Previously I wrote on HMAS Canberra's progress towards full capability. This piece is a more personal reflection on life aboard the RAN's flagship.

Joining HMAS Canberra for a four-day cruise was my first time sailing on a warship, despite visiting many navy vessels in port. So I admit this was a personal thrill, learning experience and endurance test all combined. Some regard amphibious ships as 'boring', compared with the pizzazz of aircraft carriers. Yet LHDs integrate land, sea and air into a single platform, which makes them interesting from an engineering, systems integration and military perspective – and as a porthole on the ADF as a whole. 

CO Captain Christopher Smith finds a use for Canberra's 'ski jump'

It's one thing to know that Australia is a big country, but a four-day cruise from Townsville to Sydney's Fleet Base East brings home the distances involved. At full speed – 20 knots – Canberra in a hurry could shave around a day off the transit. But there is no getting around the fact that going north from the RAN's main bases in Sydney and Fremantle takes a long time – a week to reach the top end. Most of the time we remained within coastal shipping lanes and more or less within mobile phone range, except for periods transiting through the Great Barrier Reef.

Crew chat and rest on the quarterdeck

Throughout the cruise I was given freedom to move around unescorted. This is an impressive indication of openness, especially on a new vessel still working up to full operational capability. Since Canberra is over 200m long, has eleven occupied decks and not many windows, this usually resulted in me getting lost. It felt like Canberra has more stairs than the Eiffel Tower, though it has ordinary service lifts too, much like on a cruise ship.

It is a cliché to say that an organisation's greatest strength is its people. For an organisation like Defence, which demands deliberate exposure to risk of its personnel, that seems especially true. That said, the technical, material side of modern military organisations can easily crowd out the human element. Spending time on a Navy ship at sea demonstrated the importance of this human factor in different ways. 

Flight Deck of the HMAS Canberra

What impressed me was the willingness of the ship's company (293 RAN, 62 Army, 3 RAAF) to talk spontaneously and candidly, in addition to the formal briefings from the bridge, operations room, flight control, engineering control, ammunition storage, heavy and light vehicle decks, the hospital, cafeteria, damage control, as well as the helicopter, landing craft and boarding party crews. 

I saw plenty of camaraderie in evidence. But large ships like HMAS Canberra can be impersonal environments. Personnel in remote compartments serving in specialised roles may have little interaction beyond immediate colleagues, not seeing sunlight for long periods. Even the ships' chefs were surprisingly anonymous, considering they had cooked up 26 tonnes of meat and 20 tonnes of frozen vegetables since Canberra had left Fleet Base East. The crew operate in tight shift rotations, which intensify during exercises and operations. Being on board HMAS Canberra also underlined the prominence of women in the RAN, now accounting for 18% of the force (a target of 25% has been set for 2023).

Also on board for the home-bound leg from Townsville were family members of the ship's crew (children, parents, siblings). Such family cruises are rare, if not unprecedented, as few Navy ships have the accommodation capacity of an LHD or (for landlubbers like me) the same stability at sea. This gave families of defence personnel a valuable opportunity to observe their loved ones at work. 

Searching for 'Oscar' during a man-overboard drill

A succession of damage control exercises and a man overboard drill underlined the attention to safety. Despite employing civilian construction techniques, with 749 fire extinguishers and 138 separate hosepipes onboard, the LHD represents a new standard for the Navy in damage control. Redundancy, or making sure the ship has a back-up for vital systems, is a central principle of warship design and one of the cost drivers in naval construction. There was an unscripted man-overboard alert too. This turned out to be a false alarm, but a was good demonstration of the crew's ability to swing into action unscripted. 

The engineering briefer described the ship as a floating power station. This is no exaggeration considering that HMAS Canberra produces 35 megawatts combined from two diesel generators and a gas turbine – enough to power Darwin. Canberra lacks a conventional engine and crank shaft, so the bulk of this output goes to propel two electrically powered and independently maneuverable 'azipods'. This makes the LHDs nimble for their size.

Reversing into Fleet Base East, Sydney

On our final day aboard, I gave a briefing on the South China Sea for HMAS Canberra's Commanding Officer, Captain Christopher Smith, the officers and crew. The interest this generated underlined how rarely 'front line' defence personnel have the luxury to ponder questions of strategy and diplomacy, such are the technical and other demands of their specialisations.

My sincere thanks to the RAN, Captain Smith and the men and women from HMAS Canberra.