Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Phantom Wireless

This story was, in June 1924, published as 'The Phantom Radio' in Sea Stories magazine with little changed. There are probably a lot of typographic mistakes since my digital converter did no favours to the poor quality newspaper story.

The Phantom Wireless

The Skipper Tells a Story of Thrilling Adventure Involving Radio, Love and Dynamite, All Interacting on Each Other in Tropical Seas


The Washington Post; Jun 22, 1922. Researched by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, Oct. 2011.

"WE were homeward bound from South America. The mud-stained waters of the Orinoco's mouth lay many hundred miles astern; we had crossed the wondrous blue Caribbean, and the last of the palm fringed Bahamas had dropped from sight below the horizon. Then, without warning, the Grenada's engines ceased to throb and a moment later she was resting motionless, rising and falling to the long swell of the Atlantic, her low-pressure cylinder-head blown out, while the engineers sweated and swore and the sounds of their oaths and the clink of their hammers mingled with the foul, hot air drifting up from the engine room. There was no danger, on every side the sea stretched like a gently undulating sheet of blue glass, broken only by skittering flying fish; but the delay was vexatious, as for hour after hour we roasted in the breathless heat, impatient to be on our way.

The skipper had joined the knot of passengers under the shade of the awning on the after-deck, and presently one of the wireless operators approached and handed him a slip of yellow paper. As the skipper finished reading it he glanced up.

"It's a comfort to know we could get help quickly if we needed it," he remarked. "The Zulia is less than 20 miles to the west'ard; but if it wasn't for wireless we'd never know it and might die of thirst or starvation with plenty of ships within easy reach."

"Yes," agreed one of the passengers, "wireless is a wonderful invention. Did you ever have to send an SOS, captain?"

"No. I never did," replied the skipper. "But I've been called by others. The first time I ever received an SOS was near this very spot and it came near driving me mad. I hope to heaven I never get another like it."

"Spin us the yarn, captain," yawned another passenger. "Your duty to do something to amuse us, you know."

"All right," laughed the skipper. "But, remember, I'm not much of a story-teller and this is no sailor's yarn—strictly true, every word of it."

"Oh, we'll judge of that when you've finished," laughed the other. "Fire away."

"At the time it happened," began the captain, as he lighted his pipe and leaned back in his steamer chair, "I was in command of a little two-pence ha'-penny fruit and passenger ship sailing between New York and Central American ports. She wasn't such a bad little packet and could make her 12 knots in good weather. She was named the Claribel—one of a fleet of five ships of the International Fruit Company—and flew the British ensign, although the firm was American.

"We made regular runs, stopping on the down trip at Fortune Island to pick up colored stevedores for handling the fruit, and after loading bananas along the coast we dropped off the darkies on the up trip.

"About that time wireless was just coming into use on ships and mighty few of the West Indian and South American lines had been equipped. I don't know if our owners were stockholders in the wireless company or what the reason may have been, but for some reason or another they ordered every one of their ships to be fitted up with wireless. The Claribel was the first to have it installed and I felt proper proud of having the first fruiter with a wire spider web between her mastheads.

"I admit I didn't have much faith in the thing, although I knew the big liners were all using it and when I was off Scotland lightship and had dropped the pilot, and Dale, the operator, came up and handed me a bunch of messages from my owners and my friends it rather struck me 'twixt wind and water, so to speak. Seemed a bit uncanny to be reading letters that had come in through the air in that way. I expect I must have looked like a fish out of water as I gaped at the messages and then cast my eyes aloft at the aerial, for I saw Dale grinning and hove myself short and tried to act as it I'd been getting radios all my life

" ‘Any messages to send?' he asked. 'We'll be out of our sending radius very soon and if there's anything to go off it will have to be sent right away.'

"Well, do you know, I'd been that busy thinking about the messages he’d brought that I’d actually lost my reckoning and had forgotten I could send messages back home. ‘All right, Dale, I answered. I'll give you a bunch of messages in a moment.' Sitting down at my chart table I scribbled off a few notes and handed them over.

“I was anxious to see how he got the stuff under way, but we were not clear of soundings and I had to be on the bridge so I didn't see Dale again until dinner time. We were pretty well offshore then and the first officer was on watch, so, after dinner, I went up to the wireless room and began firing questions at Dale. Asked him what he meant by radius and a lot of other fool questions. He was mighty patient and explained it all—how he couldn't send beyond a certain distance, but could hear a lot further, :and how he 'tuned' and 'picked up’ and so on. :

" 'Why,’ he said 'I shouldn't be surprised if I could still get New York. I'll try it and see.'

