Life in a Blue Suit

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Given a degree of organisation and enthusiasm, it is often possible to arrange a horse-racing afternoon at sea . . .

In fine weather, generally in the tropics, the flight deck is rigged as a race course; a bookie's stand is set up, the tote is organised, wooden cut-outs of six horses are made and painted and a course is chalked on the deck. Two very large die are fabricated, one to designate the horse that will run, the other to decide how many squares the horse may move. Often the course will be a steeplechase where any horse landing on the fence is deemed to have fallen and must return to the start.

Each horse is auctioned off at the start of the race, the money raised going to provide the prize money for the winning nag with a percentage being allocated to the ship's welfare funds. A programme and form book is printed with inventive names for the horses - generally referring to some indiscretion or happening which has befallen an officer or senior rating in the immediate past, or perhaps referring to some attribute of the ship or one of the members of the ship's company.

'Diesel Miss, by N.Gineer out of Steam, Owned by Con Rod, trained by Knocker Round. This filly's big ends give her plenty of staying power and she is generally believed to be more of an endurance racer than a sprinter.'

I have always been rather impressed by the inventiveness of the race committee (normally from the Senior Ratings' mess) though it generally, I feel, reflects something of a misspent youth!

The ship's company deck themselves out in their interpretation of what race-goers wear; felt hats and tweed jackets appear from nowhere, false moustaches abound and the navigator's yeoman does a roaring trade in lending out binoculars. Generally a good time is had by all.

One such race day was held in HMNZS MONOWAI during a cruise to the Pacific Islands with the Governor General. The "GG's gee-gees" did well and a most convivial and enjoyable time was enjoyed by the participants (virtually the whole of the ship's complement who were not on watch). Most important of all, the vice-Regal party were able to relax during a most hectic tour.

I was officer of the watch immediately after the races, when a rating appeared on the bridge with a camera that had been found during the clearing up. I told him to wait whilst I made a pipe (an announcement over the ship's PA system):

' D'you hear there, person leaving a camera on the flight deck, claim same from the OOW now'.

A few moments later, the Lady in Waiting to ' Lady GG ' appeared on the bridge saying that she had lost a camera and asking if the one I had was hers. I showed it to her, and with some relief she identified it and took it. I was just turning to the rating to thank and release him, when the Lady in Waiting said loudly, and in a puzzled voice:

'That's funny, I had only taken nine shots and now 23 have gone! '

The young sailor, who no doubt had indulged in the traditional bit of fun with 'loafing' cameras (close-up shots of feet are the least of the 'wasted' shots likely to appear on the developed film!) blushed deeply and tried to withdraw into the corner of the bridge. Fortunately for him the Lady in Waiting was too puzzled by this turn of events, but relieved no doubt to have her camera back safely, to work out what may have happened to her film. She thanked the sailor (who by this time was a most unhappy chappy!) profusely and left.

We never did find out what had appeared on the film, but when the Governor General and his party came to MONOWAI during the Anniversary regatta a few months later, she left her camera behind again!


Captain: "The Comedy will issue . . . er, I'm sorry, that should be . . . the Commodore will issue . . . "


MONOWAI had a number of Malaysian officers amongst her complement at one stage, two of them of Chinese extraction. One was not renowned for a sense of humour. One day there was a knock at the door of the Wardroom which was answered by the officer I have mentioned. After considerable discussion he returned:

'Who was it? ' We asked.

'I don't know, ' he replied 'they all look alike to me! '


Naval personnel undertake all manner of courses during their time in the service. Some, of course, are very much more fun than others!

On one occasion I was sent on a four-wheel drive course to learn to drive the (then) new V8 Landrovers that had been introduced into the NZ Army. As surveyors we needed to use and drive 4WD vehicles from time to time and the army would not allow us to borrow and drive them without holding an approved driving permit.

At the start of the course each of us was 'issued' with our own Landrover and an army instructor.

Mine was a very fine fellow, a corporal, but (no doubt 'shell-shocked' through years of driving instructing!) He spoke . . . very . . . slowly . . . with . . . long . . . pauses . . . between . . . his . . . words.

Towards the end of one afternoon that had been spent driving around the rough tracks in the nearby forests, we were driving back to Papakura camp. We came to an intersection where the minor road we were on joined the other at an acute angle. I could not, thus, see what traffic was coming - due mainly to the canvas side to the vehicle. So the instructor watched to my left and gave me a running commentary:

"Something . . . coming . . . Something . . . coming . . . Something . . . coming . . . Clear . . . (I put the Rover in gear and started to move forward) . . . after . . . this . . . big . . . truck (It passed just a metre or so in front of my olive green bonnet) . . . Whoops!"


One morning whilst HMNZS MONOWAI was surveying off East Cape , I heard an item on the National Radio 'Morning Report' programme which involved MONOWAI and the Prime Minister, Mr Lange . This worthy gentleman, not renowned for his love of the military, had given a speech the evening before where he had praised military efficiency (one suspects that the praise was offered with a degree of tongue in flabby cheek, but since only a portion of the speech was broadcast, one will be kind!).

Apparently, whilst attending a South Pacific Forum meeting being held on a remote Pacific Island with little in the way of creature comfort, the (then) Prime Minister had been heard to lament from his hut in a clearing that he was 'dying for a cup of tea'. This was heard by an army communicator who immediately passed the request by radio to MONOWAI which was supporting the NZ presence at the Forum meeting.

MONOWAI's organisation was galvanised into action. Some tea bags were thrown into a plastic bag and despatched by inflatable boat to the shore where they were uplifted by an army vehicle and conveyed at breakneck speed to the PM's hut. As told by Mr Lange , the officer leapt out and with a very smart salute presented the small brown envelopes to him.

As the presenter, Geoffrey Robinson , finished the news story, he was heard to mutter 'I wish someone would bring me a tea bag, I'm dying for a cup of tea'. Ever alert to PR opportunities, I promptly sat down, and wrote a brief letter to Mr Robinson . In it I said that we were all avid listeners to the programme and explained that in MONOWAI we actually piped wakey-wakey 2 minutes early so that we did not interrupt the news on 'Morning Report'. I enclosed two RNZN-issue tea bags which I 'hoped would serve him as well as those delivered to the PM' and hoped that - in the absence of a suitable officer of the NZ Defence Force to do the job - the NZ Postal service would deliver them with some degree of panache.

The weeks went by and there was no acknowledgement. "you win some ...." I mused, and wrote it off to experience.

When I had long since forgotten about this, a coup occurred in Fiji and though MONOWAI was in dry-dock in Auckland with propellers off and in pieces and with a huge hole in the ships side to allow access to the machinery spaces, we were ordered to get ourselves ready and to sail as soon as possible. The ship's company and dockyard staff worked long and hard to get the ship re-assembled and they did a magnificent job (a job incidently not appreciated quite so much by Mr Lange as he had apparently appreciated the tea!).

Though it was generally common knowledge around the RNZN, at the captain's suggestion I assembled the ship's ratings and senior ratings on the day before we were due to undock to impress upon them that whilst what we were doing was not secret, it would be wise not to actually broadcast it. I told them that we were very uncertain about what any operations in Fiji might hold for us and the fewer people that knew about our sailing the better.

I stayed onboard that night as there was much to do. At 6.58 next morning I turned on my radio to hear Mr Robinson announce on National Radio:

"It is 2 minutes to seven now, and in the Navy's survey ship MONOWAI, which has just come out of dry-dock and is preparing to sail to Fiji , they will be piping wakey-wakey. I'd like to thank the Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Larry Robbins for the tea ..."

Since I had neglected to tell the Captain about the letter I had sent all those weeks earlier (hoping to favourably impress him when he heard it on the news) and since most of the senior ratings in the ship did indeed listen to Morning Report, I endured a degree of ribbing and had a fair bit of explaining to do that day!


'Some are born great and others have fame thrust upon them' goes the old saying ...

We were in Wellington with a number of other RNZN ships on a Public relations cruise. The Chief of Naval Staff was hosting a cocktail party on one of the frigates and we were, of course, there to assist in entertaining the guests.

We mustered early so that we could meet the Minister of Defence (name ommitted to protect what's left of the minister's reputation) who was duly brought round and introduced to the assembled officers one by one. I was duly introduced. The Minister peered at me and said 'I know you, don't I?'. Slightly taken aback, I had to inform the gentleman that he had the advantage of me for apart from a brief spell when we had both attended the same briefing, I had not met him before.

