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RFA Cadetships: Definitely not the Royal Navy

I wrote this article for the Association of Royal Navy Officers. They asked me to write something for their journal to help their readership understand how Officer training in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary differs from that in the Royal Navy Officer. I’ve amended it slightly as there is some repetition with previous posts but it summarises a Deck Officer cadetship and may be of interest to people thinking of applying to join the RFA (Do it!)


I made the decision at the age of 33 to apply to be a Deck Officer Cadet in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA). Until the age of 29, I’d never heard of the RFA and it took me a while to understand this unique organisation. The RFA is a civilian manned, MOD owned fleet that provides support to the Royal Navy, and other Navies from around the world, allowing them to operate globally.

An RFA Officer Cadet follows a very different training pathway to that of Royal Navy Officer Cadets. We start our careers in the Naval Service shoulder to shoulder with our Royal Navy counterparts, undertaking a specially designed 8 week Initial Officer Training course at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth (BRNC). Over the course of the 8 weeks, RFA Officer Cadets are introduced to life in the Naval Service, receiving expert instruction and assessment in Leadership and teamwork from the Royal Naval Leadership Academy. We’re taught boat handling on the River Dart and spend hours on the parade square being ‘instructed’ in drill by Royal Marine drill sergeants. The culmination of the 8 weeks is a passing out parade, attended by friends and family. This is a very special moment for all the Officer Cadets and is a moment that I remember with pride and fondness.  It is at this point our careers diverge from that of Royal Navy Officer Cadets, and our training comes into line with the Merchant Navy. RFA Officer Cadets attend a civilian Nautical College with cadets from across the maritime industry. A cadet could alternatively apply for a Marine Engineering or Systems Engineering (electrical) cadetship.  There are several academic routes open to a cadets based on previous academic qualifications, however regardless of route taken, all cadets are ultimately working towards their Certificate of Competency to be an Officer of the Watch (OOW), awarded by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA).

RFA Division passing out of BRNC November 2013

The first indication that college was going to be nothing at all like BRNC was realising that there was no requirement to wear headgear around campus, in fact only 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 as much uniform as we had been. We were now known as ‘Cadets’ rather than ‘Officer Cadets’, a subtle yet notable difference. It was also interesting to note that the ages of the 26 cadets who started the course with me ranged in age from 18-34 years old. Some had Degrees, some had Masters Degrees, some came straight from school while others came from employment – 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, I know of a 52 year old RFA cadet undergoing training at the moment.

A cadetship is split into five phases spread over three years and I can only talk about my training pathway, that of a Deck Officer. The course is designed to give you the knowledge needed to be a OOW, the time at sea to put it into practice and consolidate/expand your knowledge.

  • 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 examination (12 weeks)

The four months of Phase one flew by, we covered topics such as: Navigation & Meteorology; Study Skills and Shipboard Operations. We also had to attend and pass short courses, some of these courses are legal requirements to go to sea: I learnt so much during these three week-long courses and I felt well equipped to go to sea. As part of the Basic Training for Seafarers, we spent a week learning how to coxswain lifeboats both modern and old.

Life boat

A typical day in college will have two lectures, 0900 – 1200 and 1300-1600 and it’s a lot like being back at school. Cadets in their first phase of college are expected to live in halls of residence and this is non-negotiable. The halls were nice enough, in fact quite an improvement on the halls I had when I went to University way back in the day.  I only ever considered joining the RFA and it’s been extremely beneficial to meet cadets from the wider maritime industry. I’ve learnt a lot about the Merchant Navy and the shipping industry, knowledge that will be useful during my career with the RFA and the Naval Service. There are 20 minute breaks, affectionately known as  ‘smoko’ rather than  ‘standeasy’, morning and afternoon and you’re with the same group of cadets for each lecture. After sitting (and passing) all of our exams, we were issued with our Merchant Navy Training Board (MNTB) Training Record Books, briefed by our Company Training Officer, given a few weeks of leave and were sent to join our first ships.


