Warships are sleek sea creatures, have a shark-like grace. Grey painted, the length of them cuts to a sharp point – the meeting of straight lines and hard angles. They fade into mist. Horizon appear as a gentle smudge – the passing of cloud perhaps, or the play of light and shadow. The bow thrusts water aside like a saw cuts through soft wood. Foam, white and fizzing, splinters out and up from its maritime path. The anchor holes, barnacle black and eye-like, stream water when the waves rise high enough to spill the decks.
The main mast, once of wood and sailcloth, rope and knotted binds, hoops and tar print hand marks of sailors passing, is now a concrete bottomed super structure of steal. Satellites and radars spin, held to the deck by metal cables finger thin, tout enough to cut a man in half should they snap. Anti-aircraft guns and billows of black smoke from dorsal placed chimneys frame the sky. Steel crenelated glass windows reflect the thirty tubes of the missile deck below, the rotating and broad robotic cannon, and beyond those, the massive ocean, laughing at the bath tub boat.
It might seem funny, but sometimes it’s easy to forget the guns when you live on a warship.
What with the three tin a day ration of drinking, the cleaning, the bullshit speaking and storytelling. The late night Tuesday hot dog stand in the canteen. The post office and chocolate shop. The helicopter drop. The delivery of four week-old ‘Sun’ newspapers to the mess decks and ‘The Times’ to the officers Wardroom. Bluey’s from loved ones, or ‘dear Johns’ from a month long gone ex-girlfriend. The Chinese laundry at the rear and in the bilges, where A4 parcels of sheets, trousers and socks are passed with smuggled porn mags and dodgy DVD’s. Friday night film night. Sun-downers on the upper deck, a BBQ and bears. Life in the Royal Navy, often felt far more like Police Academy than Full Metal Jacket.
So they reminded us daily, you know, about death and all the ways we might die, just in case we forgot. And they did it with exercises.
We’d have a Fire exercise, normally first thing in the morning. One eye on your half eaten bowl of cheerio’s and the other on a smoke flare going off in the corridor. Running whilst chewing, to don the affectionately named and fire proof, ‘Teddy’ Suit – alas, the kind that left you fighting the fire looking like a hot and under cooked Chewbacca, and not a smudge-cheeked James Dean in a cola add. Alarms and shouts competed in the air with the ships speaker system, as the command, in fine post war BBC accents, ordered the ship about its business, this is what we’re paid for.
It’s an orchestra of chaos, practiced and prepared, and one conducted to mastery against the all-to-thinkable – Floating in a metal box, check. Full load of high explosive munitions, check. Chemicals, fuel and some skin, check! Excellent, now we just need to piss someone off, and wait for them to try and light the match under us, and then we’ll practice blowing them up and running away – A life on the Ocean waves, bobbing along in that place where 999 rings a dead tone. The bit they left out of the brochure.
Sometimes we’d sit in those suits for hours, loosing pounds in sweat and boredom, waiting while the fast jests tore the sound barrier to ribbons outside and above decks, feeling the ship turn and alter course in an attempt to bring its guns to bare on the threat. Periodically, you’d hear the ships Warfare officer over the speaker, ‘Missile inbound, Port side, Brace Brace Brace!’ We’d echo the shout down the corridor, like world war one whistles in the trenches, a mournful, hollow sound. And images of the Falklands conflict – downloading from the RN’s collective memory to my mind; of burning Navy ships at anchor in Port Stanley Sound, explosions echoing from the low hills, painted themselves under my eyelids.
And I’d grab onto anything solid, in our version of the passenger planes crash position, and wonder if the imaginary missile would tear an imaginary hole through my section of the bulkhead. Would it carve an imaginary trail of destruction where my fire team were just standing, would it leave an imaginary aftermath of smoke, electrocuting wires dancing, smoking steal brazen hot, bits and bobs of fellow Jack’s lying about like the isle of man’s flag. Would it tare an imaginary hole in the family photo where I once stood. Or would I, having imaginary survived, then act with the highest honour and accord in the face of imaginary hell, would I ‘Do England’s duty.’ Or would I bury my head in a tub of imaginary booze which was mostly what everyone ever talked about and did given a moments chance.
There were flood exercises too, which involved hoofing a 1950’s pump up and down and back up nine flights of stairs. Carrying wooden pegs to the imaginary breach, where the sailors great enemy and dearest mistress love, – tear tasting, Sea, might explode through holes in the metal, turn our ship into a algid wreck. A relic of technological might. A future PADI Scuba dive site.
