Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Phantom Radio - 1924


The Phantom Radio
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Sea Stories magazine, June 1924. Digital capture by Philip Bolton Jr. and Doug Frizzle, January 2010.

When wireless telegraphy, or the radio and as it is now called, was first perfected, the value of its use on shipboard was at once seen. The following is the story related by the captain of a passenger vessel in response to the query that that had been put to him as to whether he had ever used it to summon help; in other words, sent out an SOS Call.

Steaming northward, the Grenada plowed steadily through a summer sea. Two days had passed since the last outlying islands of the Antilles had dropped from sight astern, when, with a clank, a burst of steam from the engine room, and a jar, the ship came slowly to a standstill, rising and falling helplessly to the long heave of the ocean swell, with her cylinder-head packing blown out.
From below came the sounds of oaths and clink of hammers as the black gangs sweated and swore and labored at repairs, while above, the impatient passengers fretted and fumed and wondered why machinery could not be devised so as never to fail.
Hour after hour slipped by. The passengers, lolling in the shade of the awnings, had tried to while away the time by telling stories of their various experiences at sea, and the captain had joined a group. Presently one of the wireless operators approached and handed the skipper a slip of paper. As he glanced over it he remarked:
“It’s a comfort to know we could get help if we needed it. The Zulia’s within twenty miles, but if it wasn’t for the radio we might all die of thirst or starvation, or go to the bottom without knowing the ship was within reach.”
“Yes,” assented a passenger. “Radio is a marvelous invention. Have you ever been compelled to summon help, captain?”
“No,” replied the skipper, “but I'd been called by other ships. The first time I ever received and S O S was near this very spot, and almost drove me insane. I hope to Heaven I never get another like it.”
“Spin the yarn, captain.” cried another passenger.
“Very well,” chuckled the skipper. “But remember, I’m no story teller, and this is a true yarn.
“At the time it happened,” commenced the captain, half closing his eyes and gazing thoughtfully across the dazzling blue sea, “I was in command of a little tuppence-ha’penny fruit ship sailing between New York and Central American ports via Jamaica. She wasn’t a bad craft, and could reel off her twelve or fourteen knots in good weather. She was called the Claribel, and was one of a fleet of five ships of the International Fruit Company and flew the British flag.
“We made fairly regular runs, stopping at Fortune Island on the down trip to pick up our black stevedores and, after loading bananas along the coast, we would drop the darkies off on the up trip.
“About that time wireless was just coming into use, and mighty few of the West Indian and South American lines had equipped their boats with it. I don’t know if their owners were stockholders in the wireless company, or what their reason was, but for some cause or another they ordered every one of their ships to be equipped with an outfit. The Claribel was the first to have it installed, and I felt properly proud of being the skipper of the first fruit boat carrying a spider’s web high up between her masts.
“I didn’t have too much faith in the thing, although I knew the big liners were using it, and when I was off Scotland light and dropped the pilot, and Dale, the operator, came and handed me a bundle of messages, it struck me fair ‘twixt wind and water –seemed uncanny to be reading letters that had come in over those wires aloft without my knowing it.
“I expect I must have looked a bit like a fish out of water and as I gaped at the messages and then at the aerial, for I saw Dale was grinning. So I hove myself short and tried to act as if it was an everyday matter.
“’Any messages you wish to send, sir?” he asked. “We’ll be out of our sending radius very soon, and if you have anything to get off, it must be sent immediately, sir.”
“Well, do you know, I’d been so busy, thinking about the messages he’d brought, that I had actually forgotten I could send messages back to land.
“’All right, Dale,” I said. “I’ll give you the messages in a moment, and, seating myself at my chart table, I scribbled off a few notes and handed them to him.
“I was anxious to see how he got the stuff under way, but we weren’t yet clear of the land, and I had to be on the bridge, and so I didn’t see Dale again until dinner time. We were pretty well out of soundings by then, and the first officer had the bridge, so I sauntered up to the wireless room and began firing questions at Dale.
“I asked him what he meant by ‘sending radius,’ and he started to explain how his machine could only send a certain distance, but could receive messages much farther.
“’Why,’ he said, ‘I shouldn’t be surprised if I could pick up New York.’
“He turned to his table as he spoke, clapped the tackle on his head, and commenced rubbing his instruments, and pretty quick began jotting words on a pad. In about five minutes he pushed the pad over and remarked: ‘There, captain. That’s what I heard.”
“I glanced that the paper and saw a lot of conversation written down, and laughed.
“’What’s all this, Dale?’ I asked.
“’One liner’s skipper chatting with another,’ he replied. ‘I didn’t hear a word from shore.’
