The Great Weymouth Ferry Disaster

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Introduction

This article was written in 2003 by ex-BBC Bristol Audio Engineer Simon Muir and appears here by permission. The appendix is written by Chris Youlden. The account is based on a real event, although embellishments are inevitable, and any names that appear are probably changed in accordance with failing memory.


The Great Weymouth Ferry Disaster

(in which Piglet visits the Channel Islands but never gets off the boat, and the Radio Times acquires a strange sense of importance.)


Many years back, a travel company decided to resurrect the old car-ferry route from Weymouth to Jersey. This was excellent news for both Weymouth and the Channel Islands' tourist industry, what with improved links to London 'n all, and BBC South West decided it merited a bit more than ordinary news coverage.

The Big Jolly was conceived.

"Spotlight South West" is normally studio-based. This time it would be broadcast live from the ship, on the maiden voyage of the new service. There would have to be a scanner and full comms rig on the ferry, going over to Jersey the night before, and sailing back in the daytime. 'Spotlight' would go live on the final approach to Weymouth harbour, and the ship's docking manoeuvres would coincide with the end of the programme.

I almost forgot the most important bit: the OB was going to be crewed from Bristol! A buzz began in Prog Ops. This trip was for press and broadcasters only, a PR 'event' without fare-paying passengers. Knowing well what such things are like, word went out that this would be Bristol's summer 'Booze Cruise' - an event to rival the legendary Crew Room Christmas parties. We'd even have a few hours for a spot of duty free shopping in Jersey too. Sun, sea, booze, duty free - it couldn't be better.

The size of the technical crew began to increase appropriately, as any number of riggers, camera assistants, engineers, etc. all began lobbying hard, and were eventually deemed 'essential' as Planning retreated in disarray, faced not just with force majeure, but also because some of the prettier girls were being invited along to 'observe' the technical aspects of the show (yeah right!). One camera supervisor wasn't on duty at all but was going down anyway. It was bound to be too good to miss.

Planning

I didn't attend planning meetings in those days, being a mere sprog, but I understand Comms weren't having a wonderful time of it. They'd done some tests and found out that the only way to work it (no satellite links in those days) was to have manually-steered microwave dishes at both ends of the link, with engineers watching signal strength meters to keep exact alignment as the ship followed its course.

Visitors to Weymouth will know that the headland is steep, and there was only one spot for the van offering clear views out to the South and West. Even that had a somewhat restricted sight of the harbour itself, (there were quite a few trees on the headland), but the dock area was in plain view.

Excitement was mounting though, as was the vehicle count. There was BLU ("Bristol Lightweight Unit" pron. 'Blue') and the Tender, some Comms trucks, and now a fairly large genny too. The ship's supply had been discovered to be 110V and thus couldn't run the kit. It was a good thing there weren't going to be any fare-paying passengers.

The Big Day

The big day arrived. The entourage trundled off down to Weymouth, with a 1900 hrs call on the quay. The cars were staying there; only the BBC vehicles would actually be loaded aboard. Departure wasn't scheduled until 2200 hrs, so our early call was for last minute checks before the vehicles went on.

In practice this meant two hours spare for a curry, so off we went. Weymouth doesn't/didn't offer much choice, but we found the only one that appeared to be both open and reasonably safe to eat in. I remember an indifferent tandoori and possibly Tiger beer, but nobody really cared. The party was beginning and was going to be great.

We got back to the quay to find a huddle of worried engineering faces, a fair bit of arm-waving, and, unexpectedly, a queue of cars pointing at the ferry. It was immediately obvious that our press-only booze cruise also included tourists! It turned out that the ferry company's funding was marginal, and they had been forced to take fares on the first trip to help offset the start-up costs.

The BBC crew had all been promised two-berth cabins. Because of the extra people however, these now had to be four-berth. Smiles began to disappear. There are always some people on a crew that nobody wants to share with.

The EM wasn't too happy either. This was a smallish drive-on, reverse-off ferry, fresh from its old job, island-hopping in the Caribbean.

British Channel Island Ferries

It was a mere minnow compared with the leviathans that cross the Straits of Dover. The BBC trucks were a little larger than its usual cargo, and, instead of parking in a carefully planned arrangement to optimise the cable runs, we'd now all have to be shoehorned together so that the tourists could fill up around us.

