The Irish Naval Service's high-tech training facilities are the envy of Europe and one of the best-kept secrets in Ireland's third-level education sector, writes Brian O'Connell
T wo miles off the Irish coast, the LE Róisín was doing her best to navigate increasingly choppy waters. "Spaghetti Bolognese or ham salad?" enquired the ship's assistant cook, as the 47-strong crew nonchalantly voiced their preferences, seemingly immune to the turbulent waters.
On the bridge, seven new recruits were relaying instructions before firing practice rounds with the ship's 76mm cannon. Leading their cross-examination was the ship's commanding officer, Lieut Cdr Pearse O'Donnell, perhaps the most relaxed person on board the 1,500-tonne vessel.
In some ways, the role of the navy has altered little since Nelson's time. Anchors still need to be dropped and taken up. Decks need to be scrubbed, flags need to be hoisted and bad guys generally need to be caught. According to Lieut Cdr O'Donnell the type of person who decides to join the Naval Service has also changed little. "Usually you're talking about a guy or girl who is independently minded, happy to leave home and make their own way. When you get someone like that, who has cut their ties emotionally with home and is willing to commit themselves to the navy, you get a very good service person."
While the calibre of recruits might have changed little, the manner in which Irish navy recruits are being trained for sea life has changed dramatically in the last five years. Much of this is down to a partnership between Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and the Irish Naval Service. The National Maritime College of Ireland (NMCI) at Ringaskiddy in Cork, is testament to what can be achieved when private-public partnerships are set up for all the right reasons. One of the most advanced centres of its kind in the world, the college is responsible for producing some of the best-trained seamen ever to enter Ireland's merchant or defence navy.
"When the recruits come out to me on board now," says Lieut Cdr O'Donnell, "they are more prepared and the basics are far more inherent and grounded in them. In particular, the NMCI is paying off mainly due to the high-tech simulation training they receive. I think it's fair to say that before now we didn't have the facilities to educate recruits properly. If I give an order now, chances are the recruit has heard it already in the college and used it in simulation. In the past, on-the-job training accounted for 80 per cent of overall education. Now recruits are coming out to me with 50 per cent of that training done. It's a massive difference to how we operate."
Inside the NMCI, the 25-metre "Environmental Pool" has more in common with a Hollywood movie set than a third-level institute.
With the help of wave machines, flashing lights, wind turbines and sound effects, storm-like conditions can be recreated indoors at the flick of a switch, allowing for recruits to learn survival techniques in a safe, controlled, yet highly realistic environment. Coupled with this, a 360-degree bridge simulator and 25 individual simulator suites are used to practise navigation, communications and general seamanship procedures. Built at an overall cost of €53 million, the facility was completed in 2004 and can cater for 750 students.
WITH MILITARY FORCES throughout Europe looking to minimise their running costs, the coming together of the merchant and military navy in Cork is attracting much international interest. The partnership between CIT and the Irish Naval Services marks a radical departure in Irish naval history, and so far teething problems have been few. Cdr Ger O'Flynn, Officer Commanding and Commandant Naval College, says the NMCI is something of a hidden treasure in Irish third-level education.
"It really amazes me the number of school-leavers who are not aware of the careers out there in terms of the navy. The courses are undersold and we have to ask ourselves why. Equally, with careers in the Naval Service, we are getting by in that we have sufficient applicants, but quite honestly in terms of educational, career and personal-development opportunities, one has to ask the question, why not more applicants?
"I think perhaps a lot of people see seagoing as something for someone else, without ever checking it out. We just have to work at promoting it more and more," says Cdr O'Flynn.
Back in the radio room of LÉ Róisín, communications operator Sharon Walshe (25) is one of those who came through the NMCI in recent months. As a trainee radio operator she is responsible for monitoring the ship's communications technology as well as hoisting flags and basic signalling. Like many others, her decision to join the Naval Service owed more to an inherent sense of adventure than any long-held ambition to bolster our defence forces.
"I came back from a year in Australia and wanted to travel more. One of my friends suggested the navy and a year and a half ago I joined up," Walshe says. "So far it has been great. I did a six-month course to be a communications operator in the NMCI, which has given me great opportunities."
Growing up close to the Curragh, Walshe says her decision to join the Naval Service baffled many of her friends, especially as there is no naval history in her family. Although she finds the role professionally rewarding, there are personal sacrifices to be made.
"I'm from Kildare town so the sea was nowhere near us growing up. A lot of my family are in the army, but I was the only one who went to the navy. It's a different lifestyle. I think it's hard for people with families. It's not easy to go away for two or three weeks at a time, yet the morale on board is fantastic. We're like a large family, living and working in close proximity."
Another of those who recently graduated is Ordinary Seaman Daire Mulvanney (20), who is committed to two years at sea before he looks to pursue his ambition of becoming a navy diver. "I like the seamanship part of the work, but really I'd like to go into diving. After I've done two years I hope to pass the fitness tests and then begin the diving course."
Currently on lookout, Mulvanney's role is to ensure the coast is clear for the firing of the 76mm guns. While he looks forward to a long and varied career, he too acknowledges the hardships of sea life: "It's a good life, although it can be hard. We're now going out to sea for three weeks, which some people find hard. You get used to it though."
While the majority on board the LÉ Róisín have committed long term to the Irish Naval Service, others, such as Eleanor Joyce, have no intention of taking up a Naval career. Joyce is one of 300 navy reservists in four separate locations around the country, and when not at sea she is busy pursuing a four-year legal studies course at the Waterford Institute of Technology. She joined the navy reserves to break up the routine of college life, and, two years later, almost every college holiday has been spent on the LÉ Róisín.
So who chooses to spend their college holidays on a navy ship? "I don't have any intention of joining the navy full time, but in my course all the subjects I picked are related to the marine, from shipping law to international trade. If I want I can take up a job in contract insurance in the merchant navy when I finish up. I think it gives me an aptitude for teamwork and leadership, and also discipline for work. College isn't great for discipline so I come out here for a few weeks and it gets me going again."
Useful websites: www.military.ie/naval and www.nmci.ie/index.cfm/page/ins
© 2007 The Irish Times

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