anecdotes of professional cw morse on u s merchant marine ships by alex hernandez nu1t aav4gp n.
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Anecdotes Of Professional CW (Morse) On U.S. Merchant Marine Ships By Alex Hernandez NU1T/AAV4GP. Anecdotes Of Professional CW On Ships And Army Mars Introduction.

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anecdotes of professional cw on ships and army mars introduction
Anecdotes Of Professional CW On Ships And Army Mars Introduction
  • In 1990, I took a break from Aerospace Engineering to fulfill a life-long dream since childhood of becoming a shipboard radio officer handling CW.
  • There was a big demand, at the time, for more operators due to the impending war with Iraq looming in the horizon (Desert Shield/Storm).
  • I contacted one of the major maritime radio unions, the American Radio Association (ARA) after seeing an add in QST.
  • I already possessed an FCC 2nd Class Radiotelegraph License (that I had obtained in 1977), with Element 8: Radar endorsement (one of three requirements needed to be a sole radio operator on U.S. merchant vessels). The other was at least a 2nd Class license. The third one was a 6-month sea endorsement, which I did not have since I had never shipped-out.
  • The ARA sent a package with forms to fill-out and instructions on presenting my FCC license to the local Coast Guard Field Office (District 7), in order to get a U.S.C.G. License As Radio Officer as well as a drug-free test and also take a first-aid course (merchant vessels do not normally carry medics onboard).
getting ready to ship out cont
Getting Ready To Ship Out (cont.)
  • Since I had to complete at least 6 months sea time, proof of that time was achieved by submitting copies of the ship radiotelegraph log to the FCC. Here’s a sample of a typical radio log from a Ready Reserve Fleet/MSC shake-down cruise:
getting ready to ship out cont1
Getting Ready To Ship-Out (cont.)
  • The ARA, which in reality acted like a job-shop having several contracts with major American shipping companies (such as APL, Matson, Lykes, etc.), placed me as an apprentice (in order to get my 6-month endorsement) on a very new (only two years old) and very big C-10 class containership that was based in Oakland, California: the M/V President Adams, callsign WRYW. This vessel had very nice accomodations and radio room, the ‘shack’ (radio officers got their own room and daily service!). My sea radio ‘Elmer’ was a veteran ARA member as well as a fellow ham.
  • View Of the ship’s modern radio room and radio work bench showing a latter and modern Mackay radio console, INMARSAT terminal, PK-232 SITOR MODEM, SATCOM phone and computer in the ‘shack’:
getting ready to ship modern mackay radio console
Getting Ready To Ship: Modern Mackay Radio Console.

The latter model ship stations had a Mackay

MRU-35A CW/SSB/SITOR HF synthesized transmitter

And at least one 3020A/3030A synthesized VLF/MFHF receiver covering

15 kHz to 29.9999 MHz

typical officer s berth
Typical Officer’s Berth

This is a typical radio/officer’s berth (this one belonged

To a captain, left and radio officer, right):


M/V President Adams Particulars (first apprentice ship)

