Raoul & Campbell weather stations remembered

“Raoul Island, Raoul Island, Zulu Mike Echo Two Two
This is Wellington ZLX59
Transmitting one two one five two decimal five listening Wun Three Fife Eight Zero.
How do you copy, over?”
“Roger and Good Afternoon Raoul. Have you merit 4 this way with light QRN for November. Standby for Wellington Traffic, Over.”

Another weather sked begins.

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, New Zealand’s outlying weather stations at Raoul Island in the Kermadecs to the north and at Campbell Island in the Southern Ocean were staffed by meteorologists. Weather readings were taken and encoded into blocks of five (from memory) digit numbers for transmission to “the Weather Office” at Kelburn in Wellington.

Every three hours, technical operators from the Overseas Radio Telephone Terminal at the Wellington Transmission Centre would set up a radio link with the island to allow the met. men (and later women) to relay the weather data by voice to Kelburn. On a good day (or night) if radio propagation suited, the islanders could make telephone calls to family and friends after they’d relayed the weather data.

It was a strict routine. Every 3 hours, at 10 past the hour. With each successive contact, the islands would alternate – If Raoul was first at 3 p.m. then Campbell was first at 6 p.m. and so on. Staff at the island holding second place could make private telephone calls but only after relaying the weather data to Kelburn. The weather data “must get through.” Business first, pleasure later.

When radio propagation was poor, an island was allowed to miss a scheduled contact, but people started to get jittery if they missed a second contact 3 hours later. In atrocious conditions, say during a solar outburst, when the radio conditions were abysmal, the technical operator would sometimes communicate with the island and take the weather data by using Q codes, the phonetic alphabet and clearly enunciated numbers where five was pronounced “fife” and nine pronounced “niner” etc. The data would then be telephoned through to Kelburn. Such situations were rare.

The Radio Terminal was located at the Wellington Transmission Centre through an historic anomaly when I worked there in the 1970s and 1980s. Toward the end of the period, the service transferred to Wellington Radio (ending a long dispute, I might add) but during my time it allowed me to take part in radio operating – something of an unexpected treat.

There were many humorous and dramatic events during my time there, and I hope to write up a few of them at some stage. Reprovisioning of the islands and crew changeover were always interesting times, and the odd scheduled contact would be missed. Other old friends would suddenly pop-up in “met territory” when perhaps one of New Zealand’s warships, for whom we also ran telephone schedules, would be visiting Raoul or Campbell.

An unexpected holiday was once declared when a yacht crewed by women called at Raoul Island. Much to the displeasure of the “brass” at Kelburn, met. work took a back seat to other pursuits while a “holiday” was declared, and the few weather skeds that took place involved more than a few shlurred words. I also noted that the pops and squeals that were normally associated with single sideband transmissions took on a different tone. 🙂

The occasional visits by the frigates Waikato, Otago and Canterbury to Campbell Island were also time for celebration, with the added bonus of litter – particularly in the form of the stubby beer bottles that were issued as part of the crew’s rations. These were pressed into service to hold Campbell Island Brew – an acquired taste. The staff at Campbell sent us one (it was well-travelled by the time it was ceremoniously handed over at the radio terminal in Wellington) and a group of technical operators assembled for a “formal tasting.” The cap was lifted and the noble beverage was carefully dispensed into eagerly held tasting glasses. Silence ensued. “Ah. Hmmm.” “Different.” “Good God!” “Hint of oranges..” “Three week old …” Well, never mind. I’m sure you get the picture. Meteorology was their speciality, not brewing. And anyway, the firewater that was produced depended on what was available on the island at the time. Fire was the important result in the cold winter months….

Nowadays, of course, automatic weather stations have replaced the teams of meteorologists at Raoul and Campbell. Raoul continues to be of interest to vulcanologists and seismologists owing to its close proximity to the Kermadec Trench, and is something of a dive spot. Campbell is visited less often, but is home to species of interest to conservation authorities. Scientific expeditions still use the accommodation once used by the pioneering met. folk.

2 Responses to “Raoul & Campbell weather stations remembered”

  1. Bill lavender says:

    Good read. I was in WN transmission 1959/60 and spent time in the radio terminal when all telephone communication overseas was by radio. We used to mimic Aussie American and Canadian drawling speech as this was better to keep the voice operated switch operated and minimised clipping. Names Gus Hollingsworth. Jim Annand, Alby Sylva and Ray Lyall come to mind. I went to Britain in 1960 and visited the London overseas radio terminal where I was well received and was even able to slip an unofficial call to the Wellington terminal through and have a chat with Gus Hollingwioth.passenger ships in no waters used to schedule calls the WN terminal too.
    Thanks for the post best wishes.
    Bill lavender

  2. Ken says:

    Thanks for your contribution Bill. The names of Gus and Alby were still remembered when I did my stint in the radio terminal.

    The radio link with London had gone before I turned up for duty. (sniff)

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