Along with FloodEx, FireEx, HippieEx, (in case we went to war with Greenpeace.) There was EngineEx, where the ships crew would pull out the emergency oars and begin to row towards the north, (jokes) and WarEx of course an endless exercise that’s been running some few thousand years now. There’s the Anti-Piracy patrol Exercise, (lock up your parrots, no peg legs allowed) Dashing into inflatable speeding dingy and clambering up ladders, pointing guns into brown and startled Merchantmen’s faces, and forcing them to play a game of hide and seek in their cargo hold – life at sea can get terrible dull.
A great favourite, and one sure to spurn you into writing home more often was the Chemical weapons attack exercise. With the sound of fighter jets tearing your ear drums to rumbles simulating scud missile attack, we’d have under two minutes to slip, pull, push, squeeze, pant ourselves into a frog suit – like Bridget Jones trying to get into her undersized pants, using our tears of desperation, and yesterdays beans as lube; before an imaginary Nerve agent could begin to melt the precious skin from our bones, boil us from the inside out. And then if that happened, your mate would have to stab you in the chest with a five inch needle in an apparent last ditch attempt to save your life – grateful teeth smile through the gap your cheeks used to cover as applause fills the gallery of honour. ‘Hanks hor having hy hife hatey.’
For me, the most dramatic and the most terrifying in its probable possibility, and at times required participation, was FredEX. Or better known as the Man-Over-Board Drill. Those in the know, know that Fred is the little talked about, 17 stone dummy that lives on every ship in the fleet. Long serving, long suffering he has never received a medal.
He’s a bit clumsy is Fred, and has the worst case of mermaid addiction known to ‘Davey Jones’ locker.’
As such he frequently falls over the side in an apparent need to reach for the fair haired maidens that use the under surface of the sea as a mirror. For reasons never disclosed, the mermaids tend to only do their doo in the late afternoon – preparing for a night out in Octopus’s garden perhaps.
There is something dreadful about hearing the words, ‘Man over board.’ The very syllables strung together conjure a monster of an image – bottom dredged and from some terrible, deep, dank place (and I don’t mean a Portsmouth nightlife venue) with sharp teeth and a lonely, watery filled horizon, and only the sense of abandonment to see with.
Of all the exercises we practiced – like kids re-tying laces, never really believing we were getting it quite right, this was the one that got to me the most, because as well as Fred, for that particular monster, we used live bait. And sometimes, not often, but more than once, that bait, was me.
Ships lifeguard duty rotated, so once the hue and cry went up, the ship, in all its 40,000 ton glory, would perform the maritime version of a 360 hand break turn. Each of us would run to our appointed places, look outs to the bridge, others to engine room, op’s room, coms op in place, and of course the boat bay. No red leotard to greet me after a jog along the upper deck, sun dazzling off my permed chest hair. No sound of ‘Some people stand in the darkness’ playing for me. Only a dry bag and a rope around the waist. Fins for the feet. Hold your nose, arms across the chest and go save Fred!
It’s a long way down to the water. On this occasion, once I step off the metal deck, the next place I’d be, was floating in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. The sky was a pale yellow, desert sand storms lingering in the air, until I leaned my head back enough to find the blue, but the water is no such colour, its black, dark with depth. There are miles to sink through before the sand floor. Light has never touched there, there where fish with no eyes and things with no knowledge of a humans gangling limbs swim – an eon of sinking through curiosity. Gulp. Splash.
Like all Sailors, I adore the sea and fear it too. For a sailors love to the sea is as another’s love for a heart. It is a home, it is a wildness in which we roam and adventure. It keeps us humble, shows us astounding beauty, reminds us daily the gift of breath. It teaches the value of a solid deck. And like all sailors, we were taught to fear it with superstitious dread also. Long hours at the Sea survival school in Plymouth, with salty ol’dogs, regaling us with tails of it’s cruel apparel, put the fear in you sharp.
There they give you a thin red all in one mac to protect against Arctic waters – and you’re left wondering why polar bears never evolved nylon coats?
Sailors will struggle in the sea, like a poet with a love letter – hate it, flee from it, fear and fight it, but they will always return to it.
And that paradox, of love and fear will tell you all you need to know about the men who go to sea, and every relationship they’ll ever have.
So once I’d dropped the twelve meters into the water, the procedure for rescuing Fred was as follows. Lie on your back, arms across your chest, watch for the man holding the battens directing you to Fred and try not to think about the man beside him with the rifle.
