As we approach the 100th anniversary of Sea Breezes it led me to think about some of the most significant developments there have been in shipping since it was first published in 1919.

There have of course been many, but high on the list would be communications. Going further back, to the nineteenth century, communication at sea was mainly by means of semaphore and other flag signals. The disadvantage of this method was that it was only possible when people and ships were in sight of each other.

In the late 1800s and at the turn of the twentieth century, Italian inventor and electrical engineer, Guglielmo Marconi, began investigating a means to signal across the Atlantic Ocean. This was to compete with transatlantic telegraph cables, the first of which had been laid between Ireland and Newfoundland in 1858. Success came in 1901 when he developed the first wireless telegraphy apparatus for long-distance radio communication. In 1897 he formed the Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company which would later become the Marconi Company. The company’s transmitting and receiving equipment – using Morse code – was gradually installed on ships and shore stations, employing its own operators. In time, other electronic companies would provide a similar service. Five years after Marconi’s success, Canadian inventor, Reginald Fessenden, is credited with transmitting human voices to ships at sea heralding the beginning of radio telephony. The first voice transmission, across the Atlantic, in an East to West direction, took place from the former Marconi Radio Station in Ballybunion, County Kerry in Ireland, and Louisbourg, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in Canada, on 19 March 1919.

By the end of the 1940s, most ships, depending on their type, tonnage and operating limits, were fitted with either wireless telegraphy or radio telephony installations. This was the situation when I first went to sea. But at that time – the mid-1960s – VHF (Very High Frequency) sets were being installed at ports and on most ships. Although they only had a range of approximately 30 miles from the coast, they not only enabled much better ship to ship communications for vessels in relatively close proximity to each other, but perhaps even more so, transformed the communications operations between pilots, port Vessel Traffic Services (VTS), locks, docks, harbours and tugs. It significantly reduced the need to make link-calls via coast radio stations, and removed, in most cases, the necessity to peer through binoculars to see which docking signals or lights were being exhibited at locks, docks and harbour entrances. Harbour control personnel could advise ship’s staff of berthing instructions, weather conditions, and the disposition and movement of other vessels. When working with tugs, it enabled the ship’s personnel and pilot to converse directly with each tug master instead of using mouth and the ship’s whistle to convey instructions to bow and stern tugs. Complementing these changes was the advent of on board handheld portable radios which made a significant difference to internal communications. This was especially the case during docking and undocking operations and even more importantly in emergency situations.

The most significant change in communications came in 1992, with the introduction of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), which was fully implemented in 1999. It is an international system which uses the improvements in terrestrial and satellite technology and ship-board radio systems. The system was developed primarily to save lives by modernising – particularly through automation – and enhancing the existing radio communications system. Unfortunately, automation often goes hand in hand with job losses and the introduction of GMDSS was no exception. Although some radio officers were able to retrain to become electro- technical officers (ETO) or deck officers, for many of them, it signalled, in some cases prematurely, the end of a once proud profession. In almost any account of a shipping tragedy in the twentieth century, stories abound of the outstanding bravery, courage and selfless conduct of the radio officer in remaining at his or her station to the ‘bitter end’. They are owed a great debt of gratitude and a life on the ocean ‘wave’ has never been quite the same without them.


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