12th December 2001
The storm moved north when it left us, and went on to cause mischief on the Flemish Cap and Nose of the bank. One ship suddenly ‘disappeared’ from radio contact with no word from it for a couple of days. People feared the worst as ships can and do just disappear in weather like that never to be heard from again. Then today a message was relayed from a merchant ship, that they had found the missing fishing vessel and were taking it under tow to the Azores. It’s sudden disappearance had been caused by a huge wave taking out the bridge. The flooding ruined all of their electronics and communications, leaving them like sitting ducks until they struck upon the idea of using the emergency EPIRB to send a distress signal. The observer on board that ship will have a story to tell, and will be home in time for Christmas.
When I woke up this morning I turned on the BBC World Service. Unusually there was a good reception so it was quite a treat to listen to the reports without them suddenly fading out at a crucial point. No sooner had I turned the radio on, the presenter announced they were going live to Poldhu in Cornwall as it was the one hundredth anniversary since Marconi sent the first transatlantic radio signal from there to St Johns. They broadcasted from the village hall, interviewing a local lady with a strong Cornish accent. It was lovely to hear the sounds of home.
At Signal Hill on December 12, 1901, Guglielmo Marconi and his assistant, George Kemp, confirmed the reception of the first transatlantic radio signals. With a telephone receiver and a wire antenna kept aloft by a kite, they heard Morse code for the letter “S” transmitted from Poldhu, Cornwall. Their experiments showed that radio signals extended far beyond the horizon, giving radio a new global dimension for communication in the twentieth century. – Plaque on Signal Hill, St Johns.
It all feels very apt, that the historic signal was transmitted from my home to Signal Hill where I spent my first day in Newfoundland, and here I am exactly 100 years later bobbing around in a ship directly between the two and listening about it on a radio.
We’ve come a very long way since Marconi’s first transatlantic radio signal, and now rely on and take for granted radio technology which allows us to communicate around the world. Never have I been more aware of that than since I’ve been on this ship, but today’s incident goes to show that it only takes a big storm and a freak wave to undo one hundred years of technology in an instant, and to send a ship back into the dark ages before radio.