Now, there are many rumors in the Navy, it’s a life blood of sorts, Sailors love tales like boys love their… For this exercise, let me introduce you to two. They go well together, like a hook needs a worm. The first goes like this, and it’s as old as ships on water. Sharks follow ships. The theory has it, when the shadow of a vessel, crossing the many empty miles of Ocean, pass by, small fish follow in the shade of it, like sucker fish to a whale hitching a ride. When the ship dumps its degradable waste (sewage) the fish have a feast. Small fish eating, means bigger fish hungry. Bigger fish, equals sharks licking lips following ships.
Splash splash gulp splash.
The second rumor, involves the man on Shark watch. He’s standing beside the guy with the red and green battens. He has a rifle. The rifle is there in case a shark comes and attacks me or Fred.
He could be anyone of us, selected on the rota like I am now, paddling through the waves to rescue a lump of plastic and old sack cloth and cursing the day I ran away and joined this floating circus. Give me tanks, give a wizened cruel Afghan smile wielding a gelding knife, but please don’t make me swim, in here, in this aquarium of my imagination. According to lower deck talk, the man has a gun, not for the shark, but for the swimmer, to put you out of your misery before you’re dragged under for good.
Paddling backwards I see myself through three movie shots.
1. Eagle eye. High above the finger sized ship, a trail of white foam shows the wake of a man swimming. Zooming in on wake. A large, dark shadow following the trail of splashing feet.
2. What lies beneath. The view we’ve all seen. The undershot from Jaws of the unsuspecting swimmer at the surface, splash, stroke, splash stoke.
3. The tragic re-tale. This is shot in the mess deck. Somber and tear stained faces. “He never stood a chance. It came from nowhere. Right under him. I never even got a shot off.” Sobs echo in the silence. “I keep seeing his hand, reaching up, reaching up…”
So, lying on my back, 2 miles of dark water holding me in that place between elements, where the line of the sky sits, waiting for a prehistoric sized dinosaur shark to erupt into my disappointingly bony bottom, and I am wondering, what’s it all about?
Why are we here? Are we doing any good? Sailing around a coast line a thousand miles away from home, with our lovely cold, shark free waters. The endless exercises, the constant preparation for the worst that could happen, and cleaning bogs that always had shit stuck on the sides. We were there enforcing the UN sanctions on Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, supposedly stopping him from acquiring WMD’s. Many years later I’d read a UNICEF report that found this particular program contributed to the starvation of 500,000 Iraq children.
A warship does look like a bit like a shark. That is to say predatory, powerful, threatening even.
Of course nowadays we only like to scare the ‘Bad guys’. So when sailing into port, we’d all put on our nice flared white suits and silly hats, wave at the girls and get the brass band out so as not to worry the wrong people.
That was part of my job too, dressing the ship. Hanging pretty flags, disguising the shark in a rainbow. The animal-aquatic equivalent of Dame Edna with glorious hair, sparkly dress and smudged lipstick, leering out of a wide white smile.
Funny thing, recently I saw a re-run of Tony Blair making his case for the Iraq war in 2003. He was talking about the justifiability and need for a War to prevent a War, that could happen at some point… and so this War must be stopped before it happens ever again, with a War. He mentioned those WMD’s that we were always searching container ships and fisherman’s cabins for…
Anyway, when he was talking, I watched his eyes that had that intense stare. Saw his mouth move up and down, his tongue slip in and out, noticed the moisture on his lip, forehead. The way his hands rested on his lap, and while he was making these noises, these grunts, snarls, whimpering sounds…I had a vision of Fred. He was floating face down in the water, and I wondered if he ever got a medal after all.
“Constant exposure to danger will breed contempt for it.” A Roman wrote that over two thousand years ago, Tacitus I think. Just some other guy who got off on making his boys run in the mud, no doubt.
But he was right, to a degree. Sometimes, like when I am watching Tony Abbot, or David Cameron lying about ISIS and everything else on the media wagon they call the News, I care so much that it hurts so bad. And I don’t want to care anymore.
I think that should be a War Crime too. Making people hate to care.
‘Constant exposure to… breed contempt… for…’
Do you know, they never had a door mat with it written on.
But when you climbed the jetty, to either end of the gangway I guess, it could have had, it could have said ‘Welcome Home.’ Because it was in a way.
It had a family too, of a kind. But then it takes a different kind of courage to be loved to death.