Night To Remember

Entry by: Paul McDermott

13th November 2015
Night to Remember

“Got the perfect job for you today, Paul!”
Lars walked me into his office, filled two mugs from an enormous percolator and pointed to a piece of equipment in the corner.
“Ever used one of these?”
The item resembled a military-style rucsac. Cables bulged from side pockets, and it looked heavy. The clue to its purpose was the sound mike (complete with furry 'wig' to damp sound distortion) which peeped cheekily out from under the top flap.
“I'd like you to do an Outside Broadcast for us” he said, “And I know you're involved as a leader in one of the local Scout troops. There's a major weekend camp coming up, and I'd like you to cover it for us. Sound good?”
It sounded more than good, it sounded brilliant. I soon found out that the equipment was ex-army, and not of recent manufacture, but it was immaculate and in mint condition: it had never been used. It came with a full set of instructions for use and maintenance, but it was so basic and simple to operate that they were almost superfluous to requirements (even though they were printed in five NATO-approved languages).
The major weekend was a 'Special Edition' of an annual event known as “Skt Georgs Løb” [St. George's Race] held on St. George's Day (April 23rd) or the nearest weekend. The Scouting Association 'adopted' St George as their Patron in their early days.
The Event had grown in popularity every year, attracting Scouts from all four Scandinavian countries and creating interest further afield, too. 1987 was a Jamboree year but the World Jamboree in Australia couldn't have been further away, and 'little Denmark' had offered to play host to visitors from all parts of Europe who wished to meet other members of the “World-wide Brotherhood of Scouts” without selling the house, the car and the mother-in-law to pay for a ticket to Oz.
Fejø is one of the many small islands off the coastline of Falster which give the region its “South Sea Islands” nickname. Most of the island is a Nature Reserve, with a few small farms and an excellent camping area. This is only ever made available for the Scouts, a privilege they have earned over the years through care and respect. They invariably leave the area in a better state than they found it (minimal damage to the woodlands, new trees planted, beaches cleansed of washed-up detritus, etc.)
Preparations were well under way when I arrived. Once I'd introduced myself, I asked for the latest update on the total number booked in for the weekend. 1250, I was told: more than twice the number of permanent residents.
The Skt. Georg Løb is traditionally a Night Event, with a series of Challenges for each team to solve along the way. The first teams set out at sundown, and then at carefully monitored and recorded intervals throughout the evening.
The weather had been unusually mild all week, but a few drips of rain started falling as the first few teams were leaving. It seemed likely that the 'Special Edition' Event, with over three-quarters of the entrants visitors from overseas, was destined to be a damp affair.
The rain continued to fall, but hadn't increased in strength when the last team 'clocked out' about an hour later. I'd managed to get my first couple of interviews done, with a range of participants from young Scouts of about 10 at their first camp, to seasoned Veteran leaders for whom camping and the Scout Association were almost the only thing in their lives.
I'd come prepared, and this included a hand-wound charger unit for my field radio, based on the reasonable (and as it turned out, correct) assumption that there would be no possibility of mains electricity for the duration of the camp.
As I plugged the radio into the charger, I was aware of a sudden, violent increase in the rain, which was now hammering so hard on the canvas inches above my head, I couldn't hear what was being said by someone standing right in front of me. I had to hand him a mike, and pantomime he should repeat his comment.
“ … never known anything like this” came through my headphones, “and especially not so sudden, without warning! Did you hear anything on the news, a weather report?”
I had to explain that my 'radio' was not designed to Receive signals, only to record and eventually Transmit. Other Leaders and Event Organisers were arriving in the main tent, equally concerned about the safety of the various Teams now spread out over most of the island.
Unbelievably the downpour increased yet again, whipped into solid, stinging sheets of near-horizontal spears flung by winds which howled their way up to Gale Force X and beyond. Clearly, the Night Hike had to be called off: but in the days before even the earliest 'housebrick' mobile phones, how was this to be done?
A few moments later reports started coming in about the whole campsite being flooded. The Nature Reserve which is Fejø's main claim to fame is mostly bogland, home to many rare and protected flora and fauna. The flooding was swift, and coming towards us from every side.
