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HAM Radio on the High Seas

HAM Radio on the High Seas

Discover how amateur ham operators keep 'Queen Mary' wireless on the air!

Discover how amateur radio operators keep 'Queen Mary' on the air!

The Queen Mary, a former North Atlantic ocean liner, is now permanently docked in Long Beach, California. It serves as a hotel and an iconic destination for amateur radio operators worldwide. The tradition of ship-to-shore radio transmission is still maintained, and tourists have the opportunity to experience the hobby of ham radio in one of the ship's cabins.

At the time of Queen Mary's inaugural voyage in 1936, the wireless telegraphy technology aboard the ship was the most extensive ever installed on any ship. It was created and built by the London-based International Marine Radio Co., Ltd., and made it possible to stay in constant radio broadcast, radio/telephone, and telegraph contact with Europe and America throughout the North Atlantic voyage!

The Wireless Installation and its History of Use

When the Queen Mary first set sail, communication was a whole different ball game. Marine MF and HF radio channels would hum with communications between ships and radio stations on land. On the broad waves, it resembled a web of interconnected voices.

Now, each major shipping line has its own radio company that offers top-notch gear and qualified radio operators. Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company was one of the game's first titans. And guess what? On every trip of the Queen Mary, the radiomen of the International Marine Radio Company, operating under the codename GBTT, were the real unsung heroes.

Their tasks were cumbersome, ensuring inter-ship safety, navigation, weather updates, news reports, and managing crew and passenger messages and even radio-to-landline telephone calls for those who would pay the rather high prices for that service. Except for the ship-to-shore radiotelephone calls, most other traffic was passed using Morse code radiotelegraphy outshining AM and SSB voice modes when it came to efficiency and reliability. No noise or signal fading could defeat the trusty Morse code.

The Queen Mary turned into a troop carrier from 1940 to 1947, transporting valiant folks to their places. However, passenger operations resumed from 1947 to 1967 following a significant restoration and refurbishment, and the Queen Mary was once again in her element. The portside first-class writing area on the Promenade deck was blocked off and turned into a passenger radio/telephone reception room during the refit. This modification highlights how crucial telecommunications have become in the twenty-first century. All classes of travelers might gather here to make prearranged long-distance phone calls. (The majority of first-class travelers, though not all of them, had phones in their rooms where they could make calls. Second- and third-class passengers did not.)

In the swinging 60s, Ken Mugridge, one of the Queen Mary's Radio Officers, takes us on a trip down memory lane; 

"Most of our radio work was done by Morse code—sending weather bulletins, navigational warnings, telegrams, and more—in the swinging 1960s. Although tucked away in the transmitting room at the back, they did have radiotelephone systems on board. At certain intervals, one of the senior Radio Officers would go down there and take reservations for phone calls in addition to receiving telegrams from passengers who weren't traveling in first class”.

Amateur Ham Operators Club on the Queen Mary's Last Great Cruise

Amateur radio was introduced for the first time during Queen Mary's Last Great Cruise in 1967. When it was discovered that the City of Long Beach was considering buying the Queen Mary to act as a colossal symbol of its developing status as an "International City," Long Beach resident and radio amateur Nate Brightman, K6OSC,  absolutely obsessed with the concept of turning the Queen Mary into a colossal icon and wasn't willing to let it pass him by. Nate went above and beyond, charming city officials until they finally consented to finalize the transaction and complete the acquisition.

Al Lee, W6KQI, a radio amateur from Long Beach, led a group of amateurs on a flight to England when all the key obstacles to this endeavor were put in place. Once they boarded the Queen Mary, it was all hands on deck. The airwaves were alive with their broadcasts during the Last Great Cruise under the callsign GB5QM after they expertly fitted their radio equipment.

The converted ship was made available to the public in the early 1970s. An amateur ham operator's club was set up in a portion of what was once the Racquets Court's observation platform. This center of radio excitement settled on the Sports deck. Over 150 committed club members made it their goal to highlight the intriguing world of ham radio to curious visitors.

When Ken Mugridge, one of the enthusiastic club members, thought back on his trip to the Queen Mary in 1982, he stated, 

"The door was shut when I last went aboard and visited the amateur radio shack. Through the glass, I peered inside and saw what appeared to be an ancient Mackay Radio receiver on a shelf alongside an IMR Co. emergency transmitter. I also observed the emergency transmitter that was set up in the wireless room. It operated on 500 kHz and 24-volt batteries.”

Nate Brightman Legendary Wireless Place!

The first dedicated amateur radio station to be built on a museum ship was W6RO, which went online in 1979. Nate Brightman, a true radio aficionado (K6OSC/SK), who led the station as its manager for an incredible 34 years until his retirement and death, brought this big vision to life!

The Swan Radio Company of Oceanside contributed amateur radio gear for Queen Mary's new Wireless Room at Brightman's request to the company's owner, Herb Johnson. They even put some of the original radio equipment from the ship to exhibit once the equipment and antennas were set up.

Nate had an unrestrained passion. From 1979 until his retirement in 2013, he was the station manager. In 2007, the radio station was renamed "The Nate Brightman Wireless Room" in his honor. The ham radio bands are home to the famous W6RO. Amateur radio operators from all over the world try to contact this famous station over the airways to receive a W6RO 'QSL' card as a keepsake of their wonderful conversation with the legendary Queen Mary!

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