Æthelberht’s RFA Christmas

Æthelberht, Going Postal
The Royal Navy Fleet Auxillary “SIR BEDIVERE” anchored in the Portsmouth Naval Base in July 1989.
Barry LewisLicence CC BY 2.0

I know there’s plenty of former Pusser types on GP, and even a few who have sailed under the red duster. They’ll all be familiar with the Christmas routines for their respective outfits. I thought it might be interesting to share how the Royal Fleet Auxiliary does Christmas. Having a foot in both worlds, the RFA, as in most things is a bit of a unique mixture of both RN and MN traditions.

Christmas on an RFA comes in three flavours; Christmas at sea, Christmas in a foreign port, or Christmas in a UK port.

Christmas at sea is the worst of the bunch. Any celebrations have to be worked around the vessel’s normal seagoing routine. People will miss Christmas dinner because they are on watch, alcohol consumption is very heavily curtailed and generally it’s treated as no different to a normal working day at sea. It’s all rather depressing and not much fun, but the nature of the job means it’s almost inevitable that at some point an RFA will be on operations over Christmas.

Christmas in a foreign port is a lot more interesting. There are three messes on an RFA; officers, petty officers and crew. Each mess will make their own arrangements which will generally involve hiring a venue ashore. For example the Atlantic Patrol Tanker (South) will endeavour to spend Christmas either in Rio de Janeiro, or at the South African Navy base in Simonstown (just outside Cape Town). Each mess will hire a local hotel to lay on an all-day spread of food, drink and music. Christmas Day beach party on Copacabana Beach, anyone? The petty officer’s mess is usually the smallest on board so they almost always pitch in with the crew mess and do a joint event at the same venue. It’s also fairly normal to have people fly their wives/girlfriends (never both) out to stay on board for a week or so over Christmas too.

Christmas in a UK port is by far the more common. Everyone on board gets the opportunity for leave over the Christmas and New Year period. Officially you are entitled to three day’s leave (colloquially known as “a 72”), operational programme permitting, of course. However, at Christmas and New Year it’s customary to grant a day’s travel either side, so effectively everyone gets the opportunity for five days leave. Obviously you can’t have everyone going home at the same time, so half the ship’s company get Christmas off, and the other half get New Year off. It’s left to the individual departments on board to work out who gets what, with the proviso that they keep enough personnel on board to function. It’s customary for those with young children to get first dibs at Christmas, and those without kids will get New Year. This usually works out very well indeed.

Christmas preparations usually begin in early December. Ex-Pusser types should note that the RFA doesn’t have officers’ wardrooms. It has a separate officer’s saloon for meals, and an officer’s bar. On the larger ships these can get quite large indeed. For example on Fort Austin and Fort Rosalie the bars are the size of small pubs and can quite comfortably accommodate upwards of 30-40 people. On the smaller ships, especially those which were originally built as commercial vessels the bars are much smaller, and typically not much bigger than your living room at home.

Anyway, early December the nominated officer’s bar stockist (a thankless but vital task, almost always carried out by an engineer) will begin putting the feelers out for any specific drinks which people may want over the Christmas period. Around the third week of December, once the list of drinks has been compiled and the stockist has got a large wedge of cash from the mess treasurer, the stockist with one or two helpers will requisition the ship’s minibus and visit the nearest large supermarket. A meeting will be requested with the manager where a list of up to £700-800 worth of alcohol will be presented to him. He will be asked what discount he can offer us, because the other supermarket down the road is offering us 15% off. The savvy stockist will also have the supermarket staff get the stuff direct from their warehouse and load it into the minibus for us too. Once back at the ship a pipe will be made (i.e. an announcement on the main broadcast) that an officer’s “beer lift” is taking place. This will result in a “trouble” of officers appearing to inspect the haul, nod their approval and then start to shift copious quantities of alcoholic beverages up to the bar. What doesn’t fit in the fridges or in the optics will go in the stock locker.

Once the priority task of stocking the bar is done attention will turn to decorating it. Again this is an all available officers evolution and a Christmas tree, lights, tinsel, etc will all go up in the bar. This particular operation will normally be directed by the wife of a senior officer. The completion of the operation is signalled by someone asking “who’s having a beer then?”.

A very similar process to the above will take place in the petty officers and crew bars too.

