This morning Samoa said farewell to the HMAS Stuart, an ANZAC class frigate which has been docked in the harbour for four days. On Saturday evening a function was held onboard the ship for invited guests. The Australian volunteer community in Samoa was invited; we tend to be good at filling out the numbers and making a party look well attended. Especially when there's free food and drink.
The Stuart was here on its way to Hawaii, where it will be taking part in a month-long war games exercise. The biannual RIMPAC wargames make for the larger naval exercise in the world. It runs out of Hawaii and sees defence force assests from the majority of the militarised Pacific nations take part. Australia, the United States, Japan, Britain, Chile, Peru, South Korea and Canada have all committed forces to the exercise. With roughly thirty naval vessels and upwards of 200 aircraft, it's going to be big.
On its way to Hawaii, the Stuart has made a few stops. First it stopped in New Zealand followed by a brief stopover in Tonga. Samoa was its final port of call before heading to Hawaii. These stopovers serve several purposes. They obviously give the crew some down time before they knuckle down for work but they also serve a purpose in terms of international relationship building. If they're going to throw a party onboard and invite me, I'm more than happy to help with the relationship building.
The evening kicked off with a ceremonial lowering of the white ensign. Known as "sunset" (despite being conducted after dark) it is a long standing tradition in the Australian and British navy whenever ships visit foreign ports. Replete with bugles, silly walks, national anthems and crew in crisp whites it's a sight to behold. It's loud too. The firearms seen here were discharged (blanks I assure you) and when you're standing no more than four or five metres away they really make one hell of a noise.
Whilst we sipped cold Australian beer and ate the national coat of arms (the emu was pretty good, the crocodile sausages great and the kangaroo kebabs truly outstanding) we had an opportunity to meet and talk with many of the officers of the ship. Those I spoke to were, without exception, interesting, polite and down-to-earth people. They were genuinely interested in who we were and what life was like in Samoa and were keen to share aspects of their life. I confess to being somewhat surprised by this, but certainly pleasantly so. There I was expecting a bunch of sheltered workshop, "I kill people for a living" weirdos.
After the conclusion of the ceremony and as the party started to wind down, we were given a tour of the ship by the officers. Wandering through a naval frigate is fascinating. Certainly much of the technological complexity is hidden from our eyes but what struck me was the intricacies of the human complexities onboard. Each role is clearly defined in terms of what the key responsibilities are, but also in terms of the lines of communication particular to that role. It's not as straight up-and-down, "the captain talks to his XO, who talks to the chief of the watch", etc., all the way down to the grunts in the engine room as one might think. Reporting and supervisory responsibilities cut across the different areas of operation onboard as much as they do up and down, reflecting the fact that the ship is comprised of a number of highly complex, specialised (human) systems that have to interoperate with as little margin for error as can be achieved. But I digress...
Our tour was excellent (thanks Dougald and Sam the navigator) and ended at the officer's mess. Here we discovered the real party and continued drinking with the officers for some time longer. A friend and I had an excellent conversation about a whole range of topics with the captain of the ship, Commander Peter Leavy, and we all got to know many of the other officers better. The night was still young however, and with just a few days in town, everyone was keen to sample the Samoan nightlife. The choice was simple: we had to go to Bad Billy's.
All but a few of us made our way to Billy's and then spent the next two hours dancing, drinking, watching the Australia vs England rugby match and having a great time. As midnight struck and the house lights came up, there were cries for more. Whilst we're used to it living here, I don't think the officers of the HMAS Stuart were quite ready to believe that there simply was nowhere else to keep partying after twelve. With nowhere else to go, we had to call it a night. We dropped them off at the ship and made our way home.
It was an excellent night. The ship was fascinating, the food excellent and most importantly, the company and conversation was great. I said before that the point of stopovers such as this one is to improve international relationships, but I think it's fair to say that on Saturday night the Australian navy improved the opinions of many Australians as well.