, that’s another story.
The skipper had been fuelled, but he was not too happy, he thought he needed more diesel then he actually got, and JJ and another guy whom I had not met jumped aboard the launch and waved to us cheerily, keen to get back to dry land and civilization, though the Captain was amused and remarked in Dutch that the launch was heading for England, that, is another story.

Bill Danse asked me if I’d like to see the transmitters and seeing my surprise he told me we had three on the ship, all made by Continental Electronics in Texas, good rigs for ship based broadcasting. Walking up the starboard side to the bow, and heading toward the mast, a huge structure in its own right, Bill went to the last door, which was open, and I felt a blast of hot air coming out of the door. Down the ladder we went, and there it was, on the right, the 50,000 watt Continental that came aboard in 1966, I had seen photos, but to stand in front of it, feeling its heat, the buzzing, the tinkle of the audio from the programmes, the roar of the fans and the tubes, huge tubes, all illuminated, I was speechless. I had dreamt of this whole day for years, and now, here I was, aboard the mv Mi Amigo, standing on her deck, and looking at her heart and soul, her transmitter. Bill then drew my attention to two other rigs, smaller, but also made by Continental, and these were rated at 10,000 watts each. Bill pointed out they were often run up, and were used, individually, as back up. He also pointed out that he could combine them, as they had been prior to 1966. Even though it was February, Bill was in a T shirt, and I was boiling in my coat.
Bill suggested we go to the dining room as it almost lunch time, so we arrived there and I popped into the Mi Amigo studio to make sure everything was okay. Simon was in the hot seat, and suggested I make myself at home, he would Mi Amigo, and the tapes for the night, and I agreed, but pointed out that maybe I could take over after midnight.
Lunch was incredible, Joost had prepared a mixture of Dutch, Surinam and Indonesian food, which I tucked into, much to the amusement of the Dutch who were surprised to see an English DJ who did not complain about the food. Still enjoying the food, I laughed, and pointed out I was Irish, which really made my new friends laugh. I developed a close friendship over the many weeks that followed and pulled my weight as a crew member (though I was not required to, radio staff did not do ships duties) when we were hit by storms and our anchor dragged. I spent many hours on the bridge, keep the dhip facing the storm while our engine struggled to take strain off the anchor.
The evening meal too, was a through cuisine meal, and my first night I sat in the dining room, watching a bit of television and soaking up the reality of my first day on Caroline.
Adjourning to my cabin, I noticed my air vent and suddenly realised that I was way below the waterline, and the cabin was not very warm, even though the heating was on. But, why worry, she had served many crews for many years, and she must have known I wanted to be here, so, why would she sink when a fan like me was here. With that, fully dressed, I lay on top of my bunk, took one last look at DLT woz here and fell asleep, not waking till 1am when I took over from Simon and became, what I had always dreamt of, a Radio Caroline disc jockey.