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What happens when a Royal Navy warship sees a NATO task force headed straight for it? A crash course in Morse

Plus: Your vulture clocked the Northern Lights from the Arctic Circle

Boatnotes What's it like aboard a warship? Aside from the glamorous bits when Russian jets are whizzing past and there's lots to do? El Reg not only went aboard HMS Enterprise to find out – we scored a trip to the Arctic Circle courtesy of the Royal Navy.

As related in previous instalments, your correspondent was lucky enough to be invited aboard the seabed survey ship at the end of October by the Ministry of Defence.

So far we've seen Enterprise's seabed survey and data-gathering gear and we've had a sneaky look at the ship's collection of mid-2000s operating systems. But what was it actually like, sailing towards the Arctic Circle?

Shipboard routine is fairly, well, routine. A pipe (Tannoy announcement) is made at 07:00 to wake everyone up with the traditional bosun's whistle, "Call the Hands". For the officers, with whom your correspondent ate and relaxed, breakfast was served between 07:00 and 08:00. A traditional affair, this consists of a help-yourself buffet featuring the usual British fare of bacon, sausage, eggs, beans and toast, or cereal and milk.

Enterprise's wake as we entered Trondheim Fjord

The ship's wake as we sailed through the Norwegian fjords

After 08:00 the work day begins for most. All of the ship's company stand four-hour watches at least once a day; when your correspondent joined the ship in Kristiansund, Norway, some of the junior officers were jokingly moaning about having been on defence watches, which is a routine of six hours on, six hours off. "Most people take a big sleep in one [off period] and do their other work in the other," one sub-lieutenant told me.

A rocky outcrop framed by HMS Enterprise

Still a warship: A dramatic rocky outcrop is framed by HMS Enterprise's superstructure and one of her covered 20mm guns

After breakfast I wandered up to the ship's bridge. This is where the whole show is run. In charge is the officer of the watch (OOW), or, if he's around, the captain, Commander Phil Harper. For now it is one of the ship's clutch of sub-lieutenants, who are all recent graduates from Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth, the Royal Navy's training school for new officers.

The OOW is assisted on the bridge by around half a dozen other crew members. One of these, a rating, sits in the main control position, with the ship's wheel and the central throttles to hand, while the others were scattered around the bridge as lookouts.

HMS Enterprise's bridge while at sea

HMS Enterprise's bridge while at sea

At various points during the day, the ship's canteen is opened. This is announced to all through a cheery one-word pipe consisting of the word "Caaaaanteen!" Upon receipt of the signal, everyone not immediately busy tends to rush to the little serving hatch to buy snacks and the like.

Lunchtime for the officers, this time served in the wardroom (officers' mess), is between noon and 13:30 ship's time, broken into two sittings. You pick your options in advance at some point in mid-morning; the wardroom steward was good enough to hunt your correspondent down to ensure my order was received, though the choice between "chicken" and "meat kebab" was a pretty clear one.

Like a good hotel, there are two stewards who serve the officers their meals and clear the table. Though this might seem a bit antiquated, I had already seen one of the stewards on the bridge as we left harbour, monitoring instruments and calling out changes, so they're not just waiters for the upper class. Manners are everything in the wardroom at meal times, though otherwise off-duty officers lounge in deep, comfortable leather sofas and watch films on a TV bigger than Elon Musk's ego.

HMS Enterprise's funnel, seen while leaving Kristiansund harbour

Enterprise's funnel, pictured against the stunning Norwegian fjords near Kristiansund

This being a ship crossing the North Sea in November, it was choppy. As I wrote this the deck was rolling back and forth in both planes. Not too badly – for the nautically inclined reading this, we were in sea state 2 or 3, which equated to a movement of around 10-15 degrees from vertical and horizontal. Sea sickness tablets (Stugeron, for those wanting to do as the Navy do) were available, and their use was strongly encouraged by all the crew.

The kit

In the afternoon other tasks take place as part of the ship's programme. One day there were simulated machinery breakdowns. I followed these from the machinery control room (MCR) and down in the machinery spaces (engine rooms) themselves. Enterprise's machinery spaces are unmanned during normal running, with a high level of automation that lets supervisors in the MCR remotely close and open valves, or start and stop the three generators that power the ship's two main azipod thrusters.

The machinery control room

The machinery control room, with human in position

Even the MCR is normally unmanned, with duty personnel carrying bleepers that alert them to rush to their posts if needed.

When something goes wrong with the ship's main machinery, however, a human has to go in and fix the problem.

HMS Enterprise's main machinery room, or engine room

HMS Enterprise's main machinery room, or engine room

During the breakdown drill, Stan the stoker did a good job of fault-finding the simulated failure (a half-open valve to a cooling system), with "Kenny" (think of a 20th century entertainer) the supervising petty officer doing an equally good job of pretending to check vital equipment for your correspondent's benefit before debriefing Stan.

Enterprise's main high voltage electrical cabinets

Danger, danger! High voltage!

The azipods themselves are, as the ship's upbeat marine engineer officer (who wore, entirely incongruously, a far-from-pristine white boiler suit) explained, two large DC electrical motors mounted under the ship's stern on an arrangement similar to a tank turret.

