General information

Penta Marine Radio Communications is a unique private radio communication station located at Firefly (just west of Nabiac) on the NSW mid north coast providing specialised safety and general communications for small craft and land mobiles. Penta Comstat VZX is the station identification and callsign.

The station commenced operation as Penta Base on 27 MHz frequencies in Gosford in July 1976 with the callsign VM2PC in the premises of Gosford Chrysler Marine. The name Penta was taken from the Chrysler 5-pointed Penta star logo.

There were no volunteer rescue or fishing club stations operating in the area other than weekends and holidays. Penta Fishing Club was formed to obtain a licence to provide a service, mainly for customers, on weekdays. The regular daily services provided soon attracted additional members.

The radio facilities were expanded in September 1977 to include VHF and HF with a Limited Coast Station licence on the same callsign and Penta Base became the first station in NSW operating 7 days a week on all pleasure craft frequencies.

The membership continued to grow and the membership wall chart was replaced with a card index system. The weekday operation became 7-days and nights. The fishing clubs in the area all had difficulty manning their own stations on weekends and joined Penta Base to provide the service for them.

Yacht racing and cruising

The station first became involved in ocean yacht race communications during 1979 when they were asked to help with the Sydney – Mooloolaba race and later that year, the Sydney – Noumea, Gosford – Lord Howe Island and Montague Island races. Until then, the accepted method of obtaining position reports was to have a radio relay vessel pass the information to the yacht club by radio telegram or radio telephone call.

Yacht race communications then were on 4143.6 kHz, the South Pacific itinerant small craft frequency, which was used by most coast stations as a common working frequency. The race skeds and safety communications were often disrupted by commercial traffic. The frequency was only approved for the duration of each race. Yachts on return voyages after the race, and those cruising independently of organised events, were expected to arrange their own communications.

Penta Base obtained approval to operate on 4143.6 kHz on behalf of the yacht clubs for race communications and to provide skeds for yachts returning to home ports after the races. Their special return sked was first included in the 1979 Sydney – Hobart Race sailing instructions.

During 1979-80 they made many submissions to the Department of Communications (now Spectrum Management Agency) for the allocation of a 4 MHz frequency for yachts and pleasure craft to enable a regular daily service and also for access to the supplementary HF distress, safety and calling frequencies.

These applications were met with stiff opposition by the OTC Coast Radio Service. Although they appeared to then have little interest in small craft communications, any plans by Penta Base to establish a long range service were obviously regarded as competition. OTC had the sole franchise for communication with ships at sea and had the opportunity to oppose any applications by limited coast stations. They were also determined to have Penta Base restricted to 2182 kHz for distress and safety even though the supplementary HF distress and safety frequencies 4125 and 6215.5 kHz were those recommended in Australia and the South Pacific.

In the first issue of their magazine Beacon in September 1980, Penta Base published an article requesting support with their submissions. The problems gained national media support when approval was refused to use 4143.6 kHz for the 1980 Sydney – Hobart return skeds. The sailing instructions had to be changed to 2524 kHz and this frequency proved unworkable.

Support from the yacht clubs, individual members and the media for the 4 MHz service resulted in the Minister for Communications arranging a meeting with the Department of Communications, Department of Transport, OTC Coast Radio Service and Penta Base to resolve their communication requirements for ocean yacht races and yachts on ocean voyages.

The meeting in Canberra on 21 February 1981 was chaired by Mr Ross Ramsey, then First Assistant Secretary who went into the meeting with a large number of telegrams and telex messages sent by the yacht clubs and many individuals that morning. This support for Penta Base’s proposal, and their successful negotiations at the meeting, resulted in the decision to allocate a 4 MHz frequency to replace the temporary use of 4143.6 kHz.

The meeting agreed that, subject to a number of conditions, Penta Base would be licensed to provide a daily service on the 4 MHz frequency. These conditions required a commitment to the service by Penta Base and those yacht clubs involved in ocean yacht races to establish and maintain a service.

Penta Base also gained access to the supplementary distress, safety and calling frequencies and monitoring them was one of the conditions.

A further request by Penta Base at the meeting for an extension of their licence to include “movement and operation” traffic was also approved and Penta Base was authorised to provide a private HF service. The frequency 4483kHz was allocated and this was the beginning of a new era in HF communications for yachts and pleasure craft.

