Tuesday, January 27, 2009

OF PIERS, CANNONS AND DINNERS AT SEA




October of 1990, and I had just joined the Royal Navy’s Fourth Frigate Squadron, a group of six Type-21 frigates with global responsibilities. No such worldly luck, however, on my first duty. An early morning phone call from “operations” requested that I join F 169 HMS AMAZON for a short trip around the north of Scotland. And where was the ship? In the Port of Glasgow, and would I collect my rail travel documents as soon as possible?

Arriving in that great city early evening, I took a taxi to the Port, and after some five minutes of speeding through strange streets it suddenly dawned on me that not only did I now know where I was going (and hoped that the driver did) but that I couldn’t understand a bloody word of what he was saying. For all I know he could have been making dark threats against me, suggesting that I was a good-for-nothing Sassenach invader, but I gave him the benefit of many doubts and assumed that he was merely discussing the stormy weather. From time to time I would smile and grunt something in agreement, which only encouraged him the more.

Warmly greeted by Commander David Molan, and with the promise of good dinners and discussions in his cabin over the next few evenings, I learned that AMAZON’s first duty after sailing the next morning was the ceremonial committal of a casket of ashes to the deep. Nothing could possibly go wrong there, was the general agreement.

Dawn the next day brought fifty mile an hour winds to the east coast of Scotland, and we instinctively knew that the next few days would be interesting. But first we had to sail. Now I safely assume that no reader is even vaguely familiar with the Port of Glasgow, so allow me a brief description of what is known as the “Pool.” This is a square area of harbor in which ships, who have entered the port bow first, may turn around in order to leave bow first. Common sense, really. But the amount of space is limited, especially when the ship turning around under its own power is a frigate over three hundred feet in length.

We were about half way through our turn when the silent calm on the bridge was shattered by a sharp expletive by the Officer of the Watch, and his sudden rush to the bridge wing. Feet, no, inches away from the stern, was an old wooden pier, presumably no longer in use and already falling apart. Whether we actually hit it, or whether the white water churned up by the propellers caused its accelerated demise, we will never know. What we heard was a painful groaning of timber, and what we saw were rotting beams spinning through the air. The bridge team looked pale, the navigator looked paler, but David Molan, sitting in the captain’s chair simply smiled, and said:

Say nothing. Just look dignified.

Within the hour, ship’s engines idling, rolling in a ten foot swell, we assembled an unsteady Honour Guard on the flight deck, and the Captain, Executive Officer and I solemnly launched the casket of ashes into an angry sea. As quickly as possible. Now these caskets are deliberately weighted, drilled, and are supposed to sink within seconds. Except this one didn’t. It happily bobbed away on the storm, and defied all our attempts to push it under with boat hooks, or even recover it so we could try again. In the end naval pragmatism won, and the command was given to use 8mm cannon shells which, naturally, dispatched the small box to the deep in no time at all. Happy that a job had eventually been well done, we retired to David’s cabin for coffee, and then looking at the paperwork that always goes with such duties, realized that the cremated remains were those of a gunnery officer. No doubt he would have approved!

The weather calmed down later that day, and we enjoyed a pleasant cruise in the lee of the Inner Hebrides, only to learn of the next storm system bearing down on us. It was to arrive during dinner, and that evening found David, me and a guest from the Ministry of Defense enjoying a pre-dinner drink, aware that the ship was moving around in a strange way. There must have been a change of course, for what had started as an up and down experience was now a side to side roll. It was then that the rogue wave hit.

It all happened so quickly it’s difficult to describe. All I can remember is flying off my chair, seeing the table places, perfectly set with glass and silver, scattering across the carpet, and I ended up under the desk, the right way up, without having spilled one drop of my gin and tonic. It clearly created a favorable impression, for in my next Officer’s Report David had added a friendly post-script:

How good it is to find a chaplain who can truly hold his drink.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Just a little Note.....HMS Amazon was F169

T said...

Good heavens! So it was! How on earth did I get the pennant number wrong? Apologies, but ....