M/V President Adams, C-10 Class Container Vessel, Call Sign: WRYW

duties of a shipboard radio officer operator
Duties Of A Shipboard Radio Officer/Operator
  • Monitor the MF CW distress frequency of 500 kHz for at least 8 hours a day, split into three watches: 0800 – 1200, 1500 – 1700 and 1800 – 2000 local ship time. Lunch was from 1200 to 1300 and dinner 1700 to 1800. THIS WAS THE RADIO OP’s MAIN DUTY AS MANDATED BY LAW (SOLAS and Coast Guard). A ship, by law, could sail without a captain but NOT WITHOUT A Radio Operator! Silent periods were observed for 3 minutes after each 15 minutes after the hour and at the 45 minute mark. This rule was enforced internationally after the Titanic disaster where other ships were causing idle QRM while the Titanic was attempting to send its emergency messages. Another requirement was the 500 kHz autoalarm which rang bells on the bridge and in the radio officer’s cabin upon reception of the International Autoalarm signal (repeated four 4-second dashes separated by 1-second spaces) on 500 kHz when the operator was off-watch. All messages heard on 500 kHz were logged in the official radio log (see image two more pages down of a radio log example).
  • Other duties included sending and receiving ship business messages either on MF CW (if close to shore), HF CW or SITOR and INMARSAT Telex, FAX or SATPHONE. Later email via INMARSAT became more common.
duties of a shipboard radio officer operator cont
Duties Of A Shipboard Radio Officer/Operator (cont.)
  • Other duties also included reception of navigational warnings, urgent messages and weather reports to be taken to the bridge watch immediately.
  • Additionally, repair duties were also performed on the shipboard 3 and 10 cm radars, navigation equipment (LORAN, Transit Satellite and later on GPS) as well as the main radio room equipment and sometimes even shipboard control systems in the bridge and engine room. Also, every week, lifeboat drills were conducted where the emergency crank lifeboat radio was tested (similar to a ‘Mae West’). This put out the autoalarm on 500 kHz as well as being able to manually keyed on both 500 kHz and 8,364 kHz.
  • View of radio room clock, showing silent periods (SP) and manual/mechanical typewriter (had to be non-electric in case power failed) and emergency/lifeboat hand-cranked radio:
duties of a shipboard radio officer operator cont1
Duties Of A Shipboard Radio Officer/Operator (cont.)
  • Every U.S. flagged vessel had to have an FCC station which listed all the modes and frequencies that the vessel’s radios operated on:
s t american osprey
S/T American Osprey
  • In May 1992 I joined the T-2 Class Steam Tanker American Osprey anchored at the lagoon of the Island Of Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), as part of the Military Sealift Command/USN’s Pre-Position Fleet.
  • This vessel had another popular of two radio console types, the RCA-type, the other one being the Mackay-type:

S/T American Osprey

s s leslie lykes whtu
S/S Leslie Lykes, WHTU
  • In May Of 1994, I joined the Lykes Brothers Steamship Company
  • S.S. Leslie Lykes in Pensacola Florida for a round-the-world tour.
  • This Ship then went to Houston, Texas, then through the Panama Canal across the Pacific, stopped in Manila, PI for two weeks, went to thailand, went to Tanzania, Africa, Johannesburg, SA, and then finally back to New Orleans.
  • Here’s a picture of the type of radio equipment used on this type of vessel. This is a Mackay MRU-29 variant. Notice the open-wire transmission line on the room ceiling. Sometimes I used a neon bulb or fluorescent light to tune-up! Also, notice on the far right, these are the insides of an MF/500 kHz transmitter which consisted of a master oscillator, 6 switched working frequencies and the 500 kHz crystals fed to a 6146 as a medium power driver and then fed to a pair of 813 final amplifier tubes, tank circuit and variometer antenna loading coil. It is interesting to note that this circuit was used on all MF Mackay transmitters from the 1930’s all throughout the early ’90’s. It produced about 500 W output. Only the console design and external layout changed during the decades!:
s s leslie lykes whtu cont
S/S Leslie Lykes, WHTU (cont.)
  • Leslie Lykes (2)1962 built by Bethlehem Steel Co., Sparrows Point | Type C3-S-37a, 1972 rebuilt into a container vessel 11,891gt, 1995 scrapped at Alang, India.“ An Ignominious end to a ship that experienced a lot!
the leslie lykes and its connection to the kennedy assasination
The Leslie Lykes And Its ConnectionTo The Kennedy Assasination

As part of the Warren Commission Report of 1964, this popped-up

Regarding the Leslie Lykes and Lee Harvey Oswald:

s s leslie lykes whtu cont1
S/S Leslie Lykes, WHTU (cont.)
  • Mackay Reserve 500 KHz Receiver and Typical Lykes (Mackay) ‘Shack’:

Manufactured by Federal Telephone and Radio Corp. VLF regenerative receiver used in the merchant marine and the U.S. Coastguard, vintage WWII. Coverage is 15 to 650 KHz in four bands. Can be operated from 120 volts AC or DC or directly from 6 volts DC and a 90 volt "B" battery. I'm told the Coast Guard also designated the 128-AY version made by Federal as the RC-123. A good portion of the Liberty ships built from September 1941 to 1945 used a Federal Mackay console which included one or more variations of these receivers. Like most marine receivers of the period, the AC-DC design was not to save money but stemmed from the use of 120 volts DC on many ships and the ability to use the batteries for backup power source.

