Short Wave Radio
The temperature dropped sharply as night approached. Rain, blown by a violent gale, was transformed into ice pellets that hit the windows sounding like small pebbles being thrown against them. Strange howling sounds emanated from the house. The timbers creaked and groaned as if under the weight of a restless sleeping giant.
The November storms that blew in from Lake Huron were always dangerous, but tonight was worse than usual and many feared losing their lives attempting to escape its fury.
He was not quite sixty, but he walked as if he was eighty. Rheumatoid arthritis had wracked his body. Every movement was agonizing. His hands, swollen twice their normal size, gave him the feeling of wearing boxing gloves when he attempted to pick things up. He could not help but to think how this disease had altered his life so much.
Robert “Reds” Wilson was always a popular first officer with the men. He had served in the Pacific Campaign running supplies for the fleet. He returned home after the war to work in Lake Huron’s shipping fleet. Wilson was well regarded; a disciplined and knowledgeable seaman by both captain and crew. Maybe it was the hard work that wore him out , but ‘Reds” felt that it was the exposure to the elements that had been the main source of his torment.
As a young man he had been a perfect specimen of strength and agility with a thick beard and a head of wavy red hair. He could lift the heaviest bales, climb the tallest masts, and avoid every dangerous obstacle on the deck of a ship like a nimble mountain goat. But, by his fiftieth birthday, he started to show the signs of the condition which would keep him confined to his little house moving from his parlor to his bedroom. The one thing that gave him the most pleasure was the thing that kept him in touch with the world... a short wave radio.
Wilson had accepted his fate and bought a small sturdy house close to the docks. Friends popped in to see him from time to time, but it was that gift, the short wave radio bought by his crew, that opened the window to the world easing his loneliness during the cold and dark winter season.
‘Heaven help anyone out in this weather tonight,’ he thought as he shuffled to his seat and gently laid his coffee cup on the small table, next to his chair. He turned on the switch to his radio, then fiddled with the knobs trying to get a clear channel. The hiss and popping of the static on the airwaves was a clear indication that the storm was strengthening. He found a channel and listened to the conversations between the ships and coast guard but then lost them after a few minutes. He became frustrated with the bad receptions and was about to shut off the radio and retire to bed when he heard the cry of “Mayday!”
“Mayday”, the universal code for distress originated with the French words “M’Aidez” meaning “help me”. Wilson didn’t hear a bit of static The voice was as strong and clear as if the person was speaking in the next room.. He fumbled with his microphone, held it tight and responded, ‘Roger, I hear you!’. A man's voice responded:“This is the Captain of the Antoinette, my ship has taken on water. I have ordered the men to abandon ship. I am in Saginaw Bay five miles Northwest of Point Aux Barques ... I am headed in that direction and intend to ground my ship…if I can make it. Send a rescue ship for my men…send word to my wife and children…and pray for my soul!’
‘I hear you and will comply’, he shouted., ‘Keep on this frequency. I will get help immediately!’ Reds put out a call to the Coast Guard to alert them to the Captain’s plight. He changed channels and tried frantically to contact anyone who was listening but heard only static. Turning back to the former frequency he shouted to the Captain of the Antoinette: ‘can you give me your coordinates? …I repeat: 'can you give me your coordinates?’ The Captain spoke but not in answer to his question. 'Mon Dieu, m’aidez!’ Again he repeated: 'This is the Captain of the Antoinette, my ship has taken on water. I have ordered the men to abandon ship. I am in Saginaw Bay five miles Northwest of Point Aux Barques ... I am headed in that direction and intend to ground my ship.'
A faint signal came in from the Coast Guard. They were reporting the sinking of the freighter SS Hydras and the Caruthers, a huge ship carrying a load of iron ore being abandoned by its crew amid treacherous waves. Wilson shouted: ‘this is Reds Wilson, I am reporting the crew of the Antoinette is in need of rescue near Point Aux Barques.’ There was no response.
Reds returned to the same channel hoping to hear from the Antoinette. This time the signal was weaker. He could now hear the Captain praying, repeating his distress call, and then crying in French. Reds yelled: 'Don't give up! I am going to get help! Remain on the channel.' He was just about to try another call to the Coast Guard when suddenly, He heard a sound like windows smashing and the rush of water! A last wail of despair came over the airwaves and then,...silence.
Reds Wilson’s heart sank with the realization that the man’s whose voice he had heard was dead. He anguished over the fate of the Antoinette’s crew and changed channels on his radio listening for any news of their sighting. The storm raged on throughout the night as Reds Wilson kept his lonely vigil. As day was breaking the weather relented. He was able to hear the transmissions that revealed the devastation of the night before.
Missing vessels were being reported. Along with the Hydras and the Carruthers, the Wexford, Price, and the John S. McGean carrying coal were found wrecked on Lake Huron’s shores with terrible loss of life and no survivors. There was no mention of the Antoinette or its crew. What had happened to them?
The weather cleared up the next day and there was buzzing on the airwaves about the “Big Blow” that just took place. Those who had gotten in on time counted themselves lucky to be among the living while lamenting their friends that had been lost. Still, there was no mention of the Antoinette.
Reds sat by his radio sipping coffee, lit his pipe, and talked to anyone who might have information on the Antoinette. There was none to be gotten. He decided to call the Coast Guard Station on the telephone and spoke with Commander Scott whom he remembered from years back. Scott recognized him right away. ‘Reds, how’s the news on the radio?. Wilson said he was up on all the scuttlebut, but then asked him for any information about the Antoinette and her crew. He had explained that he had received a distress call from the Captain .He said that no one knew of any distress call from that ship but he had heard it loud and clear and worried for the crew. He knew the Captain was dead. There was a pause on the line and then Scott answered: ‘Reds, the Antoinette went down long ago in 1913 the year of the actual “Big Blow’’. We lost the most ships ever recorded.’ Reds shot back, ‘It must have been another Antoinette, I spoke with the Captain before he died trying to reach Point Aux Barques …he begged me to send rescue for the crew that had abandoned ship.’
Commander Scott spoke quietly and slowly as he recounted his story: 'Reds, the Antoinette was a side wheel coal steamer that was lost in the “Big Blow” of 1913. Radio was in its infancy back then, so the Morse Code was used instead of voice transmissions. It was only a year before that the Titanic went down and if not for the Marconi operators sending out distress calls that night many more people would have lost their lives. Captain Jacques Martine, who named the ship in honor of his wife, Antoinette sent out a signal that night in November to rescue his crew after he had given the order to abandon ship. This brave Captain stayed aboard trying to run the ship aground, but died when the ship broke on the rocks. I received several calls about the Captain's distress call from the Antoinette for many years Reds, but this is the first time I ever heard it from someone who actually heard ‘the voice” of Captain Martine. , the fate of the ship and crew has always been of special interest to me… the crew had been found two days later due to the Captain's distress call being received before his ship was wrecked. Five men were found in a lifeboat that was almost full of water. They were all thought to be dead, but miraculously, one survived. Reds …that man was my “father”.’
Could the transmission have been suspended in time? Perhaps the atmospheric conditions which occurred during the "Big Blow" could only be recreated under the same circumstances, or, perhaps, we have yet to understand the portal to another dimension.