Tell me briefly about your role, rank and how long you have been in the military

Firstly a little background on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service (RFA) so as to paint the picture. We operate the Naval Auxiliary Fleet (Currently 13 ships and 1900 personnel) and are fully integrated within the Naval service however all our ships are manned by Merchant Sailors. Our Seafarers conduct both Merchant Navy Training as well as undertaking specific Royal Navy Courses (Warfare Courses, Gunnery, Flight Deck Operations, Navigation, Firefighting and Damage Control Courses to name but a few). Our ships are fully integrated into the front line naval service and we are an essential part of how the UK Armed forces and especially the Royal Navy operates with freedom around the globe. The RFA supports a wide spectrum of operations from high-tempo up-threat war-fighting to counter-piracy, disaster relief, counter-narcotics, law enforcement and evacuation operations.

I joined the RFA straight from Wycliffe initially as a Cadet (Naval Equivalent of Midshipman) and qualified as Third Officer in 1995. Since then I have progressed through my career and was promoted to Chief Officer (Naval equivalent Commander) in 2015.

In my current role I am the ship’s Executive Officer (Second in Command). This is a very varied role as I manage the conduct and operational effectiveness of the ship on behalf of the commanding officer. I ensure all departments work together to achieve the command aim and, in addition, I manage the Deck Department on board, oversee all Cargo Operations and manage Ship Stability, ensure integration of embarked military forces as well as a myriad of other roles.

When were you at Wycliffe and what A levels did you study? Were you in the CCF?

1. I was in Ward’s House between 1989 – 1991 and I studied History, Economics and Geography A Levels.
2. Yes I was a member of the CCF.

Was sport important to you at school and do you still manage to play a sport?

Whilst at school I was never particularly sporty, which is something I regret, and never managed to make any of the school teams. Being at sea maintaining fitness is important but is sometimes difficult with work patterns. Where I can, I make good use of the gyms onboard and when at home, on leave, I enjoy cycling.

What did you enjoy most about Wycliffe, do you have particular memories from school? What did you find most challenging?

During my school career I went to a number of different schools only starting at Wycliffe in the sixth form. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Wycliffe and certainly it was the friendliest of all the schools I went to. Everyone got on and we were all part of one family. I have many happy memories from afternoons spent in Chartz Café at the end of the school day and Saturday night trips to the Woolpack in our final year.

Most challenging, probably the physical side of the CCF especially the slogs up the hills in Doverow Woods at the back of the school.

What did you study at university and where did you study?

On Leaving Wycliffe in 1991, I commenced my four year Cadetship with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. This was run along the lines of a Merchant Navy Cadetship and as such the time was split between Academic Studies at Warsash Maritime Academy and periods at sea – effectively we did a short 6 week stint at college, a year at sea, year at college, final year at sea and then a final year at college during which we sat written exams and a final Oral exam to receive our initial Certificate of Competency. The Cadetship was a great opportunity to learn the job and provided many memorable experiences. Our first phase at sea was split between two ships – the first RFA OLWEN (an old steam ship that was supporting carrier operations in the Mediterranean and Black sea) and the second ship was RFA FORT AUSTIN (which supported a Task Group during the ORIENT 92 deployment). For this deployment we sailed from the UK, went through the Med and Suez (with a few stops) down to Mombassa where I had the opportunity to go on Safari before heading out to Korea, Japan and finally ending up with a prolonged stop in Hong Kong. All great opportunities for an 18 year old. During my second sea phase I spent time in the Gulf, took a ship out to Split during the Balkans conflict and brought a ship from the Falklands up the West coast of South America, through the Caribbean and back to the UK. I completed this Cadetship in 1995 as a qualified Officer Of The Watch.

Tell me about your career since qualifying

I continued my nautical studies; returning to Warsash Maritime Academy and gained my Chief Mates Certificate of Competency in 1998 and Master Mariner (Unlimited) Certificate of Competency in 2002.

