Radio Broadcasting from Ships – Radio ZMBJ on the “Awatea” (The Eye of the Dawn), in New Zealand Waters

The Awatea Story

Back in the days before World War II, there were two ships in Australasian waters that were quite famous in the international radio scene. One was the “Kanimbla” with its radio station VK9MI, and that was the story in Wavescan on a previous occasion. The other ship was the “Awatea” that plied across the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand. That is the story for today.

The MV Awatea, meaning “Eye of the Dawn” in the Maori language, was a little larger then the Kanimbla and was rated with a displacement of 14,000 tons. It was built by Vickers Armstrong at Barrow in northern England and it was launched in February 1936, just two months after the launching of the “Kanimbla”. The electronic equipment on board the “Awatea” was also made by AWA in Australia and it was installed in the ship at the time of construction.

The transmitters on board the “Awatea” were licensed by the New Zealand authorities as ZMBJ, and for long distance communication it operated with 400 watts on 8840 kHz.

However, there was no radio studio on this ship, and when the station was on the air with program broadcasting, the communication equipment was diverted for this purpose.

In September 1936, the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Joseph Lyons, was travelling on this ship and he made a broadcast to Australia from the shortwave transmitter ZMBJ. This broadcast was relayed Australia-wide on the ABC network by the mediumwave station 3LO in Melbourne. Around this era, occasional broadcasts using recordings of popular music were heard in both Australia and New Zealand.

As time went by, this ship made fewer radio broadcasts, until towards the end it was noted only in communication traffic with the maritime stations VIS in Sydney and ZLW in Wellington. However, generic QSL cards were issued for both the program broadcasts as well as for the communication traffic.

At the outbreak of war, both the “Awatea” and the “Kanimbla” underwent the same fate. Program broadcasting from both ships was silenced, and both ships were drafted into war service as troop carriers. In 1942, while on active duty in the Mediterranean, the “Awatea” was attacked and sunk, thus ending the illustrious life story of a very interesting radio broadcasting ship from “down under”.

Occasionally it is possible to come across an original QSL card from ZMBJ on the “Awatea,” and sometimes you will see a reproduction of this exotic QSL card in a radio magazine. The AWR collection contains just one copy.

From: Wavescan 411, Sunday November 10, 2002

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“Wavescan” is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave).