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The whole ship’s company? “Once it’s wet, the tow rope is

incredibly heavy and it has to be hauled in manually,” Lt Masson explains. “It needs everyone who’s not otherwise engaged.” (The steward setting the table for lunch in the wardroom nods his head repeatedly with a grimace.) For such efforts there are rewards. One city especially seems to have fi red Sutherland’s imagination. Halifax? New York? Washington? Norfolk, perhaps? Baltimore.

Not necessarily top of most people’s tourist destinations, but the port was the venue for Sutherland as she hosted British defence fi rms. “The reception was just fantastic,” says Lt Masson. “The woman who ran a water taxi service organised an informal dinner party, people invited us into their homes. All because we were British military.” While Sutherland was showcasing British industry keen to sell their wares, some things are priceless. Like the entire ship’s company of one of the world’s biggest – and most famous – warships saluting a few thousands tons of sovereign British territory. As Sutherland entered Norfolk, legendary carrier USS Enterprise – the Big E – was making her way out. Aboard the Type 23 was the task force commander. His seniority meant the fl at-top had to pay its respects. A good thousand American sailors lined the sides of the carrier…

“Imagine that,” beams CO Cdr John Payne with a Cheshire-cat grin. “Normally I’m saluting everyone…” It’s not the only time our American cousins have taken a keen interest in Sutherland. All the way across the Pond, and once off the Eastern Seaboard, the frigate has been pinging her Sonar 2087.

It can be used passively – ie simply listening for submarines. But such is the range (vastly improved over its predecessor 2031) of the new(ish) low-frequency sonar that the active button has been fl icked on.

American VIPs and anti-submarine experts have been mightily impressed by the combination of 2087 and Sutherland’s Merlin – “a potent punch for the task group,” says Cdr Payne…

… and a succession of submarines – France’s Perle, America’s Dallas and Boise, Canada’s Cornerbrook, Peru’s BAP Angamos (aka Dangermouse) – have all voiced their discomfort at being pinged.

IT’S not just the Type 23 applying pressure to the deeps; the Flying Tigers

are here en masse too. The entire 814 Naval Air Squadron – all 138 men and women and fi ve Merlins – have deployed on Auriga, split between Fort George and Ark Royal. Back home in Culdrose there is nothing. The lights are off. No-one is home. “And that’s a good thing,” says the Flying Tigers’ CO Cdr Darran Goldsmith.

“Anti-submarine warfare is a skill which is very perishable. You have to keep doing it. It’s not something you can turn on at the snap of a fi nger.” It’s not just the toys 814 have been given to play with that’s made Auriga useful, but the playground. “Back in the UK, it’s north-west Scotland or the Plymouth exercise areas. We know the airspace, we know the waters, we know the support we can rely on. But not here,” explains Cdr Goldsmith. So why, two decades after the end of the Cold War and seven after Dönitz’s U-boats stalked the Atlantic, are we still hunting boats?

“Submarine warfare’s growing,” says Cdr Goldsmith emphatically. “More nations than ever possess boats. There’s everything out there – from boats capable of wiping out cities to one-man midget submarines and drug runners’ submersibles. And we’ve got to be able to fi nd them.”

Non-pingers mock ‘awfully slow

warfare’ – “It’s not slow, it’s very quick,” Cdr Goldsmith points out in a fl ash. “Anyway, other pilots should be interested in ASW. If we don’t do our job, they don’t have anything to land on.” He has a point… There’s more to pingers than, er, pinging. This trip, 814 has done everything from ferrying passengers and supplies around to force protection duties and search and rescue stand-by. “We do everything,” says the Flying Tigers’ enthusiastic CO. “You can’t beat it. How can people not think it’s Gucci?”

aboard, mind you. Where Merlin goes, so too its supporting test system – a wonderful piece of diagnostics kit which checks whether things on the £40m helicopter are working as they should be. Wonderful as long as you don’t have to move it. It’s not a

NOT everyone welcomes

permanent fi xture aboard Ark, but goes where the Merlins go. In this case, it was disassembled methodically at Culdrose under the direction of PO Colin Hone… then methodically reassembled in a workshop just off Ark’s hangar, again under the senior rate’s direction. The result is fi ve racks of turquoise

grey boxes packed with gadgetry, linked by more cables than at a satellite TV convention. It’s one of more than half a dozen workshops and annexes hidden away on the edge of the hangar. You wouldn’t ordinarily notice them, but they’re the backbone of fl ying operations – sorting out radios, batteries, avionics, hydraulics, fi xing parts or making replacements. The hangar itself is littered with 250 gallon fuel tanks for the Harriers, pallets and containers featuring all manner of equipment – 1(F) Squadron brought fi ve artics’ worth, 814 three. And again, it’s all good. “The guys have been aboard for say

the Merlins’ presence

15 months and come through refi t,” says the carrier’s air engineer offi cer Cdr Rob Mallinson. “They were desperate to get back into fl ying operations again, getting busy.”


The Navy genie has granted them their

“No doubt about it, this trip has been fab for working with all the different types of aircraft,” says PO Paddy Ashe, hangar PO, a man who loves his job. “We are very lucky in our branch. We look after each other – it’s a hotbed of comradeship and high morale.” There is, he says, a two-year waiting list to become a naval airman; such interest in the branch is particularly welcome given that in under fi ve years we’re going to need a lot of handlers.

Like everything involving British carriers – principally Illustrious – over the past three or four years, Auriga has one eye on the present and one eye on the future.

The present is making sure Ark and her

task group are at the top of their game and can work with the Americans. The future is preparing the way for Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales. “Many of the guys and girls on

here will serve in the Queen Elizabeth class. Every week at sea, every exercise we do has to be a step towards the future carrier,” says Capt Clink. Inwardly, too, Ark’s made

on th y

great strides towards the future.

It is, shamefully, seven years since the Navy News team spent any concerted time aboard the ship, and hence seven years since I visited her ops

room, a dark, dingy affair fi lled with matelots staring at mainly monochrome screens.

My, how things have changed. Lighting (well, half lighting – too much light, explains senior warfare offi cer Lt Cdr Stu Yates, “takes away that ops room feeling and concentration.”). Flat screens. Oversized TV/computer screens. Colour screens. Still fi lled with matelots, of course.

“The layout, the set-up, the equipment, the light, it’s all right up to scratch,” says CPO(AWT) ‘Terry’ Tinson proudly. “Ark Royal might be 25 years old, but inside she’s bang up to date.” Among the new gadgets they can play with is the Rover downlink – it’s a real-time feed of footage from the camera fi tted to a Merlin or sniper pod on a Harrier. Think Police, Camera, Action, but rather than waiting for the helicopter or jet to return to download the footage, the ops room can monitor, analyse and advise on things as they happen. How good is it? Well, from fi ve miles away you can see the heat rising from the funnel of HMS Sutherland and a sailor on the upper deck walking around in a white shirt. From 35 miles, you can quite clearly make out the pennant number on RFA Fort George.

Hi-tech naval kit is not the preserve of either the Americans or RN, however. The Canadians possess Hammerheads,

remote-controlled speed boats capable of 25kts which simulate fast-attack craft/ suicide bombers. What’s really cool is that you can use live ammo against them. Ark’s guns, and especially those of her Lynx, sent two Hammerheads to Davy Jones’ Locker. “It’s really realistic training,” says Lt

Cdr Yates. “These boats cost thousands, but the Canadians didn’t mind us blowing them up.”

Which is nice.

It is also very good practice. A warship has just 71 seconds to respond if a suicide bomber closes within half a mile at 50kts and only around ten to engage said vessel if it really is a threat, not a pleasure cruiser.

Most of the time, British warships are kind to things which do business in these waters.

Pilot whales and, to a lesser extent,

fi n whales, have been sighted fairly regularly. Sailors and aircrew know they’re pilot or fi n whales courtesy of the Lord Attenborough Marine Life and General Nature Appreciation Cabinet on Ark Royal’s bridge which is packed with booklets (and quite a few bars of Galaxy chocolate…) which help the bridge team identify marine life (that’s the books, not the chocolate…). All sightings are logged to help the world’s conservationists keep tabs.

wit Ga br th


Not all marine life is benign, of course. Beware killer kelp. It’s done for Ruth and made

Fred a widower.

Ruth was the new man, or rather woman, overboard dummy. She was tossed into the Atlantic for an exercise… her orange suit blended with the kelp and she was never seen again. Fred, though in mourning, is still available…

any time you like. Aurigas are few and far between. So has it been worthwhile? “Oh God, yeah,” says Cdr Goldsmith.

YOU can practise man overboard drills

“We’ve got just what we needed.” From Cdr Carroll: “The key thing is to get ships and sailors to think as a task group, to think as a team, not just about their own ships, so that we can rock up quickly.” From Lt Cdr Yates: “We’ve got a lot

from Auriga for our buck.” From Cdre Ancona: “As far as I’m

concerned, it’s been an outstanding success; a very, very substantial stepping stone.” From Capt Clink: “You cannot buy experience. In the months we’ve been away so far, you can see a fairly rapid improvement in the way we do things.” The last word, rightly, belongs to

Britain’s ranking sailor, who visited the Auriga force in Halifax.

“Unless we practise this, we cannot do it,” says First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope.

“The aim is to knock on the prime minister’s door and say: if you want a task force, I can deliver it.”

Pray that the knock never comes, but if it does, we are ready.

pictures: po(phot) jon hamlet and la (phot) gregg macready, hms ark royal  Canadian Fleet Review, overleaf

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