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Navy’s Antarctic survey ship Protector ready for polar mission - just add ice

Protector pictured entered Plymouth Sound
14 June 2021
The Navy’s sole icebreaker is ready for cooler climes for the first time in more than two years after an intensive workout.

HMS Protector has completed the road back to front-line operations following the most comprehensive revamp in her career.

The Devonport-based scientific and survey ship has come through five weeks of demanding training – training which, when successfully completed, means the Royal Navy ship is ready to deploy around the globe.

Protector returned to sea in January after a ten-month £14m overhaul on Teesside, since when she’s been testing the kit and systems refurbished, enhanced or added during the refit, and bonding her sailors and Royal Marines into a single team capable of living and working together in the harshest environment on Earth.

The five-week operational sea training package allowed the first full test of some of the improved systems aboard - vital communications equipment, engines and generators, and the new permanent storage facility, which allows the ship to carry more supplies for herself and other agencies and organisations who live and work around the frozen continent, such as the British Antarctic Survey.

The training reached its climax with a complex salvage, disaster relief and collision and grounding exercise – it’s entirely possible Protector may need to rescue a stranded or stricken vessel/crew.

Indeed, once she’s at work around the Antarctic Peninsula, she’s largely on her own should anything untoward happen – fire, flood, breakdowns, coping with casualties – so there was rigorous damage-control training.

Chief Petty Officer Karl O’Rourke, in charge of the ship’s company’s response to such emergencies, has spent the past 12 months preparing his shipmates to deal with such crisis, building up to several incidents occurring simultaneously to compound the pressure.

There are no emergency services when you are at sea – we have to train to deal with those emergencies ourselves

Chief Petty Officer Karl O'Rourke

“There are no emergency services when you are at sea – we have to train to deal with those emergencies ourselves,” he explained.

“Everyone on board plays their part – from searching compartments for leaks to keeping record of the incident, delivering first aid and fire-fighting.

“Competent damage control and fire-fighting ability is the litmus test by which the ability of Protector’s ship’s company to operate safely at sea is measured.”

As well as helping themselves, the crew may be expected to help others should disaster hit a community or research station ashore.

They made use of the specialist ‘disaster village’ set up at Bull Point in Devonport to show they can help locals if needed restore power, water supplies, clear debris and provide hot food.

Other assessments over the five weeks included fending off attacks from fast craft, safe sea boat operations, safely towing broken down craft, and provide first aid.

It’s the first time the ship has gone through a full training package in five years - before returning to the UK in 2019 Protector was on a long-term deployment to the southern polar region and her crew underwent frequent ‘top-up’ training.

So the ice ship’s Commanding Officer Captain Michael Wood was delighted with the way his men and women rose to the challenge as a “hard-working, close-knit team”.

He continued: “This was the first full operational sea training package since 2015, and for a small ship’s company who have beaten many challenges coming out of refit, and with little sea time together. I had no doubt they would smash training given their utter determination to get Protector back to the ice.”

His ship has not been in among the ice and snowy/sub-zero conditions since the beginning of 2019, so needs to re-learn the idiosyncrasies of operating in such a demanding – and unforgiving – environment, which she’ll do in Norway before heading south for the austral summer towards the end of the year.

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