A Life at Sea by Captain Peter A. Robinson, RFA (Retd)


Roger Robinson Brown

Captain Peter A Robinson RFA

I say life, because going to sea really is a way of life and not just a job or career.  It was truly a traumatic experience to move from the rather prestigious position in the Upper Sixth form at Fairfield in June 61, – to become the lowest form of life at sea – a Deck cadet aboard a Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker with peculiar rigs for carrying out replenishment at sea with warships.  This was and remains today, the major role for the service, and I was to spend the best part of my working career within this organisation.

I had no notion for going to sea whilst at school – I think the nearest I came to it was playing the game of ‘pirates’ in the gymnasium on the last PE session of each term.  Art College looked more likely, having achieved an ‘A’ level pass with a magnificent sculpture of a mythical animal – however, I guess I had a calling for something a bit adventurous and responded to an advertisement in the Evening Post, promising a career at sea, travel with excellent pay and conditions.  As an indentured apprentice my first annual salary was 144 pounds out of which I managed to save 5 pounds per month and an annual leave of 21 days per year served.  It cost my parents the earth to kit me out, with made-to-measure uniforms, tropical white, mess undress, badges and boots, wing collars, cap and battledress!  The last one sounded ominous!  I carried everything in a huge trunk, which I continued to use throughout my early years at sea, and which now lies at the back of my garage.

Anyway, a career at sea was about to start, – I was now employed by the Admiralty, and as an indentured apprentice, there was no easy way out.  I flew to Gibraltar to join my first ship RFA Pearleaf, arriving as she came alongside, and on board met the Captain and some of the Officers, before almost immediately being put ‘on watch’ – to load cargo for transfer at sea later.


RFA Pearleaf


My first problem emerged when I was told that my trunk, which had been sent by sea from UK, as it was too heavy to fly, had not yet arrived – so I couldn’t wear any of the uniforms, and had to borrow some working gear from the ships stores – with no uniform, I couldn’t use the Officers Mess, so I felt a bit of an outcast!  Anyway, the ship sailed from Gibraltar, the trunk arrived there the very next day and continued to follow me around the world for a further six weeks until it eventually caught up with me in the Persian Gulf – It was a great relief but hardly the start that I had wanted.  I stayed with my first ship for thirteen months and then came home for my first leave of two whole weeks!  My second ship was called RFA Tideflow, a replenishment tanker.


RFA Tideflow

RFA Tideflow


As a Cadet, for the next three years I was an OUT. – i.e. an Officer Under Training – time at sea was accompanied with spells at college in Southampton where training was broadened.  Thesis writing, public speaking, skiing in Switzerland, sport, marching, sea-boat training on the Solent, – all culminating in formal examinations which I sat to qualify as a Junior Deck Officer.  As a Third Officer on board, life for me cantered around watch-keeping duties at sea, and Duty Officer routine in port, with separate responsibility for Navigation, Boats, Fire fighting training, Gunnery etc., and as I became more senior, I was trained as a Flight Deck Officer in charge of flying operations, then as Operations Officer, planning the whole of the day to day life of the ship and then XO or Executive Officer, second in command running the ship and its crew.  As a Cadet in my final year, I was lucky enough to complete a world cruise with the Royal Yacht – this was indeed an experience and I became very familiar with HMY Britannia, though far too lowly to mix with the principal occupants! – this experience did however come my way later in my career when Prince Andrew joined my ship, RFA Engadine for a month’s flying training.


RFA Engadine

RFA Engadine


I was then XO, and the Sea King squadron to which HRH was attached, embarked for the period.  Prince Andrew or “H” as he was known, fitted in with ship life as anyone else, the only difference being that his private detective signed for his drinks in the mess, to stop would-be-autograph hunters, and his laundry seemed to be separated from the rest, again to dissuade would-be collectors of Royal briefs!  On inspections of sailor’s quarters with me, he was quite happy to stick his nose down a loo and tell me it needed attention, and a smart salute followed by “sir”, made me feel like a king for a moment.

