Frigate HMS St Albans receives ‘black gold’ from tanker RFA Wave Knight as she refuels in the Atlantic to sustain her patrol as Fleet Ready Escort – the Royal Navy’s on-call guardian in home waters.
It’s not the warship we’re interested in, but the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and an autumn which has probably proved to be busier, more varied and more eventful than many of the 90 men and women aboard expected.
Wave Knight returned to Portland in the summer after a lengthy stint in the Caribbean, which required a spot of maintenance before she returned to sea, assigned to the Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) organization as its on-the-spot tanker.
Typically acting as FOST tanker is a necessary, but unglamorous role: practicing replenishments at sea (refueling/store transfers) with British and foreign warships undergoing training and acting as the ‘high value target’ requiring protection by those same warships from air, submarine and surface attack – all played out just off Plymouth.
Instead, Wave Knight was first dispatched to northern Scotland and the Norwegian Sea to support an international task group, heading so far north she pierced the Arctic Circle – just 1,600 miles from the North Pole, prompting a traditional seafaring ceremony: crossing the line.
More usually performed at the Equator, the ceremony involves various shenanigans and high japes before Wave Knight’s navigator 2/O Emma Hopps handed out ‘Blue Nose’ certificates to Arctic ‘virgins’ for a small fee… raising £100 for the State of Mind mental health/suicide prevention charity.
After the fun, business: refuelling British, American and French vessels – often in cold and challenging conditions.
The reward, however, was the stunning sight of the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights – which engulfed the ship and prompted everyone not on duty to gather on the bridge to watch the impromptu natural lightshow, something most of the crew had never seen before.
Returning to Faslane for a quick stop gave the ship the opportunity to host Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Ben Key, who was given a whistle-stop tour of the tanker, chatted with sailors, underlined the importance of safety at sea and recognized Std Myra Shields for her service aboard amphibious support ship RFA Mounts Bay in the Mediterranean, presenting her with an Operation Sophia medal for lifesaving efforts dealing with the migrant crisis.
From the RN’s Scottish hub, the tanker headed south for the Bay of Biscay and helicopter training with a Merlin Mk2 from the Flying Tigers of 814 Squadron at Culdrose.
A Flight – helicopter, aircrew, ground crew, aircraft controller – flew aboard Wave Knight to give everyone some much-needed sea time from practicing deck landings and in-flight refueling to complex radar-controlled approaches, guiding the Merlin safely back to the ship, simulating dense fog and low/zero visibility.
“Some of the embarked flight team are ‘first trippers’ who are pretty amazed at the standards of their accommodation and the quality of the food on board. It certainly isn’t what they were expecting!” said Flight Commander Lt Cdr Graham Mains.
“The conditions for the engineers and aircrew are second to none with a few home comforts that offset a busy operational program.”
Wave Knight’s Master, Captain Rob Anders, took charge of the ship from her sister Wave Ruler – which was also FOST tanker until relieved.
“I have been very fortunate with my first commands, as I have had the support of some really good, experienced individuals and a challenging program,” he said.
“This is my first command of Wave Knight and the ship has a good reputation, it is up to us to ensure that we maintain and improve upon it.”