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Lieutenant Chris Elings - On our way!

One of the machine guns on deck.
Photo: Ministry of Defence

Port of Djibouti, Sunday 10 June,
16:00 hrs local time.
The ship casts off and slowly turns away from the dock, and that means our first patrol in the area of operations has finally begun! As we head for open sea, we run the drill of manning the machine guns on the open decks one more time, because suddenly we are approached by a number of suspect-looking skiffs (local speedboats). But this time it's our French colleagues in their patrol boats acting the part of the skiffs. The next time the force protection watch is stationed, it will probably be because there are real pirates in the area…

Gone for a month, a year's worth of experience
A few hours later I am in my cabin, which I share with 2 fellow officers of the watch and a German exchange officer, and I reflect on the past weeks. Today it's been exactly 1 month since we left our home port of Den Helder, but so much has happened in the meantime that it feels like we've been gone for much longer. Our intensive and varied exercise programme at sea was interspersed with no less than 5 brief port visits, which have left me with some very different experiences. In Istanbul on 24 May for example, I stood on deck with drawn sabre to welcome the Dutch ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs on board in my capacity as commander of the ‘armed watch'.

Only 2 weeks later, I took myself off in local dress (quite comfortable actually in the stifling heat) in the ancient city of Jeddah in mysterious Saudi Arabia. And last night, in an entirely different atmosphere, I watched the Dutch football team's first (and rather disappointing…) Euro 2012 match in a local bar in Djibouti. The old adage "The Navy expands your world” has certainly proved itself to be true in the past month.

Highlights at sea
Of course, there were also some interesting experiences at sea in this first month. For me, most of these occurred at the location which has the best view on the entire ship: the bridge. As officer of the watch, I stand on watch here for a number of hours every day and am responsible for the safe navigation of the ship. Basically, that means that I ensure that we don't run into anything and that we arrive at our destination on time and according to plan. I am supported by the bridge team, which at least comprises a helmsman, a lookout and a signalman, who provides communications with other ships.

One of the highlights under my watch was a manoeuvring exercise with 2 ships of the Greek navy and the German frigate Rheinland-Pfalz, which accompanied us during the first 3 weeks of our journey. In this exercise, the ships are ordered to assume a number of different formations in rapid succession. This involves manoeuvring at high speed and with short distances between the ships (a few 100 metres). This moving ensemble of 4 ships makes for a beautiful spectacle, especially when it takes place as the sun rises from in between the mountainous islands of Greece.

The real work
We also saw large groups of dolphins in the Mediterranean (something special no matter how often you see it); I can add the Strait of Messina, between Italy and Sicily, to my list of 'straits I have passed'; and the other officers of the watch and I were navigationally challenged on several occasions when making sure our ship entered the various ports on our itinerary safely.

Our departure from Djibouti today marks the beginning of the ‘real work': protecting ships threatened by piracy in our area of operations and countering pirate activities by tracking down suspected pirates and arresting them if necessary. We don't know what's in store for us in the coming period, but, after our extensive exercise programme and our last night of relaxation in Djibouti, one thing is for sure: The Evertsen is ready for it!

10 June 2012 - by Lieutenant Chris Elings