All hands on deck to farewell a grand dame

By Julie Middleton

When Jack, Michael and Andrew Dench step off the grey decks of HMNZN Canterbury F421 together on Thursday, March 24, the moment will be bitter-sweet. Jack Dench, 65, was one of the sailors who delivered the 113m, steam-powered warship from Britain in 1972. He was a chief petty officer at the time and remembers a "superb" trip via the United States and the Panama Canal. The ship, with its cutting-edge mini-computer the size of a wardrobe, was the bee's knees, he says, and the esprit de corps solid.

In a 21-year navy career, Jack Dench spent five years on and off Canterbury. His son and grandson followed him, and are among the last crew of 247 men and women posted to the frigate.

Michael Dench, 43, a warrant officer and co-ordinator of the weapons engineering department, first went aboard in 1980: "I've got a lot of loyalty to her." Able chef Andrew Dench, 19, joined Canterbury's galley last October and is itching to see the world.

But after 33 years of service, Canterbury, the oldest of our three frigates and the last steam-powered vessel, has to be euthanised. She's long past her design life and in recent years breakdowns have become more numerous. A switchboard fire while at sea last October made headlines.

Canterbury's last fling was during the annual Australia-New Zealand TasmanEx wargaming, which finished this week off Great Barrier Island.

"Sailors see a lot of ships they've served on disappear, and they have feelings about them all," says Jack Dench (whose first name is actually Ian - Jack was conferred by his shipmates). "It will be a sad day, but times move on and we all have the memories. I'll remember a great bunch of blokes - it's the people that make a ship."

Canterbury will have a lengthy celebration-come-funeral, 11 days centred on Timaru, Akaroa and her home port of Lyttelton. The programme is packed with events ranging from city-centre naval parades to cocktail parties and sports tournaments, to open days and church services.

Several hundred past sailors, some from as far afield as Western Australia, are converging for a dine-and-dance at Christchurch's Jade Stadium on March 19; there will be a ball in Canterbury's honour at Sky City in Auckland on April 2.

Monday March 21 is the day ties are severed with her home province, when the City of Christchurch charter is unscrewed from the ship's main hallway and handed back to city leaders.

Jack Dench will join his son and grandson on the final trip from Lyttelton back to the Devonport Naval Base. "By then she'll already be dead," says Lieutenant Commander Barbara Cassin, Navy public relations officer. "The soul's gone, the heart's gone. People are still on board, but she's just a people carrier from Lyttelton to Auckland."

Still, it's a last chance to create the stuff of memories: it's likely that Andrew Dench will serve his father and grandfather at a formal on-board dinner. Granddad, now a technician for Unitec, is looking forward to teasing the young one about his cooking.

A final, formal ceremony at Devonport on March 31 will remove her from the Navy fleet, and Michael Dench will be posted ashore for good.

"I'm going to miss the motion of the ocean, and going away," he says. "I like serving my country and going to sea and working in this environment with the young guys.

"On shore I'll still be working with the young guys, but I'll be going home every night and doing the dishes." He laughs, but there is a wistfulness to it. Andrew Dench is also going ashore, but knows he'll be shipboard again before long.

Canterbury, one of the last Leander-class frigates still in service, was built in Scotland and launched there in 1970. Her decommissioning ends 160 years of steam warships in New Zealand.

IN her time, 559 officers and 3269 ratings have lived long-term on her. She will have travelled 960,000 nautical miles, which equates to 44 circumnavigations of the Earth.

In 1973 Canterbury sailed to Mururoa Atoll to protest against French nuclear testing. In 1987 she was the first New Zealand Navy ship to visit China, and sailed to Fiji the same year at the time of the first military coup, in case New Zealanders needed evacuation.

She has taken aid to cyclone victims in Samoa and Tokelau, and in 1982 and 1983 patrolled the Arabian Gulf. In 1996 she steamed the Persian Gulf enforcing the UN embargo against Iraq, and the next year was involved in peacekeeping in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea.

