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Pickets change at Dartmouth as hi-tech jet boats replace Royal Navy’s veteran training craft

25 January 2022
Naval leaders of tomorrow have begun 2022 with new state-of-the-art training boats for the first time in more than half a century.

Several generations of Royal Navy officer cadets – including current First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key – have used a flotilla of eight ‘picket’ boats to learn the arts of navigation, seamanship and leadership at Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.

The distinctive blue and white boats which have chugged up and down the Dart since the 1960s (the youngest was delivered in the early ‘70s) were retired at the end of 2021.

In their place, eight sleek grey, futuristic-looking jet-powered boats, packed with identical or similar tech officers will encounter when they join the front-line fleet.
The new boats are part of the wider programme – Project Vahana – to replace an assortment of craft and workboats across the Fleet with a small flotilla based on a modular design, to standardise maintenance and spare parts, providing more modern and reliable training.

The 15-metre-long boats assigned to the college can reach speeds of 40kts, but are limited to just six on the Dart – although with qualified personnel/instructors they can venture beyond the river and into the Channel if required.

As they are powered by twin jets – like the Navy’s Pacific 24 standard sea boat – rather than old picket boats’ propellers, they handle completely differently from their predecessors, requiring two weeks’ training and assessment by instructors before cadets are allowed to take them out on the Dart.

When they do, says Warrant Officer 1st Class Dan Powditch, they’ll find them “a whole different beast” from their predecessors.

“There’s quite a lot of nostalgia for the old boats – understandably given how long they have been around for and how many people have trained in them. We love them – they’re the closest thing to driving a warship,” said the 38-year-old seaman specialist.

“The Vahana boats are the polar opposite: new, modern – you can drive it using a mouse – more reliable, but we can teach more people, using equipment such as ECDIS electronic charting which they’ll find on warships.

“They’ll leave Dartmouth more experienced, more capable mariners.”

They’ll leave Dartmouth more experienced, more capable mariners.

Warrant Officer 1st Class Dan Powditch

Dan’s team at Sandquay on the Dart have spent the autumn getting to grips with the eight new boats, working out how they will be used to teach the fundamentals of seamanship, understanding the wind and tide, basic manoeuvring.

Each boat can train up to 16 cadets at a time – with basic accommodation (bunks, heads, shower, a boiler for brews and microwave to warm meals on. As training reaches its climax, the cadets will live and work on the new craft for up to a week.

The seats in the rear in the boat have tables, electrical power and network capability allowing all cadets to plug in their laptops and share data between the computers, allowing them to develop basic planning and command of a ‘task group’. 

Lieutenant Commander Patrick Kelly, Head of the Maritime Department at BRNC, said the advent of the new boats would “undoubtedly add significant value to the core maritime and leadership training delivered at the college.

“Providing a modern and contemporary platform on which to conduct core craft handling and navigation training, it is however during leadership training and assessments where the craft will add the most value.

“Moving forward Vahana will support task force style leadership exercises ensuring that Officers Cadets have a task group mindset from the outset of their careers aligning BRNC training with the requirements of the future navy.”

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