On the Waterfront: Vital role of radio at sea

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IN today’s world, marine Very High Frequency (VHF) radio is taken almost for granted with sets being installed in all ships, many smaller craft and shore stations.

Forming an integral part of the Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS), its use is vital for sea safety and the efficient management of port operations.

Besides traditional voice transmission, modern digital technology has enhanced marine VHF communication by enabling data broadcast in applications such as Digital Selective Calling (DSC) and Automatic Identification System (AIS).

At the end of World War Two, however, development of VHF marine radio was in its infancy, with longer-range wireless telegraphy (Morse) and medium frequency (short wave) radiotelephony services being long-established.

On the North East Coast, the now defunct Cullercoats Radio (call sign GCC) was one of a chain of UK GPO Coast Radio Stations, which had maintained watch over these airwaves for many decades.

One of their main roles was to facilitate radio link calls with the national telephone network.

Local tug operator, France, Fenwick Tyne & Wear Co Ltd was an early advocate of VHF radiotelephony.

All the company’s fleet had been equipped with a Pye Telecommunications system by May, 1947, providing a 15-mile range.

In addition, wireless sets were installed in the company’s Bridge Street and South Docks offices, Sunderland, together with the Newcastle head office and Mill Dam office at South Shields.

In 1950, to coincide with the opening of an experimental shore radar station at Sunderland Pilot House, a two-frequency VHF radio channel was introduced, with the base station in the pilot house transmitting on 163.1 megahertz (MHz) and the pilot cutter and “walkie-talkie” portables carried by the pilots transmitting on 158.6 MHz.

A VHF radiotelephone was installed in Sunderland’s lifeboat, Edward and Isabella Irwin, during 1957.

She was one of 50 lifeboats chosen by the RNLI to receive this apparatus, which allowed direct communication with search and rescue aircraft.

Previously, messages had to be relayed through Cullercoats Radio on medium frequency.

To standardise frequency allocation, 28 channels in the 156-162 MHz band were assigned for marine use at the 1957 Hague International Maritime Mobile Radiotelephone Conference.

In 1962, the Port of Sunderland was one of the first North East Coast harbours to introduce a radiotelephone port operation and information service.

Using the call sign, Sunderland Harbour Radio and monitoring port operations channel 14 and international distress, safety and calling channel 16, the station operated from the Pilot House.

That year, the Sunderland Borough river police launch, Patrol, was also equipped with VHF radio.

 This operated on Home Office wavebands and allowed two-way contact with HQ information room, the call sign of which was M2LN. Patrol’s call sign was N13