The Awatea Story

This article was first broadcast on Adventist World radio and now forms part of the Radio Heritage Collection ©. All rights reserved to Ragusa Media Group, PO Box 14339, Wellington, New Zealand. This material is licenced on a non-exclusive basis to South Pacific DX Resource hosted on for a period of five years from January 1 2003. Author: Adrian Peterson

Back in the days before World War 2, there were two ships in Australasian (OS-tral-Asian) waters that were quite famous in the international radio scene. One was the “Kanimbla” with its radio station VK9MI, and that was the story in Wavescan on a previous occasion. The other ship was the “Awatea” (AH-wa-TEE-a) that plied across the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand. That is the story for today.

The MV “Awatea”, meaning “Eye of the Dawn” in the Maori (MOW-REE, 1st syllable rhymes with HOW) language, was a little larger then the “Kanimbla” and was rated with a displacement of 14,000 tons. It was built by Vickers Armstrong at Barrow in northern England and it was launched in February 1936, just two months after the launching of the “Kanimbla”. The electronic equipment on board the “Awatea” was also made by AWA in Australia and it was installed in the ship at the time of construction.

The transmitters on boad the “Awatea” were licensed by the New Zealand authorities as ZMBJ, and for long distance communication it operated with 400 watts on 8840 kHz. However, there was no radio studio on this ship and when the station was on the air with program broadcasting, the communication equipment was diverted for this purpose.

In September 1936, the Prime Mimister of Australia, Mr Joseph Lyons, was travelling on this ship and he made a broadcast to Australia from the shortwave transmitter ZMBJ. This broadcast was relayed Australia-wide on the ABC network by the mediumwave station 3LO in Melbourne. Around this era, occasional broadcasts using recordings of popular music were heard in both Australia and New Zealand.

As time went by, this ship made fewer radio broadcasts until towards the end, it was noted only in communication traffic with the maritime stations VIS in Sydney and ZLW in Wellington. However, generic QSL cards were issued for both the program broadcasts as well as for the communication traffic.

At the outbreak of war, both the “Awatea” and the “Kanimbla” underwent the same fate. Program broadcasting from both ships was silenced and both ships were drafted into war service as troop carriers. In 1942 while on active duty in the Mediterranean, the “Awatea” was attacked and sunk, thus ending the illustrious life story of a very interesting radio broadcasting ship from “down under”.

Occasionally, it is possible to come across an original QSL card from ZMBJ on the “Awatea” and sometimes you will see a reproduction of this exotic QSL card in a radio magazine. The AWR collection contains just one copy, and Dr Martin van der Ven in Germany also has a copy. You can find his web site on ship broadcasting at


A while back, we presented a story here in Wavescan about the New Zealand passenger vessel, “Awatea”, that made many voyages across the Tasman between Australia and New Zealand. This ship was also on the air at times with radio broadcast programming for which QSL cards were issued and these days these cards are quite rare.

Down in the island of Tasmania, Rex Arnott came across the radio script containing our feature item on the “Awatea” on the Pacific Heritage website in New Zealand. Rex tells an interesting story of earlier years, back in 1939.

At the time, a high profile radio comedian on the air in Australia was the New Zealander Jack Davey who was heard in the evenings on nationwide relay with quiz programs and other similar audience participation programs. During the day he was on the air over the mediumwave station 2GB in Sydney.

It so happened that Jack Davey’s father, Captain A. H. Davey, was the Master of the passenger vessel “Awatea”. Now, it was the pride of the passenger liner “Awatea” to pass under the Sydney Harbor Bridge at exactly 8:00 am on arrival day and then tie up at the wharf at Darling Harbour half an hour later.

Rex Arnott states that he remembers on many occasions listening to 2GB on arrival day and he would hear Jack Davey in 2GB talking on the radio with his father on the “Awatea”. In true comedian fashion, if per chance his father was ever late, this provoked a season of verbal sparring over the air.

Radio Broadcasting from Ships – Awatea


Ships Information & References
Awatea – The Ship
“Awatea” = “Eye of the Dawn”; Dr Martin van der Ven
Photo – via Dr Martin van der Ven
Painting – via Dr Martin van der Ven
Constructed by Vickers Armstrong at Barrow (UK); Dr Martin van der Ven
Launched 14,000 tons Union SS, Barrow & Furness; Herald 79.217b 4
Launched 26-2-36 LI 79.24 4-10-37 9-37 37
Launching; Herald 26-2-36; Nb 79.217b 8
13,482 ton 23 knot, Sydney Auckland Frisco Vancouver, Martin Ven

Awatea – Electronic Eqipment
ZMBJ information in small booklet; LI 79.24 9-4-38 25
Radio equipment shipped to England for Awatea; LI 79.24 30-7-38
2kW LW, 1 kW LW, 250 w emergency; Broadcaster May 1936 18

Awatea – Broadcasting Activities
Broadcast to Australia PM Lyons, captain 3LO; Herald 21-9-36 79.217b 8
Sending music; ISWC 12-36 10
“Radio Voice of the Tasman”, article & photo; LI 79.24 4-9-37 37
ZMBJ Awatea 4420 kHz; RD 1938 4420
Occasional broadcasts; LI 79.24 30-7-38 32
No broadcasts at present by ZMBJ on 8840; RN 7-38 54
ZMBJ heard one Sunday night test with Sydney; R&H 79.11 9-39 55

Awatea – Communication Traffic
ZMBJ heard communicating with Wellington strong; LI 79.23 13-3-37 50
ZMBJ heard in contact with Wellington strong signal; LI 79.23 20-3-37 52
ZMBJ working with Wellington; LI 79.23 10-4-37 52
Good signal from radiophone station ZMBJ; LI 79.24 7-5-38
ZMBJ 8840 strong signal; R&H 79.11 5-39 58
ZMBJ 8840 usually scrambled speech; R&H 79.11 7-39 57
ZMBJ heard only in telephone traffic; R&H 79.11 10-39 52
One short paragraph; PC 11-95 20

Awatea – Later Events
Became troop ship, bombed and sunk in Mediterranean 1942; Martin Ven
Sinking of Awatea; PC 12-87 18

Awatea – QSLs
QSL card ZMBJ 8840 Union Steam Ship Co NZ 300 – 400 watts; AWR
QSL card; Dr Martin van der Ven collection
Reproductions in radio magazines

Radio Broadcasting from Ships – Awatea

Time Lines

Year Ship Call Country Area Events
1936 Awatea ZMBJ N Zealand Tasman Sea Launching
1939 Broadcasting ended 1942 Sunk Mediterranean

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