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Over the summer, the 14 vessels of the University Royal Naval Units bomb-burst around the UK and north-west Europe, immersing upwards of 700 students in Senior Service life. They get to some exotic (ish) places. Lisbon. Gibraltar. Antwerp. The Baltic ports. And, er, Portsmouth. Richard Hargreaves hopped aboard HMS Archer in the Solent.

WE’VE all seen the Young Ones or Withnail and I.

Students. They attend two hours of lectures a week, deliver their essays late, get up at mid-day after a heavy night in the bar of the student union’s Mandela Building, do the washing up on Saturdays and the vacuuming even less frequently. Right? Well, possibly. But not this lot. They’re up at 7am. They’re on their feet ten, 12, 16 hours a day. They wash up after every meal (they still need a bit of help with the cleanliness, admittedly). Mind you, they do have Jack on their case. Crammed aboard HMS Archer (all 68ft and 49 tons of her) are 12 undergraduates from Aberdeen’s seats of higher learning. Plus five ship’s company. And some naval reservists or junior officers undergoing seamanship training. And that’s typical of all the P2000 patrol boats which serve the 14 University Royal Naval Units – more commonly, simply URNU – peppered around the UK. They’re almost the smallest vessels in the RN armoury (survey motor launch Gleaner at 28 tons takes that title) and it’s probably fair to say a lot of the Fleet doesn’t appreciate (a) what they do and (b) how busy they are.

So allow us to cast light where there is darkness. There are in excess of two million students in higher education in the UK. Seven hundred of those sign up to serve with the 14 URNUs – a maximum of 51 undergraduates per unit – after being interviewed by sailors to test their suitability.

The successful applicants are required to attend one ‘sea weekend’ per year, plus spend ten days with their unit at either the Easter or summer breaks – when the boats leave normal waters behind and head off on deployment. For that they receive payment – typically

Moreton. A couple of generations of Moretons have already served under the White Ensign. The engineering student from Aberdeen University might be the third.

“I joined to see if this was something I’d want to do. It’s an experience that you cannot put a value on. Some of my university friends think I’m crazy working all week, then going to sea at the weekend.”

OC Scott Mackie adds: “The money’s an incentive but you could earn more doing a normal Saturday job.”

career in the RN. His time with Archer’s taught him one thing – perhaps the most important for anyone pondering a life on the ocean waves. “I decided: yep, I can live in a tiny box,” Scott

says. Archer’s not a tiny box, the Scotsman corrects himself: “She’s a small grey caravan of death and destruction.” Not sure about the death and destruction bit, but a small grey caravan is a fairly apt description of life below decks, because the cramped spaces, small galley, narrow bunks do rather remind you of Jeremy Clarkson’s bête noire (mercifully, though, there’s no chemical loo…).

fi repower’s limited to catapults. Catapults?

As for death and destruction, well, Archer’s

“When the P2000s meet up, we catapult water bombs at each other,” Scott explains. “How many people can say they throw water bombs at a British warship.”

He too is seriously contemplating a full-time

around £1,000 a year. The students are also entitled to the benefi ts that regular sailors enjoy such as discounts, access to sports and medical facilities.

My guess is about 700 every year... Anyway, when not soaking each other the students are being immersed (sorry) in all aspects of naval life: navigation, seamanship, husbandry, discipline, safety, and getting on with one another in a very restricted environment. “Living in a small box, it’s about being a family, about working as a team,” says OC Louise Critchin, who’s mastered much of life on Archer… bar tying her hair in a bun.

That will gnaw away at the cost of going to university these days (circa £20K over three years…) but it’s not why the students are here. “The money’s nice, but it’s not the reason why I’m here,” says Offi cer Cadet Leigh

P2000s are basic. Comms between the open

bridge and the wheelhouse (which is never used to drive the ship because the bridge offers far better visibility) normally involve a blow on the voice pipe (yes they still exist) or a holler down the ladder. Turn the wheel and you turn the rudder. There are no hydraulics, no power steering.

● HMS Smiter (Glasgow) follows HMS Archer out of Portsmouth

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