Navy life isn't all smooth sailing

LIFE onboard a warship is tough - even with plasma TVs and Sky News.

Simon Tomlinson

LIFE onboard a warship is tough - even with plasma TVs and Sky News.

Long periods away from loved ones and erratic shifts and sleep patterns are just some of the challenges at sea.

It is a distinguished career, but you might have to become a professional schizophrenic, as SIMON TOMLINSON finds out from the crew and the Suffolk sailors aboard HMS Atherstone in the Gulf.

I READ on the Royal Navy website that life on a modern warship isn't a far cry from the days of sail and canon.

This comparison was more in relation to the watch systems - the manning of positions - that are very much the same today as they were the 17th Century.

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However, it left me thinking - more subconsciously than anything else - that conditions might be fairly sparse as I and photographer Alex Fairfull prepared to join the crew of HMS Atherstone in Bahrain last month.

But the giant plasma TV with Sky News, an ironing board, three wholesome meals a day and internet in abundance soon revealed how modern life has infused Royal Navy ships.

Don't be misguided though - life at sea is tough. Sailors are often on operations for several months at a time in tight living spaces, performing arduous tasks for long hours of the day.

And there is the strange separation from loved ones that brings added strain.

“I class myself as a professional schizophrenic,” said leading seaman Scott “Barney” Barnes. “I have two lives. I'm called Barney on board, but I'm Scott at home.

“I keep them separate. When I'm driving home I change from Barney to Scott and I become a husband and a father.”

Adapting to life on the ocean for long periods can also be challenging, particularly for the younger sailors.

Able seaman Luke Nicholson, 20, said: “It was quite difficult at Christmas because you have to make the most of it. But we had a big barbecue and I got to be captain for the day so it was a good laugh.”

Compared to larger ships, the various departments on HMS Atherstone work and live a lot closer together. This can take some getting used to, but it builds strong relationships.

Able seaman Alex Glaspell, who was born and bred in Ipswich, said: “On an aircraft carrier you can hide, but on here you can't.

“Everyone is together. There is a lot of banter between us but it is all in good humour.”

Leading chef Dave Hammett, who was born in Bury St Edmunds, added: “This is one of the best ships I have been on. It is more relaxed and you get to know everyone compared to bigger ships because you are tribal messing here where everyone is together.”

Taking aside the mod cons, which provide but small comfort, the roots of naval traditions are as valid now as they were in the past.

When not engaged in warfare, officers and sailors operate a watch to ensure the crucial positions on the ship are manned 24 hours a day.

The vital areas are the bridge, where the ship is driven from, the ship control centre containing the engines and generators, and the main communications office, which houses signal equipment such as high frequency radio.

Generally each watch is four hours long, but each sailor has to also perform their routine tasks - and grab much-needed sleep, sometimes in dribs and drabs - around these duties.

When minehunting or navigating through a war zone, the crew falls into a defence watch, whereby half the company is awake while the other half are asleep. This allows all of all of the guns or mine-hunting equipment to be manned to fight a threat at any time and can mean some sailors do a 120-hour week.

Keeping motivation during long tours is down to executive officer Trevor Orton - the ship's trouble-shooter.

“There will be lulls in the action and I have to regenerate the lads, ensure the departments are being run correctly and make sure there is variation,” said the ship's second-in-command.

“The biggest challenge for me is sustaining the focus of the lads for nearly eight months.”

Sleeping in the gyro room:-

WITH the understandable lack space on board, I spent my night on HMS Atherstone in the most bizarre room I have ever slept in.

Called the gyro room, it is the most central and stable area of the ship - great for those with no sea legs - and houses a range of electrical equipment and gyroscopes.

Surrounded by probably enough volts to light up a street and a strangely serenaded with whistles and hums while being rocked gently by the sea, it was the most surreal transits into the land of nod I had experienced.

But it was by far one of the best night's sleep I'd had in months!

Scott Barnes:-

LEADING seaman Scott Barnes was at sea when his first daughter, Caitlin, learnt to walk and talk.

And he had resigned himself to the fact he would miss the birth of his second daughter when he was deployed to the Gulf in December.

He had even written congratulations cards for a boy and a girl and left them with a neighbour to give to his wife, Annie, when the big day arrived.

But thanks to the lucky timing of maintenance work to HMS Atherstone, he was allowed home in January in time to drive his wife through blizzards to hospital, where she give birth to Olivia.

Ldg smn Barnes, who lives in March, Cambridgeshire, said: “The day my wife went into labour I had snowdrift all round my car. The ambulance said they couldn't get to us so I cleared the snow with the help of neighbours and drove to the hospital.

“A lot of forces people don't get that opportunity so I can't thank them enough.”

The 34-year-old is planning to leave the Royal Navy in four years when his service is up so he can focus on home life.

“I have got to learn to be a husband and a father. I don't want my children to grow up with someone who is away.”