Memories of Radio Caroline sinking and DJ rescue by RNLI in podcast episode
Radio Caroline DJ Nick Richards has recalled how the fateful sinking of the Mi Amigo near Essex and the rescue of survivors by a Kent RNLI crew led to a lifetime’s affinity with the charity that saves lives at sea.
The Mi Amigo was originally a three-masted schooner which gained international recognition as an offshore ‘pirate’ radio station. Nick was stationed onboard in March 1980, and describes how the vessel was in such a poor state that it resembled a ‘floating hulk with no working engine, no ship’s wheel and even the compass had been taken by someone who hadn’t been paid’.
In today’s episode of 200 Voices, he tells listeners how his role as deckhand and ‘dogsbody’ involved monitoring how much water was leaking through the rusted hull. As the vessel was outlawed across Europe, repairs had to be made at sea such as plugging holes with a wooden stake and smoothing it over cement. So when the Mi Amigo broke free from her moorings at lunchtime on Wednesday, March 19 and began taking on water above a sandbank, it was all hands on deck, but where the Mi Amigo had been in similar scrapes before, the crew of three Brits and one Dutchman weren’t too worried.
‘All seemed well until around sixish in the evening when the tide started to change.’ Said Nick, who now lives in Ireland. ‘We were all in the galley drinking coffee and then I heard creaking noises that I’d never heard before and I’d heard most of the noises that ship made. Suddenly there was a boom, boom, and it was shuddering around the ship. We figured we were hitting that sandbank. What we found out later was that the broken main anchor was probably sitting underneath the ship hitting all the old holes on the hull and making new holes.’
With all their pumps going, the crew were managing to control the water as it flooded in to the ship, all the time continuing their broadcast by playing a ‘storm tape’ of continuous tracks, interrupted only by hourly news and weather bulletins.
By mid-afternoon the Coastguard advised they could launch a lifeboat and it could just stand by if needed. Nick added: ‘At the time we said: “We don’t need it, we’re grand”, but aren’t I glad that that lifeboat from Sheerness was launched?’
The lifeboat arrived late afternoon on the 19th at dusk and stood by.
He adds: ‘I know and it does make sense that the lifeboat crew knew better than we did’. But crew of DJs remained onboard in the belief that the Mi Amigo would pull through so long as they didn’t abandon her.
But their hopes of saving the ship were dashed nearer to midnight when she started taking on unmanageable amounts of water. At 11.58pm, the radio station was officially closed down with an announcement by DJ Stevie Gordon that the crew were leaving the ship to board a lifeboat. The theme tune Caroline by the Fortunes was played and faded out.
Forty five minutes to an hour later, the crew had transferred onto the lifeboat along with the ship’s canary Wilson.
‘I remember when all four of us were on the lifeboat. After about 20 minutes the hatch door opened and one of the crew on the lifeboat said: “All of the lights on your ship have just gone out.” Which meant the water was rising in the Mi Amigo and it had covered the generator. We all looked at each other and thought there’s no point doing anything other than going into land... into Sheerness,’ Said Nick.
‘For a number of weeks afterwards I used to have the most appalling nightmares wondering what would have happened if the lifeboat hadn’t showed up. It was not a nice period but, thanks to the RNLI I’m still able to tell the story and I’m still able to be thankful for what they did that night.’
It wasn’t until many years later that Nick discovered his mother had written to Sheerness RNLI and made a substantial donation in thanks.
He adds: ‘It’s an emotional thing for me. There could have been two outcomes that night. The rusty ship that could have sank, could have taken all our lives – thank goodness it didn’t. And there was the other way – that it did work out. I was saved, my life was saved by the RNLI. Sounds dramatic but there’s no other way of saying it.’
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s (RNLI) new 200 Voices podcast launched on Friday 18 August 2023 and, in the run-up to the charity’s bicentenary on 4 March 2024, an episode will be released every day for 200 days, exploring captivating stories from the charity’s history, through to the current day.
The charity has been saving lives at sea since it was founded in 1824 and, in that time, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 144,000 lives. Funded by voluntary donations, and with lifeboats crewed by specially-trained volunteers, the RNLI is a truly unique rescue organisation with a remarkable 200-year story to tell – many highlights of which are shared through the podcast series.
Available across all podcast platforms and the RNLI’s website, listeners can hear from survivors, supporters, volunteers, lifeguards, celebrity ambassadors, historians and many more from across the UK and Ireland – and beyond.
The 200 Voices series also includes celebrity ambassadors such as The Sixth Commandment actor Timothy Spall, Gavin and Stacey actress Ruth Jones, Irish musician Phil Coulter, gold medal Olympian Sir Ben Ainslie and BAFTA-winning actress Joanna Scanlan.
Launch into a podcast like no other: Listen to the RNLI’s 200 Voices daily wherever you get your podcasts or at RNLI.org/200Voices.
To find out more about the RNLI’s bicentenary, visit RNLI.org/200.
Notes to Editor:
· Audio from this episode of 200 Voices can be downloaded here.
· Find out more about the RNLI’s bicentenary at RNLI.org/200.
Key facts about the RNLI
The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.
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