The Minister insisted that he knew me, and as he was lead away to the next officer I heard him muttering 'It will come to me ... I know him from somewhere'.

The cocktail party pursued the normal course and, I recall, I was enjoying it more than the usual cocktail party since whilst normally the bulk of the cost is paid for from the officers' pockets (a quaint anachronism which few guests ever realise as they knock back what they take to be government paid-for booze!) the cost of this cocktail party was being paid for from the Admiral's funds.

Suddenly I realised that people were being pushed aside. I could see heads moving as corns of wheat would be as someone forced their way through. Suddenly I was confronted by the Minister of Defence who had forcefully and purposefully made his way towards me.

"The Doctor!" he cried triumphantly thrusting his face towards mine "The Doctor - in 'Paradise Postponed' ... That's who you remind me of!" and with that he strode happily away.

Still puzzled (for I had not seen the television series to which he referred) I barely heard the very senior army nurse who was standing next to me mutter 'Hmm early alzheimers, I'd always suspected it!'


For a number of years, the shore telephone was situated in the main part of the Wardroom in HMNZS MONOWAI and there was no such thing as a confidential conversation. One stand-easy we heard the Charge Books Officer (the custodian of the classified books and publications) making a call to the Staff Security Officer:

Hello, Lieutenant xxxx here, can I speak to the Staff Security Officer please .... Oh, hello sir, Lieutenant xxxx the CB officer in MONOWAI, I was wondering how to go about reporting a missing page from one of the books .... It is classified confidential sir .... yes sir.... yes but ..... yes sir ... but you see .... YES SIR, I know I report it in accordance with yyyy but that, Sir, is the page I have lost!!!

You can imagine the morth in the Wardroom at this point!


Overheard at a cocktail party:

Guest: Who is that funny little man over there who smells of petrol?

Executive Officer (delightedly): Oh that's the engineer!


In 1979, I had the honour of paying off the last of the wooden war-time built 72-foot motor launches, HMNZS TAKAPU. Our two boats had been used for nearly 30 years around the coast of New Zealand from Reinga to the Bluff yet - unlike their fisheries patrol sisters - they had never been fitted with radar. Our sole navigation aid was a magnetic compass.

It was not our general way to put regular fixes on the chart when clearly a long way from any dangers. On one trip back to Auckland from great Barrier one night we ran into thick fog - a most unusual occurrence which had not been forecast. Thinking back to basic principles I grabbed as good a fix as I could manage as we entered the fog and, starting the echo-sounder started navigating by Dead Reckoning or DR. We had been heading for the Motuihe channel, but I realised that it would be easier to enter by the main (Rangitoto) channel.

When running by DR one plots the course steered and the speed run (the boat had no log so I had to guestimate) and one often uses the echo-sounder to determine when bottom contours are crossed to give a best guestimate of position. I headed at almost full speed (10 knots) directly towards A Buoy, because I reckoned that if I tried to miss it I would surely hit it! My plan was that should it start to shoal then I had probably missed the buoy and found Takapuna beach. In that event I would just anchor until the weather cleared. TAKAPU had an open bridge and was very manoeuvrable and I had few fears that if we came up to the buoy or another vessel we would be able to stop or take other avoiding action.

My coxswain was on the bridge with me and I told him my plan. 'In ten minutes or so, cox'n we should be at A buoy'. Sure enough by some amazing fluke, some eight minutes later he called out that he could see the buoy. It was then a relatively easy matter to hop from buoy to buoy up the harbour, and as we approached Devonport so the weather finally cleared.

Next morning I was in the Naval Base and met an old friend who was in command of one of the modern Lake Class patrol craft. 'When did you get in?' he asked. When I told him, he asked what time and then said 'That must have been you I watched heading for A buoy at 10 knots or so. Why,' he asked ' didn't you speak to that tanker that kept calling you on VHF and had to alter to avoid you'. 'Well, Nick ,' I replied 'I haven't got VHF and anyway I thought I was the only boat out in the Gulf that night!'

