diamond geezer

 Monday, July 16, 2012

It's a measure of how seriously security is being taken at the Games that the UK's largest warship is currently moored on the Thames off Greenwich. HMS Ocean is the Royal Navy's amphibious assault ship and is a whopping 203m long, the size of a floating cathedral. She's here as a logistics base and helicopter HQ, with space for up to 18 Super Lynx helicopters on the upper deck. Four hundred service personnel will be stationed aboard during the Olympics, many of them providing security for the equestrian events here in Greenwich Park, the others supporting airborne and maritime security. And yesterday, for just five hours, members of the public were invited aboard to have a look around. As surreal daytrips go, this was quite something.

The queue to embark was in the gardens of the Old Royal Naval College. I suspect the Royal Navy were expecting more people to turn up as they'd laid on recruitment-type activities, and a large marquee with far too many seats where you could watch an inspirational video. All the images showed Our Lads doing inspiring things, like fiddling with million pound machinery aboard big ships, and there were absolutely no shots of anybody standing around at Olympic checkpoints. Nobody seemed keen to stop and watch, they were all too keen to join the queue.

Somewhat surprisingly, security for would-be visitors was rubbish. Cadets gave our bags a minor once-over, then awarded a sticker to show we'd passed through their check-in tent. There were so many stickers lying around unsupervised on the table that anyone could have taken two, and indeed some did. The queue then mixed with general tourists in the new Greenwich riverside restaurant zone, where anyone could have swiftly nipped in, before heading down the jetty to embark. If I'd had an accomplice and wanted to sneak evil things onto the boat, it would have been simplicity itself.

No amphibious landing craft for us - instead we took a minor civilian boat out into the Thames and briefly upriver. Almost everyone on board had their cameras or smartphones aloft, because it's not every day you approach a giant warship from the bow end. There did seem to be an awful lot of helicopters up top, including I suspect the one which woke me up at stupid o'clock on Sunday morning low-flying its way to the Olympic Park. Once closer we could see a lot of aerials, and pipes, and potentially shooty-things, as well as large gaps along both sides from which various craft could be launched. And soon we arrived at HMS Ocean's floating pontoon, beside the proper naval landing craft, and ascending the shaky metal ladder several storeys high to enter the ship.

The ramp up to the flight deck was surprisingly steep, and broad, and long, requiring some careful sidestepping for those in inappropriate footwear to reach the summit. And we weren't being allowed any further than the top of the ramp - no wandering out onto the helicopter deck, nor even much hope of peering over the side for anyone of diminutive height. But here was the UK's Olympic chopper complement, ready for whatever surveillance or rescue tasks the next two months might require. Residents of penthouse apartments on the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs had better behave themselves during this time, or else keep their curtains firmly closed.

Back down the ramp, various marines were on hand to explain various aspects of their daily routine to their visitors. "Here, try this heavy backpack for size." "Hey kid, fancy some camouflage face paint?" "I have some real guns here, sir, and I know you so want to hold them." I resisted handling the weaponry and instead checked out some scran - the crew's daily rations when they're out on manoeuvre. One small cardboard box holds a day's worth of food in reheatable silver bags, with such culinary delights as chicken curry, baked beans and some tuna pastie thing. I sampled the all-day breakfast, no expense spared, which I can report tastes like tinned all-day breakfast rather than anything crispy fried and gorgeous.

Along, and round, and down a bit, we reached the main hangar at the heart of the ship. It's huge, absolutely ridiculously so, and plenty big enough to contain all the helicopters from up top or an entire squadron of troops. We couldn't quite walk all the way down, but far enough, past stores and dark recesses towards the flight deck lift and active areas of vehicle deployment. Long gone are the days when the interior of the Navy's premier ship might be deemed secret - instead we were encouraged to wander around and ask questions and take as many photos of everything as we liked.

Many more of the crew were stood round about with displays related to their on-board roles. The mechanics who keep everything flying showed off their mega toolkit. The blokes who tie knots for a living demonstrated their ropework. The proper caterers laid out a silver service meal like they serve the officers. The medics attempted interactive first aid, while the ship's dentist taught younger visitors how it takes two minutes to brush your teeth properly. The overall display brought home quite how many different interconnected roles are needed to keep a giant ship like this up and running. And there were of course a lot more weapons to fiddle with, because a lot of the jobs on board involve potentially causing harm.

That was enough, then it was back down the outer gangway, back to the boat and back to shore. The return trip sailed round the stern of the ship, offering close-up looking-up views of the helicopter deck, from which all the crews waved back like we was some kind of school trip. They're a cheery and professional bunch, HMS Ocean's crew, as no doubt yesterday's open day was meant to prove. And they've all got special sew-on London 2012 badges on their right sleeve, because they're part of the planned deployment and not the last minute G4S replacement draft.

It's not your usual Royal Navy campaign this, moored off Greenwich just upriver from M&S and Nando's. But East London's military takeover's not just an iron fist, it has a human face. And next time I'm woken by a low flying helicopter, I will at least know precisely who to blame.

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