After spending four months in a civilian college it was something of a jolt to be back in the Naval Service environment. The sheer amount of uniform I had to take with me to join my ship, reminded me that I’d joined an organisation that works with and alongside HM Forces. I needed all of my 40Kg seaman’s luggage allowance: none of my non-RFA colleagues found themselves having to pack items such as formal uniform (black and white), boat shoes or a respirator. I joined RFA Black Rover at Ascension Island flying with RAF air from Brize Norton, yet another reminder of the close ties to the Armed Forces that we, as RFA personnel, have.  During this first trip on board ship, I spent most of my time on deck with the lads (ratings) learning how to be a sailor and understanding how the ship works. I also began to learn how to be an OOW by understudying one of the officers and seeing things I’d been taught at college in a real life context.


After the excitement of going to sea for the first time, it was back to college for a mammoth nine months of academics. It is a necessary part of the cadetship but I am sure I speak for all of my colleagues when I say that I couldn’t wait to get back to sea. As RFA cadets, we have to learn so much more than is in our training record books: helicopter operations; amphibious operations and Replenishment at Sea to name a few. The RFA is a very specialised organisation, and we can only learn the military aspects of our future jobs whilst at sea. The military tasking is daunting yet extremely exciting: being in charge of a helicopter landing on the flight deck is quite a thrill.

On board RFA Wave Knight

I am now coming to the end of my last sea phase on RFA Wave Knight. The last 6 months have been all about watchkeeping, working on my training record book and progressively taking on more responsibilty. It’s been a long process and now the end is in sight, it’s seems to have gone very quickly indeed – I’ll be back at Nautical college in a two months time to prepare for my OOW oral exam. For an RFA cadet, the journey doesn’t end at gaining your OOW competency and subsequent civilian maritime qualifications, as we also have various Royal Navy courses we must do to further our career. For example, my future career could see me doing some or all of the following: Officer of the Quarter; Point Defence Officer (PDO) Preliminary Navigating Officer (PNO); Fleet Navigating Officer (FNO); Spec N; Junior Warfare Officer Course (JWOC); Intermediate Warfare Officer Course (IWOC); Principal Warfare Officer (PWO) and others.

In essence, RFA Officers are trained to both Merchant AND Royal Navy standards, enabling us to support the Royal Navy in all that she does.

Female Seafarers: Everyday Sexism

Yesterday I attended a ‘Women’s Forum’ meeting. This is no big deal in itself, many people attend meetings everyday, but this was quite a big deal for me. I’m not too sure when or even how it happened but I have definitely turned into one of those people who go to meetings and ‘fly the flag’. I actively derided those types when I was in university (way back in 1990-something) and now I find myself eagerly attending meetings, trying to make a difference. I’ve been motivated to write this post following throw away comment from a high-ranking male seafarer after seeing a photograph of the delegates; “They’re dreadful; have they deliberately tried to look unattractive?”

What?!? Is the sole purpose of a female to be attractive to men? If she is deemed unattractive, does that make her less of a being? That somehow she is ‘wrong’ and is to therefore be an object of ridicule and mockery? Everyday my female colleagues are judged by their male peers: too fat; too thin; too much make up; tomboy; class swot; lezza; moody… the list goes on. Despite all the advances in women’s equality, we seem to be no closer to actually achieving it. That is, to be judged on our performance and ability and not against a stereotyped perception of what a woman is or should be.

It should be unacceptable to sit in a lecture and have male colleagues openly comment that if a woman has been successful in her career, it’s because “she had her legs open”. How rude and insulting is that?! Worse still, to be challenged on the comment and simply to retort “You weren’t supposed to hear that” just highlights how entrenched these attitudes are in people. It’s all very well to be pushing equality and acceptance for women in the seafaring industry but attitudes have to change at the coal face. What good is the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) programme on the Integration of Women in the Maritime Sector ,if misogynistic attitudes amongst both the ‘old and bold’ and the future maritime professionals are allowed to go unchecked?

It’s imperative that we, as female seafarers, figure out where our line is and don’t allow anyone to cross it no matter how hard we may find it. This is no easy thing to do, confrontation in any situation is never pleasant. However, refusing to compromise on our lines will make a difference in the long run.  I make no apologies for upsetting men by challenging their attitudes and comments: If I can make the slightest difference to the lives of future female mariners then it’s worth all the uncomfortable conversations that I’ve had, and will undoubtedly continue to have in the future.