Still, it was our Big Jolly of the year, and the PR people were now promising us a crate of champagne per cabin as compensation for being four-up. There are some people nobody wants to share with, but if you're really drunk, you don't care...

Getting the vehicles on proved to be quite a struggle. Some of BLU's radio gear on top had to be dismantled, and, even before that, the tourist cars had to be marshalled out of the way to let the bigger vehicles on first. While we'd been eating they'd queued up in front of the BBC convoy and were now thoroughly in the way.

With much reversing, pushing and shoving, the ship's crew and the BBC riggers finally got the trucks on board and in the 'right' places - the vehicle layout bearing only passing resemblance to the original Tech. Reqs. We thought we'd have enough cabling, but heck, the bar was opening up. The tourist cars were squeezed on too and the stern doors finally clanked shut at around 0030 hrs...

Well it was a drinking session and a half. I don't remember huge amounts of detail, but Plymouth's brilliant weatherman was certainly holding court. IIRC, he taught meteorology at Dartmouth Naval College, and is ex-Merchant Marine. Ideal man for the job: good at sailing, drinking and, er, weather. I don't remember any of the tales specifically, but A dark and stormy night definitely featured in several.

I retired fairly early, to discover several chaps milling about in the cabin companionway. Apparently the champagne hadn't materialised as promised. Mutiny was threatened. One of the senior cameramen went off to 'negotiate', and sure enough, there was a knock on the cabin door around twenty minutes later and twelve bottles were indeed delivered - things were looking up a bit.

Nobody slept well - at least judging by the noise and door banging. I don't remember breakfast. I doubt many people did, and anyway I don't think anyone was really in the mood.

Still, the weather appeared to be on our side. It was a beautiful day, not a breath of wind, and the sea was like the proverbial millpond. There was a sea mist though. Visibility wasn't exactly poor, but you couldn't see horizontally more than a half mile or so, even though the sun was shining down quite strongly.

It didn't really matter though, as there was nothing to look at anyway. We were mid-channel by that time, with just the occasional slowly passing ship and opportunist seagull for company.Even they gave up after a while. They're not the brightest of birds, but anything ought to spot a p**s-take after trying to swallow a large lump of champagne cork for the third time [1]. Bored cameramen can be very immature.

[1] Plaguing seagulls is a long and ignoble tradition. I once met a Viet Nam naval vet who used to line up cruising gulls in his ships targeting radar and then fire it off (around 1/2MW, final stage, not ERP). The idea was to see how good a smoke plume could be achieved before they hit the water, fully cooked.

Crew Call

Fortunately, before anybody had time to dream up something worse, there was a crew call on the aft sun deck to do some links and pieces to camera.

Snag #1 became evident at this point: Storno base stations don't work too well in the bowels of a steel ship, especially if you had to take the aerial down to drive on board. You could sort-of hear production talkback at the entrances to some of the companionways, but it clearly wasn't going to be too easy on deck, or anywhere higher up the superstructure, especially the bridge.

The cameramen became rather smug at this point. I think we'd just got Ikegamis, miles better than the Link 120s and nothing like as lethal, anyway, they'd got talkback and we hadn't. There's nothing a cameraman enjoys better than directing stage manager, artistes and sound people. Offsets the natural insecurity, I suppose - TV without pictures is Radio, but TV without sound is just, well, incomprehensible.

Anyway they got on with it (after a fashion), whilst I made the first of many trips into the bowels to fetch an armful of headphones for talkback and suitable extension cables. High impedance cans and 75 Ohm DAs are wonderful things. Forget headphone amps, give me a cable, an Eddystone box and a wirewound pot any day. No batteries or aerials or nasty cheap jack plugs to break - even reasonably waterproof - but I digress. Recording continued with much arm-waving, shouting and gesticulations off camera. They managed it in the end though, as it wasn't too complicated - there's a limit to how posh you can get with two VPR2s and three cameras, so it was all done long before we finished crossing the Channel.