Every available hand was set to digging ditches, building dykes, diverting the rising tide. We were on one of the highest points of the island, but we were still only about 7 or 8 metres above sea level and the next high tide was due at about 3.00 am – with the wind, now approaching official Hurricane (Force XII) right behind it.
When things can't possibly get any worse … you've forgotten something.
Nobody had been able to contact the Emergency Services by telephone, because one of the first casualties of the storm had been the landline. Mobiles still belonged to the world of science-fiction and Hollywood film scripts. Our only way of contacting the outside world was for me to Transmit an SOS from my Radio and hope someone at Radio Sydhavsøerne was listening for a report to edit for the morning's first news broadcast. This was still possible. Live programmes finished at midnight and there would certainly be people in the studio, but as I couldn't receive transmissions I had no way of telling if our plea for help had been successful.
Our first small glimmer of hope came when the last three Teams to leave the camp arrived unheralded before the first of the Search Parties had left to look for strugglers and stragglers. They were battered but not bowed, and as soon as they'd changed clothes and revived themselves with Bovril, Oxo and other body-shocks they insisted on joining the Search Parties.
As the night wore on and the rain continued to drive across the bogs and fens with unabated fury, our luck continued to hold (though sometimes by the thinnest of cracked fingernails or the chapped, bleeding hands of our amazing ditch diggers and canal builders). One of the first Teams to leave emerged from the woods at the opposite end of the camp site, having completed the whole of the course but not the planned 'tasks' at each of the Check Points along the way. A couple more Teams returned the 'long way round' and each was welcomed with blankets and hot drinks. None of them were permitted to join the Search & Rescue teams, but each took a shovel, spade or other implement of destruction and attached themselves to the Navigators attempting to turn Fejø into a miniature version of Amsterdam or Venice overnight.
Fejø's permanent residents had all experienced flooding in the past, and had also made for the highest point on the island. Some of them had already assisted lost Teams, guiding them back to the camp site. Most of them had carried tools with them when leaving home, and all without exception brought copious amounts of food and extra clothing, a simple gesture which spoke volumes about the consideration and hospitality of these proud, independent-minded islanders.
As day broke the rain ceased, almost as abruptly as it started. Everyone who had taken part in the Night Hike had been accounted for. Incredibly, there had been no casualties, no injuries, and (apart from the blisters on the hands of the Navigators) nothing that required medical treatment. The Scouting motto “Be Prepared” - particularly regarding suitable clothing – had been a lifesaver.
Another thing we saw in the light of the new day was a shock to us all. Fejø's 16km2 (about 6 sq.m.) had been reduced to perhaps a quarter of its usual size. It was quite literally 'standing room only' on what little high ground remained, and we occupied it, almost by accident. We could see clearly in the middle distance that some of the farmhouses dotted around the landscape were flooded almost to the thatched eaves. The whole coastline was inundated, and the shape of the island (as I later saw from an aerial photo) was unrecognisable.
And my report? The volunteers at RS shone in their hour of glory. My message had been heard, and actioned immediately. Knowing I wouldn't be able to receive a response, they had contacted the Emergency Services, and made a “Breaking News” announcement to the radio's dedicated late-night listeners as well, assuring them that we were in no immediate danger.
A helicopter was over the island early in the morning (though I was never clear if it was the Coastguard or the Danish Air Force). They dropped a supply of blankets and the equivalent of army “K-rations” to supplement what we had available, as it wasn't certain how long we might be stranded before an evac. programme could be set up.
The event caught the national media off guard, and Radio Sydhavsøerne became famous overnight as they had exclusive access to a story which gripped the whole of Denmark. The station went from strength to strength. It now broadcasts 24/7 to a much wider audience (including on the Internet), and employs a considerable number of well-paid staff. At the same time, it still appeals to many volunteers and preserves the 'Happy Families' ambience which was always its hallmark in the earliest days.