HMS Sceptre departs Simon’s Town on final voyage

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After a shorter than expected stay in Cape Town, the Royal Navy nuclear-powered, but conventionally armed, fleet submarine HMS Sceptre (S104) is expected to depart the Simon’s Town naval base this afternoon, having only spent five days in port.

This is her final deployment as she is due to be decommissioned at the end of this year. The Swiftsure-class submarine arrived on April 6 on a goodwill visit that the Royal Navy says reinforces the strong ties the Royal Navy already enjoys with the South African Navy.

The application to the South African National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) to approve the visit mentioned an 11-day visit, but the expected arrival date of mid-March was delayed. The NNR granted a Nuclear Vessel Licence to the SA Navy, which applied on behalf of the Royal Navy for the nuclear-powered submarines visit. The SA Navy told the Digital Journal in an earlier interview that the Sceptre had been delayed by “operational requirements” but did not elaborate. But British newspapers claim the submarine had been patrolling off the Falkland Islands near South America because of renewed tensions between the United Kingdom and Argentina.

During the short stay, the crew took the opportunity to host a reception with the SA Navy and visited some of the SA Navy units. However, no joint exercises were conducted. Speaking to defenceWeb aboard the submarine, the Commanding Officer, Commander Steve Waller, elaborated: “We were supposed to come here earlier, but due to operational reasons we were delayed. Because it’s the Easter stand down for the South African Navy and (they are) preparing for World Cup duties, we haven’t been able to organise an exercise. It’s just unfortunate timing at the end of the day.”

Sceptre left her home port of Faslane in Scotland in October 2009 and the Cape Town visit is the end of her trip. She will be making her way home, arriving in the UK in a few months time. This is not the first time Sceptre has visited Simon’s Town. “I actually joined the submarine in December 2007 when she had just come back from visiting here,” Waller said.

With a crew compliment of 113, the Sceptre was in port for several reasons, the first being ship crew cycling. As Cdr Weller explained: “There is the Black Watch, which is the guys who will stay with the submarine for the whole deployment. Myself, the Exco, the WEO, the key players. Then we have what we call the Fifth Watch. I have a ships company on board at sea at any time of 113. But I actually have a ships company at the moment of 196. What that allows me to do is cycle people around at different ports so that they can go home for leave, training, refresher courses, medicals, all the sorts of things they need to do.”
“It also give me the flexibility, for instance, compassionate cases, somebody’s wife is due to give birth, there’s a problem and somebody’s wife needs her husband back home, I can swop him for somebody else.”

The cycle depends on rank and qualifications, but on average, a non-core crew member may be on board for three months. Due to operational reasons, this schedule can change. “Sometimes I’m only out for a month, sometimes a lot longer. If you keep the guys happy, they stay in the Navy. It’s not just operational, there are two sides. I need the backing of the ships company. If I know that they’re sitting at their console and they’re not worrying about their wife, house or anything like that, they’re going to do their job properly.” About 30 crew members will be changing over in Cape Town.

Another reason for the port visit is to replenish food and stocks. While the submarine can produce it’s own power and water, the maximum crew capacity and endurance is based on how much food is on board. “I have so many days of rationing and food, but I also have emergency stuff.” Waller explained. “When we do a worldwide deployment, we have to come into port for stock.”

Of course, being a submariner, a port visit has other perks. “Unlike a surface ship where you stay onboard, we’ll go to hotels. We only keep the duty crew on board,” says Waller. This is the first time Waller has visited Cape Town and he found the scenery stunning when coming in. “We’ve been very lucky actually. We’ve had a nice balance of official commitments, but also a chance to get out and see the highlights. I’d love to come back with the submarine and I’d love to come back and bring the family as well. I’d love to do that.”

Cape Town has a special significance for the Sceptre and the Royal Navy. The first HMS Sceptre was wrecked in Table Bay during November 1799 when her anchors dragged during a storm.

The fourth submarine built in the six-boat Swiftsure-class, Sceptre was commissioned on 14 February 1978, making her 32 years old. Equipped with five weapon tubes, her armament includes Spearfish torpedoes and Tomahawk cruise missiles. At present she is currently the oldest commissioned vessel in the Royal Navy still in active service and is to be decommissioned in December. She will be replaced by HMS Astute, the BAE Systems-built lead Astute class submarine.