Fleet Support Group.

Reproduced here with the kind permission of the Editor of An Cosantóir, this is my article which featured in the Nov/Dec 2020, and Jan/Feb 2021 Editions.

There is a trick question often asked, “What is the difference between a ship and a boat?” The answer, which you can file away for your next table quiz, is that “a ship can carry a boat, but a boat cannot carry a ship.”

NS Fisheries Inspection Team AVON Sea-Rider

The warships[1] of the Irish Naval Service carry boats which enable them to undertake the wide range of taskings, and duties required of them by the state. In fact, without their small boats, their performance of this huge variety of tasks would be impossible. A hard fact of a working life at sea, in some of the world’s roughest oceans, is that anything which sails out on it, will need repair and maintenance. Given the complexity of the modern small boat fleet of the service, it is possible to carry out only relativity routine maintenance on these fast and agile craft while at sea. For larger repairs, more in-depth maintenance, and periodic upgrades, these boats are repaired ashore on Haulbowline in the Fleet Support Group (FSG). FSG is one half of the Mechanical Engineering and Naval Dockyard (MENDY) unit.

Fleet Support Group.
FSG has been in existence since 1992 as a Support Maintenance Unit within Naval Dockyard under the command of Naval Dockyard Superintendent. Since 2000, the Superintendent is the Officer Commanding (OC) MENDY. The facility moved from the main naval base, where it was located on the West of the island, housed in Block 4, to its current location is what is commonly known as the Masthouse beside the southern end of the naval basin. When FSG was located on the naval base proper, it was titled as Ship Support Group (SSG).  Block 4 itself had undergone extensive refurbishment for other uses in 2008, when it suffered a devastating fire mere weeks before it was due to come back into regular usage. In the time since the move from SSG, boat maintenance and the technology employed in the boats has changed dramatically in scale, size, and scope.

Haulbowlin Island. The new Haulbowline Park and the Masthouse, FSG at the top of the Naval Basin.

The Naval Service small boat operations from the nineteen-seventies, were carried out in Fibre Reinforced Plastic (FRP) boarding boats or timber hulled Liberty launches, as well as from inflatable Gemini 4.5m boats. From the late nineteen-eighties these boats were replaced on all sea-going units with AVON 5.4m Sea-Riders. These Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs) were propelled by twin 40hp Yamaha outboard engines. The establishment for such boats increased from twenty units to about forty in 2009, when this fleet was rationalised and updated, pending the launch of a new class of Patrol Vessel with large capacity, powerful inboard engined RHIBs.

Currently the Naval Service operates a wide variety of RHIBs, in excess of 50 craft, including many remaining Avon Sea-Riders. The AVONs are now only used by the two peacock class patrol vessels, LÉ Orla, and LÉ Ciara, as well as the Naval Reserve for harbour & riverine duties. The rest of the small boat fleet includes MST 800, 750, and 680 RHIBs, in varying lengths of 8, 7.5, and 6 metres. There are also Delta RHIBs, with both inboard and outboard engines in the three models, which are varying in length between 7.2, 7, and 6.5 metres. There are also some Polarcirkel 560 boats.

The service, maintenance, and repair of all these boats is carried out by the engineering staff of FSG. With the multitude of engine types, drive systems, hydraulics, electronics, and hull types, the skill, knowledge, and experience required to keep them all running is a vital core skill of today’s Engine Room Artificers (ERAs) and Hull Artificers (HAs). When the NS is on patrol in the depths of winter off the Irish coast during Maritime Defence and Security Operations (MDSO), or in the heighy of summer off the coast of Northern Libya during Operations PONTUS or SOPHIA, there is no place to turn to if there is a breakdown with these work-horses. While each ship will carry three RHIBs while on patrol, it is the skills of the artificers, honed by service in FSG over the course of their careers, which is often the difference between remaining in an area of operations (AO) and completing an operational task, or having to sail for possibly hundreds of miles to safe anchorage or a berth alongside to effect repairs.

Another good question for a quiz, however it is doubtful to ever be asked, is what is an Artificer?

TT/ERAs at work on one of the NS RHIBS.

An artificer is a military craft person. There are three artificers in the sea going Naval Service. Engine Room, Hull, and Electrical Artificers (EA). Each ship in the flotilla would normally have one Chief ERA, three Petty Officer (PO) ERAs, one PO HA, one PO EA, and often ships would have a Leading and or Able rate on-board. There may also be a few Technical Trainees (TTs), on board from time to time, who would be undertaking their training in their respective trades. Within the ranks of the Artificers, there is a dizzying array of trades and qualifications.

Currently wearing the three stripes which mark a Petty Officer in the service, there are Fitter/Turners, Mechanical Automation and Maintenance Fitters, Refrigeration Technicians, Marine Engineers, Mechanical Engineers, Motor Mechanics, Heavy Diesel Mechanics, Carpenter Joiners, Cabinetmakers, Electricians, Electrical Instrumentation Technicians, and Electronics Engineers. All these skills combine in various teams across the flotilla. This feeds into having a diverse and unique team on each ship. There is strength in such diversity; however they all share a few common important aspects. They are sailors, NCOs, and artificers.

MST 1 in the Small Boats Workshop, FSG for routine maintenance.

