This week, British Royal Navy patrol vessel the HMS Mersey stopped off in Estonia. The Mersey is midway through a two-month tour of the Baltic Sea as part of the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF). To find out more about what it was doing in the Baltic and get a taste of life at sea, ERR News headed out to Muuga Harbor and stepped aboard.
As soon as we arrive on the HMS Mersey, tea with milk and a selection of cream cakes are waiting to welcome us on board. There's also a platter of coronation chicken sandwiches, which have been rustled up specially for the occasion by the chef at the British Embassy in Tallinn. While my tastebuds are temporarily fooled into thinking we're back in Britain, the chocolate-coated kringel (sweet cinnamon bread) we're then offered soon reminds me we're still very much in Estonian waters.
The HMS Mersey is usually deployed off the U.K. coast to ensure boats and trawlers stick to internationally-agreed fishing quotas. This week however, the British Royal Navy's River-class offshore patrol vessel was in Estonia, midway through a two-month tour of the Baltic Sea as part of the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF). After ERR News was invited on board as part of a media delegation, I jumped at the chance to find out more about what the Mersey is doing in the Baltic, and get a taste of life at sea.
Stretching almost 80 meters in length, the Mersey spends between 300 and 320 days a year at sea, says Commanding Officer Lt Cdr James Mitchell, as he greets us in the ship's recreation room.
The JEF is a military alliance of 10 like-minded nations (eight NATO members plus Finland and Sweden), Mitchell explains, working collectively to maintain security in northern Europe. It operates alongside NATO, and the Mersey's versatility and availability is what makes it a particularly valuable asset to the alliance.
It's no slouch either and can reach speeds of up to 20 knots (37 km/h). "The essence is, it's quick," says UK Defense Attaché Cdr Rob Steadman, who also joins us on today's trip.
This week, the Mersey's crew have been conducting joint training exercises with the Estonian navy. "We've been learning from each other," Lt Cdr Mitchell says, to make sure we can "slot into the ways the Estonian Navy do business," should the need arise.
A senior crew member later tells us how accommodating the Estonians have been. "It was interesting to see the differences they brought, having been merchant mariners before they were enveloped into the Estonian Navy," he says. "They are also very skilled mariners themselves."
But less than an hour into our voyage, and it's already becoming quite clear, that certain members of the press delegation, myself included, might not be cut out for a life at sea.
"You just need to look at a fixed point on the horizon so you can see where you're going," we're told, our faces having now turned whiter than the Tallinn snow, which was really coming down as we arrived on deck. "Sugar and fizzy drinks help too," they say, handing out cold cans of Coke from the fridge.
Fortunately, the Mersey's crew of are made of far sterner stuff than I. After finding my way to the deck for a few precious breaths of fresh air, I get chatting to an AB (Able Rating) from Newcastle. He's been working on the vessel for two and a half years and assures me he's never been affected by seasickness.
"This is nothing, it's calm now," he tells me, as I try my best to maintain focus on a fixed point in the distance. "The other night the sea was so rough that I got thrown out of bed when I was trying to sleep. It was just annoying really."
It's a good life on the Mersey though, he says. He does four weeks on, then two weeks off. But when you're here, it's definitely hard work. Nothing I see or hear that day gives me any cause to disagree with him.
Back below deck, in the recreation room, another crew member, AB Ralph, tells us how hard his job can be, especially when he also has to contend with the kind of weather we're experiencing today.
One of Ralph's daily duties involves tying the ropes, which run all along the side of the Mersey, to the bollards on the shore. He then has to tighten them up to keep things steady. "This morning was a prime example of the challenges we can face," he says. "The ropes are not normally as iced up as they are (now). And you've got to hold them for a long time and then hook them around the bollards. As you're holding on to tighten them, because they're all iced up, your hands are getting numb."
"And that's when you start to lose the feeling in your fingertips and it all starts slipping away."
It's an unenviable task for sure. Not that anyone else here seems to be getting an easier ride. "The ethos of the navy is 'work hard, play hard'," says his colleague, AB Browne, who is sat next to Ralph at the table as we speak. There's a signed picture of the Queen and Prince Philip on the wall behind them. "So, we do work hard," he adds with a wry smile.
"We're constantly doing training, so we practice for most scenarios. We do firefighting drills and flood drills. We also have external trainers who come on board, so we practice at high intensity," Browne continues.
