Perhaps the most successful April Fools Day joke ever was pulled on an unsuspecting Macleay population by award-winning Macleay Argus journalist, Patricia ('Pat') Riggs over thirty years ago this month.
The edition of that paper of Tuesday, 1 April 1969 announced the surrender of the Red Fleet at Trial Bay.Readers awoke on the day to see the headlines "Surrender of Red Fleet - Trial Bay is choked with ships, Deserters are recaptured".
Basically, Pat's story was that ten ships from the Russian South Pacific merchant fleet had taken refuge in Trial Bay that morning.
The commodore, Captain Ivan Itzalieski, was surrendering his ships to the Australian Government and the crews would all be seeking political asylum. The commodore said that about 200 of the crew of one ship, the Joker, had swum ashore fearing they might be shot as spies.
A photo montage of ships of various descriptions in Trial Bay illustrated the article. A large passenger liner, the Looflirpa (April Fool backwards), was prominent as it headed towards anchorage near the oil terminal. The front page article also featured photographs of the Mayor, Mr R G Melville and local MLA Mr Jim Brown in soldiers' uniforms preparing to mount a search at the Belmore River for the missing seamen.
Arthur Slack, the chairman of the Oxley Regional Development Committee was depicted seated at the controls of a hovercraft, accompanied by the tourist promotion officer Mrs Val Melville as they surveyed the shipping in the Bay.
At 7 am on Tuesday April 1, as the last of the day's newspapers were being delivered around Kempsey, Pat rang Peter Bosley the early morning announcer at radio station 2KM and asked him to promote the prank.
Peter then broke into his radio programme to announce: "We've just had a news flash from the Macleay Argus. The Red Fleet has surrendered. Ships everywhere in Trial Bay. Pat Riggs has just telephoned to say she's on her way down there to find out what's happening."
Bosley broadcast a few more snippets from the Argus before wishing his listeners a happy April Fool's Day. Despite Bosley's on-air admission that the news of the Red Fleet surrender was a joke, and numerous clues in the Macleay Argus article by the inclusion of names such as Itzalieski, Joker and Looflirpa, many people were taken in by the joke and flocked to Trial Bay to witness the event.
Some carried blankets and food for the deserting sailors, others had binoculars, and they came from as far away as Port Macquarie and Nambucca Heads. The Jerseyville ferry made fifty more trips than it usually did on a Tuesday.
Generally the prank was accepted in good humour by local residents although one party of women who had travelled from Port Macquarie stormed into the Argus office to demand payment of their expenses!
Accounts of Kempsey's April Fools day hoax were published worldwide.
Pat Riggs retired as editor of the Macleay Argus in 1981 after a twenty-four year career with the newspaper. As a journalist, Pat won the Walkley Award for provincial journalism twice, in 1965 and 1966. She passed away in 1998 and is widely recognised as a councillor, an author, a brilliant journalist and a crusading country newspaper editor, dedicated to her local community.
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