RADIO OFFICERS (R.I.P.)

With modern advances in electronic technology, satellite communication, and computers, the radio officer (formerly known as radio operators) are going the way of the Do-Do Bird into extinction. Modern ships comply with GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress) communication standards, which no longer require that a radio officer is aboard all ships when they sail.They have been replaced by satellite receivers on the bridge of the ship. Modern ships have satellite links with the home office, and can summon help at the push of a button. Their position can be pinpointed at almost any time via satellite. The captain and other officers can be bombarded with email daily, just like their counterparts ashore. They can fax payroll data and have their overtime work approved on a daily basis.

Radio operators first appeared on ships about 90 years ago. David Sarnoff (RCA) and Marconi were earlier pioneers in the radio industry. They put the equipment aboard ships on a lease basis, and provided their own operators as part of the lease. The radio officer was not really a member of the crew, but an employee of the radio company. The transmitters were low frequency "spark gap" transmitters, that in effect sent out a crash of static over a broad band, and had limited range. Shore stations had to be manned and maintained in places like Cape Race, Cape Cod, and other remote sites close to the maritime traffic lanes. The movie "Titanic" accurately portrayed this method of communication, which was not drastically changed when I sailed. I would type a message on an RCA radio message blank, and give it to "Sparks" as the radio officer was called on all ships. Sparks would then fire up his transmitter on the frequency of one of the shore stations. The shore stations monitor certain frequencies for traffic, and the radio officer must experiment to find the "clearest" frequency. This required much preparation between shore-side and ship operators, lots of loud crashes of static and lots of Morse Code dots and dashes. After getting a good frequency, the message would be passed to the shore station, which in turn would telex of phone the recipient of the message.

Then the recipient would have to compose a reply, and telex the shore station, which in turn would put the ship's call letters on it's "traffic list". Sparks would have to monitor the "traffic lists" from a number of shore stations, where all ships that needed to receive messages had their call signs listed in alphabetical order. If a ship heard his call sign, the radio officer would then try to contact the shore station in order to get the "traffic." It was often a lengthy procedure, and seldom could you send out a query and get an answer back in the same day. The captain had to be trusted to conduct business with little input from the company.

Needless to say, modern communication has made radical changes on the way the crew do business these days. In some respects I'm glad I've retired, and worked mostly under the old system, where a ship sailed from home port and was pretty much out of touch until the end of the voyage back in home port. In those days, all communication to and from the ship went via the radio officer. He even monitored our VHF (bridge to bridge radio) conversations. We even had to record the use of the radar in the radio log, since they sent out radio pulses, and thus had to be logged for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). On most of my ships we did not even have a Marisat, or satellite system. I suspect that modern communication has to some extent taken away some of the authority of the captain. As I noted in my story "Lost at Sea", the radio operator could be a lot of trouble. I remember another radio operator who loved to go ashore just when we were ready to sail, with the deck gang lined up at the gangway, linemen on the dock, tugs alongside, pilot aboard, and brag that we could not sail without him (it was against the FCC law). He would force us to coax him aboard while he reveled in his moment of glory. If I had been the captain I would have sailed, paid the fine, and fired him on the spot, but the captain was too tolerant of his behavior. At least he knew how to operate the radio!

I grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania. During WWII a local private school was converted into a school for radio operators for merchant ships. One of the instructors for the school was from England. He had started sailing shortly after the Titanic disaster as a Marconi radio operator on the P&O Line. He spent all of WWI and the years between the two wars sailing the "East India" trade as a radio operator. He was in his 40's when he came to our town to teach. He met and married my great aunt Lucy, who was in her late 30's. Aunt Lucy is now 95 and in good health in the same house where they lived and raised their two children. I still email them and talk to them from time to time. Unfortunately Lucy's husband Bill died about 25 years ago, and took most of his sea stories with him to the grave. He was, however, a link to the outside world for a small town boy like me, and to some extent influenced me to consider a career at sea.

Radio operators were known for their eccentric behavior. Perhaps listening to the crashes of static and dots and dashes affected their personality. They sat alone in the radio shack (that's where the well known store franchise name came from-on early ships; it was merely a shack added onto the superstructure of the ship to house the leased equipment) with nobody to talk to. mates and engineers could talk about the projects they were working on. Nobody understood a thing about what the radio operator was doing. Most of them did seem to be loners, tolerating only a brief visit from the captain with a message. I did meet a few who loved to come down at "coffee time" and chat with the officers, but most merely grabbed a cup of coffee and went back to their "shack". Few outsiders wanted to hang around there, the noise of Morse code and static drove most people away in short order. Say what you will about them, I feel sorry for their loss.