Life in the Caribbean aboard HMS Lancaster

Nigel Thompson on board HMS Lancaster.
Nigel Thompson on board HMS Lancaster.

HMS Lancaster is on patrol in the Caribbean, tracking drug runners, on standby should hurricanes hit and waving the flag for the UK.

BBC Radio Lancashire’s news editor and former Visitor reporter Nigel Thompson has sent us this report from the frigate...

There’s a framed picture of Lancaster castle’s John O’Gaunt gateway in the officers mess aboard HMS Lancaster but step outside, through the plate steel doors and out of the ships’ main “citadel,” and it’s a world away from north Lancashire.

Searing heat and a horizon made up of a cobalt blue sky and azure sea greats the eye while the whining pitch of the tuned diesel engines overwhelm the senses.

This is the mid-way point in HMS Lancaster’s deployment on the Royal Navy’s North Atlantic patrol; six miles off the coast of Belize in search of drug traffickers making the run from south America to Mexico, the US and beyond.

It’s been a busy period for the ship that’s seen them grab headlines around the world after they tracked and seized cannabis worth £100million. The ship is carrying a group of elite US Coastguard “Ledets” – law enforcement detachment – whose job it is to use Lancaster’s fast pursuit boats to intercept the so-called “go fasts.”

The ship has made several seizures making it to the most successful deployment in recent years.

“It shows the value of having a frigate here,” Commander Steve Moorhouse, HMS Lancaster’s captain told me during a brief layover off Belize, where local dignitaries and expats visited the ship whose presence here made local news bulletins.

The crew are coping with daily temperatures in the 90s and the kind of humidity that makes physical exertion outside, especially while wearing anti-flash protective gear as well as lifejackets and helmets, exhausting.

But if it’s hot outside, in the engineering heart of Lancaster, keeping cool is virtually impossible.

“You have to get used to it,” Andrew Bellis, an engineer from St Helens and one of the crew responsible for keeping the ship ready to sprint to intercept suspicious vessels, told me.

“It’s around 50 degrees here – you get an extra £2 a day so that helps.”

Down the corridor I meet Scott Williamson, an electrical engineer from Fleetwood, who looks after essential power supplies that help keep men and machines cool.

The frigate has strong ties to the county and north Lancashire inparticular and it’s a source of pride.

“There’s three or four us from Lancashire. About a year ago we had a visit to Lancaster in uniform which made me very proud.” The ship’s patron is the Queen, as Duke of Lancaster, and it’s known in the navy as “the Queen’s frigate.”

If an army marches on its stomach, then Lancaster wouldn’t sail far without good food and the man who’s in charge of providing it for the crew of nearly 200 is a man who grew up on the coast, chief caterer Lee Hill from Blackpool.

“We make sure all the lads get a meal, 365 days a year a day. We just try and keep the majority happy.”

Not easy when the kitchens are fairly confined – and you are several thousand miles from home.

“190 crew on board and every one of them is a chef...” he says, the day after the main talking point during evening rounds was the lack of a hot lunch.

Food for the onboard cocktail parties arranged at ports during the tour has been prepared to bring a taste of Lancashire to the serene Caribbean; miniature portions of fish and chips (which I’ll confirm, were superb) as well as portions of Lancashire hot pot have helped make an impression.

So what impact has the ship had on the area of the Caribbean many are visiting for the first time?

The drug seizures have doubtless made a difference – the quantities seized are significant although no-one here under-estimates how determined the drug runners are to evade the international effort to stop their trade.

Another reason for the deployment is to act should hurricanes strike the fragile defences of many of the islands in the Caribbean, although so far this season has been quiet.

But it’s the impact the ship has made in the string of former British territories that strikes me as significant.

Crew members have offered their services to help repair and maintain buildings, train coastguard and other maritime organisations as well as taking on hosts at various sports.

Who’d have thought fixing roofs on Montserrat or playing cricket against a Belizean locals team could have made such an impact?

After a tempestuous afternoon electrical storm (during which the cricket continued) Peter Hughes, the newly-appointed British High Commissioner in Belize, told me why the visit by HMS Lancaster matters in a central American country the size of Wales with a population of 300,000.

“The last time we had a royal naval visit here was more than six years ago and it’s sorely missed.

“Having the sailors around whether on or off duty does help in giving comfort and confidence in what’s going on. There’s a great deal of love for the British when the ships come in they feel a lot better.”

HMS Lancaster still has many miles to cover before the deployment concludes; the crew will be home for Christmas and told me they missed the changing seasons – after a while even Caribbean heat becomes monotonous.

When they do reach Portsmouth they’ll have spent six months flying the flag, for Lancashire and the UK.