Social Life on board of course was not to be taken lightly – the phrase work hard and play hard comes to mind – the cocktail party soon after arrival in a foreign port is always a  frantic affair – awnings rigged, perhaps a hundred guests to be met and escorted, VIP’s red-carpet treatment – the occasion, designed to ‘show the flag’, usually ran from 1830-2000, so towards the end, the young officers would whisper to the previously identified attractive young female guests, not to rush off as the real party starts at 2030 hours – then off VIP’s, mess jackets, red carpet – on disco music, soft lights – and then after all the guests had departed, mess games perhaps!  Porthole – racing challenge! – my speciality – I think it must have stemmed from my membership of the Fairfield Potholing Club. – I seemed to develop naturally from potholing to port-holing.-the aim of the game being to carry out a timed exit/return along a line of mess room port-holes, out of one and in the next, etc, etc. – thus achieving not only the fastest time, but a wrecked mess uniform, and serious bruising of the elbows, knees and shins – all for the dubious honour of having one’s name inscribed on a silver plate within the mess trophy cabinet. – the evening or morning ends – it’s 4 am – preparations for sailing are at 6.30 am and ship sails at 8.0am – another day and a new horizon ahead.

At sea, life soon returns to normal, routines are re-established, watch-keeping and perhaps preparations for the next rendezvous with the fleet, a major exercise, or maybe just internal training, in gunnery, attack/defence procedures, flying programmes, fire fighting drills.  The ship at sea becomes a self sufficient village, perhaps a hundred people all with different roles to play, each one reliant upon the others on board for their survival and their everyday needs – this in itself develops a special relationship between a group of people confined together for lengthy periods of time at sea.  Having now left the sea, I would say that this is one particular aspect which I miss very much.

As Second Officer on a ship with less than one hundred crew, there was no doctor carried, and the role was carried out by this junior deck officer. – in addition to his normal tasks.  The position carried with it considerable prestige, even though one was given only minimal training – a basic six week course and a copy of ‘The Ship Captain’s Medical Guide’, an excellent book which can be found on many a GP’s bookshelf, comprehensively covering all likely ailments at sea plus a few others.




I used to read this book with some compulsion, and found I had all sorts of things wrong with me when I studied the symptoms of various complaints. – I could have laid myself off sick for weeks on end – but then there would have been no-one to cure the others, so ….. – I had of course to deal with the common complaint which sailors tend to contract shortly after leaving a foreign port.  A large section of the guide is devoted to the treatment which included gory pictures, and instructions on giving penicillin injections into the upper right quadrant of the buttocks – so in order not to miss the vital area, I used to draw a felt-tip cross on the affected sailor’s backside and following a sharp slap, plunge the needle into the correct quarter – they all seemed to recover – but if you ever see a blue cross on someone’s backside – keep well away – you don’t know where they’ve been!

I was promoted to Captain in 1988 – scary! (and not just for me either!) – as there is really no formal training for carrying out this role. – Nobody actually can tell you what you are supposed to do when handed a £50M Tonka toy to go and play games with! – of course if you managed to hit anything with it, it’s liable to be immediately confiscated.  On joining your first ship as Captain, everyone onboard expects you to know exactly what you’re doing, you cannot display anything but extreme confidence, – but..I can tell you, when you depart from that jetty – in command for the first time, twin screws churning away, thrusters and helm combining to shift 10,000 tons of steel in a forward direction into the unknown…..It’s scary.

Life as a Captain takes on quite a different form – one is the law -, ‘the buck stops here as the President would say – and one becomes responsible, though perhaps indirectly, for all that happens in this little world at sea.  As Captain my ships have been mainly military vehicle and troop carriers, the Sir class e.g. Sir Galahad, and also the Rover class tanker which supplies fuel and light stores to the fleet.  RFA Diligence was under my command in 1994, a specially fitted support vessel for submarines.



RFA Diligence

RFA Diligence


And around the world generally:- Visiting more unusual places such as Diego Garcia in the S. Indian Ocean, a strategically important US military base, which is really British – it is a typical Maldive atoll, only 10ft high maximum above sea level – beautiful sandy beaches but everywhere run millions of crabs, and lying in the jungle, a crashed Catalina seaplane from 1944…..to South Georgia – a nature paradise on the Antarctic edge, where the extreme weather changes dramatically within minutes, from mirror calm waters to raging stormy seas.  Here, the villages lie deserted, abandoned by the Japanese after the collapse of the whaling industry.  As one walks through deserted streets full of rusty whaling gear, shutters flap in the wind.  The beaches are where the life is, – lined with huge elephant seal – sunbathing – and Gentu penguin waddling through grassy dunes in their thousands – you walk amongst them unnoticed!  On a visit to the Greek Island of Rhodes, my ship was given a priority berth, – all the millionaires’ yachts had to move from the marina for three days – the wonder of grey power! – followed by a call on the Archbishop of Rhodes to exchange gifts and sip tea!