This proved not only that DR works (my coxswain to this day talks about the feat of navigation and wonders how I could have managed it(!)) and also the wisdom of the Collision regulations which say that a vessel with radar may well deem it more prudent to proceed with more caution than one without!


Once, in the old TAKAPU along with other small craft I was called upon to transport a number of soldiers across to the Barrier. We offered them seasickness pills as they boarded but they eschewed them. Of course, it was awfully rough, and the accommodation areas of the launch looked like a series of scenes from a train crash with moaning bodies lying all around.

When we came to pick them up for the return, they grabbed the pills and chewed them voraciously! It was similarly rough but they survived a little better! The major in charge could not wait to get ashore and as soon as we had passed a couple of lines he leapt ashore.

'Oh dear,' he said 'that was so rough, it feels as though even the jetty is moving'

'But,' I said, ' you're not on a jetty, we're berthed at a floating pontoon.'

The major fled and was never seen again!


I had been in command of the old survey motor launch HMNZS TAKAPU when we were called upon to transport the army to Great Barrier and back again. They were taken there in a fleet of the 72-foot wooden launches, and brought back in TAKAPU, two Reserve launches and TAUPO, one of the (then) new Lake-class patrol boats.

TAUPO as the senior ship was in 'tactical command' and had decreed that we should enter Auckland in formation. The signal was accordingly sent specifying the formation and instructing us to take station 'at standard distance'. It was then that I discovered not only that we did not carry the necessary code books in the survey motor launches, but that I had no idea what the standard distance for our type of vessel actually was! I guessed at 200 yards.

The problem was compounded because neither did we carry a distance meter to aid in our station keeping, so in the midst of everything else, I was to be found on the bridge working out a series of vertical sextant angles from which I hoped to work out (by taking the angle between the top of TAUPO's mast and the waterline) how far astern of her I was.

As we came round A buoy at the entrance to Auckland Harbour , TAUPO sent a signal over the voice circuit which I understood well enough to be advising us to set our speed at 8 knots. It was here that I realised (for it had never been a problem before!) that since we had no log I had no real idea what revolutions to set for the required speed. 2000 revs gave us a fairly constant ten knots, so I set my revolutions to 1600 and fell in at my estimate of 200 yards.

TAUPO crept inexorably ahead of us, whilst the other two ML's fell in at what I guessed to be 100 yards astern of me. Quickly guessing that I was out in my initial stab at the standard distance, I came up to ten knots, but TAUPO was still gaining on us! Then the radio burst into life:

TAKAPU this is TAUPO ... interrogative speed? ... over

TAUPO this is TAKAPU ... about ten knots ... over

TAKAPU this is TAUPO ... what is your exact speed? ...over

TAUPO this is TAKAPU ... ('oh good grief!') ... 2000 revolutions .. over

TAKAPU this is TAUPO ... I say again, what is your S P E E D? ... over

TAUPO this is TAKAPU ... nine decimal nine eight seven six knots ...over

TAKAPU this is TAUPO ... Roger , thank you, out

I had learned yet another lesson ... how important it is for any officer put in charge of another ship or ships to know the capability of the other vessel. TAUPO disappeared up the harbour far ahead of us as TAKAPU and our merry band of sisters entered Auckland in our own, very tidy looking, formation!!


In her early days as part of the New Zealand fleet, MONOWAI formed the New Zealand presence at the Independence celebrations at Honiara in the Solomon Islands .

I was on watch as we left after the celebrations and steamed between the two main islands which are some 18 miles apart. They are fairly low lying and sandy and do not give a good radar picture; the coastline is flat and reasonably straight so it is not easy to get an accurate fix. I was paying particular attention as the chart showed a small, very low lying sand bank which would have caused some considerable embarrassment (to say the least!) had we run onto it.

It was a bright sunny morning and there was no wind so I did not expect to be able to see the sandbank breaking. I told the lookouts to be especially alert and scanned the water ahead through my own binoculars as we approached the area in question.

I caught a glimpse of something in the water ahead and as I brought the binoculars to bear all I could see was a seagull standing on the water! 'The sandbank!' My heart fell, my stomach churned over! Muttering a defaecatory epithet I was galvanised into action, rushed across the bridge and threw the engines into full-astern. MONOWAI shook and rattled as the propellers slowly gripped and slowed the ship - but not, I felt, enough. I dashed out to the starboard bridge wing to see where the sandbank was, in time to see the seagull, drifting past the ship, quite unconcernedly, standing on a small piece of driftwood!