These NCOs are far more than ‘just’ their trades. They are the key NCOs in the engineering department, keeping everything running smoothly. They are the watchkeepers whose knowledge of the ships systems is encyclopaedic, to be able to keep the ship seaworthy and fit to fight. They are the key leaders in the Damage Control and Firefighting teams. They are the team leaders in the Maritime Interdiction Teams, and in common with all NS NCOs they are all Fishery Inspections Officers.  All artificers hold at least a minimum of a level 6 National Craft Certificate, or a level 7 Ordinary Degree. Lots hold two or more qualifications. Some are direct entries, who have entered the service on an accelerated programme to become POs, and others are home grown, selected by tough internal competitions for a limited number of apprenticeships through the TT scheme each year.

All will be trained to the exacting standards of the Naval College across the branches, as they progress from Able Rates and novices in their chosen technical field, until they emerge on the far side of up to seven years technical and military training as Petty Officers and Leading Hands, ready to fulfil their duties on operational naval units.

Smooth sea never made skilled sailor.
When an artificer is finished their two-year rotation at sea, they may be posted ashore to FSG. They bring with them all the knowledge and experiences of using the boats in operational circumstances, which they will draw on as they will now be working much deeper on them. This in an invaluable resource to a unit which has a strategic value to the state.

NS Divers on exervise with K9 unit, and dog handler.

As not only does FSG maintain the working boats of the NS, they also provide support to the wider Defence Forces, including the Army Ranger Wing and the Naval Service Diving Section. FSG is also often call upon to assist other state agencies who operate watercraft of various descriptions. As part of FSG, they will have the opportunity to work on everything from stern drives, to gearboxes and engine rebuilds. Again, this builds on the knowledge of the artificers, and the cycle of learning continues, as that artificer will bring all their new problem solving and practical experience with them back out into the flotilla.

The training of artificers isn’t just confined to the engines and hulls however, the artificers must also operate the tractors, trailers, and cranes which they use to manoeuvre the boats around the naval basin and dockyard environs to their workshops in FSG. Launching and recovering RHIBs from slips and quay walls. Then they must also become RHIBs coxswains in order to test the RHIBs after work has been completed. Each RHIB must be in tip top condition prior to it being accepted back to its ship. This makes FSG a hive of activity throughout the year, as the NS have ships operational 24/7, 365, and if those ships are to do their important work at sea, they will need their boats to make it happen. With this level of constant busyness FSG was nicknamed ‘the ninth ship’, however with the arrival of LÉ George Bernard Shaw it may have to change to ‘the tenth.’

Every day is a learning day.
PO/ERA Aidan Ahern is a dab hand with a hurley, and he handles a socket wrench with just as much skill. He joined the NS in 2011, when he says that “the economic downturn had led to job opportunities lessening outside, so I saw an advert for the Naval Service and signed up.” He holds a BEng in Quantity Surveying from CIT, and when he joined the NS initially the only options in his recruit class was Seamans or Communications branches. As he always maintained his interest in engineering, he says he applied for his technical trainee scheme as an ERA as he “…thought it would be a good fit.” Leaving his career as a Communications Operative and switching paths he began his trade in Mechanical Automation and Maintenance Fitting in 2014, and he was promoted to PO/ERA in the summer of 2020.

Masthouse, FSG.

Currently, he is due to rotate to sea in November to “…start my first full rotation as PO/ERA and engineering watchkeeper.”, and he is enjoying his time in FSG, as he says he finds “…working on the complicated mechanical systems is very interesting. The work with sterndrives, gearboxes and larger engine jobs means that every day is a learning day. So, you get to broaden your knowledge base.” Working side by side, both wearing COVID-19 PPE to protect each other within the tight confines of the engine bay of an MST 680, with PO/ERA Ahern is L/ERA Simon Murphy.

L/ERA Murphy joined a year after PO/ERA Ahern in 2012. He started his career as a mechanician, and because he really enjoyed the more technical aspects of his role, he successfully competed for a TT scheme in 2016. He was promoted to Leading Hand just this October. He enjoys the time he has gotten to spend in FSG over his years of training “I find it very interesting; I like working with the RHIBs and smaller engines. There is such a great variety of different problems, and you have to devise the solutions.” L/ERA Murphy is only passing through briefly as he waits for his standard NCOs course to begin shortly, after which he says he will “rotate to sea in January 2021. I will be going out to gain experience as an understudy watchkeeper. Then it will be back to the NMCI for my ERA 4 course in early summer.

The end result of all the work. RHIBs operated by highly skilled sailors, in the right place at the right time.

All artificers are not just trained in their off the job phase or college courses. They are also trained in-house on their professional courses, typically these are numbered 1-4, and course number 4 marks the transition from Able Rate to Leading Rate for all three crafts. For Engine Room artificers, after their extensive written examinations, ERA 4 culminates in their oral watchkeeping exam after which they will stand a watch at sea of their own, with all the responsibility that entails. For the Hull and Electrical Artificer similar in-depth examinations await, and they can then be entrusted with their own ship, sometimes as the sole practitioner and subject matter expert on-board.

You can find the full editions on the An Cosantóir website at the links below.



[1] Warship: The definition of a warship under international law is that of a vessel belonging to the armed forces and bearing the external markings distinguishing the character and nationality of such ships, under the command of an officer duly commissioned by the government of that nation, and is manned by a crew that is under regular armed forces discipline.

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