Tales of the heroism on the high seas have always had a strong hold on our collective imagination – particularly here, in this cheerfully bolshy little island nation. The recent hijacking of the Arctic Sea container vessel is a telling reminder of this.
No matter now drab and neatly-organised the everyday world around us appears to become, there is something almost comforting in the idea that, just beyond the shoreline, there rolls a wild and restless realm of adventure where all bets are off – a realm ruled by rogue waves and raw courage, where old allegiances quickly fade under flags of convenience.
Perhaps, given this enduring fascination, it should be all the more surprising how easily we seem to have forgotten the legacy of stories left to us from the great days of the Merchant Navy. It is a legacy that enthusiasts such as Stan McNally are keen to restore.
The range of marine radio equipment and Merchant Navy memorabilia now on display at Fort Perch Rock in New Brighton marks the realisation of Stan’s long-held dream. In a world where last year’s skills are so often considered disposable in the wake of this year’s new technology, the old radio officer makes a refreshing conversationalist. For him, the relevance of old skills remains as strong as ever.
The Mersey shoreline is dominated by what locals call the Three Graces (the ornately-domed Port of Liverpool Building, the Cunard Building and the famous Liver Building). But as Stan tells me: “Those of us who were at sea had our own three graces.” He is referring, of course, to the lightship (whose beacon light told merchant sailors they were coming home), the pilot ship (which would provide them with a river pilot to guide them safely into port) and the tugboats (whose strong little bodies kept the docks running by pulling ships many times their size and manoeuvring them into position).
It was the lightship which first brought me into Stan’s enthusiastic world.
I was working my way through a two-year part-time masters course in video journalism, looking for a project to see me through the holiday. My tutor put my name forward to provide some video coverage of the Mersey light-Vessel Preservation Society, of which Stan was the Chairman. I had never heard of them, and I certainly had no idea what a lightship was.
“Oh, cool, it’s like a ship with a lighthouse stuck on top.” I remember saying.
This ‘lighthouse’, as I called it, took the power of the generator, which meant that the light vessel Planet (last of the manned Mersey Bar lightships) had to be towed out to its station off the North Wirral coast. Anchored without engine power, the crew would be stuck there until they were relieved. As Stan said:
“For most of us that were at sea, it was the last sight of our home when we went away and it was a welcome reminder that all was still well when we came home.”
Used as a repository of marine radio equipment by members of the Liverpool Marine Radio and Electronics Society, the lightship represented a perfect springboard from which people could learn about the legacy of the Merchant Navy. As Stan said at the time: “It’s a lightship, it’s an attracting beacon, and I’m hoping it will attract people who know nothing about the sea and people who know a lot about the sea, so that one can meet the other and hand on the tradition of the Merchant Navy.”
The radio equipment now resides in one of the towers at Fort Perch Rock, a coastal defence installation dating back to Napoleonic times. Curator Doug Darroch is pleased to be in a position to offer the exhibition a home.
“It is very deserving, and complements what is already here,” he says.
The exhibition boasts a variety of radio and RADAR equipment, some of it arranged into a mock-up of an old radio room, where visitors can try tapping out Morse messages – an activity that goes down particularly well with the younger visitors. Down the steps below the radio room is a “memory room” full of Merchant Navy memorabilia.
Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - March 2010 Issue
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