It took a while to explain - firstly to the captain and then to the engineers!


I was navigator of the frigate HMNZS TARANAKI for a while, in fact during her last eighteen months of life when she was being used as the RNZN's training ship. The navy has a procedure called 'Safeguard' whereby, when a ship is in an intensive training period, the usual 'For Exercise, For Exercise, For Exercise' preamble to a pipe (announcement on the ships PA system) is omitted for exercise situations. Instead, should a real emergency occur, one pipes 'SAFEGUARD SAFEGUARD SAFEGUARD FIRE FIRE FIRE ' etc and the exercise immediately ceases whilst the emergency is dealt with.

In TARANAKI the SAFEGUARD situation was permanently set since an emergency drill could be initiated at any time.

One evening at sea I had just taken over the First Watch (8pm-midnight) when the direct phone line from the boiler room rang. I answered it, to be told that they had a fire.

Leaping to the main broadcast microphone, I piped 'Fire, Fire, Fire, Fire in the Boiler Room, Hands to Emergency stations' and initiated other actions per the book (I had no doubt that this was a real fire).

The captain came onto the bridge, just as I had taken another call from the boiler room saying that they had managed to extinguish the fire.

'What is it Pilot?'

'There is a fire in the boiler room, Sir, but it has just been reported out ..... Oh, (hesitantly) I'm sorry, I forgot to say "Safeguard" '

'I wouldn't worry about that' he replied 'the note of carefully controlled hysteria in your voice got the message across very nicely!'


I took command as the 'Senior Officr Inshore Survey Craft' and in command of HMNZS TARAPUNGA, one of the 85-foot ISC's which were built in Whangarei in 1980 to replace their older sisters of the same names.

Included as part of my handover was the advice that my predecessor had been fighting a running paper battle to have the portable pump which the ship had, for a while carried, replaced. TARAPUNGA had contacted an underwater obstacle during her maiden survey and had only been saved from sinking by the actions of her crew. The portable pump had been fitted following the Court of Inquiry but since this was not included in the ship's allowance of equipment it was removed a couple of years later, hence my predecessor's battle which I was urged to continue.

We duly sailed to Bluff where the boats were surveying. Despite the fitted heaters, the sailors complained that they were cold in the forward mess deck and asked if we could purchase a heater from the ship's welfare fund as they had tried unsuccessfully, many times to obtain one through the Naval Stores system. The welfare fund is the result of profits on beer and cigarette sales and the like. I agreed and a small fan heater was duly purchased which proved to be satisfactory.

HMNZ Ships are required to hold periodic meetings of the Welfare Committee (who disburse the welfare funds) and to forward copies of the minutes to the Commodore. Being a small ship, the entire crew formed the committee and I wrote the minutes and signed them as the Chairman. I duly recorded that the heater had been purchased and worked well.

A couple of weeks later I received a mild rebuke for using the welfare funds to purchase what was available from the Stores (notwithstanding, of course, that it wasn't!). The letter was signed by a staff officer whom I would not normally have expected to pay much attention to heaters in ISC. I subsequently discovered that the Welfare Committee minutes from the ships received a wide distribution within the staff, wider indeed than most other, more specialised reports.

Attending to the volume of 'administrivia' some time later, I again noted a refusal to allow my ship the requested portable pump. Recalling the heater rebuke, I turned to the Welfare meeting minutes which I had just drafted and added a final, but totally specious, record:

"EMERGENCY PUMP: LMF INESON raised the matter of the portable pump which he felt should be carried for ship's safety. The chairman said that he shared Ineson's concerns, but this was not a matter that was the domain of this committee. The chairman was pursuing the matter through normal channels, albeit that his representations were not meeting with much sympathy or success. "

We received the portable pump within a couple of months!


When I was navigator of the frigate TARANAKI in 1980 (?) we were detailed off as the escort ship for the royal yacht BRITANNIA during one of the Queen's visits to New Zealand . On the day we took up our duties we were invited to lunchtime drinks in the yacht - with the officers and not, unfortunately, with the Queen!

