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Medical Officer's Blog

HMS Lancaster enters Gibraltar Harbour
Sunset over HMS Lancaster’s Flight Deck sports and BBQ evening before operations begin
 
Superstar Champion Flight Deck sports onboard HMS Lancaster

All, as I write this on the morning of the 4 September, HMS Lancaster is seamlessly cruising up the Suez canal, an azure strip of water surrounded by ongoing sand dunes as far as the eye can see.  Starting early in the morning local time, she has passed through Port Said, line astern in a large convoy with massive super-tankers and container vessels ahead and behind us; one of the oddest cavalcades I have ever seen.

Our boys, upper deck weapons crews from the warfare department, are standing behind the miniguns and GPMGs (machine guns) in the sweltering heat, ever vigilant for attack, sweat in eyes, Kevlar body armour and desert combats on, as time dribbles endlessly by.  Dunes, the beating sun, a cloudless sky, the occasional sign of human industry.  Lancaster, our home for the next 6 months, 4,000 tonnes of her Majesty’s grey, all at sea, serenely drifting in the middle of a desert. 

Standing on the Bridge, I can’t help but feel this will be one of the very many memories that sticks in years to come ….

Not the only memory of course.  Since I wrote the first blog in this series - what? 2 weeks ago?  An awful lot has happened.

After last minute checks of weapons, systems and postures we motored south and to Gibraltar, itself something of an ode to Naval history.  Standing on the Bridge every morning after breakfast (as is my want), and looking at charts and our GPS position, I had no idea that this is where Cadiz, Cape Trafalgar, the Spanish mainland and Gibraltar all connect in close proximity and history.

Standing on the Rock - the massif which bares down on the modern day town, the wind howling up its east side and billowing almost constant cloud towards the pinnacle, one can make out where Nelson’s body was brought ashore from HMS Pickle, the battlements and casements that have with Here's me (on the back right in the red T shirt) with HMS Lancaster’s Wardroom having just completed the infamous Rock Race
 
stood numerous sieges, even where British sailors lie buried, killed at the Battle of Trafalgar.  Looking further out, there are tens of tankers and merchant men at anchor, all around the spit of Gibraltar, and further still, Spain.

In Gibraltar we had the “luck” to attempt the Rock Race- a feat of madness or determination depending on how you look at it, and something that the Clubz has had great glee in organising (a Clubz or Club Swinger is a physical trainer for the Navy; think smiling sadist and you won’t be far long).  So at half six, forty eight (- the largest turnout from a Ship’s Company for sometime) bleary eyed individuals sweated and cramped their way up the Rock of Gibraltar, the race won by a whippet by the name of AB Nelson-Smith (he had stopped recovery breathing by the time I trudged up, the famous Rock Apes - brought over and subsequently released by sailors from Nelson’s time - staring and shaking their heads at me with pity).

However, no rest in Gibraltar, and later that morning we sailed, hugging the North coast of Africa - Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia.  Looking at the open pages of my diary from that week, the pages are filled.  Briefs, planning meetings, and training exercises – live firings, machinery breakdown drills, man over board exercises, culminating in a crash on deck scenario, lasting the whole of one Saturday morning, and involving the whole of the Ship’s Company.

Impressively testing everyone’s reactions to what would be a catastrophic event, I saw fire teams dosing the flight deck in powerful streams of foam, extraction teams for the aircrew, my own first aid team in action, command on the bridge and engineers down below coordinating the relief effort. I think it left everyone exhausted but elated.

I’m surprised the week is so intensive- not just the days, but the evenings and weekends too.  We have sports every Sunday; with the helicopter in the hangar, the flight deck becomes a perfect pitch for flight deck hockey (more a good natured brawl with hockey sticks than a game), strong man competition and circuit training.  At any spare moment, the weights come out, and people bound up and down the deck.  The Ship’s Company see this deployment as an opportunity for personal betterment.  Getting fitter, stopping smoking (I’m almost out of patches!), studying a language, learning on a distance learning course - I haven’t seen this kind of industry in my civilian world.  We even have a Fleet Education Officer on board - Billy, my cabin mate, an ex-teacher with a cutting sense of humour and a dab hand at chess; he has already beaten this Medical Officer hands down at chess.

Other entertainments include the usual quizzes over the ship’s main broadcast, BBQs, flight deck movies, we even had a “hands to bathe” pipe made - at a suitable spot on a Sunday afternoon, the ship’s progress is halted, and everyone not on watch gets a chance to re-enact their own small slice of the Beijing Olympics and catapult themselves into the water.

And I think all of the above underlines one very important point.  I have only been onboard for a short while (jibes of “military tourism” and of “gap year student” abound in the Wardroom (Officer’s Mess), yet even I feel the over whelming sense of community and togetherness in all this; we are all of one company now.  Our purpose is singular and aimed totally at achieving our mission.  Everything we do is about personal sacrifice for the betterment of each other, of pride in LancasterR and, eventually, a successful mission.

The mood onboard has definitely changed now too.  After an afternoon in Soudha Bay refuelling the ship and relaxing in the local port of Chania as our last port visit in the Mediterranean, we have left the comparative safety of friendly waters and are moving out towards the Gulf of Aden and Oman.  The ship is in a very different posture - we all walk around with battle bags containing anti-flash hoods and gloves, hatches are locked back down as we pass from one ship’s compartment to another, the majority of the Ship’s Company are in Defence Watches (rotating in shift system between on watch and off watch).  The mood is calmer, more methodical, more tense.  It is here and now that the deployment proper begins.

I suspect I shall be writing a very different blog next time.

Until then,

‘Nic the Doc’
HMS Lancaster

More pictures in the Photo Gallery