This post has been a long time coming and many apologies for that but sometimes life gets in the way. Particularly when you’re undertaking a cadetship!
As regular readers will know, a Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) cadetship starts out with an 8 week course at Brittania Royal Naval College, Dartmouth (BRNC), where your leadership skills are developed and tested. This is something very specific to the RFA and after this point the training comes into line with the Merchant Navy, undertaking a cadetship along with other cadets from across the maritime industry. Things have changed slightly over the last 18 months, for us we were all sent to Fleetwood Nautical Campus near Blackpool whether it was convenient or not. Whereas now, an RFA cadet is given the choice of a few different nautical colleges. I can only write my posts from my point of view and so this is geared towards a deck cadetship at Fleetwood Nautical Campus.
I had enough UCAS points and was enrolled on the Foundation Degree course meaning that upon completion of my training I would get a Foundation Degree in Nautical Science from Liverpool John Moore University. The other route for a cadetship is the HNC/HND route, the main difference between that the learning and assessments are more vocational in nature. Regardless of route taken and academic qualification awarded at the end, all cadets are ultimately working towards their Certificate of Competency to be an Officer of the Watch (OOW). The specifics of what being an OOW entail will be covered in an additional post.
The first indication that college was going to be nothing at all like BNRC was realising that there was no requirement to wear head gear around campus, in fact only the RFA cadets were in possession of caps and berets. It’s not the norm for a cadet to have these items or to have been issued with as much uniform as we had been. You find it interesting to know that the ages of the 26 cadets who started the course ranged from 18 to 34. Some had degrees, some had masters degrees, some came straight from school while others came from employment – it’s interesting to see that the Merchant Navy (and the RFA) is open to people of all ages, the stereotypical image of a cadet being 16 years old is no longer true and hasn’t been for some time. There is a 52 year old cadet undergoing training at the moment!
A cadetship is split into five phases spread over three years, is designed to give you the knowledge needed to be an OOW and also the time at sea to put it into practice and consolidate/expand your knowledge. It’s set out like this:
- Phase One – Nautical College (19 weeks)
- Phase Two – Sea (34 weeks)
- Phase Three – Nautical College (34 weeks)
- Phase Four – Sea (40 weeks)
- Phase Five – Nautical College & final oral exam. (12 weeks)
Phase one is just over four months in length and in that time you cover academic topics such as: Navigation & Meterology (weather); Study skills (CVs etc) and Shipboard Operations. Fleetwood Nautical Campus sends its phase one cadets away to North Wales for a week on a ‘Cadet Development Course’, which is basically a week of outdoorsy stuff for team building and developing leadership and communication skills. After BRNC this week was a relative breeze, it was a great opportunity to spend some time in the outdoors and bond with our classmates. We climbed Moel Siabod one day and got some dramatic photographs on the snow capped peak.
A typical day in college will have two lectures, 0900-1200 and 1300-1600 and is a lot like school. There’s a 20 minute break, affectionately known as ‘smoko’ in the morning and afternoon, and you’re with the same group of cadets for each lecture. In our intake there was 26 of us on the Foundation Degree Deck route, made up of cadets sponsored by a wide range of shipping companies.
For me, who only ever considered joining the RFA, it’s been extremely beneficial to meet cadets from the wider maritime industry. I’ve learnt so much about shipping, how big a part it plays in UK industry and just how important the sea trade is. I’ve also made some good friends and I’m sure we’ll bump into each other at sea at some point during our careers.
I should mention that cadets are expected to live in halls of residence for phase one and this is non-negotiable. The halls were nice enough, much nice than the halls I had when I went to University back in the day: Fleetwood halls have a sink, a small amount of storage and a pin board.
Included in the price of halls was two meals a day, the food was what you’d expect from a canteen but the staff were brilliant and would make you a salad if you asked to them. In fact, the staff at Fleetwood have been brilliant throughout my time – whether you’re speaking to catering staff or the head of school, everyone will speak to you with a smile and do their best to help.
In addition to the academic content and CDC, we also had to attend and pass short courses. Some of these short courses are legal requirements before you can go to sea. During the three weeks of short courses I took in so much information and felt much better equipped to actually go to sea. We covered so much during the short courses that it’s too much to detail here but by far and away the toughest part of the courses was the firefighting. Obviously there are no fire stations at sea, so if there is a problem then it comes down to the crew to deal with it. We spent two and a half days learning about the fires, the kit, how to conduct searches in low visibility and then practiced everything. Those blue containers in the background of the photo are used for training: a fire is started at one end (under control) and you and your team go in with full breathing apparatus, locate and retrieve casualties then fight the fire. It’s quite arduous and something I hope to never have to do for real.
As part of the Basic Training for Seafarers, we spent a week learning how to cosxwain (drive) lifeboats, both old fashioned ones and the newer completely enclosed ones that most people would be familiar with. By old fashioned, I mean that the lifeboat was powered by oars, the main discovery with this is that most of us are terrible at rowing! In fact, by boat managed to beach ourselves – no mean feat!
We also did the Efficient Deck Hand course which was all about working on deck and being a sailor: ropes; knots; wire splicing; anchoring; MacGregor hatches; flag identification and much more. This was also a really tough course, mostly because I’d never been to sea before and had to absorb in so much new information. I was rather proud to be able to make a working stage after many, many attempts…
The 19 weeks (4 months) of college flew by, we had exams to sit and pass and then we’d be off to sea to put into practice everything we’d been taught. We had a quick brief on something called Work Based Learning, which was a reflective project we’d have to complete whilst on ship, were issued with our Merchant Navy Training Board (MNTB) Training Record Books, briefed by our Company Training Officer and then were sent on leave until our next phase began and we joined our first ship.
For more information on a career at sea, have a look at the Careers at Sea website. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary is the company for me but it’s not for everyone. I’ve had my eyes opened to the wider maritime industry since starting at college,and that can only be a good thing.