VK5EEE

Introduction

Probably the world's youngest ships R/O rank of Apprentice in 1975 aged 11 years and 11 months - there has been a short summary of how that came to be at http://www.qrz.com/db/VK5EEE but this page will serve to tell the entire relevant story with as much detail as I can.

Summary: I was a Radio Officer rank of apprentice (see below for an explanation of what type of radio officer) on board RHMS S.S. Ellinis/SWXX of Chandris Lines from Melbourne Feb 1975 to Southampton March 1975 - 5 weeks via Wellington, Papeete, Canal Zone, Curacao, Azores, Vigo. The last leg of the voyage was to Rotterdam but ended for us in Southampton due to engine failure. RHMS Ellinis and sister ships such as Brittanis, Amerikanis, Australis, Patris, brought many migrants including the so-called "ten pound poms".

Voyage 51N if I remember correctly.

Callsigns of other Chandris ships I remember included HOOJ SVVY SXXE SZRE SZWE

On coming of age, made one lone attempt to join a course for radio officers, but it was with the British Navy and didn't appeal to me, I wanted to be with merchant navy, but did not know how to go about that and never persued it again, though kept listening on and off until the 90's to HF and MF (mostly CW) merchant marine (and other) traffic. Got ham ticket as G4OJW in 1981. Now for the details about how I became a Radio Officer and what type of radio officer and in what conditions :-)

How I became an Apprentice R/O on Board RHMS S.S. Ellinis/SWXX in February 1975 for 5 weeks, aged 11 years 11 months

My Mother and step father decided to immigrate out of Australia in early 1975. Chandris Lines had ships which for decades went up and down between Europe, Australia and New Zealand, mostly bringing immigrants and "ten pound poms" (as the ticket cost 10 Pounds Sterling in the old days and was an effort by Australia to make this country white during the "keep Australia white" policy). Therefore even in 1975, on its last northbound voyage, though I don't know the price, the ticket to Europe was much cheaper than the southbound voyages, as otherwise the ship would not be full. My Mother said it was cheaper than flying, and enabled her to bring all her antique furniture and even big brass bed, with us, along with all our belongings at that time.

We boarded RHMS Ellinis in Melbourne in February 1975. Already since the age of about 8, I had learned Morse Code, and by this time I was proficient at receiving Morse Code well in excess of 20WPM. I used to avidly listen to 500kHz and other MF transmissions, as well as coastal stations and ship stations around the world on HF. I thus was very familiar with not only Morse Code, but had a long list of Q codes most of which I had committed to my young memory, as well as operating procedures, frequencies, call signs, ITU allocations of both the preceding. Certainly a very unusual hobby and area of knowledge at that age.

As soon as we had been assigned our cabin, I ran off in search of the Radio Room. My intention was none other than to be able to hear the sound of Morse that I'd listened to many years prior, coming out of an actual Radio Room! I had no intention of anything else, not in my wildest dreams could I ever have imagined what was to come. At that age I was an exceptionally polite, humble, shy, modest and skinny little boy. I think I have become rather the opposite of these things in later age as experiences shaped me, but I digress…

I don't remember exactly how I located the Radio Room, but it did not take long. I could hear the Morse even while approaching in a corridor. The ledge at the window, the only opening to the radio room other than the closed door to the side, was where obviously grown ups submitted their telegrams and their requests for radio-telephone (RT) calls. As I remember, if they were given a call, they were let in the door. If a telegram, they paid at the window and then departed. Anyhow, I wasn't tall enough to be visible through the window, my head was below the ledge I believe. Coming out of the speaker in the Radio Room loud and clear was Sydney Radio on HF: VVV … VIS5 … so in order to attract the attention of anyone inside, and to possibly get the chance to be invited inside to take a look at the radios, I called out "Sydney Radio" in my little boy voice.

The Radio Officer on duty at the time, was Manolis, Chief R/O on Ellinis. He looked out the window, saw nothing, looked left and right, then looked down! "What boy, what?!!!" — I never forget all that transpired here, so where my record is not accurate word's I will insert in brackets. He then turned the dial and asked me what this was… I remember clearly "XSG/4/7" coming out in Morse code. Without hesitation I replied "Shanghai Radio!". I don't remember if he said anything then, but what happened next is still very clear in my mind. Seconds later he was through the door and literally dragging me inside and plonked me on the seat.

He gave me (pen, pencil?) and paper and tuned in a weather report, and asked me to copy it down. I can tell you that weather report was being sent I guess at aound 15-18WPM, a speed much below what I could copy. It lasted as far as I remember about 2 pages of writing. Of course I did not miss a single letter, numeral, or pro sign. The very instant I'd put the last character to paper as the report ended, he grabbed me by one arm, the papers in his other arm, and literally dragged me at what to me was a high speed, up to the Captain. I didn't know he was taking me there, all I knew is he was speechless, and excited.

