But not until October, en route to and from a diving trip in the Philippines. Johnny is seeking commissions for both adventures. It will be his first visit since 1974 when, as a skin-and-essence 21 year-old Sub Lieutenant, he spent a year navigating patrol boat HMS Monkton from Victoria Basin, in the heart of the then British colony.
I arrived in June ’74, fully expecting to be deployed for social duties only. One of five patrol boats in the squadron led by the Salisbury-class frigate Chichester, we would set sail for day-trips two or three days a week, rarely in the dark and never at weekends. We patrolled the limits of the colony’s waters and I must have done a decent job as I cannot remember any dramas (there are admittedly few underwater hazards). I water-skied behind her once.
It all changed during our annual deployment further south, in August of that year. We sailed to Bangkok and thence to Singapore, where our ships’s company was one of the last to experience its less salubrious side, in Bugis Street and its environs. Kai-tais and Merry Monks abounded. Very soon the burgeoning cruise ship market and its better-heeled clientele would necessitate a swift overhaul. (I visited again the very next year and there was no trace of the bars, brothels and massage parlours.)
We were about to sail for Penang before being recalled to HK, where the government had decided to put a stop to the increasing flow of IIs (illegal immigrants) who were making the perilous journey from the People’s Republic to the better life they expected in the British colony. We had already encountered a few; most were being smuggled by junks but the most desperate swam for it, sometimes aided only by inflated plastic shopping bags.
Unfortunately, between us and Harry Honkers lay a typhoon, one of several that plague the region each summer. Our passsage north therefore involved some pretty lively weather, less than ideal conditions for a wooden-hulled former coastal mineweeper. With the sky obscured for three days I was forced to navigate via Dead Reckoning, plotting our last known position on the chart and using corrected course and speed to predict our track. When the stars finally appeared and I could take a sight, we were only a mile or so off track. After three days in the middle of a storm that’s nothing!
On our return to HMS Tamar, we soon discovered that life had substantially changed. Two of the boats would henceforth be required at sea all the time, to recover any IIs we could find and hand them over to the police for repatriation. I know, even at weekends. AND in the dark!
We worked quite closely with the professional and surprisingly firm Royal Hong Kong Police in their launches, joining them on numerous night patrols into the border regions of the New Teritories. We picked up a few swimmers who were alive (and heard of some who weren’t, having allegedly been attacked by sharks) and stopping both junks and sampans that mostly turned out to be innocent. I remember wearing an empty yet still surprisingly heavy 9mm Browning automatic at my waist and it may have been about then that I realised that, while clearly an ace navigator, I was not destined for great things as a leader of men.
During my 2017 stopovers, I will have an opportunity to see how life has changed. Victoria Basin (visible on the right in the headline image) and HMS Tamar are definitely no more and our various bachelor haunts will surely have been absorbed into the world of international commerce.
Johnny’s life has changed too, and he will want to see how easily an independent wheelchair user navigates the high-rise skyline of his former posting.