Around the same time a mess meeting will then be convened where a secret Santa will be organised for those who will be on board for Christmas. Generally the rule is no presents more than £10-15. Everyone picks a name out of the hat and that’s the person they buy a present for. Again the completion of this evolution is signalled by the question “who’s having a beer then?”. A lot of thought goes into the secret Santa in order to make sure everyone gets a present which is a bespoke piss-take just for them. However, it should be remembered that buying a box of chocolate penises or a mug which says “wanker” on the bottom for the Commanding Officer isn’t going to be very conducive to one’s career progression. Caution should be exercised. In the last week before Christmas the Chief Engineer will take it upon himself to organise the tradition of “Christmas Shopping”. This will be a half day where the officers go ashore to do the aforementioned shopping for their secret Santa. This typically takes no more than half an hour or so, before everyone convenes in a previously nominated pub and spends the next eight or nine hours there. It should be noted that it is stressed the shopping takes place *before* the drinking in order to make sure everyone is sober when they buy their present and don’t end up buying something, ahem, inappropriate which may have a negative effect on their career.

On the morning of the 23rd December people start thinning out for their Christmas leave and by lunchtime half the ship’s company will have gone. Those left on board typically say “sod it” and knock off work early themselves. Christmas Eve is officially a half-day, so knock off at 1200. However, again most people without any pressing tasks will knock off around 1030. By late afternoon most of the people left on board will be in their respective bar.

Christmas Day nobody has to turn to. Unless they’re duty, in which case the Duty Watch will muster an hour later than usual at 0900. There’s no breakfast on Christmas Day, instead there will be a “brunch” served at 1030. Basically a cooked breakfast. Sausages, eggs, bacon, baked beans, mushrooms, hash browns… At 1300 the saloon stewards will have their Christmas dinner in the officer’s saloon and will be served by the officers. I always enjoyed this and thought it was a nice tradition. At 1400 the roles go back to normal and the saloon stewards will serve the officers (plus any wives or girlfriends who are staying on board) their Christmas dinner. Afterwards everyone moves to the bar and the drinking begins. The saloon stewards are also invited as guests and get quite a lot of drink. Meanwhile a couple of cases of beer are sent down to the petty officers and crew bars. The petty officers usually reciprocate, the crew bar…. sometimes don’t.

The bars will all be very noisy and jumping until the early hours of the morning.

Boxing day is a very similar routine, with a brunch and another day with a noisy and busy bar. Only the Duty Watch turn to. I’m a tee-total gheyer so would volunteer to be the Duty Engineer Officer on Christmas Day so the other engineers could have a drink. I would also usually do Boxing Day as well because they’d all be hungover. This would have to be kept quiet though as you’re not supposed to be duty two days on the bounce… just don’t let the grown ups know.

Officially at least the 27th is a normal working day, but in reality it’s another half day at most for everyone. The Christmas leave people should arrive back by the evening. The 28th and 29th are back to normal working days again. On 30th the New Year leave people start thinning out and the same process as for Christmas repeats. New Year’s Eve is officially a half day, but nobody does much in the morning and everyone’s finished work by 1030. By early afternoon the bars start filling up again. Not long before midnight most people will head up to the bridge. On the stroke of midnight the ship’s whistle will be sounded (providing the duty engineer has remembered to open the high pressure air to the whistle). A tradition I’ve also seen is the oldest and the youngest member of the ship’s company will ring the ship’s bell (the oldest rings the old year out and the youngest rings the new year in).

If there are two RFAs in port it’s customary for the officers on the RFA with the larger bar to invite their oppos from the other RFA over. Oppos will bring lots of beer and drink from their bar to help things along. I suppose I should also mention the Middle East. For some reason I can’t quite fathom there are no opportunities to hire a local hotel venue for Christmas celebrations and it must all be done on board. I’m told of one incident in Bahrain about ten years ago when two RFAs were alongside in the American naval base over Christmas. With the exception of the Duty Watch just about everyone had vacated one of the RFAs to join their oppos on the other and the party was in full swing. However, there was a bit of a storm blowing through with very high winds and the mooring lines on the almost empty RFA started to part. A Benny Hill sketch ensued with lots of officers in various states of inebriation piled down the gangway of one RFA and up the gangway of the other before it made an unplanned departure from Bahrain.

New Year’s Day is another day where there are a lot of sore heads on board. Again only the Duty Watch have to turn to and it’s another brunch.

On the 2nd January the New Year leave people start arriving back. From the 3rd January everything goes back to normal.

So there you have it. That’s how we used to do Christmas and New Year in the RFA. Being at sea on operations over Christmas was a bit of a shitter, but that’s just the nature of the job. However, if the ship was in port, be it in the UK or foreign, everyone would make the effort to have a good time and it could be a lot of fun.

© Æthelberht 2018

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