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Event Recap: HMAS Cerberus Open Day 2024

Some of you may know that I spent some time in the Royal Australian Navy, and it probably wouldn’t surprise you that I have some mixed memories about the experience. So, when I stumbled across the open day at HMAS Cerberus, I was quite interested in going. It seems that quite a few of our members were too – I think we had a little over twenty attending.

The day started off at another location from my earlier memories, VFL Park – or rather, what was left of it. The once shining beacon of the future of the VFL is now reduced to an AFL training ground, some shops and a rather uninspiring housing development. The brunch at the “Last Piece” was very nice, although Alan was not impressed with the attitude of the waiter. I did ask, though, “So Alan now knows what it’s like to be spoken to by Alan?” He wasn’t impressed with me either, it seems lol.

Daniel was organised enough to bring some research he had completed about the location, and he led us on a little history tour, which I mostly missed – I was too busy looking at some of our wonderful machines – I felt a bit bad for not bringing my Morris.

After brunch and a brief bit of history, we made the relatively easy drive over to Cerberus. Expecting a relatively low-key day, I was shocked to see the massive paddock outside the base converted into a car park – and it was full! I really needn’t have worried; the base itself is like a self-contained city, and the people inside didn’t cause any crowding.

What were some of the things we saw there? Well, pretty much everything! First was the School of Survivability and Ship Safety – or as we called it in the RAN, “Four S’es”. We waited for a bit but were eventually shown the full cycle of fighting a fire at sea. Believe me, I have done this exercise so many times – and hated it – surprisingly, they still use it as a recruitment exercise.

I was next very interested in visiting Recruit School. For a casual visitor to base, or even someone posted to Cerberus who has passed basic training, Recruit School is strictly off limits. I was last there in 2011. Nothing much had changed, but it was very nice speaking to the Leading Seaman Recruit Instructor (while not being under her instruction). The role of a Leading Seaman Recruit Instructor is to break the recruit out of their old life and prepare them for life at sea. Not an easy task, and not one that endears them to recruits. But, this one knew her stuff and she was happy to talk to Gordon for what seemed like forever.

Let’s have a small segue and talk about the ranks of the Royal Australian Navy. The ranks follow the Royal Navy tradition in names and insignia. Once, all Commonwealth Navies were the same, and the only way to tell the difference was the addition of the country’s name to the insignia. Things are a bit different now though. First off, Canada discontinued their independent Navy and made it simply Canadian Maritime Defence. At that time, the insignia and ranks took on the standards of their Army. When their Navy was reconstituted, they continued using Army insignia for the non-commissioned ranks. More recently, they have stopped using the “seaman” terminology and have moved to “sailor”. Britain and New Zealand have moved to “Rate”, “Rating”, and “Hand”, which are all common expressions in navies to describe people from the lower ranks. In Australia, “seaman” is used to describe any person trained to go to sea, but without an additional rank. It is considered by both female and male sailors to be gender-neutral. The Air Force, on the other hand, used to have the rank “Airman/Airwoman” – they thought they were moving to a gender-neutral “aviator”, but I guess no one ever told them that “aviator” is male for “aviatrix” Well, look at me, I can talk about ranks all day – back to the Open Day!

The next stop after Recruit School was lunch at the café on base. Not much different to what I remembered. Once it stopped raining, we continued our walk. Past the dentist’s tent, and into the training area for the Support sailors. This job used to be called “Officer’s Steward”, and that is still, essentially, what they do. The training facility was set up so they could practice laying out an officer’s cabin, properly lay a table (for sea and ashore), and other sundry tasks. They were often little respected by the other sailors, but their role is vital, nonetheless.

We also made a quick visit to the Wardroom. As a sailor (my highest rank was Leading Seaman), I was not permitted to enter this space reserved only for Commissioned Officers, so I was very curious about this space. I was disappointed. Although, many of our group laughed at me when I called an officer “Sir” – old habits die hard.

Then it was Engineering and behind that Signals. Both were interesting to me as I had never ventured over to that part of the base before. I also saw that one of my old “oppos” was now a Petty Officer instructor there!

Time was quickly running out, but we were able to make it to the Boatswain’s school. As part of my role as a Combat Systems Operator, we were required to do many of the functions of a Boatswain’s Mate while we weren’t on duty in the Operations Room, so I was well acquainted with this building. It was interesting to talk to a young Seaman about her knot-tying skills – it seemed she was as useless as me. My old motto, “If you can’t tie knots, tie lots” – as long as it holds right? Jeff showed his skills in knot tying and Gordon was happily chatting away to all the seamen. One last thing, the pronunciation for Boatswain is “bo’sun”, but we used to call them “dibbies” – “they dib a bit of paint here and they dib a bit of paint there”.

Being just before 4 pm (the closing time), and being on the diagonal opposite side of the base to the exit, we decided to head out. On the way, we caught the Ceremonial Sunset. The “Sunset” routine happens every night at sunset on land bases and ships while alongside. The Ceremonial Sunset represents the same routine but in a much more formal, stylised and entertaining way. It is usually used when dignitaries or important people are on board. This is something I really miss from the Navy, all the ceremonial bits.

On the way out we next passed, and dropped into, the two churches on base – the Catholic one, and the slightly larger Anglican one. Then past the gym and running track. Before the large-scale upgrade that the base experienced in 2020, Cerberus had the last remaining 400-yard running track in the country – it’s the standard 400 meters now.

We said our goodbyes to some of our numbers while the rest of us headed over to Clyde North for our Monthly Members Meeting. Even though I organised this one, I hope you don’t think I’m conceited if I tell you this was the most enjoyable event I’ve been to for a long time.

Words by Paul Hollingworth. Photos by Daniel Borton, Brett Huxtable and Paul Hollingworth.

Paul Hollingworth

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