Establishing the service

The station was re-located to a new site at Holgate in September 1981 to combine all the equipment from the business in Gosford and the stand-by station at their home into one better location to comply with the requirements attached to the allocation of 4483 and also to improve the communication service.

Telex facilities were installed in February 1982 to facilitate search and rescue communications and to receive weather forecasts and warnings from the Bureau of Meteorology. Regular daily broadcasts of NSW local, coastal and ocean waters forecasts were established that year and the following year Penta Base commenced the broadcast of high seas weather forecasts then the only voice broadcasts of this weather from Australia.

The station name was changed to Penta Comstat in 1984 to improve call recognition and better reflect the national and international image. Comstat is a hybrid for ‘communication station’. The original callsign VM2PC was abbreviated and the station identification became ‘2PC Penta Comstat’. The present international coast station callsign VZX was allocated in 1992.

After three years of negotiations with the Department of Transport (now Australian Maritime Safety Authority), it was agreed in November 1985 that Penta Comstat would be issued with NSW coastal and NAVAREA X long range navigation warnings issued by the Federal Sea Safety and Surveillance Centre (now Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre). This was later extended to include Queensland and South East Australia warnings and copies of all MARSAR messages for eastern Australia.

Their submissions to the Department of Transport in 1985 resulted in a complete revision of Sea Safety Reporting guidelines for small craft and the Small Craft Movement Report Form to overcome the confusion that existed about small craft reporting.

The new guidelines recognised the long range reporting facilities provided by Penta Comstat and the local services provided by the many volunteer stations.

The long range service

Ocean yacht race and small craft cruising radio communications changed dramatically during the early to mid 1980s. Penta Base provided the communications for most of the yacht races on the east coast including Sydney – Mooloolaba, Sydney – Southport, Sydney – Whitsundays and Gosford – Lord Howe Island.

For many years it had been a general misconception that the only means of communicating over long distances was by using ham radio. Penta Comstat published an article in Beacon which explained that there were marine frequencies which could provide similar communications without the need to study for an amateur radio licence. The article was later reprinted by both The Cruising Skipper and Amateur Radio Action magazines.

With the allocation of 4483 and the temporary use of 6, 8 and 12 MHz frequencies for long ocean races, Penta Comstat was able to provide the race communications and regular skeds for yachts returning from organised long distance events including Sydney – Suva, Sydney/Brisbane – Noumea, Sydney – Vanuatu, and Trans Tasman races.

The communications for the yachts going from Sydney to Hawaii for the Clipper Cup, the skeds for yachts returning from Hawaii and the return skeds from the Sydney – Hobart race in 1982 were the subject of national media stories.

Communications with Jon Sanders sailing Perie Banou during his double circumnavigation of the world attracted national media attention because he was sailing into the area of the Falklands war and were also the subject of many references in his book Lone Sailor.

Kay Cottee also maintained regular contact with Penta Comstat during much of her non-stop solo circumnavigation of the world during November 1987 – June 1988 and later made many references to the communications in the book First Lady.

When the Nippon Ocean Racing Club (NORC) in Japan approached Penta Comstat to assist with the inaugural Melbourne/Osaka Double-Handed Yacht Race in 1987 it was agreed they would be responsible for just over half the distance to 10°N. Penta Comstat actually continued to provide communication for most of the entrants into Osaka Bay.

When NORC decided to hold the Melbourne/Osaka race every four years, they contracted Penta Comstat to provide the communications for the total distance of the 1991 and 1995 races. NORC also organised the 1994 Pan Pacific Yacht Race and Penta Comstat provided the communications for both the Brisbane – Osaka and Los Angeles – Osaka legs of this event.

A better frequency deal

It was not until February 1987, after years of submissions, that the Department of Communications finally granted Penta Comstat approval to use the 6, 8 and 12 MHz frequencies for a daily long range safety service. These frequencies were licensed to OTC and Penta Comstat had previously been restricted to the periods of organised events because OTC were not prepared to share them for a daily service. The Department also authorised a 16 MHz frequency which was not shared and a 22 MHz frequency was added later.

The shared simplex frequencies made safety communications very difficult. They were often jammed with foreign traffic, and the problems became worse when OTC decided to introduce voice high seas broadcasts on these frequencies instead of their normal working frequencies.

Penta Comstat continued with submissions to the Department for the allocation of their own HF duplex channels to improve their safety communications, but there were none available. The communication requirements of the Bicentennial Around Australia Yacht Races in 1988 were considered the best chance they would ever have of getting better frequencies.

