HMS Kent using bottles of water in the fight against piracy

HMS Kent (F78) is a Type 23 frigate commissioned into the Royal Navy in 2000.

Kent left Portsmouth on 25th May for a 6-month deployment East of Suez which was her first deployment following a year-long £24m ($36m) refit.

Kent finds cool water is a key weapon in the war against piracy

Sailors and Royal Marines from HMS Kent are using a simple cool bottle of water as one of their key ‘weapons’ in the fight against piracy and terrorism in the Indian Ocean.

The frigate is building up the ‘pattern of life’ of seafaring off the Horn of Africa, speaking to the crews of around a dozen merchant ships every day.

Kent’s chaplain Rev James Francis – known as the ‘Battle Bish’ – overcomes the barriers of language, culture and creed by handing the planet’s most precious commodity to a dhow crewman. Pictures: LA(Phot) Joel Rouse, HMS Kent

WHAT’S the Royal Navy’s best weapon in the struggle against criminal activity in the Indian Ocean?

HMS Kent 4.5in gun? Her Merlin helicopter, crammed with technology and Royal Marines snipers on the end of a machine-gun? The fully-honed boarding team of commandos and sailors? The team in the operations room poring over displays which draw information on the waters and skies around the ship from a myriad of sensors?

Or maybe it’s the personal touch? A bottle of chilled water for passing fishermen in seas where the temperature at this time of year is well into the 30˚s Celsius, and sometimes over 40˚C.

For all the hi-tech wizardly on the Portsmouth-based frigate – nearing the half-way point in a counter-piracy and counter-terrorism patrol east of Suez – daily interaction with crews on dhows and other vessels plying their lawful trade in ‘Pirate Alley’ between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula is just as useful in understanding what the Navy calls the ‘patterns of life’ in the region.

Kent’s boarding team approach a dhow with the frigate standing watch in the distance

On a typical day, Kent carries out around a dozen ‘approach and assist visits’ to dhows and medium-sized ships and boats, with her boarding team chatting with crews to assure them the warship is here to help.

“Operating 4,000 miles from home, in a region with 20 different languages or dialects and a vastly different culture presents challenges that require of HMS Kent the ability to interact diplomatically and with sensitivity to local personnel,” says Lt Cdr Mickey Rooney, Kent’s weapon engineer officer.

“In gaining trust and empathising with the tough existence that many of these mariners endure, there is one simple currency that secures trust, breaches all barriers and which, in terms of value, makes fossil fuels and rare metals look like small change – water.”

Before dawn Kent’s upper deck team prepare for a replenishment at sea with the FS Somme

Although the Gulf region is synonymous with oil and gas production – it’s Kent’s task along with other ships in the 27-nation Combined Maritime Forces to ensure nothing interrupts the flow of that oil and other goods by sea – it’s far from blessed with natural resources of water, particularly on the small dhows at work in the height of summer.

“As the ship’s boarding teams constantly find that for all of the water they ride on, being a mariner in the Gulf is thirsty work,” says Lt Cdr Rooney.

“The power of water can be seen first hand as one of HMS Kent’s high speed boats makes an approach to a dhow and offers a litre of fresh cold water, held high like a universal calling card of humanity. The reception is warm, friendly and without barriers.”

HMS Kent takes on fuel from FS Somme in the Indian Ocean

Cdr Ben Ripley, HMS Kent’s Commanding Officer, adds: “A simple gesture like the gift of a bottle of water – which may seem insignificant for many – goes a long way to building relationships and trust with the seafarers that HMS Kent is here to protect.

“For the Royal Navy the simple gesture of gifting drinking water to break down all barriers is turning out to be one of the most powerful forms of currency in securing safe passage for our way of life.”

Kent is currently attached to Combined Task Force 150, comprising warships from Australia, France and Canada, and working with vessels from Djibouti, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Somme like it hot… A crewman on the French support ship takes a breather during the replenishment

The force is charged with safeguarding the Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor – effectively a protected motorway of the sea for all legitimate mariners.

“The Combined Task Force is something of a counter-piracy and counter-terrorism high seas patrol – a 21st-Century CHiPs for those who remember the 1980s TV show,” Lt Cdr Rooney explains.

The force provides assurance for the safe passage of merchant vessels of any nationality through the infamous Bab Al Mendab Strait at the foot of the Red Sea and beyond.

HMS Kent, FS Somme and patrol craft from nations bordering the Red Sea form up near the Bab Al Mandeb Strait

It’s policing on a gargantuan scale, with the ‘motorway’ covering some 190,000 square miles of sea – that’s over twice the size of Great Britain – with up to 40 large scale ships passing every hour or, spread over a year, about 40 per cent of all the goods and essential materials Europe needs.

As for Kent’s material needs – notably fuel – she’s been making use of the French support ship FS Somme which is currently providing black gold to power the Coalition vessels on the ‘motorway’.

“Working with our allies in patrolling the high seas in order to reassure legitimate users that these waters are safe sends a strong message of how important the international community take this tasking,” Cdr Ripley underlines.

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