Arrival in Jersey

Jersey slid languidly into view. It is a weird place to sail round, as the most prominent features are the Nazi blockhouses on every headland. Having travelled much more since, it now reminds me of a sort of over-sized Alcatraz, especially as it's complete with tourist boats and aggressive seagulls. Still, it was my first BBC trip ever off the UK mainland, and nothing was going to dampen my high spirits - until we actually docked, that is.

Those of the crew doing more sitting around than the rest of us - pretty much everyone except sound, cameras and the presenters - had been muttering a bit, and looking at their watches. I'd been too busy with radio mics, etc. to pay much attention, and assumed they were checking their tan times (the sunshine was now getting quite strong). A hasty conference called by the EM however revealed the worst.

Our languid progress (nautically speaking) had been down to two things - that sea mist, which had reportedly been much worse in the night, and the ferry company's enthusiasm for saving money, presumably by driving with a light right foot. Anyway, we were four hours late. Docking would last just long enough to get the cars turned around, and there was to be NO DUTY FREE SHOPPING. Groans all round, and murmurings of mutiny #2.

This wasn't going to stop my supervisor though. Guernsey sweaters had been promised back at home, so Guernsey sweaters there had to be (SWMBO in this case is petite, charming and Welsh, and accordingly packs a serious left hook). With a quick 'mind the shop' he nipped off down the gangplank, followed immediately by a couple of the quicker-thinking cameramen...

Rehearsal and Transmission

The EM tactfully decided on a 'Nelson's Eye' approach, and developed a quite unnatural interest in the opposite side of the harbour for a while. Around eight minutes later, a scene not out of place in a POW movie took place. The Germans, of course, were nowhere to be seen by that time (sensibly on towels on the beach somewhere), but our three fugitives reappeared, and made a very theatrical dash along the quayside and up the gangplank, back into captivity.

Dashing anywhere with an armful of Cellophane-wrapped sweaters does engender rather intermittent progress. Five paces, stop, back up, recover the sweater(s) you dropped, and so on. From jeering distance (did we jeer!) it looked a bit like wrestling eels. Sadly for those wishing poetic justice, nothing and nobody fell in the drink, so we got under way again with the minimum of subsequent fuss.

I forgot to mention a parcel of U-matic tapes that were also brought on board (with a bit less fuss than the Guernseys). In those days there was no permanent BBC-TV news presence on the Channel Islands. A Plymouth crew flew in earlier in the week and had been running round for several days picking up stories.

They had flown an edit pair over with them, so the pieces were supposed to be pretty much complete. I think we'd brought a TBC-equipped play-in machine with us specially. What with these items, the links and the on-board interviews with the captain and tourism people, most of the programme would be coming 'live' from the ship.

The weather was again splendid as we pulled away from Jersey into the Channel. Hot, fairly sunny, and with little wind, apart from that caused by the forward motion of the boat. Jolly nice up on deck, but not so good for the poor souls down in the hold, where the director and producer had agreed that "a little re-packaging" was necessary for some of the inserts. Oh woe!

Aside: you lucky young chaps with loads of SCSI disk arrays at your disposal don't know what you're missing. Regional news programmes were truly entertaining in those days - two VPR2s for play-in plus a U-matic and, er, that's it.

Accordingly, directors needed two crucial practical skills: knowing exactly which button had bars on it (to cut them up quickly when asked, and NOT do it on transmission), and the ability to plan the VT strategy for the night. No tape can spool fast enough for newsreaders, and it's imperative that adjacent moving picture items didn't come off the same machine.

Big stories being dropped were trouble. If you weren't careful you could have VT-B following (oh shit!) VT-B, without time to cue up. We used TK[2] live every night when I started doing news, and I once did an entire show where it missed its first cue, and never caught up for the entire 25 minutes. But I digress. The pain-free approach was A, B, A, B, with occasional PSC. Once you started editing on the open reel machines though (as we were doing), you often had a lot of copying to do, to get stuff back onto the right TX reel to run it live. Our VT editor was going to be busy.

I took the opportunity to climb up to the flying bridge[3]. Normally, mere passengers aren't allowed anywhere near it , but Comms had set up our microwave kit up there, clamped to the rail, so I could legitimately visit for 'technical' reasons.

