HMAS CANBERRA


This site is dedicated to all the Royal Australian Navy personnel who have served in HMAS CANBERRA

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HMAS CANBERRA (1) from the 9th 0f July 1928 until she was sunk off Savo Island on the 9th of August 1942.

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HMAS CANBERRA (2) from the 21st of March 1981 until the Decommissioning on the 12th of November 2005.

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HMAS CANBERRA (3) commissioning at Fleet Base East in Sydney, Australia in 2014.

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THE HMAS CANBERRA CRUISE BOOK FOR 2002

 

OPERATION SUTTON HEARD ISLAND 2002

LIFE DOWN SOUTH

By LEUT Geoffrey McGinley, RAN

HMAS CANBERRA

 

HMAS CANBERRA and WESTRALIA sailed under a veil of secrecy on Tuesday 29 January 2002. Not until the ship was clear of Cockburn Sound and the upper decks secured with particular attention that the reason behind the influx of special stores, equipment and personnel was explained by the Commanding Officer. Final training and deployment for the upcoming deployment to the Arabian Gulf would have to wait. CANBERRA in company with WESTRALIA was off to the Heard Island and MacDonald Island Economic Exclusion Zone for what was to become a 21-day patrol of the Southern Ocean in some of the roughest seas in the world.

Straight away people started asking questions.What are we there to do? To protect Australia’s fishery stocks in particular the deep sea Patagonian Toothfish currently being overfished by illegal poaching.Just how far south is that? 1250 miles but is also halfway westward across the Indian Ocean for a total distance of 2200 miles each way.What is the weather like down there and just how seasick am I going to get? Very! Wave heights of 4 metres are normal, thick fog and best of all, a balmy summer day might see an air temp of 1-2°C dipping to minus 12°C after considering wind chill.


 

Where are the Pongos (Navy talk for soldiers and the smell they make after being out field)? Unlike previous operations CANBERRA with ship’s boarding teams trained for Maritime Interception Operations in the Gulf would not require supplementation by the Army.If we catch these guys how are we going to get them home? Well you guys are going to drive them back, regardless of what your job is onboard. With large numbers of the crew required for steaming parties; be prepared to learn some new and different skills regardless of your job onboard.

Once over the initial surprise the passage south was quiet with days at a time going by without detecting another ship, although it did cause several cases of seasickness as the weather worsened. Indeed the sea reached a point where waves breaking over the deck would rip apart SULO garbage bins. It also started getting cold especially compared to the Perth summer that we had left behind. The issued Submariner jumpers became a very popular fashion accessory while the regular appearance of soup at mealtime was raved about. The cold also had an unexpected positive impact on a portion of the ship’s company health. With a trip to the upper-decks being a bitterly cold experience and requiring many layers of clothing, there was marked decrease in the number of smokers onboard.

After six days sailing CANBERRA and WESTRALIA were finally in position and ready to conduct boarding operations. Timing would be critical, as weather conditions would be at best marginal. Typically the ‘good’ weather occurred every two to three days for a six hour period between successive fronts passing through. Thus, to ensure surprise was maintained it was planned to board and subsequently embark steaming parties and stores sufficient to last several days in the vessels boarded all in one day. The wind and sea were to have other plans.

On Wednesday 6th February the ‘break’ in the weather saw nearly impenetrable fog, 30 knot winds and a swell of 4 metres. The morning was one of frustrations with the ship unable to board a suspected poacher due to the weather conditions. The aircraft could not launch as the deck was pitching through an arc 40 feet each time CANBERRA passed over a wave while the wind was outside limits.

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Finally in the afternoon it was possible to launch the aircraft. Once airborne the aircraft, TIGER 74, was able to identify the FFV LENA and inserted via fast rope the first stick of the boarding party who secured the vessel. Subsequently the second stick, key members of the steaming party and essential stores were inserted. The weather conditions however again worsened and the aircraft was being pushed beyond safe operating limits; the time had come to suspend operations for the day. This was to be no easy challenge. With the deck still gyrating wildly and the wind having picked up, the pilot faced the difficult task of placing the aircraft down in a metre by metre area so that the trap to hold it on deck could catch a probe underneath the aircraft. Success was only achieved through a combination of close teamwork of all involved and the skill and persistence of the pilot and crew. That night all involved were more than happy to have apprehended just one vessel without incident. For those on LENA though it would be long, cold and uncomfortable night.

Thursday saw an unexpected improvement in weather conditions and was better suited to boarding operations, at least to our changing perspective. It was welcome news to hear of a second contact tracking at best speed towards ‘the line’ as the EEZ boundary is colloquially known. To the pipes ‘Action Seahawk’ and ‘Hands to Boarding Stations Blue Boarding Party close up’ CANBERRA put on her best speed to close what we were to discover was FFV Volga. The speedy response of the ship and aircraft was to mean that hot pursuit was established by TIGER while VOLGA remained in the Australian EEZ and the ship’s second boarding party was inserted as CANBERRA continued to close from over the horizon.

After the Australian Fisheries Management Authority Officer recommended apprehension and it was determined that the vessel was seaworthy, the Boarding Party was swapped out with the Steaming Party that would take charge of the vessel for the 13 day passage to Fremantle. Upon embarking conditions were found to be far from which sailors are accustomed. The crew spaces were cramped, in a very poor state of repair, unventilated and unhygienic. The area euphemistically described as the galley and café perennially had brown water sloshing on deck and greatly benefited from the efforts at cleaning made by the Australian Sailors. A trip to the heads was an adventure best not recalled.

 


The journey home was long and slow; never before have sailors use to careering around in a warship at 30 knots been so genuinely excited by reaching a roaring 11knots. With the FFV crews mostly well behaved, the main challenge became keeping the FFV’s old engines working, overcoming the boredom of standing guard six hours at a time and the near impossible task of trying to make ration packs taste just a little bit better. By the end of the journey just one more meal of ‘Lamb and Rosemary’ would have resulted in near mutiny, certainly it was a long time subsequent before complaints were heard about ship food.

Tuesday 19th saw CANBERRA escort LENA and VOLGA into Gage Roads, Fremantle for handing over to the civilian authorities for further investigation. After a brief five-day stopover in her homeport CANBERRA finally departed in a tearful farewell for the Gulf. Meanwhile WESTRALIA, the essential but unsung hero of this and many other such operations quickly returned to sea to provide ongoing support to OP Relex. Life in the Southern Ocean was a striking contrast to which that the ship was to experience just weeks later as it commenced operations in the Middle East. A 50-degree difference in temperatures, a storm whipped and seemingly empty and limitless Ocean to a land locked and crowded Gulf, two ships operating alone to a large multinational coalition. The easy transition between such contrasting operating environments demonstrates how flexible worked up naval units can be. Life in a Frigate, Tanker or Foreign Fishing Vessel in The Southern Ocean is certainly unique, but it eyes of many it was memorable and gratifying to finally finish training and put skills long practised into action.

 

 

 
 

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