Brothers Island Lighthouse radio station

Radio installation at Brothers Islands lighthouse, date unknown

Radio installation at Brothers Islands lighthouse, date unknown. Main set on the left, standby set on the right. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

By Ian Hutchings*

Brothers Island had a communications system (essentially a ship type radio installation operated on land) to allow the keepers to communicate with land and, importantly, with their supply vessel. In the 1960s the Brothers were equipped with Marlin 75 type equipment and used the call sigh ZLPH. The island gave regular weather reports to Wellington Radio ZLW several times a day.

Radio installation at Brothers Islands lighthouse, date unknown

Radio installation at Brothers Islands lighthouse, date unknown. Main set on the left, standby set on the right. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

In addition, the Brothers had a beacon for aircraft movements which operated continuously with a morse coded (“BR”) modulation tone to identify the station. There were dual beacon transmitters with an automated or manual changeover system. The code sender disc in the standby beacon had a longer gap between two BR code sequences so it could be identified by an alert and knowing listener.

A New Zealand Post Office technician works on a radio transmitter at Brothers Island lighthouse

A New Zealand Post Office technician works on a radio transmitter at Brothers Island lighthouse. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

The beacon frequency was about 317 kHz as I recall. Being an airways beacon it needed high reliability and when there was a beacon failure the technicians would coax the keeper to do some front line diagnosis over their communications link, not always successfully!

The island had lots of small “kelp” flies which occasionally found a way in through chinks in the fine mesh grills or door closures, and these were always a suspect stuck between the air gap tuning capacitors!

Radio aerials at Brothers Island lighthouse

Radio aerials at Brothers Island lighthouse. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

The supply vessel was the Marine Department’s Enterprise based in Picton. Actually there were two such vessels, the first being replaced by the second more versatile craft in the mid 1960s. The second vessel had a second “flying” bridge which helped visibility for close manoeuvring. But it did little to soothe first-time passengers when, on approaching the shore, the skipper suddenly left the wheel house and did not return, with the vessel continuing towards shore!

Transport to the Brothers was via the Enterprise, either using a scheduled voyage for maintenance or a special voyage for urgent faults. A three-hour boat trip was required from Picton, or greater if there were other lights to attend to on the way. Trips often left Picton at unsociable hours to get the best tides.

Landing was done via “the block,” a crane based on the island which swung out over the stern of the boat. The Enterprise skipper, Brian Pickering, would back the vessel into a small cove, while the crane would swing out over the aft deck.

Unloading from Enterprise at Brothers Islands

Unloading from the original Enterprise at Brothers Islands. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

A rope cargo net or canvas sling was laid out on the deck and the cargo placed into the centre. The ropes were looped together onto a short strop and all was ready. As the boat rose on the swell, the mate Tom Gullery would wield a boat hook to capture the hanging crane hook, snap it through the cargo sling strop, and give the signal to lift away!

That was the cue to quickly step onto the edge of the cargo net and hang on to the now rising collection of ropes. With the vessel falling on the swell and the crane winching, the separation from the boat was rapid, but by the next crest of the swell the winch had created sufficient clearance to be reasonably clear from the boat. Soon the crane swung around to deposit cargo net, technicians and whatever else was coming onto the island.

Radio aerials at Brothers Island lighthouse

Radio aerials at Brothers Island lighthouse. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

Returning was a simple reverse – except that for this exercise the humble technician was already standing on the cargo net being lowered while Tom Gullery wielded the boat hook to try to catch the centre crane hook. A little disconcerting to the uninitiated.

A Brothers trip normally involved at least one overnight stay with the keepers, and the food was always good. Brothers was used as the base for relieving (unmarried) keepers so there were always good stories after dinner!

I am told that the very early landings at the Brothers used a rock ledge on the other side of the island where there was a straight edge with relatively deep water, but looking at the seaweed covering that area, I would certainly prefer the crane!

The following undated photos are believed to be from the 1950s or 60s.

A rigger attaches an insulator to an aerial wire before climbing one of the radio masts at Brothers Island lighthouse

A rigger attaches an insulator to an aerial wire before climbing one of the radio masts at Brothers Island lighthouse. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

A rigger prepares to climb one of the radio masts at Brothers Island lighthouse

A rigger prepares to climb one of the radio masts at Brothers Island lighthouse. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

A rigger climbs one of the radio masts at Brothers Island lighthouse

A rigger climbs one of the radio masts at Brothers Island lighthouse. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

Aerial feeders at Brothers Island lighthouse

Aerial feeders at Brothers Island lighthouse. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

Aerial Tuning Unit at Brothers Island lighthouse

Aerial Tuning Unit at Brothers Island lighthouse. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

Aerial Tuning Unit at Brothers Island lighthouse

Aerial Tuning Unit at Brothers Island lighthouse. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

Aerial Tuning Unit at Brothers Island lighthouse

Aerial Tuning Unit at Brothers Island lighthouse. Courtesy: Chris Underwood

* Ian Hutchings trained as a radio technician with the New Zealand Post Office in 1965, and worked on a variety of radio installations before obtaining an engineering degree in 1971 and moving to the Wellington Regional Engineers Office He later moved to POHQ and was subsequently Manager, Radio Spectrum Policy under a succession of government ministries. He retired in 2015 and holds the amateur radio callsign ZL2HUT.