Visit to HMAS Choules

One of the benefits of joining the Military History Society of NSW is the occasional military related excursion.

This is a report by Society Council member and former Royal Australian Navy NCO Dennis Weatherall on a ship visit to HMAS Choules at Fleet Base East Garden Island, Sydney on Wednesday, 28 November 2018.

HMAS Choules at sea

What a day we awoke to! Navy being the Senior Service just loves being at sea, but too much of a good thing (rain) can definitely try to spoil the day, especially if it happens to be a one in 100 year storm. But didn’t. Fourteen hardy souls mustered at 09:00 at Garden Island Gates last Wednesday morning in the deluge.

We were met by the ships training officer Lt Andrew Mcguigan and the Fleet Ships Liaison Officer  Ms Karen Thorn. From the name list provided the security office already had all the Visitor Passes ready for allocation to those that braved the weather.

So spot on 09:30 in a lull of the lashing rain, we entered Garden Island (known now as Fleet Base East) and proceeded to board HMAS Choules. It was the steepest and longest gangway I’ve ever climbed to board any Naval ship in my life. We were welcomed on deck by the Duty Quartermaster (who happened to be an Army Corporal) then proceeded into the inner sanctum of this very large ship, where we were met by none other than the Commanding Officer, CMDR Scott Houlihan.

HMAS Choules was built for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) by Swan Hunter Shipbuilders, Wallsend-on-Tyne, UK. She is a Bay Class Amphibious Landing Ship Dock Ship and one of four such vessels built for the fleet within a fleet, the RFA. She was laid down 28 January 2002 and launched 18 July 2005. She was commissioned into the RAN on 13 December 2011. HMAS Choules displaces 16,190 tons, is 178 metres in length, has 26.4 metres beam and 6.8 metres draught, cruises at 16 knots and has a range in excess of 15,000 kilometres at 15 knots (28 miles per hour for land lubbers). 

RFA’s are built to commercial maritime specifications and this ship carries such internal markings a Naval people would refer to as Damage Control and Compartment Markings, not Naval type markings. In the RFA she was manned by Merchant Navy crew not Royal Navy (RN) officers or sailors. The RFA have their own ships captains and standard merchant seaman crew types.

The current Commanding Officer (CO) was part of the selection and trials crew when it was mooted the RAN may (originally) lease such a ship. The reason why the Navy wanted such a “Heavy Lift” vessel was for that reason, to lift heavy equipment such as  bulldozers, large road making equipment and clean up type equipment, and to be ready to sail anywhere anytime to assist in time of need. For example as post cyclone damage and lift and carry urgently needed food and supplies for a stricken city or town in the wake of a civilian emergency, both here in Australia and where needed around our close neighbouring countries. This type of vessel is ideal. The Brits were being forced to downsize anything military due to financial restraints and we happened to have an immediate need for such a vessel. Apparently the RFA didn’t want to see her go, but were forced to do so by the Government of the day.

The powers that be decided to purchase outright what was the “RFA Lares Bay” Pennant number L 3008.

The vessel underwent extensive testing by the RAN shadow crew and the ship was dry docked and brought up to Australian requisite standards. Interesting is the fact she has a Lloyds of London Commercial Certification that the RAN keeps current, to cruise ship general requirements. All crew, currently 150 Navy and 20 Army, have their own shared merchant navy type cabins with own shower and toilets (what a ship for your first sea going posting, it’d spoil you rotten). Senior NCO’s and Officers have their own single cabins ... time to reconsider re-joining the “Grey Funnel Line” but my age is now a technical problem. On board there’s 488 bunks, cots, beds whatever you’d like to call them. That means they can embark in addition to their crew a further 318 Army personnel as required. She is a ship without self-protecting weapons, for her task is to lift and carry, but can be weaponised if the situation should ever arise on her humanitarian duties.

Soon after the ship arrived in Australia you may recall the media hype about it being a lemon. The fact was the generators had a built in design fault. It was discovered and as HMAS Choules had probably done more continuous steaming (Naval term for being driven) than when in the employ of the RFA, it was the first ship to experience the breakdown of the generators. All six were replaced and I believe the Brits are doing the same with the three ships they have left so they won’t have the same future problem. 

We then visited the ships “parking lot”. Its space was as big as any of our aircraft carriers, huge is the only word I can think of that describes the below upper deck space. This becomes the Army’s job to load, first on is last off. The vessel has a stern that lowers and turns into a ramp, so landing craft can actually enter the dock area and disgorge the equipment. This docking area is flooded to the depth of two metres to take landing craft internally. The vessel also has a side hatch that allows the ship to dock alongside and disembark its load direct onto a wharf area, if one is available.

Then it was off to the ship's bridge. As it was built to Merchant Navy standards, there are steps, not ladders to climb. The steps are wide enough for two people at a time to climb or pass on the multi flights, five in all to reach the bridge. Then when you think you’ve made it, there are two more smaller single ladders to the top. The bridge is fully electronic, no helmsman, the navigator sets the course and speed. The “skipper” signs off on the plan and the vessel heads off to its destination. HMAS Choules has amazing manoeuvrability with bow thrusters and “pods” (rudder and propellers combined) that can turn the vessel 180 degrees in its own length. The bridge is very spacious and with the modification undertaken before delivery the Captain can actually step outside the port and starboard wing areas and manoeuvre the ship from these overhanging wing areas that are inside the bridge itself, and all from a square box the size of a small table.

You’ll see on the above photograph a canvas tent on the deck. This was for a temporary helicopter hanger the RFA had fitted. Currently HMAS Choules only embarks helicopters as the need arises to assist with troop movements ashore or to lift and carry. There’s no immediate consideration to have a permanent helicopter attached to the vessel. The flat long aft deck is usually used to stack shipping containers up to two high when she is deployed in her humanitarian tasks.

On behalf of those brave “all weather” men that made the visit, we officially thanked the Captain for his excellent briefing and tour over his command, and came ashore a little past noon as “SCRAN” (lunch) was about to be served. Once again the gods kept the weather to a minimum as we exited the Island and headed home. It was an excellent visit.

By the way, I sent on Wednesday afternoon an official signal via his assistant (Lt Andrew Mcguigan) to reconfirm our sincere  thanks for permission to come aboard and especially to say thanks to the CO for his personalised tourOne thing I forgot to mention was the superstructure, it’s referred to as “The House” by CO and crew.

HMAS Choules, possibly anchored at Auckland Harbour

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