The Story of the Good Ship Seth Parker

The story of the sailing ship Seth Parker is filled with indecision, controversy, adventure and perhaps even intrigue. In addition, the Seth Parker also provides us with a remarkable glimpse of early radio history during its developing era way back some eighty years ago.
There is also an interesting sequel to the story of radio broadcasting on the good ship Seth Parker. It all happened this way.

In the year 1918, a small sailing ship, less than two hundred feet long and weighing only 867 tons, was built in Portland, Oregon for use in hauling lumber along the west coast of North America. It was named the Georgette.

Thirty years later, the young radio entertainer, Phillips Lord, purchased the Georgette, installed a diesel engine, refurbished the vessel luxuriously, and installed a decorative radio station in its decks, all for a total outlay of nearly a quarter of a million dollars. This ship in its new condition was renamed Seth Parker in honor of the main character played by Phillips Lord himself on an NBC network radio drama.

In addition, the Frigidaire company in the United States installed state of the art refrigeration and air conditioning on the vessel, and they supported the project with their advertising. They also printed an attractive advertising booklet in color, giving details about the Seth Parker and its intended round the world voyage.

As part of the publicity campaign associated with the sailing of the Seth Parker, arrangements were made in advance to post attractive envelopes from various exotic ports of call in several different countries. The sale of these envelopes would of course provide additional funding for the entire project.

It was on November 20, 1933, that the Seth Parker set sail from New York Harbor with twenty seven people on board; crew, staff, and radio personnel. In fact, NBC provided a 1 kW shortwave transmitter valued at $12,000 and the engineer to operate it, so that radio broadcasts on shortwave could be fed to the NBC radio network in the United States. The broadcast transmitter was licensed with the callsign KNRA, and an additional low power experimental transmitter on the Seth Parker was licensed as W10XG.

Beginning at Portland Maine, the Seth Parker called in at several ports on the American east coast, and the first known radio broadcast at the beginning of this venture took place on February 13, 1934, at Wilmington, Delaware. Special shortwave broadcasts were made each Tuesday evening from progressive locations down the coast, and out in the Bahamas, and also from Haiti in the Caribbean.

However, controversy had already entered the scene at this stage and NBC ended their contract with Phillips Lord. The reasons for this move are unstated, but rumor would suggest that many unsavory and scandalous events were said to be taking place on board the Seth Parker. NBC in New York even made moves to send staff down to Jamaica to remove their radio station from the ship.

New network broadcasting arrangements were made, and the ship moved on, down to the Panama Canal, and out into the Pacific. A shortwave broadcast was made from the Galapagos Islands; and the final known shortwave broadcast from the Seth Parker was made in February 1935 when it was some three hundred miles from Tahiti.

It was at this stage that additional controversy entered the picture. The Seth Parker supposedly encountered two storms in the Pacific, off the coast of Tahiti, badly damaging the vessel. In fact transmitter KNRA was on the air with an urgent SOS message in April 1935 that was picked up by the maritime station WCC at Chatham in Massachusetts. Chatham Radio forwarded the information onwards to the Pacific and the British Royal Navy was asked to assist.

The Royal Navy vessel, HMAS Australia, was diverted to pick up all nine people now aboard the Seth Parker, but the Australia stated that they had encountered no storms in the area. The Seth Parker was then towed by a tug boat, the Ontario, and brought into Pago Pago harbor in American Samoa.

Soon afterwards, the Seth Parker was sold for use in tuna fishing; and ultimately, it was towed to its resting place in an artificial lagoon near K?ne?ohe Bay on the island of Oahu in Hawaii where it was scuttled in shallow water. At this location, the ship became a tourist attraction where it finally decayed and was demolished.

During its more than a year of spasmodic radio broadcasting, station KNRA on board the Seth Parker in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was logged by multitudes of international radio monitors located in North America and the South Pacific. It is true, these radio broadcasts were intended for relay on the NBC mediumwave network throughout the United States.

However, these relay broadcasts were also heard direct, off air shortwave, from many exotic seaboard locations. Several different shortwave channels were in use, and the corresponding land based stations heard in two way contact with KNRA were the RCA communication facilities located at Rocky Point on Long Island, Bolinas in California, and Kahuku in Hawaii. Additionally, KNRA was also heard on occasions in contact with station LSX in Argentina.

Back in the Seth Parker era, QSL cards, generic in nature, were issued by NBC from their radio building in New York City. These cards are these days a quiet reminder of the short but hectic era of radio broadcasting aboard the now notorious schooner, the Seth Parker.

Oh, and by the way, before we forget. The shortwave transmitter KNRA on board the Seth Parker was rescued by NBC personnel before the ship was sold, and it was integrated with other electronic equipment from another historic shortwave transmitter for use in radio broadcasts in the Pacific and Europe.

From: Wavescan N51, February 14, 2010

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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).