“Who are the masters you have been listening to?’ I asked.
“’Don’t know, but I’ll find out,’ says he. And turning around, he commenced fussing with the machinery once more. Just as he touched it, there was a crackle and a flash of light blue overhead.
“‘Look out!’ I yelled. ‘Something’s gone adrift!’ You see, I’d never seen the apparatus under way before, and didn’t know ‘twas all part of the sending.
“Dale laughed and went on tapping away, and presently he swung around again. ‘One ship’s the Strasburg, Captain Grau, outward bound, and the other’s the Caledonian, Captain McBarrie, off Highland light,’ said Dale.
“By the great horn spoon!’ I cried. ‘That beats all. Say, Dale, this fal-de-dal business will save many a ship and life. Why, if we were in distress we could get another ship alongside two hours.’
“’Sure, that’s what it’s for,’ grinned Dale.
“Well, all the way down the coast to the Bahamas I kept poor Dale trying the wireless. But more often than not, he couldn’t pick up a message, for, as I’ve said, few of the southward-bound boats had outfits at that time.
“We had good weather, picked up our stevedores, loaded on the coast, and started back. I heard a lot of chatter about a revolution, but didn’t pay much attention to it, for as long as the Spigs didn’t run afoul of my hawse I didn’t care much what they did.
“Nothing happened on the trip up, and long before we sighted the Highlands we picked up the New York station, and Dale sent in my reports. It seemed mighty wonderful to me, and wireless was on my mind most of the time.
After we’d docked and everything was shipshape, I ran over to Perth Amboy to see an old friend. He was skipper of a tramp, and I found him aboard his ship, chinning with some dark skinned, black-haired chaps whom I knew were Spanish Americans, and so I made myself comfortable and smoked his cigars until he was through with his visitors.
“I’ve been to sea with Carmody —a big, red-faced, jolly chap, and liked him immensely, and whenever we were both in port at the same time I always managed to see him. He owned his ship —the Tortuga —and I always told him that was the best name he could have given her, tortuga meaning turtle, as you know, and she couldn’t make over eight knots, and was turtle-back decked: but a mighty good old hooker —safe and a fine sea boat —and sweeter engines I’ve never seen.
“Jerry was glad to see me again, of course, and like old shipmates, we got busy swapping stories about cargoes, ships, skippers, and what not, and I began to spin a yarn about my wireless.
“’That’s what you need, Jerry,’ I told him. “With a boat as slow as your old turtle it would be a godsend to let your folks know you hadn’t floundered or run off your course.’
“He chuckled a bit, but he didn’t take it seriously, and started to tell me about his last trip and his next cargo.
“’I’ll give you ten guesses, Frank,’ he said, “and I’ll wager a new sextant you don’t guess what my next cargo is to be.’
“’Then it’s no use trying,’ I laughed. “I know you too well to think that you’d bet me anything worth while if there was any chance of losing. So out with it and show your colors.’
“’It’s gunpowder and dynamite, Frank,’ says he. ‘The Spigottys you just saw are some of the Junta that’s kicking up a shindy down on the coast, and they’ve chartered the Tortuga to carry down their explosives.”
“’Great Scott, man!’ I exclaimed. ‘You’re running risk of seizure and confiscation. You’re violating neutrality laws and turning filibuster.’
“’No, I’m not, son.’ says he ‘I sail from here with a mix cargo for the islands, and ship the sinews of war outside the three-mile limit. The pay’s fine and the Dons take all the risks.’
“’Well, I’m glad they’re making it worth your while,’ I said. “But how are the folks at home, Jerry?’
“You see, I had an interest in Carmody’s family, for Kitty and I were engaged and were only waiting a bit until I had a better birth before getting spliced and starting on a cruise of our own.
“‘Fine and dandy.’ Jerry answers, ‘Come out to the house for dinner, and spend the time you’re in port with us. The missus will be as glad to have you as I will, and you know how ‘tis with Kitty. It’s getting along in the day, and there’s nothing more to keep me here, so come along and we’ll be homeward bound in no time.’
“After dinner Kitty was telling me how worried she and her mother were over Carmody’s new cargo, for Jerry had no secrets in his family, though he was mum as an oyster to outsiders.
“‘Supposing that Tortuga should catch on fire.’ said Kitty. ‘Just think what would happen! I’ll not sleep a wink until we hear he has discharged that awful cargo.’
“That gave me an idea, and I told her about the wireless, and she called in her mother, and between the three of us tried to talk Jerry into putting a wireless outfit on his ship.
“’Can’t afford it,’ he declared. ‘The cost would wipe out all the profits, and I’d have to hire an operator besides.’
