This is what life is like aboard a floating town built for battle

Bigger than the Titanic, with a population greater than some towns – and so labyrinthine there's an app to navigate it. Here's how regular life rolls on the Royal Navy's biggest ever ship.Friday, 15 November 2019

“This flight deck at night is one of the most dangerous environments in the world.” Captain James Blackmore, the man in charge of all the aircraft aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, is not being overly dramatic.

When this new British aircraft carrier becomes fully operational in 2021 – it is currently on trials off the coast of North America – he will be commanding a whole squadron of F35B Lightning II fighter jets from its 280-metre-long flight deck, as well as helicopters, including the Merlin MK2s which specialise in submarine hunting. There’s room aboard for up to 40 aircraft in all.

Under battle stations, Blackmore will be able to scramble his fighters, using the ‘ski-jump’ bow ramp, with just 60 seconds or so between each take-off. Planes will return to the ship empty of fuel, landing vertically. Helicopters can operate simultaneously. 

All of which makes for a lot of metal and fuel criss-crossing the skies above the ship. Blackmore says coordinating so many aircraft requires “choreography”. But then he does have use of an enormous dance floor.

Size matters

“Four acres of sovereign territory,” is how the Royal Navy describes HMS Queen Elizabeth’s flight deck. Actually, when you factor in the 15 further decks – eight below and seven above in the two bridges, or 'islands' – it amounts to far more surface area than that.

Life for the sailors working below decks may not be as exciting, but it’s certainly just as frenetic. Along with its sister aircraft carrier, the recently completed HMS Prince of Wales which is due to make its first visit to Portsmouth this weekend, this gargantuan vessel is the largest ship ever to sail for the Royal Navy. It cost over £3billion to build, weighs 65,000 tonnes, has a top speed of more than 25 knots, and a normal ship’s company of around 800. Bring in air crew and marines, and that number can rise to over 1,600 – an entire town floating on the waves. 

“During construction, workers had to use a special phone app to avoid getting lost in the bowels of the ship.”

A diagram of the ship’s interior demonstrates what a rabbit warren these servicemen and women inhabit. Over 3,000 separate cabins and compartments house the instruments, engines, services and human beings that enable this floating town to function, and to engage in battle, all interconnected by a labyrinth of corridors, ladders and stairwells. During construction, workers had to use a special phone app to avoid getting lost in the bowels of the ship. 

While newcomers are easily disorientated by the homogenous paintwork (1.5 million square metres of it, apparently, all battleship grey, obviously), there are directional signs everywhere to help, plus arrows on the floor which flash in an emergency. There are even street signs screwed to the walls: corridors on 2 Deck, for example, are named after famous thoroughfares in Edinburgh, one of the ship’s affiliated cities. Those on 5 Deck are named after streets of London, its other affiliation. 

Also lining the corridor walls are vast banks of switches, dials, taps, pipes, valves and flashing lights – exposed like some Richard Rogers-style building exterior, allowing engineers easy access when required.

Gallery: Life aboard the Royal Navy's biggest ship

“When fully operational, HMS Queen Elizabeth will be the flagship of a carrier strike group, accompanied by two frigates, two destroyers, a fuel support ship, a solid support ship and a nuclear attack submarine.”

If this is a floating town, then it’s very much a young person’s town. The majority of crew (60% according to the Navy) are below the age of 25.

The commanding officer in charge of the ship is Captain Steve Moorhouse. He explains how, when fully operational, HMS Queen Elizabeth will be the flagship of a carrier strike group, accompanied by two frigates, two destroyers, a fuel support ship, a solid support ship and a nuclear attack submarine. She and her crew could spend as long as nine months away at sea on any one mission. 

Moorhouse says that, for the seamen and women under his charge, HMS Queen Elizabeth is as much a home as a place of work. “They can’t go ashore to barracks when they’re at sea, so there are plenty of leisure facilities available. Sporting facilities and gymnasium equipment, for example. We have a TV and film system on board. There’s also connectivity with loved ones via wifi, email and telephone. Clearly, while we’re on operations, on occasions those communications have to be cut, but routinely we can keep youngsters in contact with their loved ones back at home.”