"He sat down, clapped his tackle on his head, and commenced rubbing a thing-a-ma-bob over a coil of wire and pretty soon began jotting words on a pad. In about five minutes he pushed the pad over and remarked: 'There, captain, that's what I picked up.'

"I glanced, at the pad and saw a lot of conversation written down and I laughed. 'What’s all that, Dale?' I asked.

“ 'One liner's skipper talking to another,' he replied, 'I didn't hear a word from shore.'

“ 'Well who are the skipper's you've been listening to,' I asked!'

" 'Don't know, but I'll find out;' He says, and turning around, he began fussing with his machinery again. Just as he touched it there was a crackle and a flash of blue light overhead.

" 'Look alive, there!' I yelled, 'something's gone adrift!' You see I'd never seen the apparatus under way before and didn't know 'twas all a part of the sending and shipshape as might be.

" 'One ship's the Strasburg, Capt. Grau, outward bound, and the other's the Caledonia, McBarrie, off Highland Lignt.' says Dale after he got through laughing over my fright at his sparks.

" 'Well, by the great horn spoon!' says I, 'that does beat the Dutch! Say, Dale, ‘this fal-de-dal business will save many a ship and many a life yet. Why, if we were sinking or afire, we could get either of those ships alongside in a couple of hours.'

" 'Sure, that's what I'm here for,' grinned Dale.

"Well, sir, all the way down to the Bahamas I kept poor old Dale trying the wireless, but more often than not he didn't pick up anything, for, as I've said, few of the southward bound :boats had outfits at the time. We had good weather, picked up our roustabouts, loaded over at Costa Rica, and Honduras, and: started back. Over on the coast I'd heard a lot of chatter about a revolution, but I didn't pay much attention to it. Most all the gaff you hear there is revolutions—or at least 'twas in those days—and as long as it didn't run afoul of my hawse I didn't care how much: they shot one another up.

"Nothing happened going north and long before we sighted the Highlands we picked up New York and Dale sent in our reports. It seemed a mighty wonderful thing to me and nothing but wireless was on my mind ‘till we were in port. After we had docked and everything was shipshape I ran over to Weehawken to see an old friend who was skipper of a big tramp. I ran across him aboard his ship, chinning with some dark, black-haired chaps I knew must be Spanish-Americans, and so I sat down and smoked his cigars and drank his beer until he was through.

I'd been to sea with Carmody—big, red-faced, jolly chap he was—and liked him first rate, and whenever we were both in port I always managed to see him. Carmody owned his ship the Tortuga—and I always jollied him about her. Told him 'twas the best name he could have given her—Tortuga meaning turtle, you know—for she couldn't make over eight knots and she was a turtle-decked old hooker, too; but a mighty good safe sea boat and a whale for cargo, and sweeter engines I've never seen.

"Jerry was mighty glad to see, me all right, and, like old shipmates, we got busy swapping yarns—all about cargoes, ships and skippers, you know and I began to give Carmody a yarn about my wireless.

"'That's what you want, Jerry,' I said, 'with a boat as slow as the old turtle it would be a godsend to let your folks know you hadn't foundered or drifted off your course.'

"He laughed a bit; but he didn't take the matter seriously and started in to tell me about his last trip, and his next cargo.

" 'I'll give you ten guesses, Frank,’ he says, ‘and I'll wager my new sextant you don't hit it right as to what my cargo's going to be.'

" 'It's no use my trying, then, Jerry,' I laughed. 'I know you too well to think you'd bet a sixpence if there was any chance of losing. So out with it and show your colors, mate!'

" 'It's gunpowder and dynamite!' he blurts out! 'The Spigs you just saw are some of the junta that's kicking up a shindy down on the coast and they've chartered to Tortuga to carry down their explosives.'

"'Great Scot, man!' says I, ‘you're running risk of confiscation. You're violating neutrality laws and turning filibuster!'

“'No, I'm not, son,' says he. 'I sail from here with a mixed cargo for the islands and ship the sinew's of war outside the three-mile limit. The pay's fine and the Dons take all the risk.

“'Well,’ I said, a bit relieved, 'I'm mighty glad they're making it worth your while; 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 just waiting a bit before getting spliced and starting on a cruise of our own.

" 'Fine and dandy, Frank,' said Jerry, giving me a dig in the ribs. Come out to the house for dinner and spend the time you're in port with us. The missus will be as glad as I am to see you, and you know how 'tis with Kitty. It's getting along in the day, and there's nothing more to keep me; so fetch your traps and we'll be homeward bound in no time.'

"Well, after dinner, Kitty began telling me how worried she and her mother were over Carmody's new cargo, for while Jerry was mum as a clam to outsiders, he had no secrets at home.'