Running parallel with my Merchant Navy Qualifications I have completed numerous naval courses including Frigate Navigating Officer’s course (2002) and Intermediate Command and Staff Course (2008)

During My Career I have served on 22 Different RFAs (Some multiple times) and 2 Warships (HMS OCEAN and HMS BULWARK whilst attached to the Battlestaff) during numerous deployments, operations and exercises including:

  • One of my early appointments as Third Officer was on RFA ARGUS when she participated in the 1996 PURPLE STAR 96 Deployment – at the time the largest UK/US amphibious exercise since the second world war
  • Multiple deployments out to the Gulf including a period in 1998 when UK was part of the coalition conducting air operations in Iraq and as Navigator and Operations Officer on RFA GREY ROVER operating in the Northern Gulf during OP TELIC (2003 Gulf Conflict).
  • In 2011 was Operations Officer on RFA FORT VICTORIA conducting Anti Piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, during this period we spent 84 days at sea between berths.
  • More recently on RFA LYME BAY and RFA CARDIGAN BAY acting as the Afloat Forward Support Base for the UK Mine Hunters that operate in the Gulf
  • In 2007, whilst operating in the Arctic Circle, on RFA LYME BAY our ship got re-tasked to provide support to Tristan da Cunha (Most remote island community), the harbour on the Island had been damaged by Storms and was in urgent need of repairs. After a brief stop back in the UK to collect the Royal Engineers (RE) we transited down to the South Atlantic and spent six weeks operating off the island whilst the RE repaired the harbour.
  • Between 2014 and 2016, I was the sole RFA Officer embedded within the COMATG (Amphibious Task Group) Battle Staff. During this period I provided advice on capabilities of RFA Platforms and was fully involved as the staff planned and executed Deployments and Exercises to the Mediterranean and the Gulf.
  • More recently two separate appointments to RFA MOUNTS BAY during core hurricane season during which the ship provided Humanitarian Aid for OP RUMAN (in the wake of Hurricanes IRMA and MARIA in 2017) and OP BARYTONE (in the wake of Hurricane DORIAN 2019)

What/who encouraged you to join the Navy?

From an early age I had wanted to go to Sea and was very much focused on a career in the Royal Navy. However, whilst at Wycliffe I saw a brochure in the Careers Office for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. At the time I was unclear of the subtle differences but I liked the look of the larger ships so, as well as applying for the Royal Navy, I also applied for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA). Whilst awaiting to hear from the RN, the RFA invited me for interview. As luck would have it, this interview fell on the same day as the school cross country so seemed an ideal opportunity to have a nice day out to London whilst avoiding running through muddy fields in the rain! At the time I believed it was just an initial interview so was quiet surprised at the end when they offered me a job and 28 years later I am still here!

What’s the strangest / Memorable moments during my career so far?

After 28 years’ service, there are so many memorable moments and I have plenty of yarns when the lantern swings but there are four that stand out:
1. Transiting the Red Sea at Night and being surrounded by a school of Dolphins. I couldn’t see the dolphins, I could just see their trails in the water illuminated by the bio-luminescence – long streaks of blue/green light everywhere and there were occasional breaks as the dolphins broke the surface.
2. Seeing the Northern Lights whilst conducting amphibious landings with the Royal Marines in the Norwegian Fjords.
3. Having Breakfast on Gracie Mansion Lawn, New York, whilst our ship was participating in the War of 1812 Bicentenary.
4. Representing RFA MOUNTS BAY at the 2017 MILLIE Awards and visiting 10 Downing street.

As for strange occurrences that is a bit harder, but I do recall one occasion when off the south coast we came across an unlit yacht one night so we launched our Rescue Boat to investigate and discovered the sole occupant of the yacht trying to sail it with a broken arm. The Boat crew brought him back to the ship for our Doctor. We questioned the gentleman who appeared to be in his late 60’s (he couldn’t remember his DoB and had no Next of Kin). He claimed to be a professional Yachtsman who was delivering the Yacht and when asked to where, he said Wales! As regards his broken arm, we asked if he had done it that day and he had said: no, he had done it a couple of weeks before, so, effectively he had sailed the day before with a broken arm, in a yacht with no radio or lights!

As Executive Office, XO, I have also had to deal with members of the crew that have had mental breakdowns which has been quiet challenging. A couple of trips ago, I got called down the gangway at two o’clock in the morning to find a crew member stood at the top refusing to let anyone onboard as he claimed the ship was going to sink and everyone was going to die. He had a firm grip on the railings and the guys had spent a good hour trying to talk him down without success. At the time, we had a Royal Marine detachment onboard so I got a couple of them to literally prise him off the gangway and get him to the ship’s hospital.

 

What’s the biggest challenge in your career?