“’Bother the costs, Jerry,’ I told him. ‘Make your Spigotty friends pay for it. They have money enough and to spare. I have it, mate! Tell them it’s going to make things safer for them. With a wireless you can tell if any one’s after you, and can keep in touch with the Junta until you’re well out to sea.
“This struck Carmody as a good scheme, and to make a long story short, he saw the Junta next day, and after a lot of argument, they agreed to install the outfit at once.’
“The Claribel was loaded and ready for sea before Jerry’s wireless was in, and the last thing he said, as I worked out of the dock, was to shout that he’d keep trying to pick us up if we’d do the same; and as we both followed pretty much the same course, there was a good chance we might do it. But I couldn’t get clear without a joke about his old tramp, so I cupped my hands and yelled back that we’d be in port again before he reached the Bahamas.
“We had a fine passage down, but head winds, and reached Fortune Island a day late. This time, when we meet the coast, I gave more heed to the revolutionary talk, and knowing of Jerry’s cargo, I soon made a landfall and knew they were just holding off the fireworks until the Tortuga showed up with the ammunition.
“We loaded and started back, but all across the Gulf, we had heavy weather, and after passing Jamaica ran into half a gale and head seas. I was so busy, looking after the ship, that it wasn’t until we were two days out from Fortune Island that I remembered Carmody’s talk of trying to pick each other up by wireless. So, calling to Dale, I told him to have a try, although I didn’t have much hopes, for I expected the Tortuga would be down in the gulf by then. He didn’t get anything, but in the afternoon we sighted smoke low down to the east’ard, and I had Dale try once more, and even shifted my course a bit to get a squint of the other ship.
“She was the twin sister of the Tortuga, but when we got near I saw she didn’t have a wireless, and showed a white funnel band, while Jerry had a red ‘C’ on his stack.
“About four bells I had Dale try again, for somehow or other I had a feeling that Carmody wasn’t far off. But Dale came up to the bridge deck, shaking his head.
“’It’s no use, captain,’ he says. ‘I don’t get any one, and know something’s gone wrong with the receiver. I can send all right, but the old tub’s been jumping fearfully the past few days, and I can’t fix the thing up until it calms down a bit.’
“I was peeved at this. Just when I wanted the machine it had gone bad, but it wasn’t any use talking, and Dale wasn’t to blame, so I passed it off and told him I guessed we’d tired the instruments out, using them so often.
“After dinner I sat down below with the passengers for a while, and at eight bells went to the bridge deck. The sea had gone down a lot but it was still too lumpy for the passengers to stop on deck much, and only a couple were in sight on the after deck as I passed up.
“Dale and the second officer were sitting together in the port alleyway, near the wireless room, smoking and yarning, and quartermaster was at the wheel. It was a bright, starlight night —clear as a bell, and the wind, though fresh, was warn and balmy. So I sat down in a deck chair, put my feet on the rail, lit a cigar, and leaned back easy and comfortable, looking at the stars and thinking about Kitty and home.
“That brought my thoughts around to her father and the Tortuga, and from them my mind shifted to the wireless and the trouble with it. After all, I thought to myself, if a thing gives out like this, it won’t be much use. Suppose a ship were in distress. She couldn’t let us know, and nine times out of ten things do give out just when their needed the most. Now if any one could invent a wireless that wouldn’t go wrong just when—
“My thoughts were cut short by a crackling sound and a blue flickering reflection on the deck before me. I jumped up and looked aloft. From the wires between the masts blue, crackling, sizzling sparks were darting out. For an instant I watched them, and it seemed to me that they came and went in some sort of regular order. Leaping to the rail, I looked over and saw Dale still sitting where I’d seen him a few minutes before.
“Dale!” I yelled “Come up here. For God’s sake, hurry, man!’
“In a moment he was on the ladder, and as his head came above the deck I pointed to the wires. He saw the sparks as soon as he saw me, and stopped short, staring at them.
“What’s that?’ I cried. ‘Can you make it out?’
“Dale waited a moment before he answered. ‘Hold fast a minute.’ He exclaimed. ‘It’s the distress signal —the SOS!”
“The next second he was dashing to the wireless room, but in two shakes he was back again.
“I sent a message asking the bearings, but I can’t receive,’ he panted. “I can’t understand it. I never knew anything like it before.’
“Again the blue flames were dancing in and out from the wires, and after a minute Dale announced:
“’It’s a ship on fire. I can’t make out her name, but the message says sail northeast by east. Come full speed, for god’s sake!’
“With one bound I sprang to the wheelhouse, roared to the quartermaster, ‘Northeast by east!’ and at the same instant yanked the telegraph for full speed ahead. Then, calling down the speaking tube to the engine room, I yelled to the chief:
“There’s a ship burning ahead of us. Put on every ounce of steam and let the boilers go hang!’