“from Alex NU1T/MREO” ( from

"I also used the Mackay Radio And Telegraph Type 128 HW well into 1994/95, when I served as MREO onboard the SS Leslie Lykes." This receiver was used to copy the last SOS from the SS Achille Lauro." Alex sent copies of the DDD SOS that he received in November 1994 from the Achille Lauro on 500 kHz while serving as Master Radio Electronics Officer (ARA) onboard the Leslie Lykes, callsign WHTU. According to Alex, the exact QTH for his ship was around 900 miles southeast of the disaster site. He adds,"Unfortunately, we were too far to be of any useful assistance, as deemed by the OM." (I wrote this article for the Boat Anchors Website about 5 years ago).

This was the receiver used, as late as 1994/1995 during my voyage on WHTU

To mount the 500 kHz watches and where I copied to SOS from the Achille Lauro, IBHE

the leslie lykes and its proximity to the sinking of the achille lauro achille foreground history
The Leslie Lykes And Its Proximity To The Sinking Of The Achille Lauro/Achille Foreground/History
  • In 1985, The Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, IBHE, was hijacked by four PLO terrorists, led by Abbu Abbas between Port Said, Egypt and Tartus, Syria. They shot and killed American tourist Leon Klinghoffer and then dumped him overboard together with his wheelchair. See the following Video below:
s s leslie lykes whtu cont2
S/S Leslie Lykes, WHTU (cont.)

On November 30, 1994, the following dramatic SOS relay (DDD) QTC’s were copied while I was on watch that afternoon monitoring 500 kHz:

s s leslie lykes whtu cont3
S/S Leslie Lykes, WHTU (cont.)
  • Second SOS Message From IHTU that I received while on watch:
s s leslie lykes whtu cont4
S/S Leslie Lykes, WHTU (cont.)
  • Last day Of the Achille Lauro as witnessed via CW radio:

The SOS was actually sent using the reserve 40 Watt CW transmitter

On 500 kHz due to failure of the INMARSAT terminal because of fire

Damaging electrical cables, as described in the Radiograms!

more satellite problems
More Satellite Problems!
  • While on board the M/V Liberty Sea during the return trip to New Orleans from a U.S. Aid grain cargo delivery to Haifa, Israel, the INMARSAT gyro motor on the antenna pedestal burned-out and I had to send the following position report/SITREP via CW to Chatham Radio, WCC:
epilogue to cw at sea
Epilogue To CW At Sea
  • If you’ll notice, there is a definite pattern here indicating something wrong with modernism/economic expediency affecting safety!
  • The pattern is, CW and humans function, because CW was made for humans! To name just a sample of its effectiveness, it worked for the Titanic, it worked for the M/V Prinsendam (its INMARSAT was also hampered by fire back in the late 1980’S), it worked for the Achille Lauro (only 5 casualties out of more than a 1,000 passengers and crew), and I’ve made it work during routine equipment failure. And this is just a small sample of SATCOM failures, as I only sailed for about 6 years on ships, but was still a witness to technological failure on the world’s biggest wilderness, the open ocean!
  • CW was and is a proven workhorse!
  • However, in February 1999, the 1912 SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) convention, the international ruling that made it mandatory for all vessels over 600 tons to maintain a 500 kHz watch (it was in existence after the Titanic disaster) was repealed in favor of the new GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress And Safety System). The GMDSS system is based on INMARSAT, 406 MHz EPIRBS and a primitive form of pre-ALE digital HF SELCAL. The main motivator for the GMDSS was not really safety of life at sea but in reality the penchant of the shipping industry to reduce crews and therefore cost! Experimental fully automated merchant vessels have been sailed (they still need line handlers to moore them). Fully automated airliners have also been thought of as well! I just hope that they won’t be powered by Microsoft op sys computers! I don’t think I would want to own any waterfront property, where an 80,000 ton vessel might possibly accidentally slam into my house because its navigation/control computer froze!
  • This is a typical GMDSS console located on a ship’s bridge. This is what replaced the radio Operator. Either the captain or the 2nd mate (navigator) are assigned to operated it: