The men of the New Zealand frigate Southland are packed into a tiny world that has its own language and traditions and operates by rigid codes of conduct. They endure stresses and experience fulfilments that no outsider can really understand.
The A-team is on the bridge. The old girl we sail in looks suitably lethal and lovely. And the proud stance of junior ratings standing so rigidly to attention on her decks shows that they believe the city of Melbourne must surely savour the classic sight of a warship leaving port on the sunniest of days.
This romantic vision of a frigate in the harbour is no fraud. Yet the people who queue to tour on “open day” also depart knowing that the ship’s ultimate mysteries remain hidden. They absorb vital statistics about its capabilities, listen to a lecture on the weapons systems and, above all, try to imagine the life of 250 men crammed together in a society based on hierarchy, discipline and rigid etiquette.
Almost always their visit is confined to the upper deck. They pass steel doors where they catch the merest frustrating glimpse of the warship’s inner world, and momentarily hear the hum of its removed, secret life. Indeed, you need to travel in a frigate to appreciate the unanimous opinion of its crew—that no outsider can begin to really understand the stresses and pleasures of an extended naval voyage.
We are aboard HMNZS Southland for ten days of exercises in Bass Strait with ships from the Australian navy. The trip’s climax, 36 hours (“Warex”) of intensive military evaluation of HMAS Hobart, promises to be a rigorous professional test of all crews involved.
By the time we return to Sydney, says Commander David Anson, “you might begin to work out what it is like being mayor of this very strange little town. I wouldn’t trade this way of life for anything, but you’ll get some idea of why, at the end of the exercises, my ticker is going 90 to the dozen. Why I can’t calm down when it’s all over. And it’s not just me. It’s the same for all of us.”
As the Melbourne coastline falls astern, Commander Anson is on the bridge ordering, cajoling and abusing his A-team which packs the room. There are engine revolution commands, courses to steer, endless communications with the fo’c’s’le, engine room and quarter deck. Nor does the bridge contain any discreet corner for observers. People are constantly moving for a better view,monitoring instruments, exchanging information. It is impossible to stand anywhere without being jostled, and, after several mutually murmured apologies, prudence suggests a retreat.
At the bottom of the ladder leading to the bridge the pedestrian rush hour is still acute. This is Southland’s poshest suburb—tiny, curtained cubicles for the officers which, within this ship, are envied as the biggest bedrooms in the world. They border two corridors that are a conduit for a stream of crew hurrying to and from the bridge. Again, it is impossible not to be in the way of a multitude travelling with professional purpose.
The buffeted observer now has two alternatives. He can descend a ladder to the Operations Room—the ship’s nerve centre, providing overall control of weapons systems and an electronic picture of what is happening above, on and below the water in its vicinity. But that darkened room is cluttered with its own population of men bending over screens and keyboards, and there are few gaps for an outsider.
The second choice is another ladder leading down to the “main drag.” This passage runs the length of the ship and provides access to most of its communal and specialist facilities. It is the place just about everyone must go to get somewhere else; a long stretch of vinyl where every few steps takes the traveller into a different provincial area. The visitor takes days to identify these tiny territorial zones and to understand a puzzling altercation that occurs during our very first tour of Southland.
Two junior ratings are standing in the main drag near the aft end of the ship. They are adjacent to two hatchways leading to the lower deck, and a constant stream of sailors pours up and down the steel ladders within them. One of the ratings is smoking, and carelessly flicking ash on the floor.
“Don’t you put filth on my flat,” the smoker is told. “You clean that up. This is my flat, you . . .”
The other rating continues to smoke with studied insolence, and then, as a small, tense knot of men gathers, he stubs out the cigarette, sweeps the offending ash on to a piece of paper and slowly saunters off.
Naval sea-slang is so predominant and complicated that it can seem like another language. And, like any language, the same word can have various meanings in various contexts, reflecting the characteristics of the culture. For instance, “flat” refers to the deck sailors walk on; “my flat” describes the mess deck where you sleep and socialise with the other sailors who share your specialist function within the ship; “my flat” also pertains to territory that is used more by your group than anyone else. So the section of the main drag closest to the junior ratings’ showers and toilets is also their flat.
The word “flat” and some other examples of shipboard argot are indications of the greatest stress within this closed society: that the physical size of Southland is far too small for its population, and that it is extremely difficult to be alone or to retain a private self that is not known to others.
On the lower deck 15 to 25 young men might inhabit the ship’s equivalent of a bedsitter. “You sleep there. It is also your recreation area,” says one of the basement dwellers. “You effectively go from bunk space to work space on the same level of the ship, and that deck can be just about your entire world.”
Well, not quite. Many of those ratings also seem to pop out of hatches and on to the main drag. They merge into an ants’ trail of men constantly on the move: rushing to points of duty, carrying stores, half-naked on their way to or from the showers, on their hands and knees scrubbing that well-trodden vinyl. They pass side entrances, ladders and hatchways, and for every one who exits the flow, another joins it. I count them: 26 go past in a single minute.
This mass of humanity moves with skill, and even in the roughest of weather people manage to step around one another while avoiding even a brush of shoulders. Courtesy is based on constant movement; the groups talking on the edges of the main drag have a slow, circular motion that allows others to pass without the risk of jostling.
If sailors really want to be alone they can always consider standing on the flight deck and staring out at the horizon. But in fine weather that section of the ship is often used for briefings, PT and a variety of other activities. If the frigate is rolling in swells or buffeted by gales, time out up there can be very unpleasant, even dangerous. After dark no one is permitted on deck.
Nor is the aft well deck (the stern of the frigate at a lower level than the flight deck) much of an alternative. If you can ignore the tattooed matelots working out nearby with weights,you might enjoy watching the ship’s boiling wake. But, as the days go by, this little oasis of privacy becomes piled with rubbish bags and a growing number of people also looking for solace.
The only place a sailor can truly call his own is the place where he lays his head. That bunk space is called your “pit,” and the term is appropriate. As visitors, we’ve been assigned bunks in the Chief Petty Officers’ “pit space,” and this provides superior accommodation to sleeping areas on the lower deck.
Even so, there are no scuttles (port holes), no natural light. And, because the CPOs work watches, their bedroom is often in darkness so that men off duty can sleep. You grope your way in, climb up two bunks and swing yourself on to the top one. Feet might land on unidentified, squashy parts of bodies before that final heave into a tiny zone of privacy.
People come and go; the noise from adjacent areas always intrudes. The deckhead (ceiling) is less than a hand’s length above your forehead. Never mind. Your pit is not shared, and offers the only reliable escape from communal life. You lie there and dream about the joy of unbroken solitude.
Southland has “fallen out” of port-leaving “specials,” and is now in a normal cruising watch. At a certain point of the escalating exercises with the Australian military forces we will move to defence watches (seven hours of work followed by five hours of rest, and then the time sequences reversed) with periods at action stations, when the whole ship is “up” (all personnel working) and all its functions are “closed up” (fully manned and at operational readiness).
But, at this stage, the ship has settled into easier rhythms which quickly threaten to become monotonous. One of the steering motors controlling hydraulic rams which drive the rudders has broken down. During the following days this sort of news will also become repetitious—something on Southland is always failing, and you start to understand why a complexity of back-up systems is packed into the ship.
“The grand old girl was built by the Poms in 1963,” says Warrant of ficer Tony Colyer, “and hasn’t had a refit in 16 years. Each morning you wake up and hear what has gone wrong with her overnight. So there is more and more making do. I think she’s still good for another five years, but if you want to see galloping corrosion her hull is the right place to visit.”
There’s certainly nothing flash about the innards of Southland. Al‑though all the facilities are constantly painted and polished, there is no disguising the wear that comes with constant use. The sheer density of habitation means that wherever you go is about to be cleaned or is in the process of being cleaned as people again make it untidy.
Even the Wardroom (officers’ mess) is more comfortable than opulent. And its social etiquettes remind you of travel along the main drag: a press of people always carefully avoiding the shock of contact.
Within the Wardroom the group’s conversation is usually constricted:polite banter, teasing without cruelty and an avoidance of personal intimacy. You never feel a flow of real engagement beneath the bland jollity as officers relax together. If eye contact is prolonged, those orbs then flick away in mutual apology.
Because we sleep in the CPOs’ bunks we are also more inclined to use their mess—named the “snake pit.” Compared to the Wardroom this mess is more like a public bar, and, at first, seems a more friendly, informal place. But the banter has more edge, put downs are more commonplace and a superficial mateyness is subverted by small conversational chips of malice.
While confrontation or overt signs of personal dislike are always avoided, you sense that these men know one another far too well. Many of the CPOs are over the age of 30. Yet, within the group, they seldom mention their families or express an even mildly controversial opinion. Conversation is largely confined to gossip, rumours about anything which might threaten the security of routines, and the incompetence of the bosses. “There’s a lot of humour, a lot of smart remarks,” says one CPO. “I take the mickey out of everyone, and they give it back. It’s best that way. Otherwise I’d get into a fight.Just explode.”
The weapons systems? “In brief, fairly antiquated,” says one of the gunners. “But even if the tiger hasn’t got many teeth, we’re still damn proud of the way it can switch its tail.”
Until the 1975 refit, two 115mm guns were the main armament. They were replaced by an Ikara missile system, and Southland then became the New Zealand fleet’s specialist anti-submarine frigate. The missile has a homing torpedo attached to its underside, and wings and tail are clipped on during a 23-second load/ launch sequence. Once the Operations Room has determined the position of an attacking submarine, the ship’s computer conveys that information to the missile system and continues to guide the rocket after it is launched to a height of about 1000 feet.
When the missile reaches the submarine’s location the torpedo detaches, parachutes to the water and hunts down its target. If for some reason Southland can’t pick up the sub on its sensors, another warship can feed through its computer picture for guidance.
When the Ikara suddenly elevates above the upper deck into launch position it looks far more lethal than the big forward gun it replaced. The ship’s weapons specialists proudly point out that these missiles can be fired into 100-knot winds, and the track record for accuracy is impressive. So you watch it with expectancy. And that’s all you get—expectancy. Because each Ikara costs a cool million dollars, only two or three are fired each year, and the torpedo (launched without its warhead) is recovered by divers. During these Bass Strait exercises the naval budget doesn’t extend to a test firing and the expensive on-shore electronic monitoring of the missile’s performance.
Above the helicopter hangar at the aft of the ship two launch systems each hold four Seacat missiles for protection against aircraft attack. Lack of defence dollars means they won’t be fired on this trip either.
Southland also has homing torpedoes which are fired from tubes mounted on the deck. When they hit the water a salt-water battery is activated, and the torpedoes spiral in a search for the contact detected by the ship’s sonar. But these days attacks by helicopter are much more trendy. The Australian ships have big, menacing Seahawks; New Zealand frigates make do with the much more down-market Wasp helicopters. “It’s equivalent to driving a 1950s sports car,” says the pilot, Lt Jim Cobbett.
Still, the Wasp has a range of about 200 nautical miles and, although lacking radar, it can be guided by the Operations Room to a launch spot for torpedoes or depth charges.
Second World War vintage twin 40mm Bofor guns are on the upper deck (we will see them manned, swivelled but not fired) and the ship also has four mounted machine guns with an effective range of 2000 yards. While these weapons are not likely to be devastatingly effective against a supersonic F111 attack, the gunners’ philosophy is “throw them off balance with as much lead in the air as possible.”
Southland’s Small Arms Firings Weapons Practice Order contains an unusual definition of bliss: Happiness Is Lots Of Hot Guns.
Executive officer lt Cdr Steve Streefkerk: “You are charged under Section 45 with two charges. That you at Melbourne on the second day of November, 1991, at 0100 were absent without leave until 0245. The second charge is avoidance of duty under Section 49. That you failed to attend the muster at early morning activity at 1630, which muster it was your duty to attend. You understand these charges?”
Able Seaman: “Yes, sir.”
XO: “How do you plead to these charges?”
AS: “Guilty, sir.”
XO: “Are those voluntary pleas?” AS: “Yes, sir.”
XO: “You understand the consequences?”
AS: “Yes, sir.”
XO: “On the basis of your plea and the evidence by the prosecutor I find you guilty on both charges.”
This is the ship’s court for punishment and promotion: the Captain’s Requestment and Defaulters Table. Here, those who had far too good a time ashore in Melbourne have to literally pay for their pleasure. Streefkerk stands at a podium, the Officer of the Day prosecutes and a ship’s officer provides professional and personal evaluation of the defendant. Some offenders have defiant grins, some blush with embarrassment, and one or two seem near tears.
The XO tells one teenage first offender that he let “you and us” down by coming back late. “We have a responsibility to your parents to look after you young people.” The next boy says he met a girl at a nightclub, went back to her place and then fell asleep. “Well,” says Streefkerk, “the smirk on your face shows you obviously enjoyed this lady ashore. You took your chances and you dipped out.”
Some of the excuses are very lame, and only a few ingenious or entertaining. One seaman claims he did his best to get back—but the girl locked him in her bedroom and then hid the key.
Occasionally, the XO gets tough. He tells one recidivist that “I can bin your leave for six days, and have you got any good reason why I should not?” The rating agrees that there is absolutely nothing positive he can say on his own behalf. “Then,” says Streefkerk, “you are fined $80 over two pay periods, and five days’ stoppage of leave. So, when you get back to Sydney, you will have just one day ashore. That will give you plenty of time to think about your actions and what you want from life.”
Although a transcript of the proceedings might seem very formal, the actual atmosphere is not particularly punitive; at times there are knowing smiles on both sides as punishment is dished out. Some obvious facts are not mentioned at all. The Master At Arms might state that the rating came back to Southland after his leave period had expired. He never says that the man was so drunk that he could not stand up. This will be discussed amid laughter only after the convicted person is out of earshot.
You slowly realise that to come back legless or vomiting attracts only mild criticism. Although the navy teaches alcohol awareness to its sailors, the messes still collect money for “rarking” (the naval equivalent to “raging”) when they hit port. Some sailors prefer a jog; others go out on a “run” (pub crawl) of sometimes awesome dimensions. If people come back late they will be charged. If they come back abusive or fighting drunk they will be charged. If they are carried aboard quietly the incident will also be forgotten quietly.
This toleration might seem strange in a society based on the ethic of discipline. But it is more a matter of the officer hierarchy avoiding hypocrisy than encouraging a hoon cult. Everybody yearns for port. Everybody desperately needs release from tension. Everybody sees similar symptoms in everybody else.
“It is a matter of working hard and playing hard,” says Commander Anson. “The Navy has a saying, ‘If you want to hoot with the owls, then you have to soar with the eagles.’ That means that, after a night on the town, our people must get back on time, get up in the morning and do a good job. They can’t throw a sickie here.
“After you’ve been at sea for a while there is a need to let off steam. They will go ashore in divisions, go on a run, rark up and take over a pub. At least if they are in there they are off the streets and not getting themselves into serious trouble. So who can discourage that? It doesn’t mean that I’m indulging an undisciplined rabble, and, if they go too far, they will be in trouble back here. But I do understand why they need to do it.”
Commander Anson dines alone in his cabin. He sometimes gets extra delicacies, and takes tea from a silver service. But at sea there’s usually only one cup on the glittering tray. His shipboard social life is confined to the captain’s cabin, and, if he seeks the visiting journalist and photographer, Anson knocks on the door of the snake pit and waits outside until a CPO fetches us.
Junior officer: “The captain wouldn’t dream of walking into the CPOs’ mess. And he has to be invited into the Wardroom by the Executive Officer. None of us are supposed ask him in.
“After all, if he’s been on our backs all day it is fair enough that we should be able to come down here and grump in peace.
“This is the way the ship works. I mean, there are places where officers just don’t go. I wouldn’t dream of wandering into the junior rates’ messes while we are at sea. That is their home, and you don’t just walk into a neighbour’s house.”
Executive Officer,Steve Streefkerk: “The ship is very hierarchical. Socially, there are cut-off points. For instance, if we all end up in the same pub, I will go across and ask the young guys what sort of a run they are having. Nothing wrong with a quick chat. But we certainly don’t leave the ship and go ashore with one another.”
Junior officer: “Even while socialising ashore we are more inclined to talk in terms of ranks than first names. Senior lieutenants of the old school believe none of us should use Christian names at all. Still, I think things are becoming more informal. These days there are plenty of senior ratings who will say ‘gidday,’ and use my first name. But it is quite different on the bridge. You tell someone to do something and the order has to be carried out quickly. Certainly no Christian names up there. I suppose the system shows that the men tend to respect your rank rather than you as a person.”
The ship usually heralds a new day’s work with the sound of a bosun’s call and the traditional “wakey, wakey” over the public address system. But today I learn what “rude awakening” really means. There’s an approaching roar that gradually becomes deafening, and then the jolting thump of the Wasp landing on the flight deck right above my head. The sudden shock causes my forehead to jerk upwards and bang into the deckhead.
Simultaneously, I realise that the centre of gravity seems to have shifted. A 50-knot gale is blowing outside, and Southland wallows in heavy swells. The ship shudders and groans its protest; each long roll threatens to suck you from the bunk down on to the deck. In the distance the sound of breaking crockery confirms that even the experienced crew find these conditions difficult.
Yet the denizens of the pit still manage to move about with skill and courtesy. In the darkness they dress, silently use lockers and move in and out of bed without disturbing a soul. I clamber down from the top bunk and tread on the man in the bed below; he was not there half an hour ago, and I did not hear him come in.
In the main drag seasoned sailors step nimbly around the most junior of the junior ratings who always seem to be cleaning or polishing vinyl on the deck. Trip over them and apologise and they do not speak or look up. I stand chatting to others and forget about a lower life until one of the ratings has silently scrubbed up to the very edge of my toes. But I know it is time to move when his head moves forward relentlessly and literally bangs into my shins.
“Are you happy in your work?” No acknowledgement from down under.
“It doesn’t look very exciting.”
Just for a second he hesitates and, without raising his head, finally speaks.
“Too true, mate. Join the Navy and see the deck.”
We are now within sight of the frigate HMAS Adelaide. Hobart, Brisbane, Darwin, Westralia (a tanker), Jervis Bay (the Australian navy’s training ship), Orion and Ovens (submarines), Fills and Skyhawks will soon join us. But the Australians, rumoured to be pleading post-Gulf financial fatigue, have already reduced the scale of the exercises, and some have been cancelled.
Today, we were to have a “big” gunnery shoot. Once again the Aussies cop that half-abusive, half-friendly trans-Tasman rivalry. Why, the idiots have chosen a firing area directly beneath a commercial flight path, and it would be illegal and dangerous to use powerful weapons.
On the forward deck machine guns are manned, and other gunners with semi-automatic weapons crouch ready to fire. Adelaide shoots up flares, and it is Southland’s job to engage them before they drop into the sea. From the bridge this looks like a scene from a low-budget World War Two film. As the crackle of fire waxes and wanes the gunners’ commander shouts, “Load, load, load!”or “Check, check, check!”
Commander Anson isn’t at all impressed by the “check, check, check” aspect. People aren’t re-loading or stopping their fire to order. “Do I have to be there holding a big stick over your heads?” he snaps. “You are firing at the wrong time. If you can’t do it right then you won’t fire at all.”
Afterwards, it is agreed that the gunners don’t halt their fire because the noise of the weapons obliterates the sound of the order. Various rather esoteric solutions are suggested.
“What about something really high tech?” suggests Anson. “Like blowing a whistle?”
This opinion is followed by a grateful silence. After all, he’s not only the boss. It also seems he is right.
I leave the bridge’s tension and walk into rush hour in the main drag. Travel along the passage is exhausting and, for those without sea legs, also dangerous, because the huge sideways movement of the ship threatens to throw you down hatchways. So the safest alternatives are either your pit or the CPOs’ mess.
Within the former I can at least cheer myself up with thoughts of those less fortunate. A party of sea cadets we took on board in Melbourne are so seasick that there is talk of helicoptering them ashore. And, alone in my bunk, I endure only this intolerable sideways movement.
The forward end of the ship also pitches up and down; the magazine’s photographer has already discovered that vertical plus sideways equals technicolour yawn. Officers on the bridge, where every lurch and roll is magnified by height, must be feeling even worse. Today, it is best to be one of Southland’s hoi polloi . .
So I lie down, hold on with both hands, watch the great rolling motion trying to throw the lower half of my body floorwards and feel just a bit smug about my stomach’s resilience. Then the helicopter lands again with a great smack above my head, and a wave of fumes washes through the deckhead. Suddenly the combination of noise, smell and a world moving sideways makes this pit seem unbearably claustrophobic.
But getting out and moving up the main drag is a humiliating journey. Each roll of the ship throws you bruisingly into bulkheads or surprised men easily walking a straight line. You pass people queuing for their evening meal. Lunch has already taught the hazards of attempting to eat in this weather: impossible to hold your feet while standing at the servery with a plate in one hand and a spoon to scoop in the other; impossible to walk with that full plate towards a table without lurching towards other seated diners and risking throwing your meal in their faces.
I pass the galley and remember interviewing its staff a few hours ago. They smoothly Torvilled and Deaned their way around the great pans of boiling fat without the slightest sign of stress. As the ship lurched to port they bent their knees, flexed their thighs and skidded across the room. As the ship rolled to starboard they skated past me towards the other wall.
This athletic grace was always in total accord with the ship’s movement; they chatted and travelled back and forth while I grimly clutched a fixture for balance. The enduring memory was of heads always facing me while arms gently and efficiently pushed them from wall to wall.
I struggle on towards the ladder leading up to the CPOs’ mess. I have already learned to keep both hands on the rungs while climbing. And, sure enough, half way up a particularly vicious roll of Southland sucks me back so powerfully that it seems my spine is in the grip of some magnetic force which threatens to pull it clear of my body.
In the snake pit they continue to fence with one another, moan about the weather and enjoy the sheer monotony of existence. The same videos are played over and over (usually war films, sport and the occasional bluey), the same circumscribed conversational topics prevail.
Reminiscence about the better old Navy days and boasting about boozing and sexual escapades in port are regular themes. “I liked the long trips away,” someone says. “Only at home four weeks in the year. Yeah, it kept my marriage alive.”
Everyone laughs at this observation, yet just about everyone also knows it is profoundly and sadly untrue for the men in this room.
Electrical engineer: “After a long trip I can’t face the first night back in my own bed . . . well, I feel like sleeping under the bed. I actually miss the claustrophobia. I can’t sleep because there’s too much room, no noisy blast of the ventilation, no movement of the ship.
“When I was first married it was very hard for my wife. But she is tolerant and she has learned. Otherwise we’d be finished, I suppose. I go home now, she packs my bags and sends me bush for a couple of days. After that I come back and everything slowly starts to get right.”
Operations Officer Andrew Watts: “I can be objective about this because I am not married. It is certainly true that there is a big emotional drain on the family when the husband is away for five or six months. It’s little wonder that the older men seek shore postings.
“Younger couples in their 20s also have problems, and the changed attitudes to women and work means he is far more likely to succumb to pressure to spend time at home. I suspect that situation would have been very different 20 years ago. These days the women are also quite likely to resent the Navy as an entity. They dislike the fact that their husband has a very separate life they have no control over. They don’t understand why he wants to be with his shipmates in what is still a very male-orientated society.”
Commander Anson: “Before they go to sea for a long period the guys get wound up. They’re both excited and morose. Then, as soon as the ship leaves Auckland, they become different characters altogether.
“After they get back home it takes about a week to unwind and live with their families as a reasonable human being. Maybe longer. Initially, there’s hugs and kisses. But getting together again isn’t the bed of roses it might seem. Yes, there’s tension for weeks before sailing and for weeks after they get back.”
Junior officer: “The guy goes away and his wife runs the family. When he gets back he has problems adjusting to that. But the first week can be good because they are getting to know each other again. The second week is niggly because the little honeymoon is over, and all the problems concerning his absence come back. The third week is niggly because he’s getting ready to go away again.
“By the fourth week he might be back on board. Some couples always argue during that final week before he goes away. It seems compulsory to go away hating each other, when that is actually the last thing either person wants.”
It is standard procedure for merchant ships to stay as far apart as possible. But warships regularly undertake “Replenishments At Sea,” in which two ships move within 24 metres of each other while men or stores are transferred over the boiling surf between them.
The ships are attached at three points: a line to measure distance near the bow, the equivalent of a flying fox (jackstay) for the actual transfer, and a telephone line allowing instant communication in an emergency. If something goes wrong the jackstay rope will be cut, and the priority becomes Southland’s safe breakaway rather than the man who might be half way across.
By day, a “RAS” is spectacular and rather frightening. At night, the lack of light and difficulty of judging distances should make the manoeuvre even more scary for the inexperienced observer. Instead, the experience is so dreamlike and beautiful that all thought of danger is forgotten.
Both ships extinguish nearly all lights, and the distance line between them is illuminated. Southland’s bridge is also in darkness—when someone uses a torch for a few seconds Commander Anson declares, “that’s the sort of behaviour that led to the blitz in London.”
There is just sufficient light to see the horizon, and a slight curve of moon tops the adjacent Adelaide’s funnel. Beneath that funnel the ship is the faintest of shadows that merges with the water. All that hard metal becomes the softest of smudges moving closer and closer. You feel the ships could not possibly collide—their presences are so insubstantial that they are more likely to blend smoothly into a single blur of naval greyness.
Even the wake of Adelaide is an odd ghostly shade. Suddenly, it seems to fade altogether. This causes you no surprise. Anything might happen, because everything is unreal.
And then you are very quickly jolted out of the dream. “Where the hell is his wake?” shouts Anson. “‘What a crazy . . . out of the way, you!” And, for the first and only time, I detect a note of alarm on the bridge as Anson brushes me aside to get a better view.
As the voyage goes on, jackstays become a familiar routine practised by the fleet. But, even as you observe it, you know that the marvel of your first RAS by moonlight will always be unforgettable.
Tonight the fleet is hunting the Australian submarines—and the subs are hunting us. Commander Anson hunches over a radar screen. At his elbow sits the ship’s Principal Warfare Officer (Underwater), Dean McDougall.
The submarine will “pre-position” and wait. If Southland gets a radar or sonar contact we have half an hour to seek a kill; then the sub has 45 minutes to relocate before the war game starts again.
So we sit and wait for a contact that will suddenly pump adrenalin through everyone in this crowded Operations Room. “Anyone done any painting on board lately?” yawns Anson. “I thought I might go and watch it dry.”
Now Brisbane thinks they have a contact. Anson has doubts. Then Hobart reports the firing of a green grenade (a simulated torpedo firing from a submarine) and we immediately alter course. Our bridge does not mention a sighting of the flare. “Must be sound asleep if nobody saw it,” mutters Anson.
There’s another green grenade between Brisbane and Hobart, and it is assumed the sub has scarpered southwards. “I would say there is every danger that we are going to get another green grenade shortly,” says Anson tensely. In the mean time Southland will try to be elusive by steaming a tight figure-of-eight course.
“Green grenade at 355,” someone shouts. The ship moves hard to starboard. It then moves hard to port. “Let’s get this son of a bitch,” says Anson. Now we have a definite contact. The sub is about half a mile away, and moving at 6-12 knots. We lose it, we get it back, we have a precise bearing and range, we fire. “Engage!”
“Did we hit the sub?” I ask.
“Well, it wasn’t a real torpedo, was it,” replies Anson. “So I will never know.”
This simulated warfare is essential training for actual battle conditions which Southland’s crew has never encountered. Yet some of it seems so contrived that the deadly earnest approach of those involved becomes slightly comic.
Today, F111 aircraft are sinking the fleet. They simulate attack and we simulate defence. We can see two of them on the horizon, and, after they break formation, one screams towards us. But the sight of the approaching aircraft coming in at funnel level while our machine guns blaze away doesn’t cause anyone to throw themselves on the deck.
Instead, a young midshipman on the bridge whoops with delight. “Oh, wow,” he shouts above the shriek of the F111. “I love it!”
In a real war, the aircraft would launch its missiles about 60 miles from Southland, and the ship would sink without even sighting its attacker.
“General drills” epitomise the observer’s suspicions about war games becoming a very expensive male adolescent fantasy. According to the junior officers, general drills are “really choice,” and they are obviously disappointed when the Australians decide we have no time for them during these exercises. The drills are a half-serious, half-teasing game to test ingenuity and speed of response. One ship makes demands that test the mettle of another. The lighter end of the spectrum of requests might include “fly a kite,” “send aboard four musicians with instruments, and one singer” or “catch a fish and deliver it to our senior officer.”
Suddenly all the simulation doesn’t seem at all silly. In the middle of yet another exercise a genuine emergency arises.
The PA announces that the Australian tanker Westralia has an engine room fire, and we have been told to stand by to render assistance. At the time of the incident Darwin had been hooked up to Westralia and was taking on fuel.
“Westralia ordered an emergency breakaway with six or seven blasts on its siren,” says one of Southland’s senior officers, “and at the same time hoisted a flag to indicate a fire and that it had lost power. You don’t have to be an expert to understand that a fire on a tanker is a real worry, and the position is especially serious if another ship is connected to it.
“At the same time, Fills were simulating maritime strikes, and they continued to whizz around while all this was going on. It really was time for everyone involved to change their knickers.”
On Southland the captain and executive officer immediately report to the bridge. A fire-fighting party is prepared and the ship’s seaboat loaded with extinguishers, medical and communications equipment. The Wasp helicopter goes to a high level of alert.
Twenty minutes later the PA announces: “Well done, all concerned, damage control-wise. All personnel can now stand down.”
Westralia has put out its own fire, and intends to return to Sydney for repairs. But watching the precision of our crew’s response has been a lesson for someone starting to sneer at the artificiality of events. “During these exercises,” says XO Steve Streefkerk, “we face . . . well, not quite lethargy, but because it’s not real, people know they are just doing a job. The moment there’s a real situation to be dealt with, everything kick-starts. The crew can move with real efficiency because we have simulated just this sort of emergency so many times.”
During exercises it is often difficult to sleep at night. At top speed, Southland trembles and pitches; when it suddenly changes course, bodies start to slide out of their bunks towards the deck.
So you give up on bye-byes, clamber down and grope your way out into the main drag for a cigarette. Ratings taking a brief breather while on watch or clambering up hatchways to use the shower also pause for a chat or a smoke. The soft red night-light, and knowledge that the ship is half asleep, often relaxes people into intimacy.
Tonight I am talking to an enormous tattooed Maori with arms that are bigger than many men’s chests. While he speaks about the intricate delights of ironing clothes he waves a huge ham at the steady stream of people coming to and from the showers.
“Rules,” he says. “There are rules for everything, including when you shower and how often you shower. And changing your clothes. That’s why you see so many people ironing T-shirts and trousers before their evening meal. Anyway, if you didn’t have those standards of hygiene and neatness the ship would be utter chaos.”
Most men have only a small locker, and therefore each is especially fussy about the folding and ironing of clothes. Oh, he says, stagger on to Southland dead drunk, strip off and crash into your pit. Wake up in the morning and your clothes would be neatly put away by the others. Well, mates would often do you that favour—if they liked you.
“Actually, I love ironing. Right from when I joined the Navy. So, when I’m at home, I do all that. Especially for the kids. You know, nice little creases down the front of their school uniforms. And Mum says to me, ‘No, you shouldn’t do this. Because they go to school looking so amazingly smart. But, when you’re at sea, how can I keep it up? I just can’t iron like that.”
He provides this information with a sombre sort of pride, falls into silence and leaves abruptly. Another senior rating has been listening and, after a few moments, clears his throat and pretends he wants to spit.
Oh, he says, the ship isn’t what it seems. Take the joker who just left. Might be good at ironing. But not at his marriage, mate.
“Actually, he’s typical. They won’t admit they have a shaky marriage at home. They won’t admit the tension on this ship. Instead, everyone here plays at mateship. But how can you have real mateship if nobody talks about the things that really worry them?
“That joker . . . I came across him the other day on the upper deck. He was bawling his eyes out. And know what he said when I just about tripped over him? He bloody well apologised! Said, ‘Sorry.’ And I said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault that there’s nowhere to cry on this ship.”
Operations Officer Andrew Watts: “Yes, I suppose this is a conformist society. It is certainly true that people who aren’t prepared to make the concessions of tolerance and deference tend to get weeded out early on.
“But, because you are conditioned to living in close confines with other people, it doesn’t make as much difference as you might expect. Especially as you become more mature.”
Principal Warfare Officer (Underwater) Dean McDougall: “You say you have noticed that it is both hard to hide your feelings and also hard to express them? Yes. People will always know if something is wrong. Yet you can’t afford to express personal dislike. There might be people on board you absolutely detest. But you can’t show that because you have to continue to work with them and depend on them. That’s the pressure. That’s why you will see the guys have a blow-out when we reach Sydney.”
Junior rating: “It only takes one guy within the system to stuff your career. You come to love the job you’re doing .. . but it only takes one guy to keep picking on you to make life hell. In civvy street you can get away from that when you go home. Here, you are stuck with it 24 hours a day.”
“You want to know how much it costs to come over here and do these exercises?” asks Commander Anson. “Honestly, I don’t know. The sailors would draw their salaries wherever they were. I suppose there is extra consumption of stores and extra wear and tear on machinery.
“The only big extra expenditure is fuel. That is a staggering cost. Warships aren’t like merchant ships in this regard. During straight passage we would eat up 40 tonnes of fuel a day. At high speed it would be more like 55 tonnes. So, if fuel costs $400 a tonne, that’s $22,000-worth a day.
“So, this trip is not cheap. But, in the old days when we went to the United States for exercises, we paid hard cash for the privilege. I don’t mean I took hard cash on board to hand over. Treasury handled it. But, let’s be straight: the Americans and the British certainly made us pay up for the exercises. At least the Australians come over to New Zealand to train, we come over here, and it’s a quid pro quo situation.”
Tonight the fleet anchors off the officers’ training school at Jervis Bay, 160 miles south of Sydney. Tomorrow morning Warex begins, and on the following afternoon the battle will be over and Southland steering into Sydney harbour.
