- a Strike Craft comes home.
The day is the 6th of December 1977. The United Nations Arms Embargo against South Africa has just been implemented. We are busy commissioning South Africa's latest naval vessel in a far-off country. It is a hurried ceremony, the commissioning date has been put forward in case the building nation, Israel, decides to comply with the embargo. The vessel is being commissioned under the Israeli flag.
We, the crew, are all dog tired as we have just gone through an extensive harbour and sea trial with a full sea inspection by officers of the Israeli navy. If we had failed we would not have been permitted to sail. Each and every emergency procedure has been practised again and again to ensure that the crew and the ship are in all respects ready to sail.
Prior to this we have been working against the clock to prepare the ship for sea. We have worked seven days a week till late at night each and every day. We are promised leave to compensate once we arrive in South Africa. It never materialises. These labours have been followed by an intensive period of hard work in which everybody, from the Captain to the proverbial cabin boy, has participated in carrying aboard and storing all we need for our forthcoming voyage. This ranges from food to spares and ammunition. All has to be done "handraulically". We form long chains from the quayside to the stowage spaces and pass the shells or cases of tinned food along from man to man. The day is misty and cold - Mt. Carmel, which overshadows much of Haifa, is swathed in clouds . The Kishon river harbour looks particularly dismal where we lie at the outfitting dock of Israel Shipyards, its greasy and polluted waters lapping our hull.
Here over a period of many months our ship has taken shape. We have watched it grow from a pile of steel plates to a formidable fighting vessel.
We stood here with pride when she first took to the water. The Israeli Minister of Defence had made a short but very heartening speech, the gist of which was - "We hand you this warship. We pray that you might never need to use it for the purpose for which it was designed. But we also pray that if you have to use it, you use it with a terrible vengeance." His English might not have been too good - but we took note of the heartfelt sentiments he was trying to express. We listen to more speeches during the commissioning ceremony and the flag is broken from the mainmast. We pose with our ship for a few hasty photographs to mark the auspicious - yet highly secret - occasion.
Finally the commissioning is over and we march aboard. P1562, known then as either "Boat 2" or more familiarly to the crew as "Scratches" is ours at last. Tired we may be, but a proprietary glow of accomplishment suffuses the air. We know this vessel intimately, each and every nut and bolt, every rivet and pipe. We have crawled her bilges and climbed her mast. We have slithered about in the paint locker right up in the bows to the tiller flat in the stern. The crew is a tight-knit bunch. Most of us are young, in our early twenties. However we are sure of ourselves and the many months of training we have just completed have given us confidence. We are positive that nothing can arise that we will not be able to cope with. Within the hour we start the main engines and with a few belated calls of farewell to the men who are staying behind we slowly move out into the Mediterranean.
We are met by two Israeli vessels, a Reshef (like us) and one of the smaller French-built missile boats. They will escort us through the Mediterranean. Ostensibly we are an all-Israeli flotilla. We fly the Israeli flag and wear Israeli uniforms. It is all part of the thick blanket of secrecy that pervades the entire project. Our maiden voyage is about to begin. 47 souls aboard a 400 tonne vessel are about to sail, largely unsupported, almost 10 000 miles. We do not undertake this venture lightly. Our ship is small, the Atlantic is big. Its moods are irascible and unpredictable. The countries past which we have to sail are not our friends - most are openly hostile. We are going to be on our own for most of the voyage.
We encounter one of the worst storms I have ever experienced. For six days we batter through the Mediterranean, mountainous seas and howling winds assault us day and night. The smaller Israeli boat is severely damaged when a wave tears a part of her foredeck off and our little flotilla has to backtrack to ensure that she reaches shelter safely.
Sometimes we glimpse land: Crete to the North of us, Sicily, Italy, etc. We are maintaining a more northerly route as the countries to the South are friendly neither to us nor to our Israeli escorts. Three days out and a flight of American A7 SLUF's (Short Little Ugly Fellers) buzzes us. They are obviously from a 6th Fleet carrier. We maintain a demeanour of disdain and eventually they lose interest and scream off towards the north-west. Conditions aboard turn grim. An unexpected leak in a hatch causes the forward seaman's mess to become almost uninhabitable with half a dozen bunks continuously being drenched. The men are philosophical about it and sleep wherever they can find a dry space. One becomes used to sleeping whilst simultaneously clutching something so as not to get flung out of one's bunk. More than half the crew are sea-sick. Preparation of anything more than the simplest of meals is impossible. Watchkeeping on the bridge is a nightmare with water coming over the dodger in a constant stream. All the binoculars are inoperative, the lenses flooded with water. One of our instrument technicians gingerly disassembles them and dries them out. The two remaining vessels continue westwards. Spain is sighted - the snow lying heavy on the Sierras. We pass Gibraltar in the early evening and everybody takes turns at coming to the bridge to see the famous Rock. At last we are through the straits and into the Atlantic. We bid our Israeli companion farewell. We haul down the Israeli flag we have been flying and from here onwards we are, according to International Law, legally a pirate vessel and display no flag.