" 'Suppose the Tortuga should catch afire,' says Kitty. 'Just think what would happen! I'll not sleep a wink until we hear she's discharged that awful cargo."

"That gave me an idea, and I told her all about my wireless, and we called in her mother and between the three of us we tried to talk Jerry into putting an 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 cost, Jerry,’ I told him. 'Make your Spigotty friends pay for it. They've money enough and to spare. I've got 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 'till you're well but of soundings.'

"This struck Carmody as a good idea, and, to make a long story short, he saw the junta next day, and after a lot of talky-talky they promised to install the outfit right away.'

"The Claribel was unloaded and ready to sail before Jerry's wireless was in however, and the last thing he said, as we worked out of the dock, was to yell out 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 could do it.

"But just the same, I couldn't get clear without having 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 capes.

"We had a fine trip down, but head winds, and made Fortune island a day late. This trip I gave a bit more of my ears to the revolution gossip, and knowing of Jerry's cargo, I soon made a landfall, and knew they were just waiting for the Tortuga to show up before starting their shindy.

"We loaded all right, and started back, but all across the Gulf we had heavy weather, and after dropping the Bahamas ran into half a gale and heavy head seas. I was that busy with other matters that it wasn't until two days out from Fortune island that I remembered Carmody's talk of trying to pick us up, and, calling Dale, I told him to have a try. He didn't get anything, but in the afternoon we sighted a smoke low down to the east'ard, and I had Dale try again, as I thought it might be the Tortuga, and shifted my course a bit to get a squint at her. She was the twin sister of Jerry's ship, and for a time I thought sure 'twas his old tramp right enough, but when we were a mite nearer I could see she didn't carry wireless and showed a white funnel band instead of Jerry's red 'C.'

"About four bells in the afternoon watch I had Dale try again, for somehow I had a feeling Carmody wasn't far off. But it wasn't any use.’

" 'Can't get anything!' said Dale. 'Something's gone wrong with the receivers. I can send all right, but I can't pick up a thing. The old tub's been jumping fearful for the last few days and I expect something's gone adrift.'

"I was a bit hot at this. Just when I wanted the machine the most it had gone bad, but it wasn't any use talking, and Dale wasn't to blame, so I passed it off and told Dale I guessed we'd just tired the thing out using it so much.

"After-dinner I sat down below with the passengers for a time and at eight bells went up on the bridge deck. The sea had gone down a lot, but was still too bumpy for the passengers to stay 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 on the port side close to the wireless room, smoking and yarning, and the quarter-master was at the wheel. It was a clear, starlight night, bright as a bell, and the wind, though fresh was warm and balmy, and I sat down in a deck chair, put my feet on the rail, lit a cigar and leaned back easy and comfortable, looking up at the stars and thinking about home and Kitty Carmody.

"That brought me around to think of Jerry and the Tortuga of course and from that my mind shifted to the wireless and the trouble with it. After all, I thought to myself, if the thing gives out like this it isn't so much of a help as I thought. Suppose a ship were in distress. She couldn't let us know and nine times out of ten things give out just when they're needed most. Now if some one could think up some way to prevent wireless from ever going wrong, just when— My thoughts were cut short off by a crackling sound and a sort of blue glare on the deck before me. I jumped up and looked aloft. From the wire between the masts, blue, crackling, sizzling sparks were spitting out just as they did in the room when Dale was sending. For a second I watched them and it seemed to me 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 before. 'Dale'.' I yelled, 'Come up here. For heaven's sake hurry man!'

"The next second 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 the devil's that?' I cried, 'Can you make it out?'

"Dale waited a moment before he answered. 'It's a distress signal, S O S,' he exclaimed. 'Hold on a minute!' The next second he was dashing to his room but was back in no time. 'I sent out a message asking the ship's position,' he said, 'but I can't receive. Perhaps I can get the message from here. I can't understand it—I never heard of anything like it.'

"Again the blue sparks were darting in and out from the wires and after a minute they stopped. 'It's a ship on fire,' says Dale, 'I can't make out her name, but she says; 'sail northeast by east. Come full speed for God's sake.'

"Instantly I sprang to the wheel house, roared to the quartermaster, 'No'east by east!' and at the same time yanked the telegraph over for full speed ahead. Then, calling down the telephone, I yelled to the chief: "There's a ship burning ahead of us. Put on every ounce of steam and hang the boilers!' No more sparks were coming from the wires, but Dale was still gaping at them, when I came outside.

