Choules a picturesque classroom

This article has photo gallery Published on LEUT Andrew Herring (author), LSIS Christopher Szumlanski (photographer)

Topic(s): Training, HMAS Choules (L100)

Midshipman Geraldine Gray (left) and Midshipman Maire Starkey (right) keep watch on the bridge of HMAS Choules as the ship transits to Cairns in Queensland. (photo: LSIS Christopher Szumlanski)
Midshipman Geraldine Gray (left) and Midshipman Maire Starkey (right) keep watch on the bridge of HMAS Choules as the ship transits to Cairns in Queensland.

It was a busy afternoon of training for Midshipmen Geraldine Gray and Maire Starkey as they helped pilot the 16,000 tonnes, 176 metre-long Landing Ship Dock, HMAS Choulesthrough the treacherous Prince of Wales Channel off Australia’s northern coast.

The apparent tranquillity of the shallow channel’s tropical turquoise waters belied its many navigation hazards including sand bars, reefs, islands, strong tidal streams and shipping traffic.

While using the pelorus to manually obtain navigational fixes, confirming positions provided by the ship’s digital systems, the two trainees had to remain aware of the many other activities happening simultaneously, such as the embarked MRH-90 Taipan helicopter, operating from the flight deck or the marine technical sailors practicing their responses to engineering breakdowns.

Midshipman Geraldine Gray said It was a good experience to see what it was like and to see how much work goes into keeping people safe on the ship. 

“It was stressful. I could feel the stress, but it was good to be up there,” she said.

Fellow midshipmen Emma Hohnke and Jacqui Meacle looked on, eagerly awaiting their opportunity to practice bridge watch keeping skills.

Of course, they weren’t alone. The Officer of the Watch had control of the ship and the trainees were being supervised by Sub Lieutenant Harrison Rees and Choules’ Navigator, Lieutenant Commander Simon Murray.

“Learning to multi-task in the hectic environment of a ship’s bridge will become second nature to these officers, once they eventually become qualified Maritime Warfare Officers,” Lieutenant Commander Murray said.

“They are among a class of ten midshipmen undertaking the 20-week Phase 2 of the Maritime Warfare Officer Course currently aboard Choules.

“The course applies theory learned in classrooms during Phase 1 and gives trainees an understanding of all ship departments and their interaction with the Maritime Warfare Officer controlling the ship as Officer Of the Watch.”

A key training focus is applying the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, commonly referred to by mariners as the ‘Col Regs’, or ‘rules of the road’, from the bridge of an ocean-going ship.

Although there is much to learn and it was initially daunting, Midshipman Starkey says the learning does happen.

“Being a Maritime Warfare Officer is not like anything else so you first look at it and think “I have no idea how I am going to be able to do this”, but you do learn as you go. 

“You have to throw yourself into it and give it all you’ve got,” she said. 

The level of responsibility that awaits them as Maritime Warfare Officers is also an appealing part of the job for both officers. 

“I remember when I first came to sea, laying in my rack [aka bed] feeling the sway of the ship and thinking: “this is a really important job because that person up there, the Officer Of the Watch, has got the ship”, and I really enjoy that responsibility,” Midshipman Starkey said.

Following their 20 weeks at sea, the midshipmen will sit for a Mariner Skills Board exam before the direct entry officers among them progress to Phase 3 at HMAS Watson in Sydney, while the undergraduate entry officers go to the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, to commence their tertiary studies before returning to the fleet. 

Find out more about a career as a Maritime Warfare Officer in the Royal Australian Navy by visiting navy.defencejobs.gov.au or calling 13 19 01.