Britannia Royal Naval College - Picket Boats
The picket boats stationed at Britannia Royal Naval College’s Sandquay Marina were built in the 1970s and during their early life, cadets took them as far as France and the Channel Islands.
Today the eight vessels don’t journey much further than the River Dart and Lyme Bay – until recently when they were chosen to escort the royal barge during the Queen’s massive Jubilee Pageant on the River Thames.
Alongside the lavishly decorated Spirit of Chartwell barge, with its royal entourage fronting a waterborne cavalcade of more than 1,000 boats, was an escort of BRNC picket boats manned by officers who had just completed their basic training in Dartmouth.
Driving one of the pickets was BRNC’s River Instructor, Petty Officer Matthew Payne, who teaches trainee officer cadets to be proficient drivers of not only the College’s picket boats, but also its fleet of whalers and RIBs.
Prior to the London pageant, PO Payne and his team of naval officer sailors were out on the Dart practising their formation sailing ready for the big day, with the local pleasure boats playing the part of the Queen’s barge for the navy escort.
PO Payne said: ‘Practising on the Dart was brilliant and the Dartmouth River Boat Company was fantastic in letting us train alongside their boats.
‘The pageant was very exciting but I didn’t really feel involved in it at the time as I was so busy concentrating on keeping my position that I didn’t pay any attention to the millions of people lining the side of the Thames.
‘I pretty much had tunnel vision, keeping the boat on the right course. It was very difficult to hold the perfect position, angle and station to the Queen’s barge which was slightly behind us.
‘I don’t think the penny dropped until afterwards when we secured to a gas barge, had something to eat and watched the event on TV. It was a huge honour.’
BRNC underpins the careers of all naval officers, including the royal princes, Charles, Andrew and William, who all trained on the College’s picket boats.
PO Payne said: ‘The picket boats were built for the College, for a training role. The pickets and the whalers are the workforce of the College’s maritime delivery.
‘They’re always in use and they are very sturdy and robust, with good fenders – as cadets have been known to have prangs or hit pontoons.
‘In the past, the picket boats have been as far as Paris and the Channel Islands and they also took part in the Trafalgar 200 celebrations in Portsmouth in 2005.
‘We have eight picket boats and the oldest is 42-years-old. Because of their age they are suffering from osmosis, but we have an excellent support facility here with the defence contractor British Aerospace Systems, which provides engineering and maintenance support for the vessels.’
PO Payne said he expects BRNC’s picket boat fleet to be replaced in the next few years. ‘There is a defence budget put aside for that.
‘The aim will be to use them more further afield and perhaps take part in weekend divisional operational exercises to the Channel Islands when there are good weather windows.’
The 11 tonne, 13.7 metre long picket boats are made of glass reinforced plastic with a Nelson design hull and supporting wooden structures.
BRNC cadets are trained to handle the picket boats by PO Payne, before using them to take part in maritime leadership exercises under Lt David Billam.
PO Payne said: ‘The boats behave in exactly the same way as warships when it comes to manoeuvring. They have the same style rudders and propellers. They are small scale warships and provide a good stepping stone.’
BRNC’s 15 week term includes a marinisation phase, part of which requires cadets to live, eat and sleep on board the picket boats.
Lt David Billam said: ‘The marinisation phase is when we introduce cadets to the marine environment. We take the leadership skills they have learned at basic leadership development exercises both at the College and on Dartmoor and build on them in a marine context.’
Marine leadership exercises and assessments take place on the Dart twice a term on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
‘During the marine leadership exercises, which last for three days, the cadets live on the picket boats and use the whalers to get ashore. They eat on the boat, wash on the boat and sleep on the boat. We have 10 to 12 cadets on each boat. The boats have sleeping accommodation for nine, but there are always two cadets on sentry duty.
‘The majority of cadets have never been to sea and this puts them in a marine environment. During the exercise, each cadet conducts a different task as commanding officer so they can develop their leadership skills.
‘They undergo two-and-a-half hour long tasks as commanding officers which are assessed. The tasks include evacuation operations, picking up refugees from the shore, counter terrorism, recces, assisting the World Health Organisation, and counter drugs, piracy and survey exercises.’
PO Payne said: ‘These exercises happen all the way up and down the river, from Ashprington Point to Dartmouth Castle. You will see the cadets in Sandquay Woods and on the shore all the way up the river.
‘As part of the exercises they often chase each other down by the higher and lower ferries in the early hours of the morning and carry out night boardings of suspect vessels. This is when people may hear weapons firing – rocket propelled grenades and machine gun fire – although they are all blanks of course.’
Lynx Mark 8 helicopters from RNAS Yeovilton are often drafted in to help cadets’ marine training, Lt Billam said, adding: ‘It’s a two way thing as we assist their training too in terms of casualty evacuation and marine security.’
Dartmouth’s residents and visitors regularly spot low flying RAF planes buzzing around the town, sometimes pairs of Falcons. These planes are not connected to training at the College, but are part of the ‘Thursday Wars’ that take place out of Plymouth.
BRNC cadets also undergo sniper training with the Royal Marines in the College’s RIBs. Lt Billam said: ‘We assist the Royal Marines by taking our RIBs out to sea and acting as targets for them to snipe. We do that probably twice a term and it involves nearly a whole day’s training.’
PO Payne says the Dart is the ideal training river for the cadets. ‘It’s so close to the College, has quick access to the open sea and fast moving tides which are brilliant to learn on.
‘The river’s environmental conditions and the weather always present challenges for the cadets, which they need because if it was easy they wouldn’t understand the bad conditions you get at sea.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly the cadets seem really to enjoy their maritime exercises. PO Payne said: ‘They love coming down here because it’s seen as a slight escape from the strictures of the College. They enjoy getting on the water and they relax a bit.
‘We don’t shout and scream at them because they don’t learn how to drive a boat by standing to attention. We motivate and guide them. Their heads are full of knowledge from the classroom and they come down here and put what they have learned into practice.’
First Published August 2012 By The Dart