In spite of best efforts to endear ourselves to the Ward Room with a bottle of Whittakers Harrogate Gin, some of the best Crumbly Lancashire – and Blue-Wensleydale cheese that Keelhams (Skipton) could supply: ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’ wasn’t to be (this time), but we did enjoy an interview WITH coffee with Lt Cdr Alex Knight – the ship’s Commanding Officer, before meeting his senior command team – and having a ‘mooch’ around this lovely vessel.
MN: Mag North
AK: Lieutenant Commander Alex Knight RN
MN: Port visits are special occasions for both ships and local communities, so what’s planned for HMS Tyne’s time alongside?
AK: “On our first full day, I’ve Just awarded Jubilee medals to the Ship's Company. There’s an enormous sense of pride that we’re here.
“We don’t often get the opportunity to show off what we do. We spend between 200 and 300 days per year at sea – and when we are alongside, I‘m trying to get the ship's company away to see family and friends.
“To be given working time by the RN (Royal Navy) planners to come in and show off the ship is absolutely huge. And the ship’s company are really proud of what they do. They’re good at what they do. We employ some very capable people.
“On the one hand it gives us some down time – in a lovely city with the culture, with the bars, with the restaurants – where the locals are welcoming and ready to receive the Royal Navy – on the other hand it gives us an opportunity to show off to the general public what it is we do.
“The programme for the period: Yesterday was mainly media. Then some HMS Calliope training [The local RN Reserve Unit]. We regularly take their Officers and Ratings to sea. As part of our role, every 2 weeks we take their people and embed them into the ship’s company. “For me that’s brilliant, because they put on a uniform, but come with such different experiences. On the last patrol I had a Surgeon and a Psychiatrist – we get a full spectrum of individuals. They embed fully –become one of the ship’s company. That then allows them to pass their Fleet Board training leading to Commission.
“The ship’s company are also scheduled to take part in the Beacon event at Segedunum Roman Fort (in Wallsend) this evening, before a very busy Friday and Saturday SOTV (Ship Open To Visitors).
“That’s an external tour of the ship – and bridge. The chance to look at the weapons we use. Look at the Sea Boats. Look how we fight fires.”
Saturday evening is the always popular VIP function. With the maritime equivalent of a marquee rigged on the cargo deck – and HMS Tyne beautifully ‘dressed’ for the celebrations, the pink gins will be flowing. Sunday, quite correctly – is a day off – before heading back to sea on Monday morning.
MN: Where does HMS Tyne call home?
AK: “Our home port is Portsmouth, but we spend very little time there. “We operate what we call ‘Three Watch Crewing’. The Navy has a partnership with BAE (British Aerospace) – who are responsible for maintenance and they are contracted to keep the ship at sea for 320 days per year. Because we’re at sea for so much of the year – we do 2 week patrols. 4 weeks on then a 2 week period off. Periods alongside tend to be quite short. Usually 48 hours. You come in – do a hand-over (to the new crew), then off again.
“I came from a minesweeper. I was Captain of HMS Ledbury for my last job. The advantage of Three Watch Crewing is that I get a Command Qualified XO (Executive Officer) here, who takes temporary command while I’m on leave. It’s a very strange feeling to walk away from the ship and give over command– and it really is command. He has some D and G (direction and guidance)from me, but actually he has to deal with everything as it comes up – and 2 weeks is a long time in naval ops, so things change. I’m very lucky. He’s exceptional [Lt Ryan Greig] and he does a very good job of looking after the ship and delivering what the Navy ask of him.”
MN: And is time away from the ship actually time off?
AK: “I’ve got a wife and 3 children, so time with them is important, but I also have the chance while away from the ship to deal with stuff coming in. The time away from the ship gives you time to think, write some staff work, go to meetings and sell the ship externally – so I get the balance between that and also spending time with family.” Alex and his family live just over the border in Cornwall – not too from the dockyard in Plymouth. Although he only took over command of Tyne in February – he’s scheduled to leave in the summer to take another minesweeper.
MN: And how will the move feel?
