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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic

A short story about the consequences of not taking fogwatch seriously.

When I first joined HMS Raleigh for my basic training, just like any workplace, there were many time honoured fools errands or "bites" (as they were known) which were foisted on trainees, usually by the class preceding them and these would be military versions of the civilian workplace jokes played on new workers, such as being sent for a long stand and so on. At HMS Raleigh, one of the more ridiculous yet, astonishingly, frequently carried out tasks was called fogwatch. This  entailed a poor trainee standing outside on the balcony of the accommodation block at night, holding a jar in which to collect the fog. The premise of this task was that there would allegedly be some kind of night firing exercise being carried out on the base rifle range and if the fog became too thick, the shooting would have to be cancelled for safety reasons. 

A sample of the fog, if and when it eventually rolled in, would need to be collected in a jar and taken to the Quartermaster at the main gate in order that he might determine the thickness of the fog and make a decision as to whether the range activities needed to be cancelled. Additionally, a red light would be switched on at the range, indicating that a live firing was taking place and so this was to be observed too, as in thick fog, the sentry would be unable to see it and thus there would be another indicator of a dangerously thick fog impeding safety rules. The red light, of course, was merely the red light of an aid to navigation out on the River Tamar but was an excellent example of real life aiding buffoonery. So far, so idiotic. 

Once the trainee had been briefed on his duties and responsibilities he would require to be dressed in the correct attire before making his way out on to the balcony to carry out his duties. The necessary uniform for this particular evolution was, like the accompanying preamble, varied but often included the wearing of the trainees anti gas respirator (to counter the effects of the thick fog) and a world war two vintage oilskin coat to keep them dry. The oilskin was issued only to trainees at HMS Raleigh and for no apparent reason other than to make work, what CPO(OPS)(M) James Green (Yes, that one!) at HMS Cambridge once described as a  "fuck factor", since they were never worn and folding them for presentation at a uniform inspection or "kit muster" could be achieved only with great difficulty. The oilskin itself was a collar to floor length oilskin coat which had presumably at some point in history been an actual item of uniform issued to and worn by, serving personnel. It was waterproof, fairly inflexible and given the ridiculous length of the coat itself, historically, sailors must have all been seven foot tall. 

The requirement of kit musters during my basic training was that ALL items of uniform were to be folded to the same dimensions as the Naval Ratings Handbook, known as "booksize" and this was checked by the inspecting officer at kit musters by placing the handbook over folded items of uniform. Anything found to be sticking out from under the book would be considered as not folded to booksize and would thus fail inspection. Folding oilskins to booksize was a near impossible task and many different methods were employed to attempt to fold them to booksize. Once this was achieved,the coat would be bound in smart white tape, preventing it from unfolding. It would be a foolhardy  or in this case, stupid soul who removed the tape in order to don his oilskin. At night in the early weeks of training, many of the messdecks (sleeping quarters) would be full of lockers tilted over at odd angles or beds lifted high up at the foot end with a folded oilskin coat tucked under them in an attempt to press it into booksize shape and keep it that way. If you woke in the morning with a head that was several times bigger than when you went to sleep, this was an acceptable price to pay for gaining a booksized oilskin.

Of course, the rating donning his oilskin and gas mask would be left out on the balcony for a period of time but unlike for Juliet, there was no Romeo coming to the rescue on THIS balcony. Only discovery by a class instructor or a slowly dawning realisation of their own foolishness would eventually bring the task to an end athough occasionally,fortuitously even, actual fog DID roll in and the hapless fog sentry could be seen, gas mask firmly jammed to the face, arms flapping around in an ill fitting oilskin like a clapping sealion, waving a jar around in a futile attempt to catch fog in a jar. Legend had it that one lucky punter had even made it to the Main Gate and the Quartermaster with an actual jar of fog though to date, this claim remains nothing but an unsubstantiated rumour, lost, ironically, in the mists of time.

When I did eventually join my first ship then, imagine my confusion when during exercises at Portland I was called on to be a fog sentry. Of course, initially I laughed at such an idea however it turned out to be an actual job....without the jar and ridiculous get up anyway! When a ship is navigating close to shore or manoeuvering in or out of harbour in thick fog, there is an actual requirement for two lookouts to be closed up on the bridge wings, one each side, and for these two sentries to keep a good lookout and more importantly, listen out for the sounds of other vessels in the fog and report these to the navigating officer on the bridge who will be carrying out the task of navigation in restricted visibility or "blind navigation". 

  Underway in fog, a ship will sound its sirens or "hooter" at regular intervals and the navigating officer uses his bridge radar display to assist him in navigating since taking a visual compass bearing from a beacon or buoy in order to fix the ships' position is impossible in the fog. Ships at anchor in fog, will sound a bell at the forward end of the ship and a gong at the after end of the ship at regular intervals to warn other vessels of their presence and it is these sounds in particular that the sentries must listen for when a ship is entering or leaving a harbour in restricted visibility as well as sirens,bells and whistles from any other hazard to navigation such as lighthouses, breakwaters, buoys and any other vessel that may be transitting the area.

  What made this job seem even more bizarre to me was that here at Portland, since this was an exercise, there was not only an obvious lack of fog but unlike fogwatch at Raleigh, not even an expectation of fog. My autistic thought processes went into overdrive as I stood out on the starboard bridge wing in brilliant sunshine with a pair of binoculars hung around my neck, some sound amplifying headphones over my ears and a very definite set of orders on what and when to report. The headphones were a new piece of equipment to me and as a fairly junior rating, any new equipment still held an air of wonder and excitement that so sadly diminished as experience lengthened.

