Video: Life can be tough for a naval officer

As his ship, HMS Atherstone, negotiates the Bahraini port en route to operations in the Arabian Gulf, former Woodbridge School pupil Matt Bowden talks to SIMON TOMLINSON about his leadership, the difficulties of being away from his family and how his command style can sometimes land him in rough seas at home

LEAVING port can be the most dangerous part of any ship's voyage - even for a Royal Navy minehunter.

No vessel can be taken for granted amid the backdrop of terrorism and hostage-taking, but Suffolk-educated captain Matt Bowden is calm enough for a chat.

As his ship, HMS Atherstone, negotiates the Bahraini port en route to operations in the Arabian Gulf, the former Woodbridge School pupil talks to SIMON TOMLINSON about his leadership, the difficulties of being away from his family and how his command style can sometimes land him in rough seas at home.

DESPITE a painful trip to hospital the previous night and surviving on just one hour's sleep, captain Matt Bowden is relaxed.

Under the unusually overcast skies off the north-east coast of Bahrain in late March, his ship is on full alert with weapons drawn, searching for potential threats skimming across the water.

HMS Atherstone is heading out of the port to embark on a series of exercises and patrols on the Arabian Gulf as part of the coalition effort in the Middle East.

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But in the current climate where pirates and terrorists masquerade as fishermen, there is no room for complacency as the minehunter negotiates a flurry of small vessels and shallow water on its way out of the port.

Sat in his chair on the bridge with his arm perched casually on the back rest - possibly to relieve his suspected bruised rib sustained while exercising the day before - the Suffolk-educated captain has full confidence in his crew.

“My command style is very relaxed,” explains the 38-year-old as a speedboat heading towards his minehunter focuses the attention of the weapons team before diverting harmlessly away.

“I am not a shouty captain, but when I suggest something the crew knows to do it.

“One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was to not change who you are or be something you're not. The ship takes on the persona of the captain and the crew has to have trust and faith in your command.”

As an ominous reminder of the inherent dangers of the oceans, we sidle past the damaged US Navy nuclear submarine which had limped back to Bahrain's US naval base after colliding with an American assault ship in the Strait of Hormuz.

The US Navy has launched an investigation into the collision on March 20 which smashed a hole in the ship's fuel tank and injured 15 sailors in the submarine.

Sipping his morning coffee, lieutenant commander Bowden is surrounded by an organised buzz of activity as his senior officers steer and monitor the ship's course into the open seas.

Lt cdr Bowden believes in entrusting his top ranks with control of his ship and commands by veto, only stepping in when he doesn't agree with a decision.

Being a comparatively small naval ship, weighing in at 750 tons and with a crew of around 45, there is more emphasis on multi-tasking and the sailors generally assume greater responsibility than those on bigger vessels.

As a result, crew members, and particularly the more junior ranks, are constantly learning new skills on the job and often in very testing circumstances.

Lt cdr Bowden added: “I have an operational role but I am also a teacher and a mentor. It has a massive bearing on the development of the crew.

“In order to deliver our operational capability, my crew needs to work as a team and to understand what I require of them.”

But there are times when his occasionally direct command style lands him in hot water - most notably when he goes home to his wife, Lizzie, and daughter, Eleanor.

“On board, I speak and the whole ship jumps, but when you get back home after a long tour my phrasing doesn't go down very well. My wife says 'we are not members of your crew!'

“I also have been trained to listen to four or five conversations at once and filter out what isn't relevant. But at home I quite often find that I filter out the wrong thing!

“It takes a very special person to marry someone in the navy. You have got to be able to deal with bizarre separation and, more importantly, with us coming home, which strangely is one of the most stressful times for me because I am learning about all the changes in the house.

“My three-and-a-half-year-old daughter is not who I left behind. There will be massive differences with her.

“It is harder for them. My wife is at home with my little girl and she spends an awful lot more time thinking and not being distracted like we are. We have got another family here on the ship.”

Lt cdr Bowden took his first command post was in July 2007 on HMS Quorn, which was recently affiliated to Ipswich, and he returned to the town aboard the minehunter last October.

They had finished a stint on fishery patrols around the UK - acting like traffic cops of the high seas - and were preparing to adapt to minehunting and maritime security operations in the Gulf.

They have now made their home on HMS Atherstone - an identical minehunter - where they are gathering intelligence on suspicious activities and carrying out exercises with navies throughout the region.

“It is deterrence through presence,” said lt cdr Bowden, a former Woodbridge School pupil. “We have got the ability to know when something looks wrong - exactly like a policeman on the beat.”

LEARN about the complex and deadly process of hunting mines and find out from a Suffolk chef why the food on board changes with the weather.

BORN in Hertfordshire, the eldest of four children, Matt Bowden moved to Suffolk in the mid-1970s when his father, Colin, took a job in marine insurance at Willis Faber in Ipswich.

The first seeds for lt comm Bowden's naval career were sown by his enthusiastic headteacher at the Sir Robert Hitcham's Primary School in Debenham, Stuart Bufton, who regaled the children with tales of the Second World War.

He went on to Woodbridge School, where he joined the Combined Cadet Force and shot for Great Britain in the under 21s cadet rifle team.

After reading electronic engineering at Sheffield University, he went on to the Britannia Royal Naval College in 1993.

He was deployed to the Middle East, including military action against Iraq, aboard HMS Ocean and was promoted to lieutenant commander in 2003.

Members of the Hunt class - the largest warships ever to be constructed out of fibreglass.

Hunt class ships are the most expensive in the fleet - costing �1million per metre when they were built.

Weight - 750 tons.

Length - 60metres.

Speed - 15 knots.

Weapons - One 30mm gun, two mini-guns, and two general purpose machine guns.

Mine countermeasures - Seafox remote-controlled mine disposal system, 2193 sonar, onboard diving team.