“No more sparks came from the wires, but Dale was still gaping at them open mouthed.
“‘Captain,’ he says as I reached him, ‘this thing’s ghostly. How can those wires send out sparks on a message being received? It’s scientifically impossible and, besides, how could the ship know where we are? I didn’t tell him, and yet he said sail northeast by east. It gets me captain.’
“I don’t know anything about your possibilities or impossibilities,’ I answered. ‘But if there is a ship afire ahead we’ll soon know it. I admit I don’t see how she knew our position if you didn’t tell her.”
“Dale stood still, watching the aĆ«rial, and I stepped to the forward break of the bridge deck and looked ahead with my glasses. Was I mistaken? No, it was certainly there —a dull red glare, barely visible upon the horizon. Calling to the second officer, I asked him to look. He saw it as soon as he put the glasses on it even while we watched it grew brighter and larger.
“We are now making a good fifteen knots, and eating up the miles every minute; but I knew it was a race with death, for the blazing ship was still fifteen or sixteen miles distant, and in an hour a lot can happen when a ship’s on fire.
“While I was alternately watching and stamping impatiently up and down, I heard an exclamation from Dale, and sparks again began to sizzle from the wires. Dale yanked out his note book and pencil, and with one eye on the sparks wrote rapidly. Soon the sparks ceased, and he handed me the paper. Taking it to the light of the binnacle, I read: ‘Fire rapidly nearing powder. Oh, Frank! For love of Heaven, save us!’
“I dropped the paper and leaned weakly against the wheelhouse. The burning ship must be the Tortuga! But how —how did they know I was near and was racing towards them?
“I turned toward the blazing vessel, and now through my glasses I could see the pillar of ruddy smoke, the flying sparks, and the leaping flames, while the red glare was clearly visible to the naked eye it.
“Once more the blue sparks crackled and again came that agonizing appeal for help. But we were making all the speed the old Claribel could, and half an hour more would bring us alongside the doomed ship.
“By now every one on board had heard of our race for life, and the rails were lined with crew and passengers, all gazing with tense faces at the red smudge ahead.
“’Clear the boats,’ I ordered the first officer, ‘and stand by to lower away instantly. Have everything ready —life belts and ring buoys at hand and boats swung free.’
“’Aye, aye, sir,” answers the officer, and, a moment later, every boat’s crew was busy, and boat after boat was swung clear of its chalks, stripped of its tarpaulins, the falls overhauled, and the boats ready to drop instantly, while the men stood waiting at their stations.
“How slowly the moments passed! Our ship seemed barely to crawl along, and yet, by glancing at the rushing water alongside, and at the black smoke belching from our funnel, I knew the old hooker was making such time as she’d never made before.
“Fifteen minutes passed, and now, looming large on the rim of the black, heaving sea, we could see the hull of the steamer, her masts and funnel sharply outlined against the lurid sky, while from bow to midships was a fiery, seething furnace.
“Then, once more, came the crackle of the phantom wireless, and Dale read: ‘Thank God you are near, Frank, but I fear it is too late. The fire is within twenty feet of the powder! The crew rushed the boats. Father and I are alone. Good-by, my love!’
“’My God!’ I cried and dropped helpless in a chair. ‘Kitty’s on the Tortuga!’
“With a tremendous effort I roused myself and stared ahead. Now we could see the blazing ship plainly. Her turtledback stern loomed black against the flames and on it, close to the jackstaff, and clasped in each other’s arms —a man and a girl.
“At the speed and we were making we would be alongside in five minutes. What should I do? Should I risk my ship and passengers by running under the stern of the blazing ship in a daredevil attempt to save the girl I loved? Should I launch my boats and try to reach the Tortuga before the leaping flames spread across those scant twenty feet of deck between them and the explosives?
“It was a question of seconds for decision. Either course was filled with deadly peril, either was almost hopeless. Never was a man faced with a more terrible problem. But in an instant my mind was made up. With a bound I reached the wheelhouse and seized—”
A hoarse bellow from the whistle drowned the captain's voice, cutting his sentence in twain, and before he could continue, a quartermaster stepped to the edge of the deck above the story teller.
“Chief reports repairs finished and ready to proceed, sir," he announced, touching his cap.
The captain leaped to his feet, tossed aside his cigar, and grasping the hand rail, sprang nimbly up the ladder.
"Oh, but say!” cried Heskith. "You didn't finish your story, captain! What did you do?”
At the head of the ladder the captain halted and looked back.
"Why, then I woke up!” he replied.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.