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Engineer says goodbye to RFA after 38 years

Chief engineer Dave Smith is saying goodbye to the RFA after 38 years
3 March 2023
Four decades after his curiosity was piqued by ships in a quiet Scottish loch, naval engineer Dave Smith stepped ashore in the same spot – his 38-year career in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary over.

The 55-year-old chief officer ended his service to the nation at a remote fuelling jetty near Knockdow on Loch Striven, about 30 miles west of Glasgow.

The jetty has long been used by ships of the RFA – the Royal Navy’s vital support flotilla – to top up their tanks.

And thanks to his father’s role as an MOD police officer, living just 500 yards from the anchorage, the Smiths were often invited aboard visiting vessels during Dave’s formative years.

“That was my first introduction to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary,” he says. 

Always keen on mending, fixing and tinkering with engines, motors and the like, stripping down motorcycles, when his father’s job brought the Smiths to Gosport, Dave enrolled at the seafaring college in Warsash, embarking on a career in nautical engineering.

His first ship upon completing his training in 1985 was RFA Resource – a floating magazine/ammunition vessel for British forces deployed to the Falklands in the aftermath of the 1982 conflict.

Steam-powered with steam turbines, engineering on Resource was what Dave calls “handmatic” – good old traditional engineering.

Steam was generally reliable but it was labour intensive and far from efficient. Four decades ago, a ship may use up 120 tonnes of fuel per day on her duties. 
Today, Dave’s last ship RFA Tidesurge (39,000 tonnes – only the Navy’s aircraft carriers are bigger) doesn’t use one third of that amount.

The engineering complement has shrunk too – it’s just 20 men and women strong on Tidesurge, little more than half that on a comparable vessel in the 1980s.
No longer do RFA engineers have to stand watch all night either. At the end of the working day, the systems are switched on to automatic and alerts sound in the engineers’ cabins if something needs urgent attention.

The computer/electronic revolution is to thank for this automation, but the old skills are not only taught – they’re crucial. Engineers are still expected to strip down, clean and rebuild engines, motors and the like.

And automation only goes so far. Engineering spaces are still expected to be as clean, safe and smart as they were in the 80s… but there are fewer sailors to do the grafting.

I have been to so many phenomenal places all over the world, met some wonderful people, got to know local characters and customs

Naval engineer Dave Smith

Dave’s career has taken him all over the world in pretty much every class of ship in the RFA flotilla to serve over the past four decades on many and varied duties: Yugoslavia and the Balkans supporting an army field hospital with RFA Sir Bedivere, a round-the-world task force in 2000-01 – Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, the USA and Panama Canal – and much closer to home passing on his engineering knowledge to trainees at HMS Sultan in Gosport, or ships going through training off Plymouth.

“I have been to so many phenomenal places all over the world, met some wonderful people, got to know local characters and customs,” he says.

“The same goes for the RFA. It’s people who make a ship – the mood, the atmosphere on board. It’s people who get you through each day and I’ve worked with so many fantastic crew, people who give that bit extra to make things happen.”

Originally from Kilwinning in Ayrshire, but now living with his wife Deborah in Gosport, the father of two grown-up children plans to continue his hobby in retirement: woodwork, in particular hand-crafted wooden pens with his lathe.

Stepping off Tidesurge on a late winter’s afternoon, he believes he’s leaving the RFA in safe hands.

“The skill level today is through the roof,” he said. “The people I joined up with were skilled for the equipment of the era, but today they are much more qualified. The one piece of advice I’d offer is: know your systems – don’t be afraid to ask questions.

“And the ships today – terrific. The new Tide-class boats have so many good things going for them, good concepts, very efficient, great for taking us forward.”

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