Unfortunately, the polish of this new experience was  about to be removed rather quickly as I switched them on and, a few moments later, I was treated to a very loud demonstration of just how amplified the ships' siren can be on a clear day at Portland. There were very few sounds that could make me crosseyed and this was absolutely one of them. Now that I was crosseyed and my ears were bleeding, I couldn't see the value of myself as a sentry at all, let alone as a fog sentry.

Naturally, I carried out the job to the best of my ability (no guarantee of excellence, I'll concede) but seemed only to get bawled out from the bridge as I failed to report visually obvious fishing boats and sailboats with the excuse that I couldn't see the former or hear the latter. I assumed I was merely getting into the swing of the exercise and my point to the navigating officer about there being no need for binoculars in this thick pea souper was swatted away by him with one of his "I'll get you later you bastard" looks and the observing staff, chuckling, made notes on their clipboards that I'm sure came back to get him at the debrief or hot wash up, afterwards. Evidently, restricted visibility navigation exercises were no place for humour. The actual point of THIS story, demonstrates that point in spades.

Fast forward then to my last ship, HMS Lancaster. A type 23 frigate, leading a small group of warships made up of a mix of British and foreign ships in procession at Portland, the Royal Navy's world renowned training base on the south coast of England. It is, sadly, closed now. The training base, not the south coast, which, as far as I know, is still open. The ship was tasked to lead the small force of warships into Portland Harbour, following the safe route marked through an imaginery minefield. The observing staff then added another "fuck factor" and declared it to be foggy. HMS Lancaster would need to lead a coordinated entry into harbour through a minefield in restricted visibility.

One of the many differences between my first and last ship was size. My last ship was definitely bigger although conversely, the crew was smaller by about one hundred so in order for the ship to run properly, everyone had to  multitask and carry out duties of other branches. To this end, a weapons engineer mechanic or WEM,( let's call him WEM Bury), was woken and told to make his way to the bridge to act as fog lookout. Once on the bridge, he was briefed along with one of the stewards, issued with binoculars and sound amplifying headphones and placed out on the starboard bridge wing.

  Often, during hazardous manoeuvering evolutions at Portland, the observing staff would throw in some aggravating factor such as an enemy air attack, steering gear breakdown or visit by an armed forces hostile politician eager to see how his tax was being wasted. On the ships' wheel, the chinese laundryman changed into his running spikes and placed his pot noodle somewhere safe. He wasn't going to be caught out today.

The exercise proceeded as planned without incident until halfway through, one of the observing staff pointed out to the navigating officer that he hadn't received a report from his starboard fog lookout recently and ought to make sure things were ok. When the Navigating  officer attempted to communicate with the starboard fog lookout, like an organised crime investigator, he was met with a wall of silence. Unsure whether this was a deliberate act by the observing staff or an actual communications breakdown, the navigating officer ordered one of the bridge crew to go outside and check on the starboard fog lookout and  suspiciously, one of the observing staff rather helpfully volunteered to go. 

On his return, the observing staff member reported that there was no fog lookout closed up on the starboard bridge wing and immediate but controlled panic set in. This was surely a staff arranged incident and they would be looking to the navigating officer to take immediate  remedial action. At once, everyones eyes narrowed in suspicion.  The navigating officer immediately sent one of the bridge crew out on to the bridge wing to take up the post of substitute fog lookout and then began to work on the more pressing matter of the disappearance of what are quite expensive binoculars and headphones. He also made a shipwide broadcast for WEM Bury to contact the bridge immediately. On the wheel, Choi began to sweat and look nervously at the steering gear indication panel in front of him.

When no contact was made with the bridge by WEM Bury, the navigating officer assumed a man overboard exercise had been thrown into the mix by the observing staff and so the process of dealing with a man overboard was started. This then became more urgent when it was ascertained from the staff that they had nothing to do with the disappearance of WEM Bury. At once, every communications channel was employed, as notification of a probable man overboard was signalled to every ship in the force and also the coastguard, Portland control and the local brownies. 

Onboard Lancaster, as the ship began to reverse course, the ships company was ordered to emergency stations and the "buddy" system was put into action. This system meant that everyone on board had another crew member or buddy on whom they should check so the crew could be accounted for in as short a time as possible and this quickly confirmed that WEM Bury was missing. The ships' navigational plot was marked, seaboats crew closed up to put a boat in the water and a swimmer, dressed in a  diving suit, was made ready on the ships upper deck. The navigating officer also sounded the internationally recognised signal for a ship experiencing a man overboard, six short blasts on the ships' siren.

On the other ships in the force, similar preparations were being made and a helicopter was launched fom the nearby Portland Airbase, as the exercise was abandoned and ships began a fraught search for the man overboard. Onboard Lancaster, as a sea search of the area began, a search of the ship was also instigated. Though initially the search turned up empty, a second more detailed search found WEM Bury fast asleep in the midship heads (toilets) having decided to take a rest when the effects of too much alcohol the night before had interfered with his ability to stand up and stay awake for more than ten minutes. Ironically, had he still been wearing the sound amplifying headphones he had been issued with, he would probably have heard the siren blasts or one of the many broadcasts calling for him through the fog of his hangover.

The good news was broadcast to the force, coastguard and Portland control and the previous exercise was declared abandoned as the force made it's way into harbour without further incident. The headphones and binoculars were returned to the bridge stowage, Choi returned to the laundry to clear the days backlog and reheat his potnoodle and everything was again, right with the world. Except for WEM Bury, of course. He was subsequently court martialled and sent to military prison at Colchester for deserting his post and causing millions of pounds of military hardware to be sent on a fools errand. 

Submitted: September 13, 2017

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