Employees and Trustees from The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity, The Royal Marines Charity, The Royal Marines Association and The Royal Navy Officers Charity were treated to a unique, eye-opening experience aboard the glorious HMS Bulwark in May. 

The Ship

HMS Bulwark is an Albion-class assault ship which, together with Albion, Ocean and other ships, provides effective amphibious capability for the Royal Navy. Since entering service in 2004, she has been a key asset, serving as the fleet flagship from 2011 to 2015 and spent much of 2015 assisting in the search and rescue mission off the Italian coast for migrants crossing from Libya.

The ship is currently holding 270 Royal Navy and 80 Royal Marines personnel and it has the capacity to hold a staggering 67 vehicles, can take two Sea King HC4 or Merlin medium-lift helicopters or, unbelievably, two Chinook heavy-lift helicopters.

RNRMC visit

Captain James Parkin, Trustee of The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity, invited employees and trustees from The RNRMC and its group Charities to spend a night aboard as the ship sailed from Southampton to Portsmouth in May.

On arrival, guests were separated into groups of 4 or 5 and assigned to a chaperone for the night. After a friends welcome from the sailors and quick introductions, we were shown to our accommodation for the night. The officers cabins consisted of three bunk beds, small cupboards and a sink and mirror and this was where we were to spend our night.

After dropping our bags, we were treated to a full tour of the ship with our Chaperone, Alex Leppard AKA Def (after the band!). As the ship was departing Southampton, we entered the bridge which was a hive of activity. Roughly 20 sailors were manning their stations and communicating with those out on deck with the Captain who was relaying orders back to his crew. We were told that this is the busiest the bridge is likely to be other than when in other situations such as docking or when at war. In quieter periods, most of the sailors on the bridge have shifts of 4 hours followed by 8 hours rest but must be ready at all times if needed.

After the bridge, we headed to the flight deck which was huge! Although Def hasn't seen it, he tells us that two Chinook helicopters can land here which is astonishing. With all of the painted lines, it had the surreal impression of standing on a runway.

From the flight deck, we visited the vehicle deck which unfortunately didn't have too many vehicles other than a few huge, green machines that looked like they came straight out of the film Avatar. One thing that makes these amphibious vehicles so unique is the huge area of the vehicle deck which is designed to open and flood for the landing vehicles to depart (see the image below). 

Finally, we visited the Operations Room which was essentially a huge room full of sturdy looking computers and office chairs screwed to the floor. In times of war or exercise, every single one of these chairs would be manned, each sailor with a crucial role such as communicating with landing helicopters or our allies. The whole room felt like walking into a scene from an epic film such as Independence day or Apollo 13.

Drinks reception

After a quick outfit change, the team regrouped for a nice cold drink looking out over the Solent with a beautiful view of Portsmouth. Here we discussed what we had seen through the tour and what we thought awaited us for the rest of the night. 

"This ship is a City and I am its Mayor" - Captain James Parkin

Captain Parkin gathered us up to personally welcome us aboard, to introduce the ship and her capabilities and to thank The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity for all the work we do. He spoke with great pride about how the ship is like a city with its own hospital, police, waste removal and even sewage systems and a very diverse ships company with ages ranging from 17 to 54 and people from all different backgrounds and religions working together faultlessly.

HMS Bulwark fundraising

The Charity's Vice Chairman, Commodore Annette Picton Royal Navy accepted a cheque on behalf of the RNRMC for a total of £2,275 raised through various fundraising activities. One such activity was a gruelling 24 hours in which sailors ran the perimeter of the ship as many times as they could. One sailor managed a staggering 340 laps! Through the event, sailors were encouraged to make a donation and in turn, the runners would wear certain items including fire fighting kit which must have taken huge amounts of effort. This one event raised a total of £1,500 for which the Charity is extremely grateful.