The Australian Yachting Federation (AYF) were organisers of the fully crewed race and a detailed report was prepared for them to submit to DOC. Unfortunately, the AYF took the easy way out and at the last minute elected to do their race communications through the OTC coast stations.

The Short-Handed Sailing Association of Australia (SSAA) organised the Two Sail Australia ’88 event and Penta Comstat were committed to the communications for this race on their existing allocation of international simplex frequencies. Penta Comstat actually provided the communications for both races when due to a lack of support the AYF race was merged with the SSAA event.

It was July 1991 before Penta Comstat received the allocation of a range of HF channels from 4 – 22 MHz. These were part of the additional channels made available to Australia when the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) introduced the new HF band plan.

Improving the service

The station continued to expand the services and upgrade equipment to keep pace with the latest technology.

The introduction of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) in 1991 required the installation of six single channel receivers and audio monitor system to maintain an effective watch on the increased range of six distress, safety and calling frequencies from 2182 – 16420 kHz.

In January 1992 Penta Comstat was the first maritime station to install Selcall facilities to provide direct contact on all their HF working frequencies from 2 – 22 MHz. The VHF service was upgraded later that year with the allocation of channel 78 and the installation of Philips 50 watt VHF transmitters on channels 16/67, and channel 78 operating full duplex with a repeater as required.

From the single 27 MHz radio in 1976 there were now 2 x 27 MHz, 4 x VHF, and 5 x HF transceivers including three scanning Selcall, and an additional 10 dedicated HF receivers. All broadcasts are on multiple frequencies, with the facility to transmit on up to nine frequencies simultaneously two on 27 MHz, three on VHF and four on MF/HF ranging from 2 – 22 MHz.

Installation of HF telephone interconnect facilities in May 1989 was an attempt to avoid a repeat of the communication problems associated with first night of the Bicentennial Around Australia Yacht Race on 8.8.88, when one yacht crewman was lost and a police launch sunk. This equipment was to enable the authorities to operate the Penta Comstat HF transceivers remotely by telephone if required and also to enable a vessel to communicate directly with either medical or search and rescue authorities for more efficient handling of a situation.

The installation of new radiotelephone interconnect equipment in October 1993 now provides all the safety communication facilities of the previous equipment on all radio frequencies not just the one HF radio transceiver. In addition, it enabled the introduction of a ‘private correspondence’ radiotelephone service for Members at a moderate cost.

An e-mail over HF radio service was introduced early in 1997 to enable connection to any e-mail address on the Internet. The service operates on a range of international data frequencies using a data modem interfaced with a computer.

The station was relocated from Holgate to Firely in February 1998 to improve the long range HF service and services on 27 MHz and VHF were discontinued.

Some of the achievements

Penta Comstat has been listed as a coast station in the Admiralty List of Radio Signals (ALRS) since 1990 and is recognised by the authorities as providing a safety service for non-solas vessels in eastern Australian waters.

Penta Comstat has been largely responsible for many of the improvements in small craft marine radio communications in Australia. The local, coastal and long range services provided by Penta Comstat have been used as the guidelines for safety communications and from the days of being restricted to the limited range of 2 MHz, and occasional approval to use higher frequencies for organised events, small craft now enjoy a greatly improved service on a much wider range of frequencies from 2 – 22 MHz.

Ocean yacht race communications that relied on a radio relay vessel passing positions back to yacht clubs through a number of stations, or by public correspondence, now enjoy a reliable radio communication service most often direct with the yachts and without the need for a radio relay vessel.

Vessels returning to home ports after yacht races or cruising independently of organised events have a coastal and long range reporting service that is unique in Australia possibly the world. With an average of more than one thousand reports logged every month from these vessels, Penta Comstat has been able to confirm the safety and well-being of many hundreds of vessels for countless family and friends and has been responsible for a significant decrease in the enquiries to search and rescue authorities from concerned relatives and friends.

The search and rescues

Penta Comstat has been involved in many of the search and rescue communications for small craft distress situations off Eastern Australia and the Tasman and Coral Seas including:

The Membership

The original membership list on the showroom wall that was planned to handle 60 members soon required replacement by another with double the capacity, then a card index system and now a computer database that over the years has handled over four thousand membership records.

Penta Comstat is not a volunteer organisation and receives no government funding. The safety services provided are available to all mariners at no cost but the service is funded by the membership fees.

