Back in May HMS Ocean, currently the Royal Navy’s largest ship, arrived on the Thames just off Greenwich. She is part of the military contingent helping out with security for the London 2012 Olympic Games, and is currently carrying five Royal Navy and five Army Lynx helicopters and assorted landing craft, as well as a full company of Royal Marines, amongst whom, I understand, are some crack snipers.
Today HMS Ocean was open to the public for her second open day since berthing at Greenwich. After a short wait and a quick bag check we boarded a small City Cruises boat from the jetty and circled the ship before going aboard to have a look around (you might remember that City Cruises were kind enough to invite me to participate in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee River Pageant back in June).
The first thing I did once aboard was to walk up the rather steep auxiliary ramp to the main deck, where a couple of the helicopters and some weaponry were on show. Unfortunately we were only allowed to lean over the railings at the top of the ramp – a heavily armed and rather mean-looking Royal Marine was pacing backwards and forwards in front of us to make it quite clear that was as far as we were going to go! Given that she’s on active duty, I imagine that they don’t want visitors messing around next to fully-fuelled and armed helicopters that might be required to take off at a moment’s notice…
The next stopping point was a large open area next to the ramp where the Royal Marines were showing visitors their equipment. Some of the men were inviting people to try lifting a ‘bergen’ – weighing up to 45kg when fully loaded with kit, these are the backpacks that a Royal Marine would be expected to carry on an extended mission across country. They were also demonstrating the equipment that they use for beach landings – dinghies, wetsuits, sophisticated sonar gear and the like. The Royal Marines’ weaponry was also on show – a sergeant was handing around Browning Hi-Power semi-automatic handguns and SA80 rifles for people to handle, although seeing 6 year-olds waving around assault rifles was quite disconcerting! A Royal Marine cook was also letting people sample field rations from a small tent.
After getting the opportunity to examine one of the Royal Marines’ landing craft up close, the next open area on the ship revealed why HMS Ocean is the size of a large office block turned on its side – it’s main hangar deck. This vast area, which takes up most of the ship’s interior space, has two huge lifts for carrying helicopters to and from the flight deck and is capable of storing up to 18 helicopter in all. The photo below gives you some idea of the space but I think you have to be inside it to fully perceive it’s true scale. In this part of the ship, pilots from the Royal Navy and the Army were inviting people to examine some of the helicopters while other members of the crew were on hand to discuss the various specialisms and tradeskills that are required to run a ship of this size. As well as the men and women who maintain and service her compliment of aircraft, HMS Ocean relies on a large contingent of engineers and technicians to look after her engines, communications, electrical and water systems and so on. Of course that’s not forgetting the able seamen from the galley – they had recreated a place setting from the officers’ mess complete with the statue of Neptune that usually sits at the centre of the table. As I understand it this was gifted to the crew of the previous HMS Ocean by Prince Charles and passed on to the current ship. It’s a very appropriate centrepiece given that Neptune is the figure that appears on HMS Ocean’s badge.
In closing, I’m going to put on record how friendly and welcoming the officers and other ranks were on my visit – the HMS Ocean has the atmosphere of a very happy ship (in fact I’ve recently chatted to an acquaintance on Facebook who once served aboard her and who has very fond memories of that time). I’m sure that all of the people I spoke to would much rather have been working or putting their feet up with a cup of tea than dealing with stupid questions from the likes of me, so I think it was very generous of them to give of their time. In particular, the executive officer (the ship’s second-in-command), the helicopter pilots and the able seamen from the mess were very helpful in responding to my queries, as was the petty officer who welcomed us aboard and waved us off at the end. As for the Royal Marines, or ‘Bootnecks’, they’re just put there to frighten the living daylights out of you. I’m kidding, or am I…
A few more images from my visit can be found here on Google+