He lists some of the support staff his crew has access to: physiotherapists, dentists, doctors, surgeons, social workers, even a chaplain. “Exactly what you would expect if you wandered into any small town.”

Two of the junior officers on board are Sub-Lieutenants Edward Bailey and Andrew Boyle, aged 21 and 27 respectively, both of whom started serving on HMS Queen Elizabeth in May 2019. They describe what life is like aboard the ship.

Accommodation ranges from six-berth cabins for the lower-ranked crew (known as junior rates) and two-berth cabins for senior crew (known as senior rates) and officers. Heads of department enjoy single cabins. Meals are taken in mess halls, with sailors separated according to rank. On board are enough provisions to last the entire crew for at least 45 days. Basic food and commodities can also be bought at the NAAFI shop which, according to Bailey, is “a bit like a Tesco Express”. There’s also a chapel.

In addition to the five gyms below deck, including a boxing gym, sailors are encouraged to play sport on the flight deck on the rare occasions it’s free of operations. Occasionally competitions are organised between the different mess halls.

“People run laps around the perimeter, or play football or touch rugby,” Bailey says. He points out how the abrasive metal surface of the deck is perfect for aircraft manoeuvres in wet weather but not so perfect for rugby players taking a tumble. 

One sport very particular to the Navy is something called bucketball. “It’s a variant of handball,” says Boyle, “with a ball made of duct tape and a bloke with a bucket who has to catch it.” 

Long hours on the ocean inevitably call for a fair amount of screen time. TV programmes and sports events are piped in through satellite via the British Forces Broadcasting Service platform. “A huge source of morale,” says Bailey.

“Junior rates are permitted two cans of beer or cider a day – the modern-day equivalent of a tot of rum.”

Besides this, downloaded films are watched on sailors’ various hard drives. “When you’ve got 80 people in your mess, you have access to thousands of films,” Bailey adds. “Even if you were away at sea for five years, I don't think you’d have time to watch them all.” 

For really popular TV viewings there is a 40-foot inflatable screen that can be erected in the aircraft hangar. Captain Moorhouse suggests this might come to good use next year when the new Top Gun: Maverick movie is released. Last year, when F35Bs landed on the flight deck for the first time, the entire crew watched from the hangar via a live video link. 

Alcoholic consumption, although not encouraged, is permitted. Senior rates and officers have bar facilities in their messes. Junior rates, meanwhile, are permitted two cans of beer or cider a day – the modern-day equivalent of a tot of rum.

“There’s this image that the Navy has of a big drinking culture,” says Bailey. “That’s fine if we get to a port and we go ashore and everyone’s on leave. But when we’re working, we’re working. Most people have that attitude.” 

The same temperance applies to romantic relationships between sailors. Currently, the gender split on board HMS Queen Elizabeth is 90% male to 10% female and, according to Bailey, what happens on shore leave, stays on shore leave. “When you’re working on board, it’s accepted that relationships don't happen. It’s a respected rule. It's not like there’s ever any controversy.”

Controversy isn't something you need in the middle of the ocean, aboard Her Majesty’s biggest ship. Anne-Marie Trevelyan is the government’s Minister for Defence Procurement. In the days before HMS Queen Elizabeth departed for its training in North America, she was keen to explain the powerful message Britain’s new aircraft carriers send.

“These two ships are on track to form a potent new conventional strategic deterrent capability for the UK, whether that’s war-fighting at the high end of the scale or peace-keeping and delivering humanitarian support across the globe at the other end.”

She says the carriers will offer 50 years of safety and security to Britain and its NATO allies. “We are an island nation, first and foremost, so global Britain must mean a global navy. We are a nation with renewed confidence in our ability to project power across the world in the interests of our security and prosperity.”

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