As well as being Australia’s frontline instrument of defence at sea in our region and around the world, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) bears a heavy burden of tradition inherited from the Royal Navy (RN). My father, who spent his working life serving first in the RN then later the RAN, would find it hard to understand how things have changed in the modern navy. But he would be proud of the way old traditions have been maintained.
This struck me recently during the three day visit to Makassar of HMAS Success, the RAN’s chief oil tanker and supply ship. HMAS Success was at the end of a four month deployment as part of operation Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019, an annual exercise that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) conducts with friendly regional nations. Makassar was the ship’s last port of call before returning to Sydney where she will be decommissioned. After 33 years of service she is the RAN’s oldest vessel and so known as the “First Lady of the Fleet”.
Tradition was on full display when we attended a post-ifthar reception aboard the RAN’s First Lady, hosted by Captain Darren Grogan and his crew. Towards the end of the reception the ships guard put on a “ceremonial sunset” for the guests. Stirring military music blared over the hum of generators and the noise of cranes and other machinery working around the port. A guard of a dozen sailors in crisp tropical whites marched out of the ship’s hanger carrying rifles and circled around the helicopter landing-deck, coming to a halt in front of the RAN white ensign aloft the aft-flag pole. Spotlighted in the darkness, a young officer with a very long sword barked orders to the guard who presented arms, aimed for the sky then discharged a round of blanks. The audience flinched as the volley of gunshots echoed around the deck.
In the days of sail, ships on goodwill visits to foreign ports would discharge all their guns to seaward on arrival to indicate that their guns were empty and their visit peaceful. Another tradition.
The music then changed to bugle calls as the flag was slowly lowered and folded respectfully. The “Song of Australia” and the national anthems of Indonesia and Australia were played. The young officer barked a few more orders and the guard marched smartly off the rear deck.
The 150 or so guests included the Acting Mayor of Makassar, Dr Iqbal Suhaeb; the local navy base commander First Admiral Dwi Sulaksono; representatives from the South Sulawesi air force and army commands; the governor’s office; police and local emergency services; Australian alumni; local business leaders; and a sprinkling of Australians resident in Makassar. Also aboard the HMAS Success was the IPE19 Joint Task Force Commander Air Commodore Richard Owen; Head of the ADF Section from the Embassy Brigadier Justin Roocke; and the Australian Defence Force Imam, Chaplain Essa. Chaplain Essa had earlier lead prayers at the Makassar Port mosque following the breaking of the fast at around 5.59pm.
I was impressed at the ethnic and gender diversity of the crew of HMAS Success. The young officer leading the guard at the ceremonial sunset was a Lebanese Australian. Around half of the guard were female sailors. At the reception one of the waiting staff was a young women whom I had seen earlier in the day dressed in fatigues and a flak jacket, holding a rather large rifle as she stood guard at the head of the gangway and entrance to the ship.
When I met the young woman-waiter-armed guard that morning I was in the company of a group of local Makassar women leaders who were touring the HMAS Success. Our guide around the ship was Chief Warrant Officer Angela Miranda. CWO Miranda impressed the Makassar women leaders (and me) with stories of life at sea for women in the RAN. The HMAS Success has a crew of around 200, of whom 42 are women. They occupy all ranks, and Angela told us that in recent years all jobs in the navy have been opened up to women. That is a significant achievement.
In addition to the Makassar Women’s Leaders Forum, many other groups had been invited to tour the HMAS Success. Several school groups, the local Sailors Polytechnic, journalists, the port authority Pelindo, and groups from the local Navy base, all toured the ship - and of course everyone got the chance to sit in Captain Grogan’s big chair on the bridge. And have their photos taken!
The crew had also enjoyed friendly sports competitions with the local navy base: they played volleyball, and tried their hands (and feet) at futsal and sepak takraw, a traditional form of kick volleyball which is very popular in Sulawesi and across Southeast Asia. In sepak takraw the ball is made from woven rattan and you can hit it with any part of the body except the hands and arms. It takes considerable fitness and skill to be able to kick the ball over a head-height net. These are not common sports in Australia so out of politeness I did not ask how the Aussies had fared.
In a speech at the reception I told Captain Grogan and his crew that they had made an impact in Makassar: I had counted around 20 local and national print and electronic media stories about the visit, all positive. They were exemplary ambassadors for Australia.
At the same time as the HMAS Success was visiting Makassar, two other vessels from Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 were in port in Jakarta: the HMAS Canberra and HMAS Newcastle. These ship visits are a highlight for their crew. In Makassar many of the Aussies had the chance to visit the sights such as Fort Rotterdam and the traditional souvenir street of Sombo Opu. Some sought out their beloved Maccas, KFC and other fast food joints in the air-conditioned shopping malls; and some took day trips out to the islands of the Makassar Strait and enjoyed snorkelling and diving.
The point I would make is that Makassar has something to suit everyone and I would hope to see more RAN ships call in to this friendly city in the future. Getting out of Jakarta and Bali is important for our young Australians: Indonesia is big, diverse and entrancing, and increasingly accessible, safe and affordable. Our young people need to better know this country.
The visit of HMAS Success to Makassar was a great success. May the First Lady of the Fleet long be remembered, and may her final voyage to an overseas port - the port of Makassar - long be treasured as a fond memory by her crew and the people of Makassar.