And a Happy Birthday to the Royal Australian Navy!
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Next week an International Fleet Review is being held to commemorate the centenary of the first entry of the Royal Australian Navy’s fleet into Sydney.
Prince Harry will attend the festivities on behalf of the Queen.
The event, which promises to be a splendid affair, will commence on 3 October with the arrival of tall ships in Sydney Harbour. This will be followed by the ceremonial arrival of the warships on Friday, 4 October.
The formal review of the assembled ships will take place on Saturday, 5 October, and will culminate in the evening with a Pyrotechnics and Lightshow Spectacular.
On 4 October 1913 the flagship, HMAS Australia, led the new Australian Fleet Unit comprising HMA Ships Melbourne, Sydney, Encounter, Warrego, Parramatta and Yarra into Sydney Harbour for the first time to be greeted by thousands of cheering citizens lining the foreshore.
Sadly, work commitments mean I can’t make it Down Under for the 2013 celebrations but I have a special connection with the Royal Australian Navy, having served there for part of my naval career.
Picture the scene: a 15-year-old, rather unworldly Stockwin has joined the Royal Navy but learns that his parents have suddenly decided to emigrate to Australia. In those days it was easy to move between the two navies with very little paperwork so it was Down Under I went! I remember catching the plane to Sydney – the flight took three days, stopping at then exotic places like Cairo and Karachi and arriving at Darwin where I was stared at over the fence by a bunch of tough-looking Aussies.
I was based at HMAS Nirimba where I completed my training as a shipwright, some fine instructors there from the old world timber ships and the new one of fibre-glass. Sydney in those days was a sailor’s town and we were always made to feel welcome but I won’t go too much into that… The world-class harbour was as well where I won my colours at sailing, once staying at sea in a full-reefed two masted navy whaler while a proud twelve-metre America’s Cup yacht retired ignominiously.
On leave I would return to my parents’ home in Tasmania and sail the pride of my heart, Galah, my first boat, in the wild south of the island. Little did I know I’d be bringing these memories to my writing of COMMAND, where my hero sails in these waters as one of the very first explorers.
In the RAN we were often at sea for many months at a time. Some of my abiding memories are going ashore for a banyan on some deserted tropical island in the South Seas, the unreal beauty of ashore; and scoring well in the pistol team against the local police in Rabaul in New Guinea…and there are many other wistful memories of a time when I was young and adventuring on the high seas.
There were the darker memories, too. Savage storms at sea when you feel the presence of nature like a wild beast out of a cage; close inshore in a gale when you wonder if a mistake at the helm will end with those black rocks suddenly bursting in.
I saw service for several years in the Vietnam war and was duty watch in the carrier Melbourne the night when we collided with and sank our plane-guard destroyer Voyager – I was out keeping the seaboat afloat with ‘tingles’, copper patches, while we searched for survivors. And later, exhausted, keeping watch on a shored-up bulkhead forward while we made harbour.
I’m ‘Old Navy’ I guess; for a time I even slept in a hammock, and certainly there were no women at sea in the RAN in my day. Now some ships even have individual cabins for the sailors and women ably perform all roles aboard. There was no internet then and once you weighed anchor you were pretty much cut off from life ashore, your world was the universe of your ship, much like my hero Tom Kydd found.
I’m often asked when did I start thinking about taking up writing. This was certainly not something to the fore of my mind in my navy days – and I would go on to have several other careers before putting pen to paper. But my time at sea gave me invaluable insight into the sailor and life at sea; the good times and the bad.
There are many things that have not changed from Nelson’s day – mateship, duty, loyalty. And I’ve had sea experience on both sides of the world and have served on both the lower deck and as an officer, something I called upon when I described Tom Kydd’s transition to the quarterdeck.
I look back on my time with the RAN with great warmth and I will certainly be splicing the mainbrace next week!
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