The ships were in Lyttelton. Talking with the navigator (who had a very very upper class accent (and probably made admiral!)) over the lunch he asked where I was from ....

' Kent actually', I replied, having been born a Pom

' Kent , don't think I know where that is ... This is Christchurch , in the province of Canterbury so is it a small town inland?' he asked

'No,' I said slightly puzzedly 'it is a county on the borders of London '

' Kent ??!! .... Oh Kent ! Why don't you speak like an Englishman then?'

'I'm sorry,' (I replied) 'I really fought I did!!'

Actually he wasn't a bad chap, a bit of what the Brits term 'an upper class twit' but quite well-meaning.

Later in the cruise we were alongside in Auckland with the yacht. I received a call from him asking me to find out what ships were in at the naval base. He explained that he prepared a set of 'Royal track charts' to be placed in the Royal apartments so that the Queen and Duke could follow progress. The Duke of Edinburgh, being a navy man, liked to have the ships which BRITANNIA would be passing named and shown on the charts. I told the navigator that I could see the naval base at Devonport from where I was standing and read off the pennant numbers painted on the sides and gave him the corresponding ships' names.

'Gosh' he said, 'I am very impressed, i couldn't read the side number and reel off the names of Royal Navy ships just like that.'

'Ah,' (quoth I) 'But then your navy has more than 4 frigates!'

'Oh yes, haw haw haw.'

We also provided some information about the gulf islands etc and he gave me a couple of the charts before BRITANNIA left. They have pride of place in my collection. I like to think that the blue smudgy finger print in the middle of the Hauraki Gulf is where 'she' pointed something out to 'him' during the trip up to the Bay of Islands !


An ancient tradition holds that merchant ships dip their ensigns on meeting a warship. Sadly, in these days when so many merchant ships ply their trade under 'flags of convenience' (and rarely wear an ensign other than when entering or leaving harbour or are in port) this is a dying practice. However, some 20 years ago when I was sailing as a third mate in the British Merchant Navy, I worked for a company which enjoyed and encouraged high standards and in which we tried to be meticulous in our attention to tradition.

We were engaged in trading along the east coast of the USA and on one occasion took a cargo of paper to Norfolk , Virginia . Our berth was not ready so we anchored off the naval base there; a large and busy seaport. During the days at anchor we were passed by a number of US naval vessels to whom we religously dipped our ensign, but who totally ignored our acts of courtesy.

After we sailed from Norfolk , we were heading northwards up the coast when we saw a destroyer heading the other way. It altered course to pass a few hundred yards down our port side. I suggested to the captain that I should go aft and dip our ensign, but was told that that would not be necessary. The US destroyer duly passed and we could see the officers on the bridge watching us ... watching them. Suddenly the VHF radio burst into life as the destroyer called us up. I moved to the radio but the captain motioned to me and picked up the receiver himself.

'Don't you guys dip to the biggest navy in the world' asked a broad american drawl 'No, old chap,' replied the captain affecting a most refined English accent 'only to the best! Good afternoon.'

With the memory of this event behind me I was always meticulous in keeping a weather eye out for dipping vessels once I had transferred to the Royal New Zealand Navy.

In command of the 25-metre surveying ship HMNZS TARAPUNGA, I was phoned up soon after we had berthed in Lyttelton one fine summer Saturday evening. The rather irate gentleman demanded to know why we had not returned his courtesy when he, in his yacht, had dipped his ensign to us. I was suitably apologetic but pointed out that there had been a large number of yachts out there that day and elicited the information that he had actually been quite some distance from us so, he agreed. there was a good excuse for missing his salute..

However, I was keen, when we entered Lyttelton again to keep a clsoe eye out for dipping vessels and briefed my troops accordingly. As we approached the breakwater we slowed for a coastal vessel to leave the inner harbour. As she passed, her ensign fluttered down. I despatched a sailor aft to dip our ensign and commented to the coxswain how unusual it was for a Panamanian vessel to wear, let alone to dip its ensign. As our ensign came down, the saiolr on the merchant ship unclipped his flag and took it away - no doubt to place it in safe keeping until requiring it in Auckland late the next day!


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