AK: “The Navy don’t have a huge number of Captains at present. Tyne goes into a refit period – she goes out of the water in July, until December. I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know people – which for me is the most important part of the job.”
MN: There’ll be an element of sadness?
AK: “Huge. I came here at relatively short notice and it was a huge pull when I left my ship’s company in Ledbury. Ledbury was also going into a refit – and to be blunt there isn’t a requirement for a Captain when a ship is in refit.
“It is what it is. You join a new unit and you very quickly just get immersed in the problem-set that’s in front of you as part of that ship. “Ledbury was 750 tonnes and had 48 people on board. Tyne's 2100 tonnes and has a ship’s company of 45, but with Three Watch Crewing, we only ever have about 32/33 people on board at any one time.
“I’m used to Frigates and Destroyers and you’ve got between 200 and 350 people on a 3500 to 5000 tonne ship – so you’re always bumping into people. Minesweepers are similar. You walk around 2 Deck and you can’t move from compartment to compartment without bumping into 10 people, which is lovely. On here it feels a bit lighter. You have to go looking for people a bit more. But it works. The Ops [Operations] we get involved in don’t need quite the number of people.
“Our role is General Purpose and Presence, but a lot of the jobs are spread across various people. We’re a bit of a Jack-of-all trades.”
MN: You’ve shadowed Russians coming through the Channel. There’s been fishing stand-off’s in the Channel Islands. The ever present involvement in the migrant situation. Exciting. Challenging?
AK: “A bit of both. It’s what we train for as Naval Officers. As an organisation in general we’re good at shifting targets and prepping and planning for the next thing. It makes life in the Navy very interesting, because you’re always pushing the boundaries.
“Over the past 12 months: There was the fishing dispute. We were the presence for the G7 Summit. We still do some fishery protection, which is what the ship was designed for. Back in 2003 she was part of the Fishery Protection Squadron.
“She was almost decommissioned in 2018 and the Navy decided they needed to keep her on – and it was then the portfolio of what she does expanded quite significantly. We now do a lot of Defence Tasking – the escorting of foreign warships – and in particular Russian warships and that’s very much just a surveillance piece, to ensure that we know exactly what they’re doing at all times – and that the Government can be seen to be having a response to that.
“The stuff in the Channel’s been interesting recently…we’ve managed to keep out of the politics of it. We’ve been quite useful in ‘helping’ the other law and enforcement agencies do what they need to do.
“The one thing the military is very, very good at is Command and Control, because that’s what we do for a living. We have very good communications systems and structures for the issuing of orders and process, etc. The Navy have been quite effective in taking that command and control aspect. We’ve been able to sit in the Channel and use Tyne as a bit of a ‘Mother Ship’, with our good communications and radar – and make sure it’s all happening correctly. We are able to expand the horizon for the Coastguard and the Border Force – and allow them to do what they need to do. The politics in the press? We’ve been quite lucky. We’ve kept well out of that.
“We have had a tangible output. Whether we’re the right unit for that? I’ll let the Navy discuss that with Government longer term and it’ll be interesting to see if we keep an OPV in that role over the next 12 months. It will come down to need.
“The reprieve from decommissioning basically comes down to the simple nature that these are good ships. They’re reliable, they’re multi-faceted, they can generally do quite a lot of things. They’re good seakeeping. They can stay out in some pretty horrible weather conditions and the volume of stuff we’re involved in as a country and as a Navy and with the OPV’s patrolling UK waters – free’s up more major assets such as Frigates and Destroyers from doing that work – so they can concentrate on their own deep specialist work.
“As an organisation – as a Navy – we’ve improved on that: Allowing the billion-pound Destroyer to go and manage the ‘Air Picture’ somewhere it’s required. The crack Anti-Submarine Frigate that’s very good at finding submarines – let it go and do that. We provide quite a lot of efficiency to the Navy, because we free-up other assets to go and do other things.”
The July refit will enable HMS Tyne to go on for at least another 5 years. The Royal Navy have recently introduced the Batch 2 River Class ships, which are spaced out around the globe. These units are currently operating in the Caribbean, South Atlantic and there are two in the Asia-Pacific region. Also operating the Three Watch System, there’s inevitably a lot of flying people to and from the UK to keep the ships at sea.