Each appointment brings its own challenges partly because we are always working with new teams of people (from across the joint service community as well as our NATO partners) and partly because we go from ship to ship, each of which has it’s own complex systems and tasks.
Academically within my career, I would probably say gaining my Chief Mates Certificate was the most challenging as I found the Stability exams difficult and in addition the Orals for Chief Mates were the hardest of all the Oral exams. These Orals exams are sat at each level in front of a Maritime and Coastguard Examiner. The questions cover a vast variety of subjects from Collision regulations, Ship Board Procedures, Managing and loading any form of cargo that is carried by merchant vessels were and myriad of other subjects.
Career-wise the biggest challenge has probably been my last three years as Executive Officer, ensuring the ship runs and delivers effectively during some challenging conditions. I would also say the last three years have been the most rewarding of my career as I have had some really great teams working for me.

 

You’ve helped in two major natural disaster in a just a few years, does this affect how you feel about your work?

Work at sea can be very varied and draining at times but when conducting operations it can be very rewarding. This is especially true when providing aid and it can be so humbling, everyone just cracks on and pulls out all the stops to get aid ashore. The whole crew worked extremely long hours, some to exhaustion, in marginal conditions and certainly pushed the risk envelope. We have a relatively small ship’s company on the LSDA (80RFA, 15RN, 25 Royal Engineers, 25 Royal Logistic Corp and 10 US Coast Guard) and yet we managed to achieve a huge amount and more importantly give hope to the islanders. At one point, whilst off Abaco, we were repositioning to deliver aid into Fox Town and had initially been told there were 700 people in the settlement and sent a boat into to do a recce. It then emerged there were over 3000 people that had been cut off since the Hurricane had struck. As part of the relief stores we had 2000 empty collapsible 10L jerry cans onboard. Obviously not much point putting empty containers ashore, so at 22:00 at night we asked for volunteers onboard to help fill these containers and the whole ship’s company turned out to fill them from different taps around the ship. This enabled us to land 20,000 litres ashore the following morning. The job has so many highs and lows but when tasks such as these come through I feel so proud to be part of the RFA, working with great people from across all the services.

 

Would you be willing to offer careers advice to a recent leaver? Provide mentoring support?

Would be more than happy to offer advice to anyone that wishes to follow a career at sea and provide mentoring support. With sea going careers they are split into specialities and throughout my training and career I have been a Deck Officer (Navigation, Operations, Cargo Work etc) so can offer plenty advice on that. Other specialties such as Engineering and System’s Engineering I could only offer limited advice.

 

Would you recommend the navy to current pupils/recent leavers? What would they get out of it as a career?

I would recommend a Career in the RFA to anyone wishing to go to sea as it offers the best of both worlds. You gain Merchant Navy qualifications which enable you to have a varied career across the broad range of the Merchant Navy (RFA, Passenger Ships, Petroleum Industry, Ferries etc) whilst giving the opportunity to work within the Joint Service Environment. Our thirteen ships are often at the forefront of Naval Operations around the world providing a huge amount of effect. Unlike the Merchant Navy where every trip is the same there is a huge amount of variety with each appointment offering new challenges or tasks and we have a variety of ships that conduct a wide variety of operations for example:

  • RAS Operations (Replenishment at Sea) this is where two ships basically sail about 40m apart and transfer fuel, stores and ammunition. This can be incredibly challenging and especially in high sea states.
  • Amphibious Operations, we have three Landing Ships capable of carrying 400 troops with an integral dock, they can operate landing craft to land troops and vehicles ashore. This class of ship can be used in a combat roll, or as seen recently, to deliver humanitarian aid. In addition one of this class of ship is permanently stationed in the Gulf acting as the Afloat Forward Support Base for UK Mine counter measure vessels in the region.
  • RFA also provide ships to conduct Counter Narcotics and Anti-piracy operations.
  • RFA ARGUS, as well as conducting flying Ops, also acts as a Primary Casualty Reception Ship (Hospital Ship in all but name) and is equipped with a 100 bed hospital including operating theatres, CT Scanner etc. This facility is not permanently manned but kept in readiness.
  • In addition to varied trips and a comprehensive training package we also have a good leave ratio and for every month we do on a ship we get 21 days leave so after a four month appointment we get just shy of three months paid leave.

What activity, course or class at Wycliffe was pivotal for your career or your development as an adult?

I always took great pride in being part of the CCF and that, I believe, played a part in my desire to find a career where I could serve my country.

As for course/class, my love of history, especially naval history, certainly influenced my career choice and much of my youth was spent reading seafaring yarns by Alexander Kent and Dudley Pope.

 

Was there a teacher who was a role model or went above and beyond to support you?

As I attended multiple schools, it is hard to single out one specific teacher. However, my most influential was Maj Stark from my previous school and from Wycliffe, it would be Mr Shakeshaft, our House Master, who always provided encouragement and our history teacher, Mrs Andow, who brought history to life.

 

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