Power Boat Training At Britannia Royal Naval College
One of the few useful skills that I remember acquiring while a Naval Cadet at Dartmouth during the mid 1950s was how to drive some of the power boats currently in service in the Royal Navy. During our (very sparse) free time we were encouraged to double (everything being done at the ‘double’!) down the long flight of steps to Sandquay boatyard, where under the watchful eye of an Officer or Master we would practice manoeuvring the various craft until, joy of joys, we were deemed proficient to be given our ’Power Boat Badge’, following which we were sometimes allowed to career dangerously around the largely empty Dartmouth harbour without supervision, or motor up to Dittisham to spend our 4/- weekly pay on a delicious cream tea or even an illegal glass of cider.
There were four types of power boat generally available for training. The first, and most prolific, was the ‘27 foot Motor Cutter’, which was then the standard workhorse of the RN and normally carried by frigates and above. It had two canopies for shelter, one enclosing the diesel engine amidships and one covering the bow, and required a crew of three Cadets to man it, a coxswain, stoker and bowman (who would open a small hatch in the forward canopy to carry out his somewhat limited duties). I think that anybody who served in the RN remembers the boat as spartan in operational use, as in inclement weather the only shelter for a passenger was to join the bowman, anchor, and soaking bow ropes under the dank forward canopy or to hunch in acute discomfort next to a very noisy and smelly diesel engine.
However it was a robust boat, and it needed to be, as without a ‘remote control’ the coxswain altered engine speed by giving sound orders to his stoker from his position at the tiller, using a whistle (or occasionally showing off by thumping the wooden end of the boat-hook on the deck). The orders were 1 for ‘Stop’, 2 for ‘Full Ahead’, 3 for ‘Full Astern’ and 4 for ‘Slow Ahead’, but in the heat of the moment these were apt to be forgotten by a catatonic ‘trainee coxswain’ or misinterpreted by his bored stoker, and the boat frequently cruised inexorably on to collision.
The second boat was the ‘Picket Boat’ – and this was certainly the aristocrat among the Dartmouth power boats. It was, I believe, about 42’ long, and propelled by twin Gardiner diesels, controlled from a vestigial bridge that also housed a small ship’s wheel. The story is told (perhaps apocryphal) that the class of boat was designed to be carried by battleships, and it certainly breathed the elegance of a bygone day – for which reason there were only a few (perhaps 6 or 8) remaining in service, and their use was therefore strictly supervised.
On return to Dartmouth as a Midshipman I can remember with pleasure exercising ‘fleet manoeuvres’ in a small squadron of these boats, wheeling elegantly from column to line abreast. The minimum crew was three – a coxswain, bowman and sternsheetman, and the latter two compensated for the extreme mundanity of their job by executing an elaborate ‘boathook drill’ when coming alongside, perhaps rather more appropriate for Italian traffic policemen than budding naval officers!
Next there was the 35’ Fast Motor Boat – or ‘FMB’ as it was called. I can only vaguely remember driving one myself during my Dartmouth time, although as a Sub Lieutenant I did manage to crash one spectacularly when picking up the Captain’s guests in Malta. It was designed to give some comfort to the passengers, having a reasonable cabin amidships – but this meant that the coxswain’s position was jammed right up into the bow. This characteristic made the boat moderately lethal when coming alongside as it was impossible to see what the stern was doing – and as the twin Perkin diesels rotated the propellers in the same direction, the action of reversing the engines caused the stern to skid sideways alarmingly through a massive ‘paddle wheel effect’.
I believe there were only 3 of these boats at Dartmouth – one for the Captain and two for training (governed down so that it was hard to get them to plane), one of which was rammed catastrophically into a buoy by a Cadet showing his prowess to his father – so perhaps it isn’t surprising that I rarely had the opportunity to practice driving one.
However the last boat was perhaps the most interesting – and probably looked upon with the most apprehension. The ‘Kitchen Rudder’ had been dreamed up and patented by an Admiral Kitchen in 1917, and a number of 32’ naval cutters had been equipped with this device, some of which were still stationed for training in Dartmouth, referred to as ‘KRs’. As the device appears to have been long forgotten it needs to be described. The ‘Kitchen Rudder’ consisted of a pair of bronze ‘clam shells’ housed vertically on either side of the propeller, which were coupled to the tiller and could thus rotate in unison to divert the water flow to steer the boat. However what made the system unique was that the tiller was fitted with a small handwheel, turning which pivoted the ‘clam shells’ progressively until they closed completely behind the propeller. This mechanism provided quite extraordinary manoeuvrability – the engine could be kept at constant revolutions, and to slow down the clam shells could be merely rotated so that the forward thrust was balanced by the ‘rebound thrust’, while to go astern one had only to close the clam shells completely so that the thrust was diverted through 180 degrees, providing a fully steerable reverse. *
In the hands of a skilled coxswain the boats were a joy to behold, turning in their own length and manoeuvring equally well astern as ahead – but they had just two overriding drawbacks. The first was that was that you had to remember which way to turn the little handwheel, and although this may seem obvious in theory, in times of extreme stress it was easily forgotten, and anyone at Dartmouth in that period will undoubtedly remember seeing spectators scattering wildly as a KR boat charged full speed at the pontoon, while the coxswain, eyes staring, desperately twiddled the little handwheel.
The second problem was that with the clam-shells in the ‘astern’ position the bow would swing in the direction of the tiller, regardless of whether the boat had way on it. This was counterintuitive to anyone trained in a traditional power boat, and caused many spectacular disasters, where the unfortunate coxswain, having nearly completed a faultless alongside, would give the boat a ‘touch of astern’ with his tiller hard over towards the landing stage – leading to the bows crashing disastrously into the jetty.
So that was our boats of the ‘50s. I suppose that looking back now they may appear somewhat primitive, and they were certainly quite demanding, and therefore great fun to drive. I was staying in Kingswear last month, and watched a ‘modern’ naval power boat exercising in the Dartmouth harbour month -- it looked very sleek, very comfortable and patently very easy to control – but I must admit, slightly tame!
* [ I saw a boat at Chatham dockyard earlier this year with, I think, this system, I didn’t look closely as I hadn’t then seen James’ article. Is it a survivor ?. Ed ]
By James Saumarez
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