HMS Tyne is a Batch One vessel, alongside Mersey and Severn. There are a further 5 Batch Two’s. HMS Severn runs Navigation training. Lt Cdr Knight explains: “All our Navigators-in-Training go onto Severn. They have a specialist Navigator in command – so they go and sit in the Channel Islands in very strong tidal streams, very close to land – and put their navigators under a lot of pressure to check their capabilities – so when they come to ships like this and drive them in and out of Newcastle, they get it right.”
AK: “Mersey and ourselves work back to back –month on month off.”
MN: We’ve talked a lot about the channel…what about the East and West coasts. Could you be anywhere?
AK: “One of the lovely things about this job – we call it Mission Command – is I have a huge amount of flex in what we do and where we go. I get given a tasking, but nobody asks me where I am. I can take the ship where I want. Do the training I want. I own the operational capability for this unit. As long as I’m delivering – and I’m in date for all my weapon practices, then the Navy are quite happy.
“I get told East or West Patrol – a hangover from our fishery protection days – a way to disperse units. Mersey and Tyne would normally be on opposite sides of the UK and will swop ‘round. The last couple of months we’ve spent a lot of time in the Channel, but these ships are almost always in and around the Irish and North Seas – I was in Liverpool 6 weeks ago. On this side [of the country] in the last month I’ve been into Great Yarmouth, North Shields and Tilbury.”
MN: Has the Fisheries Protection role changed since our departure from Europe? What’s the reception you’re getting from either our or EU vessels?
AK: “Not actually done much fishery work since I joined Tyne. The fishing community are a very professional group of people and they have as much buy-in as us on this, because they want the fish stocks to last as long as possible – and be managed, so they see it as a good thing we’re there as a check and a balance.
“I’ve only encountered UK fishermen. No push back – we’re always well received on board. If you’re obeying the rules, you’ve got nothing to hide. Invariably they do behave by the rules, because they want to maintain their profession for as long as possible.”
MN: We’ve had two coffees, it seems to be going well. It’s time for the serious questions now:
AK: “Go on then”. (Lt Cdr Knight stiffens slightly.)
MN: Dazzle Paint. HMS Tamar – jealous?
AK: [Potentially relieved laugh]: “I don’t know, I’ve asked my ship’s company the same thing. I sort of sit on the fence on this one. For me, I quite like it as an idea, just because it’s a bit unusual. As long as it’s maintained is the key for me. My worry would be – you do it – it looks really shiny, but it needs to be kept up to date. If the Navy asked me to have it – I’d be quite happy, but I’m not looking for it – and I think most of us are the same. HMS Severn – one of our sister ships has just come out with a specialist paint scheme – and I think she looks nice. But I’m not jealous!”
MN: Tamar – was that for her role in the Far-East? Or was it a nod to the past?
AK: “I think it does help. I suppose it depends on what your tasking is. Warships are painted grey for a reason – to help them blend in with the horizon and the sea, so we are by our nature as stealthy as we can be. We’ don’t want to stick out. I think the special paint helps – it breaks up the horizon and makes it difficult to see and allows you to get closer in. How effective it’s been? I’m afraid I haven’t been part of the research.”
MN: Destroyer and Frigate background. Big Ship or Little Ship?
AK: “They both have their advantages. There is something lovely about large ships. I’m an Anti-Submarine Warfare specialist by trade, so to be right on the cutting edge of that technology, using equipment to find highly complex foreign submarines – you get a real buzz out of that, but small ships are great.
“Having such a small ship's company gives you the ability to intrinsically know your people inside out – and have a personal relationship with each of them. I don’t think you get that – the larger the ship – the harder it becomes.
“I really enjoy – because of my personality with people, I like to get that interaction. I like to get to know my people. It’s what makes me tick as a person, so to be able to share those experiences, because we share each other’s failures and successes as a ship – and I think in the small ship community – you get that almost on steroids. I love being able to have that relationship with each and every one of my sailors. (Hopefully they’ll agree with me!)