"But there are some instances where we like to let our hair down," he laughs.
"Yeah, once our standard day is over, we've got a mess," Ralph says, referring to area set aside for the crew to spend their free time. "In there, we can play darts in the evening or just generally socialize, watch videos or TV and do just about anything."
"There's also a gym," Browne says. "We've got an annual fitness test to prepare for. In the summer time, we go on the back end and play sports too." "Bucket ball" is a particular favorite according to his crewmate. "It's a bit like netball but instead of a net, you have a person holding a bucket and they can move that around as you try to get the ball in," they explain.
It's around this time that, once again, my need for fresh air suddenly becomes rather urgent and I politely, but swiftly, make a retreat to the nearest exit.
By the time we reconvene on the bridge, the ship's main control center, we're also joined by Ross Allen, the UK's Ambassador to Estonia. Allen is no stranger to the HMS Mersey having been on board a week before with a delegation of defense attachés from the region, as well as several other ambassadors to Estonia.
The ambassador tells me, that he hopes having the Mersey in Estonian waters at the same time as there are Royal Air Force (RAF) Eurofighter Typhoons at Ämari Airbase, plus around 800 British troops based in Tapa, underlines just how important Estonia's security is to the U.K.
"Happily, we have all three services from the U.K. – the RAF, the Royal Navy and the British Army – represented in Estonia at the same time," Allen says. While pointing out, that that won't always be the case, he adds that extra British units will also be heading to Estonia soon to take part in NATO's annual "Spring Storm" (Kevadtorm) military training exercise.
"We'll have some helicopters coming for that and some more troops. We'll also have HMS Albion and a detachment from [Royal Marines] 45 Commando," he says. "For me as ambassador, it's really nice to have all three services here at once and hopefully it's a symbol of how committed we are to Estonian security, the fact that we're able to bring everything together."
But before I get chance to ask anything else, a ripple of excitement begins to spread throughout the control room. It's time for the main event and we all head outside onto the deck.
Lt Cdr Mitchell is the first to spot it in the distance. Then I see it too. An RAF Eurofighter Typhoon stalking the gap of clear sky below the layer of grey clouds, which continue to hover stubbornly over Tallinn.
As the anticipation builds, we all brace ourselves for what is to come. There's some jostling for position on deck as everyone tries to get a good spot to capture the moment on camera.
First we see it, then we feel it. The roar of the Typhoon's engine above our heads combined with the cutting chill of the Baltic Sea air is both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. It thunders past, doubling back around the ship before spiraling away out to sea and leaving the Mersey in its wake.
With freezing cold hands, I fumble with the settings on my phone to see if I've managed to get any good photos. It turns out I have not.
Thankfully, the pilot seems to have anticipated this and he returns to conduct several more flyovers, getting closer and closer to the Mersey each time. On the last pass he's so near the boat that we wave at one another, like London bus drivers as their daily routes cross on the high street. Needless to say, this was a moment well worth being seasick for.
But while the Typhoon pilot was clearly enjoying himself, he hadn't come all the way out here from Ämari Airbase just for the thrill of it. The flyover was part of an incredible JEF training drill involving the Estonian vessel the Kindral Kurvits, which had been sailing up ahead of us all along.
In the exercise, the Mersey played the role of an "unidentified contact." The crew of the Kurvits then called the Typhoon out from Ämari to come and see who we were and what we were doing.
Mission accomplished, the Mersey rounds the final corner into Tallinn Bay and starts heading toward port. Back in the recreation room, we share what's left of the kringel and those coronation chicken sandwiches, and compare stories about life in the U.K. and Estonia. It's only then that I'm introduced to the longest-serving members of the crew – Bill and Ben, the ship's two resident goldfish. They've been on the Mersey for seven and a half years and if only they could talk, I'm sure they'd have plenty of tales to tell. But, before I get chance to find out, it's time for us to go.
It was the small things about the Mersey that made me feel like I was at home. A West Ham United duvet laid out neatly on one of the cabin beds, those coronation chicken sandwiches and even the three-pronged plug sockets on all the walls.
Back on dry land, I sit down in a café and order another can of Coke. My head is still spinning from the awesome display of British air and sea power I had the opportunity to witness. Then I look through the window at the snow that continues to fall on Tallinn's Old Town. I'm definitely back in Estonia again now.
Editor: Andrew Whyte