The Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) unit, HMS WILDFIRE, has been conducting sailing expeditions for the past 10 years during which 30 members of the Ship’s Company have benefitted from essential navigational, boat handling, seamanship, team building and leadership training. This training has become particularly pertinent given the confirmation that RNR members will play a greater role in the manning of Offshore Patrol Vessels in coming years. Consequently, HMS WILDFIRE’s Lt Cdr Cook identified the opportunity to scale up the sailing expeditions to a national level, by offering them to members of all RNR units across the United Kingdom. What resulted from this decision was the first ever National RNR Sailing Exercise, in which over 50 reservists spread over 10 yachts spent 3 days conducting maritime-based navigation, seamanship, and team building exercises and competitions in the Solent.
The weekend was targeted mainly at Junior Ratings and Junior Officers in the RNR in order to provide them with an early opportunity to go to sea and learn some essential maritime skills, whilst building their network and improving unit-wide and RNR-wide cohesion. The adventurous training environment was envisaged to put RNR members outside of their comfort zones, and challenge them regardless of any previous experience of sailing. This was achieved through an extensive programme of events, starting with the sailing of the two separate flotillas out of Gosport and into the Solent. One flotilla, sailing on Victoria 34s, consisted of the less experienced skippers and crew, giving them a stretching opportunity to put their fresh skills into practice. The second flotilla, sailing on Hallberg Rassy 34s, was run by the more experienced skippers, with slightly more challenging tasks assigned to them and a weekend that involved sailing outside of the Solent.
The weekend provided significant challenges for all involved, especially those who had never been sailing on a yacht before. Crews were required to rapidly get accustomed to the yachts that were to be their homes for 3 days, to learn how to execute common sailing evolutions, and to work as a fully functioning team. On top of this, seamanship and navigational serials such as man overboard exercises, pilotage planning and execution, achorages, and passage planning were all incorporated into the weekends programme, with crew members required to film and record their attempts to complete these at sea. Directing staff used these recordings to assess and decide which of the yachts put in the best performance in terms of effort, team work, and maritime awareness. One particular task involved using the chart plotter that traces the yachts movements to draw a creative picture. This provided some amusing results, with the winning photo depicting a quite accurately drawn fish, despite the almost total novice crew embarked. Further challenges included the need to tackle the steep learning curve of at-sea tactical communication, which was faced by ensuring crews practiced their communication skills on the VHF radios. Crews were required to contact their flotilla lead yacht on the hour with their position and situational update using the correct tactical terminology. In addition, many of the crews consisted of RNR members from different units who were unknown to each other prior to the start of the exercise. This provided challenges on an individual level, with the need to quickly build a team rapport in order to face the tasks that were ahead.
This National RNR sailing expedition was envisaged to provide immense benefit to the reserves through a combination of factors. The exercise aimed to train reservists to ensure that they are fit to provide the operational support needed on the Offshore Patrol Vessels in future; to offer the chance of a stretching sailing experience for those units with too few qualified skippers to facilitate their own individual sailing exercises; and to develop maritime knowledge, team building skills, and leadership ability. The achievement of these aims was clear through feedback from the exercise participants. Indeed, one novice crew member described the exercise as “fabulous”, expressing that the exercise “went above and beyond achieving the aims”. A day skipper from HMS VIVID expressed his appreciation for the training value provided, by saying that “my team and I have learnt so much this long weekend and are all better equipped to provide support to Royal Naval operations than we were on Friday morning, we have achieved this whilst having a great time”.
Feedback was gathered from all participants with the aim to assess whether the expedition would have the support to become a yearly event. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with 94% of all participants saying they were ‘very likely’ or ‘likely’ to recommend the sailing expedition to a colleague, and 96% indicating they are ‘very likely’ or ‘likely’ to attend a future RNR sailing exercise. Recurring themes when asked what the best aspect of the weekend had been included: the opportunity to go sailing for the first time and learn the basics of seamanship; the stretching challenges; the chance to meet and mingle with reservists from other units; and seeing the development of the teams over the course of the exercise. As a result, the exercise has been given support from the future Commander Maritime Reserves (to take over the role next year), who addressed the participants on the exercise to emphasise the value of the training being provided. The success of the expedition would not have been possible without the financial support provided by the Ulysses Trust, for which the organisers are extremely grateful. The enthusiasm of all of the participants is a measure of this gratitude:
“Outstanding weekend – I will certainly make myself available for next year.”
“Absolutely knackering, really challenging, but great fun.”
“This should be mandatory for new entrants!”
“They all want to do their Competent Crew sailing qualification, and they all want to come back next year.”
A Day Skipper referring to his novice crew.
“Given Captain Robinson’s words about the trade-off between Operational support and fun, I think you are onto a winner with an activity that delivers both in spades.”