You wait for the horizon to thicken with land. For a week there has been too much sea around to think of anything but sea. Up on deck nothing to observe except the monotonous grandeur of the ocean heaping itself up and pulling itself to bits; swells endlessly rollercoasting or waves piling up on one another’s shoulders and exploding into pyramids of froth. Now, as the ships approach Jervis Bay in line, the sea has become an evenly laid wash of flannel grey.
It seems impossible to properly imagine land and, when we do enter the bay, I find myself looking at the forests of Jervis Bay with possessive hunger. Not that Jervis Bay is a particularly inspiring example of the New South Wales coastline. But you can at least look landwards and feel certainty that a bigger, softer society not exclusively populated by matelots is out there somewhere.
Because war will be declared in the morning Commander Anson feels it is time we were educated about such naval jargon as “work up,” “ORE” (Operational Readiness Evaluation), “assets” and “Warex””because all hell will break loose tomorrow, and 36 hours later I’m just going to fall over.”
Hobart finished its refit six weeks ago, and has since been “working up.” This involves the ship’s team training together, refining and testing systems, correcting faults and perfecting routines for every contingency.
This period is the equivalent of a student’s intense study. In the morning Hobart will sit its examination—ORE. A team of experts will board the ship and use the rest of the fleet and aircraft (the “assets”) to place the ship’s crew under intense pressure. A complex debriefing follows the end of Warex, and the warship is either declared operational or, if serious shortcomings are revealed, another assessment will be needed before it is officially declared up to standard for a theatre of war.
Hobart is provided with an initial scenario by its examiners, and knows that the plot will rapidly thicken. There are terrorists on the Jervis Bay headlands, and the port has been mined. In the morning the fleet will be told to move out through the channel and to expect air or submarine attacks as it passes through the nautical minefield. It will then move within the perimeter of a defined area (“around the racetrack”) so that it is not beyond the range of the slower submarines and so that attacking aircraft can easily reach shore for refuelling.
Hobart’s ORE will also serve as a mini work-up for Southland. During action stations the steel doors in various sections of the main drag are closed and covered with curtains so the ship is compartmentalised against the dangers of fire, smoke and flood. “Rovers” search Southland for damage, and co-ordinate with HQ control stations forward and aft.
Food and stores are moved to various locations because the amidships galley might be taken out with a direct hit. “Shoring parties” are deployed to make temporary repairs to the hull. If the bridge is destroyed an emergency “conning position” on the deck has a satellite navigation system, compass, charts and communications. The Wardroom can be used as an operating theatre after ceiling panels are removed and the inbuilt lights, drips and other technology revealed . . .
I listen to this description of an utterly changed Southland with bewilderment. How, since the ship will not suffer fire, flood, death or damage, can all this emergency hustle seem anything else but artificial for the participants? For instance, how will the rovers discover a hole in the hull if there is no hole in the hull? “Oh,” says an officer without the faintest trace of a twinkle in his eye, “there might be a piece of paper pinned to the wall saying, ‘I am a hole.—
It is difficult to think of a reply to that revelation. Ah well, at the least tomorrow should be an unusual day.
At 6.45 A.M. MY feet don’t land on any foreign bodies on the way down from the top bunk. Everyone else has already disappeared, and they seem to have taken most of their bedding with them. In the main drag people dressed in anti-flash gear are milling and shouting nervous jollity. “See some good stress today, mate.” “What’s that noise—is it a sub pinging us already?” “Is it over yet?”
The klaxon sounds and the ship goes to action stations. While I slept peacefully, Southland had already been attacked by aircraft and guerrillas in patrol boats. Now a minesweeper is guiding us out of Jervis Bay, and we pass buoys (simulated mines) that are peppered with machine gun fire. Downstairs the main drag is virtually empty; the ship is “closed up,” and the crew sit at their professional posts and wait.
Southland maintains a “quiet state” as we move through the minefield. Because some mines are activated by sound there is a minimum of movement, and voices are hushed. Then the PA system comes briefly to life.
“We have now cleared the minefield, and suspect there are subs around. They can listen for sound, so we will maintain the quiet state.”
The Operations Room, however, is full of noisy bustle. I put on headphones and listen in to the fleet’s military conversation. A helicopter has run out of fuel and crashed. Missiles have been fired. Hobart has attacked a submarine . . .
“Have to assume that sub has been killed,” says Anson. “Otherwise we’ll be at action stations all day. So we’ll break down to defence watches, and people can put their heads down while we wait for threats to develop.”
A quarter of an hour later the main drag has its usual density of traffic, and the CPOs are playing cards or sipping coffee in their snake pit. I ask one of the mess leaders to explain what has happened so far in the war.
He smiles. Adelaide has been torpedoed. Two mines have been destroyed. And, let’s see . . . Oh yes, Southland dealt with air and submarine attacks. Hobart and Brisbane fired at a target towed by a patrol boat. A missile was fired at our ship. Should be another one coming our way very soon .. . “Good when something is happening all the time, eh?” he adds brightly.
“I wouldn’t mind this bloody war,” says someone else, “if the galley didn’t keep running out of tomato sauce.”
At 11 AM F111s attack Southland, and the blast of their passing is as loud as an explosion. Anson concedes that, yes, the prospect of a real aircraft attack would require the ship to move to action stations. However, because Southland has a support role and is not under assessment, that will not be necessary.
As the morning goes on we learn that Hobart has suffered severe damage and withdrawn from the fleet for three hours. Apparently, we “have given a good account of ourselves” with the Seacat missiles. This information is provided with such pride that it takes a couple of seconds to realise that the firing is theoretical and the missiles remain in their usual place on the upper deck.
During the afternoon we are again at action stations because Southland is damaged. The rovers are out to check communications and equipment. A firefighting team tries to cool bulkheads as it battles the blaze with waterless hoses. Someone is told he has a broken leg. Another person has a heart attack. One very unfortunate individual is informed he is now dead.