Irritatingly, we seemed to have found that mist bank again, so visibility was once again fairly poor. It couldn't last though - how often is there a dead calm in the Channel? The Comms guy had a long-range VHF radio up there, and could already reach his oppo on the Weymouth headland. In any case, they were working to compass bearings and he had a signal-strength meter and a monitor down by his feet to check their aim.

Our chap had also clamped a small UHF aerial to the rail for off-air (the one normally on the roof of BLU now wasn't, and wouldn't work in a steel box anyway, etc.). He could see both our output and the scruffy off-air picture. The Weymouth TX (then an RBR if memory serves), has been discussed at length elsewhere. It doesn't waste much of its meagre power out to sea.

By 1600 hrs it was time for a stagger through of the programme proper. The VT editor had presumably retired to be thoroughly sick somewhere. Diesel fumes, the absence of a visible horizon, and the slight rolling of a boat making slow headway, together make an unsettling combination to say the least. He had by far the worst of it. Everyone else had been able to get up on deck at least for a few minutes.

Part of the live show involved an interview with the captain, a reticent but friendly Scotsman. Enter Snag #2: it's not just Stornos that don't like Faraday cages - Pageboys[4] don't either. Radio talkback just wasn't going to fly (or sail, for that matter). It would have to be time honoured hand signals from the stage manager. Nae problem Jimmy - we're all pros after all.

Now here's where we sadly lose track of part of the story. Yours truly was looking after the pointy end of the business as SA1, and, with all the running around, lack of talkback was more than a nuisance. The events that follow were pieced together afterwards, from various sources. They don't need to be anonymous, as I can't remember who said what, but it's probably a good thing that time blurs the memory... We never got a full rehearsal - that much I do remember. Too many loose ends, and much to-ing and fro-ing by the director between the aft deck, and the bridge (both with cameras and presenters), and the van down on the car deck.

We were beginning to get the hang of it though. A shaky off-air picture had magically appeared in the cameras' viewfinder returns and on the 'deck' monitors, and I could hear Plymouth coming out of a squawk box in the van (whenever I stood near a doorway or ventilator acting as a suitable waveguide for talkback signals). It sounded like the links were working.

There were some fun & games with Astons though. We hadn't brought an Aston operator (I don't think we had an Aston anyway), so name supers were being done by the Plymouth gallery - I guess that also let them run a 'clean' recording of us.

The plan was that we'd direct the whole show. After the count (from Plymouth - no network talkback for us!), BLU would call the Astons over the link as needed. There was also a newsreader and VT play-in at their end, which we'd run, and, weirdly, it all seemed to be working. The mist was, if anything, actually getting worse though - Craig's weather wasn't going to be too exciting...

Did I mention the talkback problems? I forgot the fact that the bridge wasn't exactly spacious, and to get the shot for the Captain's interview the camera was squashed outside on one of the stairways. This meant you couldn't get past, and thus, for me, cabled talkback wasn't really a permanent option. The occasional burst of RF shouting as I ran past a stairwell would have to do. The stage manager was having similar problems.

Time wasn't really on our side. It never is. Still the links were working, nothing had actually broken (odd, that), and we were on air in 2 minutes...

... The first part was almost textbook, considering. We ran our packages, Astons magically appeared on cue, and the live stuff at the back of the ship went really well. It was out of sequence though compared to the usual format. Normally the news summary and read items came somewhere in the middle, with the weather right at the end before a recap. They'd decided to put all that stuff in the middle this time, so that the grand finale would be that live interview with the Captain. By then we should be making our carefully timed entrance to the harbour to dock, so the action shots from the bridge should be superb.

We went to Plymouth for the read news. They handed back to us. More packages. Grins began appearing on a few faces - it seemed to be working well.

At last the finale, the big one. Cue Chris and cut to cam 1: "And now I'm up on the bridge with Captain (Ahab?) and we're coming into Weymouth. Captain, could you talk to us for a moment?" The Captain, per script, formally hands the bridge over to the first officer, in vision, then turns back to Chris. They do a predictable chat: how much he's looking forward to doing the new service, how convenient it will be for the tourists, how you still can't see very much because of the mist, but not to worry because we have good radar, and how we'll very shortly be docking in Weym______bzzzt. Hiss.