“Naturally one day I’d love to go and drive a Frigate, but right now I’m just enjoying being in command of HMS Tyne."
MN: But that will be coming? Inevitably you'll be moving on to bigger ships?
AK: That’s the process. If all goes well, then the likelihood is that will be the next step on my career pathway. Command jobs are quite varied. You could be Squadron Commander for PV’s (Patrol Vessels) or MCM’s (Mine Counter Measures), which are great jobs as well. Naturally my preference would be to go drive a Frigate, because that’s what I know, what I’m passionate about and that’s what I’ve specialised in. I’ve spent a lot of time away from home honing my trade.
“In my last job at FOST (Fleet Operational Sea Training) in Devonport, I was part of a TART (Towed Array Response Team) and as one of my secondary duties I led a team that went on board a Frigate at short notice. Dropped on by Helo when there’s a need – and we would advise the Captain and Warfare team as an augmentation to find and fix positions of submarines. There was something lovely about going on with a specialist team: I had a command qualified Submariner that I would take with me. I would take a HM (Hydrography and Meteorology) Officer – somebody who utterly understands the underwater environment, someone who literally spends their whole career looking under the water – and getting tactical benefit of the water columns, the salinity, the temperature – really taking advantage of that. Then deep specialist Anti-Submarine Warfare and Ops Room people who’ve spent their whole careers looking at radar and sonar – and if I ever got the opportunity to Captain a Frigate and manage that team – it would be really special.
“But it’s up to the Navy. I suppose it depends on how well this job goes…but so far so good.
“The Type 23 Frigate is the stalwart of the Fleet. It’s an exceptionally capable ship. My submarine counterparts honestly say it is the quietest ship in the world. If they don’t know it’s going to be there – they don’t know it’s there. Everything about the ship was designed to find submarines. Every single piece of machinery, equipment – every computer, is on a specialist platform to make it absorb vibration and make the ship absolutely silent as she transits through the water – and the Type 26 is going to be the next generation of that.
“You see the cost of these things and you do a double-take – but from my perspective it’s money well spent, because they will be the best submarine finders in the world – and the opportunity to potentially go and command one of those is hugely exciting.”
MN: Navigation: GPS, Map and Compass or Celestial?
AK: "[Laughs.] It’s been a long time, but I was a Navigator before my Submarine Warfare. There is something hugely satisfying about learning to navigate by old-fashioned means, especially the stars. Hugely frustrating initially. Doesn’t matter how capable you are as an individual – you get it wrong. Like learning to ride a bike, you can’t do it until you’ve practised and learned and it almost becomes an inherent skill. I’m very lucky. My Navigator, Lt (Smokey) Hume is utterly superb – in fact I’ve just awarded him a citation this morning for his performance over the last couple of months.
“GPS is very useful. But we have to be able to turn it off – and navigate without it, for very good reason. Sometimes we need to do warfare without modern technology. All our Young Officers have to do an Astro-Navigation certificate while they’re on board, which involves them telling me where the ship is via the stars for a 3 night period – when we’ve turned off all the sensors. It works better if we’re doing an Atlantic transit! It’s a required skill.”
MN: Another big question: Downton Abbey or Top Gun?
AK: “[More laughing] That’s a very good question. I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey. When I was a Navigator, my Captain was a fan too –and I used to go to his cabin and watch it with a select few others – which got me some banter! (For the record: that was HMS Liverpool in 2010/11.)
“I haven’t seen Top Gun yet. My XO has and he told me it’s literally the best thing he’s ever done in his life – so we’re planning to go see it on Sunday together – as a bit of a romantic Captain/XO date – and I’m going to have to withhold judgement until I’ve seen it.
“I probably should say ‘Top Gun’, but if you don't quote me, I’ll probably say Downton Abbey.”
MN: Finally…what’s ahead for HMS Tyne before refit?
AK: “We don’t know – but probably some more work in the English Channel – as part of what we call Op Isotrope (the migrant/refugee crossings).