Then a visit to Dubai, where I presented a ship’s crest to one of the ruling Sheik princes – following a brief from the British ambassador on the finer points of etiquette – I learnt that showing the soles of one’s shoes was insulting – however clean!

Whilst alongside in Montevideo, Uruguay – a Chinese fishing boat ran out of control in the harbour and headed straight for my ship RFA Gold Rover.


RFA Gold Rover

RFA Gold Rover


Having raised the alarm, there was little to do but watch the inevitable happen. – a large hole, fortunately above the waterline – this after having been towed 1000 miles from the Falkland Is, following the loss of the ship’s rudder! – my government was not pleased!

Whilst in Tromso in N. Norway, when berthing my ship, Sir Tristram, we experienced a total loss of power and drifted in a 4 knot current towards a flimsy bridge over which the main early morning traffic was driving to work.  The fjords are extremely deep; there are no tugs to assist in Tromso.  I have on board 400 Royal Marines, recovering from a rough North Sea crossing – Good game eh!! – apart from praying, I do not have too many options! – I let go one anchor, we continue to drift toward the bridge – I let go the second anchor, we are now 50 metres from the bridge – the anchor catches on a ledge, the ship swings and stops in the water!  What a relief! – the next day the spare part was flown out from London in a matchbox – modern technology!!


Tromso and that bridge

Tromso and that bridge


Shortly after this incident, the Admiral in charge of the exercise, asked me to beach the ship onto a nearby high gradient shingle beach in order to land vehicles and tanks ashore. – One does not disobey an Admiral, but I was less than enthusiastic about the idea after the previous day’s experience. – however, needless to say, the beaching was successful – no more power failures! – we survived – the vehicles had landed and so had my ship!

I once sailed with a Captain by the name of Peter Nelson.  Captain Nelson had a Spanish wife, who visited our ship one weekend at Portsmouth by train.  Portsmouth is blessed with two stations, one in the town and one called Portsmouth and Southsea and the other Portsmouth Harbour.  Captain Nelson decided to meet his wife as there might be some confusion and he went to the Portsmouth Harbour station.  Whilst away, his wife arrived on board and she had arrived by taxi from the other station – so, I called the Harbour station and asked the staff to put out a call for Captain Nelson to return to his ship – not realising that this might cause quite a stir! – on a Friday afternoon, Portsmouth Harbour station is awash with sailors going on weekend leave – when they heard the announcement for “Captain Nelson to return to his ship” there was a loud cheer – after 143 years in dry-dock – the mighty HMS Victory was going to sea?.  Anyway poor Captain Nelson (the real one), kept very quiet!  He rushed back on board, called me up to his cabin – sat me down – and laughed!!!! – thankfully.

The significance of holding this relatively high office in a military organisation came home to me recently on an official visit to Amsterdam.  I had asked for the visit at fairly short notice and was quite surprised when it was approved, as it was over a weekend.  Anyway, my ship, again Sir Tristram, berthed on the Saturday morning and I had two official calls to make, the first to the Dutch Naval Base Commander at 1000 hrs, and the second to the British Consul at 1020 hrs.  A car arrived for me at 0952 complete with Dutch Liaison Officer and two military motorcycle outriders – and we set off into the busy Saturday morning traffic of Amsterdam, with blue-flashing lights – at high speed!  Traffic on route was halted, traffic lights changed to suit our direction, people stopped and looked to see which military supremo this was!!!!. – We arrived with 1 minute to spare at 0959 and after a short exchange, we crossed the city to the British Consulate, arriving there exactly on time. – The senior out-rider came up to me, saluted, and said goodbye in English – their job was complete!  I met the British Consul for ten minutes and returned to the waiting car. – It was nearly 2 hours later, whilst slowly making headway in the Saturday traffic that I looked across at my Dutch Liaison Officer and said to him “can we not make an official call on my ship?”

There have been many other events in “A life at sea”, as one would expect, but now I have left that way of life and come ashore.  I teach the subjects that were my day to day work and enjoy having the connection with the sea, albeit in theory only.  I remember once being told by Roy Edwards, the then P.E. and Games Master at Fairfield, that I should have gone into something connected with gymnastics, and was instead, missing my vocation.  Well, maybe he was right, but I did at least take quite a jump, with a sea-going career and eventually landed on my feet! – I do not imagine that many others would follow such a career path but anyway, it does demonstrate the diversity which ensues from a grammar school education.

‘They that go down to the sea in ships, and do business in great waters’, Old Fairfieldians amongst them too – tell your son’s, warn your daughters.