Next thing I know we're both standing in front of the Captain, and Chief R/O Manolis is showing him the papers with excitement in his voice, talking quite rapidly in Greek. I would surmise that he said something along the lines of "Captain, Sir, you will never believe this, I cannot believe it myself, it's a bloody miracle. See this skinny little runt here? He not only knows Morse Code (at high speed) but he knows the call signs, and he took down this entire weather report without a single error! This is a bloody miracle!!!" That was about the length of his speech, and I'd guess that was what he probably said based on his demeanour.

I never forget what happened next, though all of the exact words I don't have, but their meaning I stil retain indellibly imprinted on my mind. It was one of those "life moments" you never forget. I don't think I said a single word to the Captain though, I was suprised, in awe, and wouldn't have known what to say. But the Captain upon hearing Manolis in Greek, turned to me, without any hint of smile, superiority over a minor, fun, play or jest, very seriously and in English: "I Captain … (wish I knew his name, will try to see if Chandris Lines records exist), (law at sea [or words to that effect]) hereby (designate?) you as Radio Officer, rank of Apprentice. You start your 8 hour shift tomorrow morning, and you will have an 8 hour shift every day. Tomorrow you will receive your uniform. You are (entitled) to eat with the crew (should you wish), and you are allowed on the Bridge at any time."

As I was so shy, I never took up my right to be on the bridge. A big shame in retrospect. I could have gotten to know the Captain. Perhaps he even was surprised I did not, I'll never know. Going through Panama Canal locks, I should have been on the bridge. Anway, sure enough, the Tailor visited me and took my measurements and from the next morning, the Tailor had presented me with a uniform, white trousers, white shirt and R/O lapels on the shoulders, with the Apprentice rank. The fellow R/Os told me that the uniform belonged to a female officer and had been trimmed and sewn to size by the Tailor. There was no cap, I imagine that it wasn't possible or easy to make a cap small enough for my head. The shirt and lapels hopefully are still in France in storage, among the few belongings I have left after the Sudan and other "adventures".

At my first shift the R/O on duty (don't remember which one) made me swear and oath of secrecy, that any communications I received, transmitted or became aware of, I was not to divulge to anyone, not even my parent(s). I kept that oath. I was one of the few to know for example, about a burial at sea of an elderly lady who had passed away on this voyage. I had a daily 8 hour shift for the next 5 weeks, until just before we arrived at Southampton, when sadly due to a lot of panic among the crew since the voyage had to be suddently cut short there instead of continuing to Rotterdam, due to engine failure, there wasn't time for any proper good byes before we were bundled off ship and into busses across inland to take a ferry to Rotterdam.

During those 5 weeks of daily shifts, I enjoyed every second of every minute of every hour. I'd say those were the greatest 5 weeks of my life. The colleague R/O on my shifts, would let me do almost all of the CW work: sending telegrams, traffic lists, calling, 500kHz watch, receiving weather reports and telegrams, but the R/T calls were done by him. I never asked to do those and wasn't interested in SSB, and perhaps as a passenger would be inside the Radio Room, it would be inappropriate for me to patch them through, with my child voice this could also raise questions from the coastal stations? But on CW, no one was the wiser. The entire 5 week of shifts was from the start never treated as a "gift" to a young child, or anything other than totally serious, at times I was left alone in the Radio Room but for the most part a full rank R/O who was on duty, would be there.

I never imagined that this is anything other than a very unusual and interesting story to tell. Since posting it online, after all these years of not talking much of it to anyone, I received questions regarding the uniform, how could one be so small, and what about pay — was I paid? In all these years until getting that question, neither me, nor my Mother who may have taken that photo of me in uniform in a public area of the ship (she was also never in the crew areas), ever thought about why I wasn't paid. What on earth for? It was an amazing privilege and experience to be an Apprentice Radio Officer.

Anyone is welcome to contact me via my QRZ page if they have any further questions. I believe at least one of the R/O is still alive, and I'd like to try to get back in contact with him, in the 1980's I briefly found and then quickly lost his contact.

Questions Answered

How did they find a uniform to fit you aboard ship? — is included in the above account, the tailor cut it from an existing one

What work did they have you do in the radio room while aboard ship when you stood your watch? — I would monitor 500kHz (though usually not alone in the room unless R/O went to toilet), traffic lists, take down weather reports, and send QTC. They didn't want to sit around doing nothing, so I could not do every QTC etc that I wanted :-) I was also allowed to call SVA etc.

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