“The stuff we normally do – the Russian-focussed escorting and shadowing – that’s been quite light recently, for obvious geo-political reasons, so probably more Isotrope work, but the great thing about us is we genuinely don’t know – so we might find ourselves doing something unexpected.”
MN: And after a busy weekend…will it be nice to head off back down the Tyne on Monday morning?
AK: “Yeah, erm. Yes it will. I suppose I would say this because I’m a Naval Warfare Officer – but I really love being at sea. There is something incredibly special about being at sea. This ship – the people are designed to function best in those [seagoing] roles…
“The great thing about being Captain is that I don’t have a core role do I? I’m the ‘oversight’. All the way through my career, I’ve always had a specific job to deliver on behalf of the Captain – and now I get to sit back and watch my team work – and sort of lean-in as required. The team works: It is like watching a well-oiled machine when we’re at sea and there is something lovely about seeing the routines, the people. They know their jobs inside-out and it just functions and flows, so for me as Captain – where I want to be is at sea. But obviously being in Newcastle is very special. But it's what we do isn’t it?”
And with that, we’re joined in the Captain’s cabin by the XO Lt Ryan Greig, the First Lieutenant, Lt Natasha Richards and Navigator Lt Andrew Hume. These four are HMS Tyne’s Senior Command Team.
While Ryan explains that he too is a fan of ‘Barbour’ cases, Tash tells me she’s recently returned from an exchange period, serving onboard a Frigate with the Spanish Navy. “I’m trying to get Red Wine with lunch introduced in our Ward Room” (a practice that is the norm with the Spanish)! Andrew itches to head off on a leave period to see his wife and family.
HMS Tyne is a happy ship, doing an incredibly important number of jobs – on our behalf. The men and women onboard are a credit to the Navy and to their families – and they certainly deserve some ‘time off’ in Newcastle.
The Ship’s Company have also curated our latest Mag North Playlist – and this is the people, their choices – and their reasons:
GO2: ‘Cold as Ice’ - Foreigner
“It Compliments his cool calm and collected disposition on the bridge”
DMEO: ‘Fog on the Tyne’ - Lindisfarne
“We are HMS TYNE and we are on the Mighty River Tyne and we love it.”
GO1: ‘A Life On The Ocean Wave’ – The Band of HM Royal Marines
“Helps his zeal for Queen and country keep him warm.”
2L: ‘Chicken on a Raft’ – Pyrates
“An upbeat sea shanty that keeps him motivated during overnight watches.”
ET Hall: ‘Down Under’ (feat Colin Hay) - Luude
“An uplifting revamp of an old classic.”
AB Law: ‘Living in a Box’ – Living in a Box
“He feels it represents some of his time since being activated.”
ET Lamb: ‘Hold the Line’ – Toto
“Love isn’t always on time.”
AB Cunningham: ‘Cold Heart’ – Elton John
“For his girl.”
ET Lean: ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ - Toploader
“Loves a dance when the moonlight is playing on the waves .”
Coxn: ‘Help I’m a Fish’ – The Little Tees
“Big lover of the 90s cheese. And Fisheries Protection.”
WEO: ‘Dreadnought’ – Sabaton
“He’s a fan of the band and the way they write songs about historical events.”
CORRO: ‘Hearts of Oak’ – The Band of HM Royal Marines
“To stir the hearts of all true Englishmen.”
ET Murphy: ‘Seaweed’– Hockdad
“Reminds him of happy times surfing.”
XOA: ‘Riptide’ – Vance Joy
“Reminds him of happy summers as a sailing instructor at Uni.”
AB Cairns: ‘Hypnosis’ – Purple Disco Machine
“An absolute banger.”
PO Wheewall: ‘Ttg’ – ORION
CS Ollivierre: ‘Thinking Out Loud’ – Ed Sheeran
CS Besa: ‘Said I Love’ – Michael Bolton
LCS Walker: ‘Shake It Off’ – Taylor Swift
AB Pennycook: ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ – Bonnie Tyler
“She often thinks of it when she is on the helm of the ship.”
AB McIntyre: ‘I Want to Break Free’ – Queen
“For Whom Are So Free As The Sons Of The Waves…?”