Yes, at that very moment we fell off the air. It surprised almost everyone, except Comms, and especially the good folks in the Plymouth gallery.

On board ship, we all crowded round the backs of the cameras, to catch sight of the off-air feed, which was actually pretty good by now. A startled newsreader popped into vision (after a frame roll or several). Sadly they seemed to have lost the OB, but not to worry... he'd recap on a few of the night's stories... no, he'd... um... go over the weather again... no, he'd... tell us what delights were in store that evening, as he just happened to have a copy of the Radio Times handy.

He really did. The poor chap had to read from it in-vision, and fill for what must have felt like hours, but which was probably a couple of minutes. I don't think they even had the end sig (we'd got the tape!), but they cut to the BBC1 globe early, and stayed on it until the first chance to opt back into network. The post mortem established that a standby item on tape might have been a good idea.

So what had happened to us? It really had all been going very well up to the point, when, er, it suddenly wasn't.

Turned out it wasn't really our fault at all. The Comms people had explained to the captain beforehand that there were some bits of the harbour their links van couldn't see properly from up on the headland. Those trees were too much in the way. Nobody predicted a problem though, as the ferry's direct route to the dock was in clear sight.

The captain hadn't bothered to mention the conversation to his first officer. It wouldn't matter in practice anyway, and anyway he was going to be interviewed on television!

The first officer was a quiet, prudent and cautious man, conscious of his responsibilities. Because of that wretched mist, it seemed sensible to him to follow the deep water channel around, just in case, rather than take the direct route across the harbour.

Ordinarily, he would have cleared it with the captain first, obviously, but his boss really couldn't be interrupted. He was, at that exact moment, doing a live interview for the BBC. It wouldn't do to upset that, would it? . . .

[2] Telecine. "TK" so as not to be confused with "TC" which was Television Centre - TVC is much better!

[3] The open-air 'Captain-only' deck above the main 'indoor' bridge.

[4] Motorola's finest: mini receivers with weird batteries, awkward clips, fiddly controls and sockets, and just enough oomph to power an earpiece.


Copyright © Simon Muir 2003

Appendix : Communications

I really don't want to detract at all from Simon's excellent recounting of this live ferry OB other than mention a couple of things which may be of interest.

It fell to my lot to be the manager responsible for planning the Comms for this OB, and on the planning visit the Captain ushered me up to the bridge and devoted his whole attention to my questions. He stretched out the charts and patiently, with his first officer, answered my queries about what the hieroglyphics stood for (not being a sea person myself).

I recall the captain assuring me that the ship would be making for a particular buoy and would be there 5 minutes before the end of the programme, without fail. They would then adjust speed to drift into harbour to arrive just after the programme.

I remember asking not once but 3 times, and recorded the answer in my OB planning notes, that this was the course that the ship would take and nothing would divert it, else there was a risk of bumping into something apparently.

Accordingly I found a nice little patch of ground on the cliffs above Weymouth (White Horse Hill for those who know it) which sees the whole of the bay and out to sea and also right into the harbour. Bomb-proof, I thought. As Simon recalls, I also ensured that there were additional aids for the 'panners' to stay on the beam in the event of poor visibility especially as we wanted to establish and use signals from the ship as soon as possible when it would still be out of sight. Incidentally the Comms circuits (talkback from Plymouth etc) were working soon after leaving St Peter Port Harbour.

Back in Bristol I watched the programme. At first I thought it was strange that the bridge had painted its windows white since the planning trip. When the circuit disappeared I thought a Comms transmitter had failed and waited for the reserve to be put through - but it didn't happen.

The postmortem revealed that there was a rule of the sea which the captain had not told me about. In the event of fog the entrance to Weymouth harbour is changed to the other side of the bay - the eastern side - and, strangely, brings ships in right underneath the steep cliffs. This was the one and only place in the entire bay which was not covered. The Comms guys saw it happening as they tracked it under the cliff - veering from the agreed path - and radio'd warnings to the ship to no avail.

It taught me one thing about television - never work with children and animals and ferry captains.

Copyright © Chris Youlden 2003