Tug of war(ship) as HMS Prince of Wales returns to Invergordon

THIS is a tug pilot’s view of helping Britain’s new aircraft carrier safely to a berth.

HMS Prince of Wales has paid her second visit to the Scottish port of Invergordon – one of the few harbours in the north of the UK able to accommodate the 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier.

The remote port – north of Inverness – is used to handling tankers connected with the North Sea oil and gas industries as well as cruise liners (passengers visit Loch Ness).

But it is not normally geared up for handling ships of the size, shape and nature of HMS Prince of Wales which is too large and unwieldy to berth unaided.

With the help of a civilian pilot, the ship sails into and out of Cromarty Firth – announcing her presence at the mouth with blasts on her horn.

Four tugs were needed to help the carrier to her jetty, brought in by port authorities from various other harbours – including one which made the 100-mile journey up from Leith.

Although the carrier’s bridge is packed with cutting-edge navigational equipment, the visual method of planning and executing pilotage hasn’t changed for decades; it still falls to navigator Lieutenant Commander Martyn Mayger to pilot the ship based on his experience and planning.

The carrier requires water at least 14 metres deep to safely navigate as the tugs – the strongest typically found in a commercial UK port – help the Prince of Wales to berth.

Such is the carrier’s size and novelty that police are required around the huge natural harbour to direct traffic and control onlookers to prevent any snarl-ups as the ship’s appearance draws large crowds.

Completing the pre-wet trial is an important precursor to further commissioning and testing of the complex flight deck systems. It has been great to see the successful partnership of Royal Navy and Industrial Partners coming together as a team to bring the Ship’s systems to life.

Lt Matthew Riley

The short stop-off in Invergordon allowed the ship to get rid of rubbish (aka ‘gash’), take on fuel and fresh food, and also allow the ship’s company to get ashore.

Six sailors volunteered to climb one of the Munros, the 1,046-metre peak of Ben Wyvis which meant a 17-kilometre trek – often through boggy terrain.

It’s not been much drier on the carrier as the ship tested another facet of her defences against chemical, nuclear and biological warfare.

As well as a protected ‘citadel’ – the air-tight inner heart of the ship where crew are safe from dangerous elements in the atmosphere – the flight deck has the ability to ‘wash off’ any toxic particles which land on it.

A complex web of high-pressure jets covers the four-acre flight deck, with pop-up nozzles pumping out spray covering around 50 square metres with the spouts reaching up to two metres high.

Left running for an hour, the ‘pre-wetting’ system can wash the flight deck with 4,500 tonnes of water – that’s as much as a Type 23 frigate displaces. It can also be used to tackle flight deck fires alongside Prince of Wales’ own dedicated firefighting teams.

“Completing the pre-wet trial is an important precursor to further commissioning and testing of the complex flight deck systems,” hull engineering officer Lt Matthew Riley said.

“It has been great to see the successful partnership of Royal Navy and Industrial Partners coming together as a team to bring the Ship’s systems to life.”

With 600 Royal Navy personnel and more than 300 industry experts on board to test the engineering, weapons and sensor systems, Prince of Wales is continuing her trials in the Moray Firth for the rest of the autumn.

The carrier is due to debut in her future home of Portsmouth before Christmas.