There are now many stations operating locally and around the coast but Penta Comstat has continued to provide a service that is not available from any other organisation that important personal link between those away and their family and friends at home.

The proprietors

Penta Marine Radio Communications, Penta Radio Communications and Penta Comstat are registered business names of the husband and wife team Derek Curtin and Jeanine Lynette Barnard.

The maritime communication service they have provided for the past 20 years was not really planned. Even the marine business from which it started came about by chance after they decided to move out of Sydney and look for a small business probably a hardware store.

Derek had always enjoyed a close affiliation with the sea and also an interest in radio. Born in Launceston on the Tamar River, he spent most childhood holidays on the water with family friends that owned both power and sail boats. His hobbies included building crystal sets and listening to the local radio stations through military disposal headphones, and later became a keen ‘short wave listener’.

Having finished school at 16 his preferred work option in radio was not possible with only one small repair firm in town not looking to employ an apprentice. The next option of electrician was available with the Tasmanian Government Railways a family employment tradition. His father had worked there as a moulder until joining the Royal Australian Navy at the outbreak of World War II and his grandfather had been an engine driver before going into politics at about the time Derek was born. Derek’s second name of Curtin was after John Curtin, also an engine driver, and close family friend who also went into politics and was one of Australia’s greatest Prime Ministers.

The electrician apprenticeship only lasted a few months when the compulsory government employees medical examination revealed Derek was red and green colour blind not acceptable in electrical trades. He agreed to change trades and chose to complete his apprenticeship as a fitter and turner.

When called up for National Service Training he was fortunate to be selected for the RAN because of his father’s navy service, and was able to continue his trade training as an engineer stoker, serving five months at HMAS Cerberus including two months at sea on HMAS Vengeance the sister aircraft carrier to HMAS Sydney. The time at sea included a visit to southern Tasmania, two visits to Sydney and naval exercises in the Tasman Sea from Jervis Bay with Sydney and a fleet of destroyers.

The RAN training confirmed a desire to go to sea, and after completing his apprenticeship he left the railways to join Wm. Holyman and Sons as a marine engineer. Having studied engineering at night school for two years before leaving high school and continuing the studies during the five year apprenticeship, Derek succeeded with an application for membership of the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers.

Derek spent the next few years as 4th and 3rd Engineer Officer on both the MV Lorinna and MV Warreatea on the coastal trade between Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia. He had many opportunities to experience first hand the best and the worst of weather conditions across Bass Strait and around the Tasmanian coast. It also allowed time to revive the interest in radio with many of the hours off watch spent with Radio Officer friends in the radio room.

An employment opportunity in Adelaide resulted in Derek never going back to Tasmania except for family visits. Jeanine was born in the Barossa Valley and grew up on the Murray River fruit region in South Australia. They met in Loxton when Derek was supervising plant installation at a local fruit juice factory.

They moved to Sydney when Derek accepted a position with an engineering firm there. Later, they were transferred back to Adelaide when Derek was required to open a branch office for the firm and managed South Australia and Western Australia from that office. A couple of years later they were transferred back to Sydney when Derek was appointed to a divisional management position in the head office.

They have two children, Nicole and David, both now grown up and working. Nicole was only 4 years old when Derek and Jeanine decided that living in Sydney permanently did not appeal to them and started to look for a business on the Central Coast. David was born in Gosford in the early years of their efforts to establish a marine business.

Both Nicole and David have survived the traumas of living their entire childhood in a world of radio communications and are now able to assist when necessary. However, the 20 years of service to the boating community would not have been possible without the very generous assistance of some very special Members.

Well-known Tasmanian yachtsman Hedley Calvert and wife Judy first talked Derek and Jeanine into going on holidays while they ran the station. In more recent years that assistance has been very ably provided by John and Margaret Davis who had the yacht Seventh Heaven and now also live in Tasmania.

There have been many others that have assisted in various ways and considerable support from some very special Members. There was also encouragement often when it was most needed including the OAM Derek received in the 1980 Queen’s Birthday awards, and being made a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International in 1983.

They have received many awards for their contribution to safety at sea including:

There are also several scrap books of the many media articles that have been published over the years and a large collection of yacht race plaques, trophies and photos that cover most of the radio room walls.

There have been many changes to the number of stations and the communication facilities provided over the last 20 years but most of the services provided by Penta Comstat are still unique in Australia and are authorised under several Australian Communications Authority and AUSTEL licences.