There have been trips all around the South Pacific and Asia, two stints escorting the royal yacht Britannia, and two British trips in the early 1990s for 50th anniversary commemorations of World War II battles.

Ask Navy people to describe Canterbury's intangibles and the first phrase is usually "a happy ship".

Commander Dean McDougall spent most of his career on Canterbury, starting in 1982 and taking the commander's post - the top job on a frigate - in 2001.

"Canterbury has always had a very close-knit group of people," he says. "Men sleep in 30-man mess decks [unlike other New Zealand frigates, which have much smaller cabins]. They have a locker - but it's very small. There's no private space, so you have to get on with everyone else."

Former Auckland Regional Council member Ian Bradley, who was second-in-command on the delivery voyage, says in the early 1970s, the 30-man "3L mess" was mixed-rank - an unusual situation for the times.

Its inhabitants became such friends that the social club they formed is still active 30 years later and many of them are off to the final events.

The 3L website talks of the ship's other "unconventional" ways, "from its work ethics, to barbecues on the flight deck, from the way it played at war, to the way the crew dressed to go ashore" - that is, without ties.

Later arrivals, like Sublieutenant Casey MacMillan, 28, who spent 2004 on Canterbury, says the ship's more recent role as a training ground means she is crewed by younger staff and this produces, he suggests, a more relaxed atmosphere.

"The ship is just metal," says the current Commander, Peter Kempster, "but once you put people in the ship, it gets a personality and that, I feel, gives it soul." And two black-and-white fluffy dice hanging in a windscreen on the bridge.

Commander McDougall: "You spend such a long time on them, and work hard on ships. You feel safe in that environment, so it's almost a living being looking after you."

Each ship also its own idiosyncrasies: "You get to know those quirks, and get used to them - it becomes a safety blanket." One of Canterbury's is "the honeymoon revs". At a particular speed, vibrations make the ship bang rhythmically, a point Commander McDougall always tried to power past as quickly as possible.

Canterbury has also been the little ship that could: "It's a ship that has always had a can-do attitude," says Commander McDougall. "We sent the ship off to the Arabian Gulf playing with big boys in the 1980s and 1990s, and she acquitted herself very well, although she was probably the least capable unit in some cases [in terms of equipment]."

CANTERBURY'S recent breakdowns have provoked criticism that has aggrieved Navy staff. Says Michael Dench: "We're a warship and when we're out there exercising with the Aussie Navy, we don't do it tenderly. The gear is thrashed, and something that's thrashed will break eventually.

"It gets fixed and we're ready to go again. Everyone's quick to criticise, but they don't realise that truth of it."

Commander McDougall: "I always took the approach that if something broke down, it was a training opportunity for the engineers. There was never anything major, but a lot of small faults.

"Unfortunately with Canterbury having a steam plant, it's quite dangerous - there are very high temperatures and super-heated steam, so you have to be very careful."

One ship goes, and seven arrive in its place. As part of the Government's Project Protector, aligning the Navy towards peacekeeping and patrolling rather than fighting, Canterbury is being replaced with a new, 8870-tonne "multi-role vessel".

In shape something like a Cook Strait ferry, it will have less weaponry but more flexibility. Two off-shore patrol boats and four inshore boats are also on the way.

Everyone leaving Canterbury is heading for a new role, and many people are in training for the new vessels. "For some people, the end of Canterbury will be a sad day," says Commander Kempster.

"But I'm trying to convey it as the beginning of a new era."

The Devonport Naval Base, on Queens Parade, opens its gates to the public between 10am and 4pm today. All three of New Zealand's frigates, plus four support ships, will be in port. Three Australian ships which have been exercising with the New Zealand Navy will also be on display. 


2500 tonnes
29 knot top speed
Twin 115mm guns, six torpedo tubes, six heavy machine guns

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