Radio communication with SS Gothic after the fire

Roger Cliffe and David Dow

Left: Roger Cliffe, Radio Officer of SS Gothic with the Marconi Salvita lifeboat radio he used after the ship’s radio room was destroyed by fire. (Photo: Evening Post. Alexander Turnbull Library). Right: David Dow, radio operator at Awarua Radio ZLB who received the message from Gothic. (Photo c1968, courtesy A Glennie)

Joe Collett, Manager of Awarua Radio ZLBJoe Collett, a radio operator (later to be manager) at Awarua Radio ZLB, recalled that fragments of an emergency call “XXX XXX XXX” were copied at ZLB by a diligent operator on Sunday 4 August, more than two days after the fire that had killed seven people aboard the liner SS Gothic:

The ship’s radio officer was using a hand-cranked Salvita lifeboat transmitter to transmit, and a cheap transistor radio belonging to a crewmember as his receiver.

The late David Dow was the operator at Awarua Radio who first logged the fragmentary emergency call. There was enough intelligence in the message to indicate that there was a fire on board and a rough indication of the vessel’s QTH (location).

ZLB went into action stations. A special watch was set up on 8364 and the HF/DF (high frequency direction finding) was put on standby. Our Mission Statement “Safety of Life at Sea” really came to life that night. Everyone on the staff was ready to man a receiver.

The logbook entry (highlighted) made by David Dow, operator at Awarua Radio ZLB, on Sunday 4 August 1968 after receiving the urgency message from SS Gothic.

The logbook entries (highlighted) by David Dow, operator at Awarua Radio ZLB, on Sunday 4 August 1968 after receiving two urgency messages from SS Gothic.

The logbook entries above read:

8.25PM XXX1 DE MAUQ
8364 KCS (NIL FURTHER)

9.52PM XXX DE MAUQ GOTHIC 40S 168W2 (GARBLED) SEVERE DAMAGED. STEERING EASTWARD3 REQUIRE SHIP ASSISTANCE USING LIFEBOAT RADIO +
QSA 1/24 DIA DOW5

1. XXX is the urgency signal – not as serious as SOS.
2. The ship’s position in latitude and longitude.
3. It is not known why Gothic would have been steering eastward, away from New Zealand.
4. The ZLB operator noted that Gothic’s signal strength was only QSA 1-2 (very weak)
5. Signature of the ZLB operator

Awarua Radio ZLB log entry for 5 August notes that Gothic had been located by an Orion aircraft from the RNZAF at 3.30pm, 90,mi north of ZLC (Chatham Islands Radio).

Awarua Radio ZLB log entry for 5 August notes that Gothic had been located by an Orion aircraft from the RNZAF at 3.30pm, 90 mi north of ZLC (Chatham Islands Radio).

MV Navua

The first ship to rendezvous with Gothic was the Union Steam Ship Company’s MV Navua/ZMCZ.

Awarua Radio ZLB log entry for 6 August notes that MAUQ (SS Gothic) had been in communication with ZLW (Wellington Radio) on 8364 and 500 kHz.

Awarua Radio ZLB log entry for 6 August. (The note in blue appears to have been added to the log several days later after Gothic had reached Wellington.)

The log entries above read:

NIL FURTHER ON ZMHF XXX1 – MAUQ QSO ZLW 8364/5002 – ZLB + ZMCZ QSPING3 – ZMCZ RENDEZOUVS 2P + BLACKPOOL 4P.4

1. Apparently another vessel, callsign ZMHF, had also sent an urgency signal XXX.
2. MAUQ (SS Gothic) was in QSO (contact) with ZLW (Wellington Radio) on 8364 and 500 kHz.
3. ZLB (Awarua Radio) and ZMCZ (MV Navua) were QSPing (relaying messages).
4. ZMCZ (MV Navua) was expected to rendezvous with SS Gothic at 2pm, and HMNZS Blackpool would rendezvous at 4pm.

Then, what appears to be a note added a few days later, after Gothic had reached Wellington:

JACK RYAN1 SPOKE TO OPERATOR OF GOTHIC LAST WEEK WHO SAID HE USED L/B XTR2 ON NIGHT OF FIRE BUT ONLY ON 500KCS.3 NEXT DAY USED 500 MAINLY, SECOND DAY 8MCS/500, AND ON THIRD DAY FOUND 8364 WASN’T RADIATING SO PRESUMABLY WE GOT HIM AS SOON AS IT WAS GOING OK. LATER TESTS WITH THE NAVUA SHOWED THAT 500 KCS L/B XTR FADED OUT BEYOND 5 MILES. OPERATOR COULDN’T QUOTE EXACT TIMES AS LOGS WEREN’T AVAILABLE.

1. At this time, Jack Ryan was Superintendent of Wellington Radio ZLW.
2. Lifeboat transmitter.
3. 500 kcs was the main radiotelegraph calling and distress frequency. The Marconi Saliva lifeboat radio was also capable of transmitting (but not receiving) on 8364 kcs.

 

Joe Collett also recalled:

We were in Bluff the night the Gothic sailed, a beautiful graceful vessel with all lights ablaze, She was there in all her glory like a real “Queen”. Little did we know what she was in for later.

David Dow was at one stage a guest of the Captain and R/O (radio officer). It was a condition that the media not be involved under any circumstances.

SS Gothic berthed at the meat loaders in Bluff

SS Gothic berthed at the meat loaders in Bluff, date unknown, published in the Southland Times, 6 Aug 1968