The selectors for the azipods on the port bridge wing

The selectors for the azipods on the port bridge wing

The propellers can be run in forward or reverse; in addition, the azipods can also be individually rotated through 360 degrees to move the ship in any desired direction. Enterprise's top speed is around 15-16kts. On the flip side, if anything goes wrong with the azipods the ship has to be dry docked, "which costs time and money".

One of the azipods aboard the Enterprise. Note thick electrical cabling

One of the azipods aboard the Enterprise. Note thick electrical cabling at bottom right, feeding the main motor

Powering the azipods, and the ship's bow thruster, are three great big diesel generators plus an auxiliary harbour generator. The level of automation designed into Enterprise is evident: as one watchkeeping lieutenant explained, the ship's command sets what speed they want and the ship herself works out how many generators she needs running to generate the required motor power and achieve that speed. If the "spinning reserve" of excess kilowatts above the ship's power draw falls below a certain level, the ship starts another generator.

Towards the end of the day comes dinner. Once again served in the wardroom, at around 6.30pm, the chicken and chorizo served over spaghetti really hits the spot. It wasn't cordon bleu (sorry, chef) but your correspondent was quite happy to wolf it down. Others at the table, sadly, seemed to be feeling the effects of the ship's constant motion and just picked at their food.

After excusing myself from the table I wandered up to the bridge. Naval tradition has it that you ask the officer of the watch's permission before entering: aboard the Enterprise, the full phrase "Permission to come on the bridge, please, officer of the watch?" has morphed into "bridge, please, officer of the watch!" Nonetheless, it is still a question to be answered and not a formality.

Commander Phil Harper, captain of HMS Enterprise, on the bridge in the white jumper

Commander Phil Harper, captain of HMS Enterprise, on the bridge as we left Kristiansund. AB Richards is at left, with "Navs", Lt Kyle O'Regan, leaning over the compass

Up on the bridge, now we're out in the open ocean, things have just become interesting. A NATO carrier task force is sailing at us, comprising the US Navy ships New York (a 25,000-ton amphibious warfare ship), Iwo Jima (40,000 tons of flat-topped helicopter carrier), a US Naval Service supply ship and the Polish Navy destroyer General Pulaski.

Cdr Harper later tells me that according to the nautical "rules of the road" we have right of way – but it certainly doesn't feel that way when looking out of the bridge windows. The OOW, Sub-Lieutenant "Deeps" (she wants to join the submarine service after finishing her training aboard Enterprise, geddit), is looking strained, to put it mildly. Enterprise slows, alters course, alters again. Off-duty officers start appearing on the bridge, supporting the OOW and subtly rubbernecking at the task force.

WECDIS plot of the NATO task force in the Arctic

The WECDIS (naval navigation software) display of the task force

"They keep altering course, sir," said Deeps as the captain arrived.

"Perhaps they're zig-zagging," replied Cdr Harper, applying 28 years' seagoing experience. Having the Enterprise appear precisely in the middle of the task force's intended course is not the easiest of things to deal with, especially with the Americans constantly changing course – only the General Pulaski is passing far enough in front of us, around 6 or 7 nautical miles, that her activities don't matter too much.

The Polish destroyer ORP General Pulaski, seen in the Arctic

The Polish destroyer ORP General Pulaski, seen in the Arctic

I moved outside to the port bridge wing (door on the left that leads to an outside platform running behind the bridge) and found two signals ratings operating a signal lamp. One was pressing the key, opening and closing the shutters in front of the lamp to send a Morse code message to the New York, while the other had his binoculars to hand.

Tap tap – clunk, tap. Tap tap – clunk, tap. Morse code letter R.

Two Royal Navy ratings with a lamp on HMS Enterprise

The signallers doing their thing with a signal lamp

A light, a little concentrated white dot of it, surprisingly bright in the afternoon Arctic sun, shone back at us from the New York's bridge.

"Dash, dash, dot… G," says the rating with the binos. "Means repeat."

Tap tap – clunk, tap, goes his mate on the lamp. G, comes the answering sequence of flashes.

"Look at this, I've got the script here" – the lamp rating shows me a piece of laminated card covered in code letters arranged in challenge and response sequences – "we send this, they reply with their callsign, we send ours, and that's how it's meant to go."

I looked up in time to see the New York's signaller tapping out G again. "Good luck with it," I said, wandering to the rear of the bridge to rubberneck at the rest of the task force.

The USS New York, seen at the end of NATO exercise Trident Juncture

A rather grainy blown-up picture of the USS New York, as we saw her in the Arctic

Surely, in this day and age, I asked Cdr Harper, there's no need for such antiquated communication methods? The CO enthusiastically replied, referring to the Morse code signalling routine: "It's secure because it's line-of-sight only; we can encrypt it; it's very difficult to eavesdrop on it unless you're inside line-of-sight; it's a valuable naval skill."

He had a point. I got the distinct impression that the Royal Navy values Morse code highly as a matter of professional pride.

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