" 'Captain,' he says as I reached him, "This thing's ghostly! How can those wires send out sparks? It couldn't happen if I were sending and it's utterly impossible when a message is coming in. It's a scientific impossibility and yet it's been doing it! And how could the ship know where we are? I didn't tell him and yet he says "sail northeast by east." It get me, captain.' 'I don't know a darned thing about your possibilities or impossibilities, Dale,' I answered, 'I don't know enough about your gadgets there to know why it can or can't spark if it wants to. Seems to me if it shoots blue fire for you there isn't any reason why it shouldn't for others. All I know is that if there's a burning ship off there we'll soon know it. I admit I don't see how he knew our position if you didn't answer him.

"Dale still stood watching the aerial and I stepped to the forward break of the bridge deck and looked ahead with my night glasses. Was I mistaken? No, it was certainly there—a dull red glare, barely visible on the horizon over our bows. Calling to the second officer, I asked him to look. He saw it just as soon as he put the glasses on it, and even while we watched it, it grew brighter and larger.

"We were making a good fourteen knots and eating up the miles every minute. But I knew 'twas a race with death, for the blazing ship was still fifteen or sixteen miles away, and in an hour what might not happen?

"While I was alternately watching and stamping impatiently up and down the deck, I heard an exclamation from Dale, and sparks began to crackle from the wires again.

"Dale yanked out his notebook and pencil, and with one eye on the sparks wrote rapidly. Soon they ceased, and he handed me the book. Taking it to the binnacle light, I read: 'Fire rapidly nearing powder. Oh, Frank, for the love of heaven save us!'

"I dropped the book and leaned weakly against the wheel house. The burning ship ahead was the Tortuga! But how—how did they know I was near at hand and racing toward them?

"I turned again toward the bow, and now, through my glasses, I could see the column of ruddy smoke, the leaping flames, while the red glare was plainly visible to the naked eye.

"Once more the blue flashes sizzled from the aerial, and again came that agonized appeal for help. But we were making all the speed we could, and thirty minutes more would put us alongside the doomed ship. By now every soul on board the Claribel had heard of our race for life, and the rails were lined with passengers and crew, all gazing with tense faces at the red smudge ahead.

" 'Have the lifeboats cleared!' I ordered, 'and stand by to lower away instantly. Have all clear. Life belts and ring buoys at hand and boats swung free.'

" 'Aye, aye, sir,' answered the chief officer, and a moment later every boat's crew was busy, and boat after boat was swung clear of its chocks, stripped of its tarpaulins, the falls cleared and the men standing by the ready boats waiting for the word to lower away.

"How slowly the minutes passed! Our ship seemed barely to crawl along, and yet, by glancing over the rail, I knew by the rushing foam and by the black smoke pouring from our funnel that the old Claribel was making the best time she'd ever made or ever would again, likely.

"Fifteen minutes slipped by, and low, looming large on the rim of the black, heaving ocean, we could see the hull of a big steamer, her masts and funnel outlined sharply against the lurid sky, while from bow to midships she was a seething, fiery furnace.

"Again came the crackle of the phantom wireless, and excitedly Dale reads: "Thank God you are near, Frank! I fear it is too late. The fire is within twenty feet of the magazine. The men rushed the boats! Father and I are alone! Good-by, my love!'

" 'My God!" I cried, and dropped helpless in my chair. 'Kitty's on the Tortuga! With a tremendous effort, I roused myself and stared ahead. Now we could see the blazing ship clearly—her turtle-back stern rising and falling—and on it, close to the jackstaff and clasped in each other's arms—a man and a girl!

"At the speed we were making we would be alongside in five minutes. What should I do? Would I risk my ship and passengers by running under the stern of the burning vessel in a dare-devil attempt to save the girl I loved or would I stop, launch my boats and attempt to reach the Tortuga before the leaping flames spread across those scant twenty feet of deck between the fire and the explosives?

"It was a question of seconds for my decision. Either course was filled with deadly peril. Either was almost hopeless. Never was a man faced with a more terrible problem. On one hand lay my ship and passengers, on the other the life of the girl who was to be my wife. But in an instant my mind was made up. With a single bound I reached the wheel house and seized—"

A hoarse roaring bellow from the whistle drowned the captain's voice, cutting his sentence in twain, and before he could continue a quarter-master stepped to the edge of the leek above the story teller.

"Chief reports repairs finished and ready to proceed, sir," he announced, touching his cap.

The captain jumped to his feet, knocked the ashes from his pipe and grasping the head rail ran nimbly up the ladder.

"Oh, but I say!" cried a passenger. "You didn't finish your story, Captain! What did you do?"

At the head of the ladder the skipper stopped, looked back and exclaimed, "Why, just then I woke up!"

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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.