Although several Feltmakers responded to an invitation from HMS Lancaster to join her for a day at sea, only 3 liverymen, Stephen Leslie, Andy Fish and Peter Shirley, battled down the A3 in driving rain on the 26 May 2009 to get to Portsmouth docks for an 08.00 start. The weather was still grey and windy when we went on board, where we were given a safety briefing by the bosun, and escorted down to the wardroom where a large dish of much appreciated bacon sandwiches was placed before us, with welcoming cups of hot coffee to wash them down.
Our host for the day, the Executive Officer, Lt Cdr Stephen McGlory, joined us and we were taken to meet the Captain, Rory Bryan, who welcomed us very warmly and showed us the hat presented by the Feltmakers to the Queen, but kept in a glass case on the ship. But this was a working day for Lancaster, and a comprehensive schedule of training exercises had been planned, not for our benefit, but to ensure that the ship, her officers and crew, were kept at full readiness for the range of duties and emergencies that they may be called on at short notice, to deal with.
The first task, however, was to leave Portsmouth and head out into the Solent. In order to leave the quayside with a strong wind blowing us towards the shore, two tugs had to be employed, but we moved off smoothly, with the crew making the traditional salute to other Royal Navy vessels as we passed them.
We had been moored just opposite the new navy HQ on Whale Island and the ship’s company must always be conscious that their every move can be studied by an observant Admiral or two. That this happens was well demonstrated by the Captain receiving a message later in the day from HQ congratulating the ship on its smart turnout.
We were looked after very well, being invited onto the bridge to take part in the Captain’s briefing, and also onto the main deck to get a real feel for what is involved in taking a warship to sea. The weather was still grey, windy with a slight drizzle, but after an hour the sun appeared and from then on the day improved rapidly.
We were even visited by several of the large numbers of Painted Lady butterflies that are migrating to England from North Africa, just now. Lt Cdr McGlory has been the ship’s main link to the Feltmakers for some years, but this is his last week as Executive Officer of HMS Lancaster, as he is leaving to take up another appointment on shore. Nevertheless, during a very busy working day for him and at a time when he was also handing over to his replacement, Lt Cdr Paul Hammond, he spent as much time as he could escorting us around and responding to our many questions.
We observed a training exercise in which a simulated fire inside the ship was contained and dealt with, being allowed into the crowded HQ room, where the Damage Control Officer, Lt Cdr Carolyn Lucocq, co-ordinated the response to the threat, making good use of all the information constantly updated for her, both electronically and by verbal reporting from individual crew members.
The next exercise involved recovering a man overboard. Mercifully, they didn’t seek a volunteer for this from us liverymen, but used a dummy, which was thrown into the sea. As soon as ‘man overboard’ was reported, a marker buoy was dropped and the ship put into a tight turn. Two methods can be used to retrieve the person and both were to be practiced, today. Firstly, a rescue crew jumped into one of the two inflatable power boats, which was quickly lowered into the sea and roared off towards the marker buoy, the position of which was kept under observation from deck by a man with binoculars who kept pointing to the buoy with what appeared to be a fluorescent orange glove stuck to the end of a broom handle, so others could see where the buoy was. Not very high tech, but definitely effective! Once the boat’s crew had reached the dummy, hoisted it on board and brought it back to the ship, the second method was deployed to retrieve the buoy, itself.
This involved a swimmer, dressed in a bright orange wetsuit and flippers, swimming out to it, and bringing it to the side where it was hoisted on deck. The swimmer was recovered using a special stretcher lowered on a rope into the sea, and once he was inside this, he was also hoisted on board.
We repaired to the wardroom for lunch and a discussion with the officers, after which Lt Cdr McGlory showed us all around the ship. We saw the crew’s quarters, visited the galley where for health and safety reasons we had to don paper hats, and then were shown the ship’s main operations centre deep inside the hull.
This room was filled with a perplexing array of hi-tech electronic equipment, vdu screens and even the controls for remotely firing the main gun.
We were taken up to the helicopter landing pad on the aft deck and into the hangar.
There was no helicopter on board that day as they had just said goodbye to the large Merlin that had been based there and were expecting a new smaller Lynx to arrive that very evening.
We found that instead of the ship returning to Portsmouth to allow us ashore, we were going to be put into one of their new powerboats to be whisked off at high speed back to base. Although bright and sunny, a brisk wind was blowing, which caused quite a swell and the Captain had some concerns about launching the boat and sending us this way, but the alternative would have been to spend the night aboard, as the ship could not be diverted back to Portsmouth just for our benefit.
It was decided to use the boat, and we were togged up in wetsuits, life-jackets and special safety helmets ready for the trip. The boat could be lowered from the deck with no more than 3 people on board, and it had a crew of 2, so I got the easy route of stepping in at deck level, whilst my brave companions, Andy and Stephen, had to wait until the boat was launched and brought up to the ship’s side, and then to climb down a none-too-steady rope ladder right down from the ship’s deck,
with both the ship and the boat still bowling along at speed. Happily, stout fellows that they were, they both made this descent without incident and then we enjoyed a very exhilarating and fast trip across the still very choppy Solent. Although the boat’s driver did his best to avoid the worst of the sea, we were batting along at high speed and still bounced across some waves, hitting the low points with quite a bang, which would have jarred the spine if we hadn’t been briefed not to sit down, but to hold onto the grab rail on the seat in front, whilst hovering over our seats with bent knees, which cushioned us from the worst bumps. I have to say that this was all great fun.
All too soon, we were back in the docks, standing on the pontoon and disrobing from our safety gear. We had had a wonderful day, and the captain, officers and crew of HMS Lancaster could not have been more welcoming and helpful. Special thanks go to Lt Cdr McGlory and we wish him well in his new appointment, and hope Feltmakers will be able to meet Lancaster’s new Executive Officer, Lt Cdr Hammond, at a livery dinner in the near future.