The spirits on board are high. The crew are thorough professionals and we genuinely feel like one large family. The esprit de corps has never been better and Scratches herself is beginning to take on a personality with distinct characteristics. Since she has felt the open sea she has steadily shaken off the cloying misery of a ship in dockyard hands and become herself! She is a young, sprightly lady, high-spirited with a gleam of mischief in her eye. We are all very proud of her, but with the cynical detachment of a sailor who knows it's best never to let her know that.
To alleviate the boredom and ennui of the daily grind we have inter-mess competitions at night, mostly quizzes. Competition is fierce. No prizes are at stake - only honour. I write a daily article of a scurrilous and licentious nature called "The Adventures of Toerries the Terrible" which concerns a Viking longship and its bawdy crew - the heroes being thinly veiled caricatures of the actual crew and their idiosyncrasies and foibles. I try to work into the tale as much of what happened during the day as possible. This is read out nightly over the broadcast system. Once, due to pressure of work, I neglect to produce the nightly episode and the captain enquires, in a hurt fashion, as to its whereabouts. Thereafter I do not fail to write an episode no matter how heavy the daily duties have been.
We work hard, there is maintenance and more maintenance. We practise our emergency procedures daily. We have fire-drills and practise abandoning ship. Fire is the thing we fear above all else. On a vessel like ours, which is largely an enveloping fuel tank chock-full of high explosives and pyrotechnics, littered with high voltage electrical cables, we have little chance if a fire gets out of hand. Our best bet is to nip it in the bud before it spreads. Our entire strategy at fire fighting is aimed at that. I am in the engine room department but I enjoy taking a hand at everything - so often, when off watch, I am to be found at the wheel (I get a kick out of steering the thing) or at the Radar or operating the electronic warfare suite. The seamen tolerate and humour me. They think I am crazy to spend my off-duty hours "working". The officers are amused. They find it strange that I would concern myself with departments other than my own demanding one. But the whole crew has suffered a bit of a culture shock anyway. The demarcation lines between specializations have, of necessity, become blurred on so small a vessel. We carry no passengers. Everyone is vital to the ship's efficiency and her ability to fight and function as a viable warship. Many of the crew have had to learn skills outside of their usual narrow fields. Many of us take pride in being capable of turning our hands to most of the tasks aboard.
A small interlude concerning domestic arrangements follows:
A strike craft is about 58 metres long by 7.6 metres wide. She carries a formidable array of weaponry backed by an impressive suite of electronic gear. She is propelled through the water by four mighty 4000 horsepower diesel engines. Her fuel tanks, when full, account for more than a quarter of her tonnage. Her crew fit in and around these items as best they can. Crew comforts definitely take a back seat. Every crew member has a bunk, albeit it that some are severely claustrophobic, being more like a shelf than a bunk. Bunks are stacked three high. We all sleep in standard military-issue sleeping bags. Accommodation is provided in 5 separate compartments and privacy is nil. Even the captain has to share with three other officers. The 39 ratings of the crew live in 3 compartments in the hull. The Junior ratings in the forward compartment and the senior ratings in two compartments aft. A total "floor area" of about 92 square metres is allocated to crew spaces. In those 92 square metres are four "heads" (WC's), four shower cubicles, 39 bunks, lockers for the personal effects of 39 men, tables and chairs, domestic refrigerators and the 39 men themselves. To say things are "cosy" is belabouring the word a little. In the aft messes a man can barely stand erect without braining himself on some projection from the deckhead. The officers live in the superstructure. They are not much better off. It might justifiably be claimed that they are worse off in many cases. They certainly feel the swell more than those who are closer to the metacenter of the hull. Food is prepared in a tiny galley that even the most convinced agoraphobic would feel uncomfortable in. Meals are