Evening meal

After the cheque presentation, we were taken to the mess in which we were to have our meal. Captain Parkin spoke a number of times about the pride felt by himself and the Ship's Company for the quality of food and service provided by their culinary team. As it was a special occasion, we were being treated to a beautiful three-course meal of salmon for the appetiser, beef wellington for main and poached pear for dessert. Needless to say, we were all very impressed both by the food and the specially selected wine that accompanied each course.

We were seated on 5 tables, the head table with the Captain, Commodore and Trustees and the remaining four carefully chosen so that each table could make the most of this rare opportunity to network. There was a nice mixture of ranks in the room this evening and we were reminded that this sort of meal is not a regular occurrence and usually, the catering team have to do the best they can with just over £2.50 a head. 

After the amazing meal, there were speeches from the Captain and our Vice Chairman Commodore Annette Picton Royal Navy thanking the catering team and again highlighting the work the Charity does for the Royal Navy. 

Invitation to the mess'

Finally, we had the privilege of being invited to several mess' on the ship. In order to access each mess, you must be a member or have been explicitly invited. This is one of the few places that the sailors can truly unwind in their own space and listen to some music, play games and have a drink or two. Knowing this, we were extremely grateful for the invite and the opportunity to catch individual sailors in more of a natural environment. We spent the remainder of the night with groups of sailors talking about their roles and experiences in the Royal Navy which was a great insight and very eye opening.

The cabins

After leaving the mess we returned to our cabins, those of us on top bunks lifted ourselves into bed which were surprisingly comfortable and drifted off to sleep. Essentially, these cabins are a cross between being in a caravan and a channel ferry. All of the cupboards are closed using unique locking mechanisms so they don't swing open and hit you in your head or your shins or keep you awake all night. The cabin is pretty small and, with just two people, we were bumping into each other however you get used to it. In such close proximity, it is clear that you really need to be in a room with sailors you get along with for morale to stay up.

As guests, we were treated to officers cabins, however Def, our chaperone, sleeps in a cabin of 30 bunks, much like a hostel in a way. There must be days when sleeping in a room with 29 other sailors is not ideal. Where's your privacy when you're homesick and skyping your family after 5 months away at sea? How do you get some peace and quiet when your head is thumping and all you want to do is sleep? Despite this, Def met us bright and early the next morning with a smile on his face and happy and polite as ever so perhaps it isn't that bad.

Sailors on a ship, making ships

The following morning, we met a group of 16 sailors who had agreed to help us build some paper ships as part of our tri-service Red, White and Blue Day fundraising campaign, which additionally ties to the Battle of Jutland commemorations. We met in a mess that has recently received a grant from The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity and the sailors were very friendly, full of banter and just exactly how we would imagine a group of young sailors to be.

When we pulled out sheets of pink, sparkly sheets of paper and asked the sailors to build paper ships, we weren't sure what to expect. It turns out, when you're on a ship like HMS Bulwark, doing the same routine each day and where not much changes, the sailors welcome the opportunity to do anything slightly different.

There was envy and disbelief throughout as one sailor made his ship with no trouble what so ever whilst some were still trying to decide what colour paper to use! From here, it was clear to see the comradery shared in this team of grown men. Through all the banter, it was clear to see the sailors helping each other until they had all successfully made their own paper ship. It was very heartwarming to see first hand how these sailors look out for each other and how big a part humour and teamwork plays in surviving life aboard the ship.

Once all were completed, some hearts melted as we swapped their ships for ones made by school children from Shape International School, British Section in Belgium. It's nice to think that these ships will now be with these sailors and act as a reminder that, although they may not think it, they are still looked up to, respected and seen as heroes to children across the globe.

Find out more about the campaign here!

Thank you!

We must say a massive thanks you to all who made this such an enjoyable, educational and ensightful trip and a special thank you to the Chaperones for all your time, the catering team for a wonderful meal, the 16 sailors for giving their time and useful feedback and last but not least, to Captain James Parkin for the invite and for being a fantastic host.