“Is the fire out?” I ask.
“It is out,” says one of the resolute defenders holding the flaccid hose.
At HQ 1 we are suddenly told that a missile is about to hit Southland. “Brace, brace, brace,” an officer shouts as we lean into the wall, hold on tight and wait for … well, nothing at all. Aft at HQ 2 medical teams are very seriously tending to the “injured.” An officer holding a clipboard confides information about the next phase of Warex.
Southland is about to be holed and flooded. A bomb will take out the helicopter, penetrate the ship’s flight deck and injure those in HQ 2.
“Some of these people will die, I’m afraid,” he says. “But please don’t tell them. Stuff things up otherwise. It’s important that they wait to find out the enemy can be so inconsiderate as to kill them.”
The ship returns to defence watches at 3.10 p.m., and a little later those who have been fighting the simulated battle are watching another simulated war on the CPOs’ video.
But the outside observers are not permitted to be even faintly patronising about the artificiality of this mother of all conflicts. Look, we are told, consider the aft fire of ten minutes ago. The Seacat’s magazine is beneath that simulated blaze. If the magazine actually heated to an explosive level “it could take out three or four ships in the vicinity. Just imagine the results of a real explosion like that. So don’t raise your eyebrows at all these drills. We play this game very seriously.”
Our last action stations of the evening occurs at 11.40 p.m., and the feeling of fatigue is almost palpable. Nerve ends scream, nobody smiles or quips, some people openly niggle at one another.
At 7.45 a.m. the following morning I awake to again hear the sound of the klaxon. Overnight Hobart was burnt to its waterline, and now Southland has an “alpha class” fire after a missile destroyed the funnel and ignited gas welding bottles.
But the exhaustion and sourness of last night has vanished. The prospect before nightfall of pavements beneath the crew’s feet produces a heady mix of excitement and tension. Ten days of confinement accumulates to a critical level of stress which is just tolerable because Sydney offers the promise of total release.
So people work on and dream of the city. By late morning Warex seems to be over, and every person on the ship yearns for arrival in port.
The gunners are planning a major run which is intended to shake Sydney apart; there will be celebrations in the Wardroom before various groups of officers go out for a more civilised form of rarking; in the snake pit beer is flowing; Daily Orders warn about AIDS and counsel sailors to use the ship’s issue of condoms; plenty of other people look forward to the sheer delight of a solitary walk.
It is a sparkling day, and, as the fleet moves into Sydney harbour, you are again aware of how lethal and lovely Southland must look. Launches buzz around our ship, and their occupants seem to look up in awe as they point their cameras. We stare back with an equivalent envy—Sydney seems so seductively feminine and full of endless, civilised pleasures denied this ship’s society.
I stand on deck, savouring the spectacle and quietly chatting to one of the senior ratings. He explains the ritual on the mess decks. Tidy the place up, wash everything down, make sure your flat is spick and span before you go ashore to visit the art galleries.
Actually, he might give them a miss—yet again. Funny thing that, he says. People ask about the exotic places the frigates visit, and all he can give them is a detailed guide to the bars in each port.
But, if you were all in uniform, going out on a run could be marvellous. The locals buy all the beer, and can’t hear enough about shipboard life. And when the girls edge over, their boyfriends get worried and whisper, “Hey, get away from those guys.” He supposes the naval uniform must be some form of aphrodisiac. Some women fall in love and follow their sailor from port to port. “Wish it could happen to me,” he murmurs.
The first night everyone in his mess gets drunk. The second day they go shopping. A couple of moneyless days later they are sick of drinking or sick from drinking. Then everyone begins to talk eagerly about getting back to sea.
“You get guys who move ashore, and they just can’t adjust. They can’t get over all this. You’ve seen how hard it is. Yet people also become addicted.
“On board I get lonely. Sure do. Miss home. Sure do. Desperately want to be anywhere else. Sure do. Think of giving the life up. Do that all the time. But after I get back and take a break, I think, ‘That wasn’t so bad after all. In fact it was marvellous. Unique.’ So away I go again. Yeah, that’s the cycle of our lives.”
Commander anson has decided to postpone “falling over” and is having a farewell conversation x% ith the visitors on his ship. We sip coffee from the silver service and chat about the growing symbiosis of the Australian and New Zealand navies, the crew’s hunger to possess the new Anzac frigates and his philosophy of leadership.
“I believe in being straight, and perhaps I’m straight to excess. Those who don’t know me well are perhaps a bit ashen-faced when they come across my . . . oh, my rather individual style for the first time. They are inclined to get a bit frightened by the things I say. But I hope that, when they get used to me, they realise the boss’s bark is worse than his bite. I think they know there is no arrogance or cruelty intended.”
He is curious about what we thought of “my ship.” Of course, he adds defensively, the old girl had missed out on two generations of technology—”she’s the equivalent of a car that has been around the clock twice.”
And, when it does go in for a refit, Southland wouldn’t be given the “nice features” of frigates like Wellington. After all, the ship’s life would probably be over when the first of the Anzac frigates is commissioned in 1997 or 1998.
“It’s most unlikely anyone would want to buy a 30year-old ship. So she will probably be turned into reinforcing steel . . . go the razor blade way.
“If I could have my way she would be taken out to die the way a warship should die. Sunk at sea. Even that would be a very sad moment for me. But to see her cut up by a bunch of money-making, ruthless people. That’s yuk.
“You see . . . I know this sounds crazy . . . but she’s alive. The people who live on her and love her couldn’t say, ‘This is an old piece of rust. Throw it away.’ We polish her, we pamper her, we adore her in our own way. She has a heart . . .
“I can’t explain it .. . I’m blowed if I can.” He pauses and, just for a second, you’d swear the hard man’s eyes are glistening. “It’s just that I feel a huge sentiment . . . when I leave this ship I’ll be losing a great friend, and that will be a terrible, sobering moment.”