provided for 47 men, three times a day, from here. Everyone, from the captain down, fetches his food from the galley at mealtimes. We are allegedly on "submarine rations" but due to a miscalculation made in Simon's Town we are provided with food for only forty-five men on this trip. Entertainment is basic. You read or swap ribald stories, the stories getting more far-fetched as the voyage lengthens. We play cards occasionally. Chalky, the engineering officer, has introduced a vicious form of bridge, the name of which is not polite but rhymes with "pluck it". This is played with verve and vigour by a few noisy enthusiasts. It is a cutthroat game with no quarter given or asked. You either win big or lose big. We never play for anything other than matches but the fervour that is generated allows tempers to rise and the aggrieved shouts of "pluck it" leave no room for doubt as to where the game got its name. It is about as akin to bridge as Bisley is to a massacre. Markedly absent is that old navy standby, "Uckers", a bastardised form of Ludo. TV and Video are items that will only arrive in the distant future. One crewman has an archaic 8mm movie projector and we watch a few silent 5 minute-long home movies - also two "blue" movies purchased surreptitiously and allegedly highly illegal in puritan South African warships. Nobody complains though. We are not allowed on deck under normal circumstances due to the dangers of being washed overboard. To "take the air" we are confined to a small area abaft the bridge. We wear lifebelts and lifelines at all times. Washing and drying of clothes is almost impossible and our lockers, being tiny, allow very few items to be carried aboard. Eventually we all smell like goats - but nobody seems to notice. At least we have plentiful water for personal hygiene purposes as we manufacture our own at a rate in excess of what the crew can consume. Still, we are cheerful. Being young, the minor discomforts of living in spaces that the Animal Anti-Cruelty League would have you prosecuted for keeping a dog in, do not bother us. I personally have been assigned a bunk that I cannot sleep in. I cannot lie on my side without crushing my shoulders against the bunk above it. It is a claustrophobic's worst nightmare come true. I am not claustrophobic but it is too much even for me. I learn to sleep on the bare deck in the aft gunbay. At least I have space - though it is slightly unnerving to be surrounded by the racks of 76 mm shells.
End of domestic Interlude - the voyage continues!
Our first contact with another vessel is to be with the SAS Tafelberg from which we will refuel and reprovision. Due to difficulties and bad weather the refuelling position has been moved a day South and hurried calculations show that we will be sucking fumes by the time we meet the "Tafies". Eventually her large and familiar shape rises up over the horizon to meet us. A welcome sight indeed. We hook up with her off the Canary Islands with just 25% of the fuel in our "daily" or ready-use tanks left on board. We take our fill and also obtain fresh rations. Old acquaintances are renewed and much friendly invective is bandied back and forth, the "Tafies" wearing that special supercilious air a 25000 tonne old dowager reserves for a young whippersnapper of 400 tonnes.
We refuel using the astern towing method whereby the Tafelberg tows us while we take on fuel. It is a slow process. The diesel the Tafelberg has brought us is very dirty and soon all our filters are clogged. We replace them four times during the refuelling process and curse bitterly. An operation that should have taken a few hours at most has cost us the better part of the day. Then its goodbye. We will sail southwards in a giant arc that will take us into the mid-Atlantic approaching South America while the Tafelberg will take the direct route. This has been planned so that we can avoid the shipping lanes. We are, after all, a very "Top Secret" vessel - and a pirate embargo-breaker to boot! As a corollary it will allow the Tafelberg to get to our second refuelling position while we maintain a speed that does not cause us to die of sheer boredom! On the afternoon of the 18th of December we have an (un)expected visitor. A strange denizen appears, boards the ship, and informs the Captain that he has now sailed into the domain of Neptunus Rex and he must hold himself ready to have his ship and crew inspected on the morrow while all those who had not yet crossed the equator will be initiated into the mysteries of the deep.
The line crossing takes place in mid-Atlantic, 15 degrees and 40 minutes West, in ideal weather. King Neptune and his court appear and the usual frolics take place - I am acting as the chief defence lawyer - but do not stand a hope in hell of defending my "clients" charged in the court of King Neptune. Seeing as I have spent the previous evening preparing the charges rather than the defence this comes as no great surprise. Hilarity and gaiety are the order of the day - King Neptune confers upon the captain the title "Honorary Creep of the Deep" and hangs a medal, depicting a rather gruesome octopus in an advanced state of erotic excitement (hastily made the previous day in the engine room), around his neck while Neptune's "wife" gives him a smacking kiss. Or as smacking as a bearded gunner in drag can make it without inducing nausea in either of them. Needless to say not only the "initiates" get dunked - most of the crew end up thoroughly besmeared by the vile brew of vegetable peelings and what-not that Neptune's henchmen have been using for the ceremony. The party finally breaks up when we turn the firehoses on everybody. The crew are now all officially "shellbacks" - the nautical term for one who has sailed across the equator. A day further South we exercise the main Oto-Melara 76 mm guns, firing at a danbuoy. These guns are stabilised and deadly accurate. They can fire at a rate of 80 rounds per minute, but for reasons of accuracy are seldom used at that speed. To watch them shooting is always a thrilling experience - poetry in motion. The gun barrel runs out, it is enveloped in smoke while a satisfying "bang" fills the air and almost simultaneously the spent casing is ejected from beneath the barrel as it recoils backwards. It does this and in less than a second it repeats the whole performance. The gunners fire from the optical director and then also from the Ops room. Finally we close the danbuoy and let the secondary armament have a go. This consists of two 20mm Oerlikon guns and four half-inch Browning machine guns. They make a gratifying racket. The men operating them fire away enthusiastically and occasionally actually manage to put a few rounds within easy commuting distance of the danbuoy. Much derision is levelled at the gunnery branch by the non-participants who decline to demonstrate their science when invited to do so by the harassed and rapidly-losing-patience gunners. It takes considerable skill to hit a tiny bobbing object from a large bobbing, heaving and swaying object. Better to pass derogatory comments from the sidelines than getting suckered into demonstrating so publicly what a bloody awful shot you are! A few days later we once again meet up with Tafelberg and this time the sea is calm enough to launch our Zodiac albeit it not without some difficulty and so a party, headed by Angel, the first lieutenant, sets off from our ship to negotiate with the canteen manager aboard the "Tafies" for the purchase of "goodies" - sweets, cigarettes and drinks mainly. After we have completed refuelling and have taken victuals aboard we are on our own for the rest of the trip which is largely uneventful.
Christmas Day arrives and due to short rations our Christmas dinner consists of three cream crackers (individually adorned with a sardine, a sliver of cheese and a smear of Marmite) and a bottle of beer apiece. The Captain stares disbelievingly at his plate. Earlier he had asked the chef what was for dinner and been rewarded with the reply: "Cream crackers, Sir." He had laughed hilariously thinking that the somewhat dour chef was at last developing a sense of humour, if not one of cuisine. Now he is confronted with the evidence that contradicts his earlier hasty assumption. The buffer (Chief Boatswains Mate) and I decide to kill the chef as soon as a suitable opportunity presents itself. Preferably in as horrible and nasty a fashion as we can devise. We pointedly inform him of our decision and advise him to hold himself ready for his imminent departure from the midst of the living. The food on the voyage has been terribly badly prepared but this dinner is the last straw. Fortunately for his continued well-being he goes AWOL when we dock and is never seen aboard our vessel again. Perversely, in some mysterious way, the captain holds the buffer and me responsible for this! As penance the pair of us take over the cooking duties until we receive a new chef - and he is a marvel.
We round Cape Point lighthouse in the gathering dusk of Christmas day on a glass-flat sea and enter Simon's Town harbour towards 2200 hours. Security is tight. A portion of the docks around Minesweeping base has been cordoned off by the Military police and all but "cleared" persons are being refused entry. We are welcomed back to South Africa by Captain Glen Syndercombe, the OC Strike Craft Flotilla. Free beers are handed out. We are cautioned once again about secrecy - but this has been a fact of our lives for so many months now that it is inculcated in us. We do not say anything to anybody at any time. Or if we do, it is hardly the truth. Security has made us all accomplished liars! Finally we are allowed to set foot ashore, some of us to meet relatives not seen for many moons. I get home to find that Father Christmas has not forgotten me - my presents stand beneath the tree. I am a little ashamed, I have nothing for my family. I have many presents for them but they will only be arriving by cargo ship in the months to come. However they seem pleased to have me back and that's enough of a present as far as they are concerned. At least I have the pleasure of discussing the new vessel with my father as he is "cleared" for the project - a pleasure many others are denied. The maiden voyage of Scratches is over. It has taken almost twenty days. Since leaving the Mediterranean we have carefully avoided all other vessels and the only ship we have seen has been the SAS Tafelberg. Scratches is now a fully fledged fighting unit of the South African Navy. The South African flag and Naval Ensign are broken above her for the first time. We shift out of Israeli khakis and into our old familiar "blues". In the years to come she will be the SAS P.W. Botha and eventually the SAS Shaka. She will have many adventures as she grows older, some known only to her crews and some known to the general public. But for now she is known only by her number and the affectionate epithet bestowed on her by a doting crew.
Published: 1 July 2000.
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