A personal account from a man who’s spent nearly 30 years in the Navy.
I joined the Navy in 1986 as a Marine Engineer. After training I joined my first ship and, almost straight away, it was sent down to the Falklands for a six-month deployment. That was my first taste of being away from home for any significant time. I would have been 17 and a half, so still technically a junior, even by the Navy standards. Six-month deployments became quite frequent in the early part of my career.
While I was in the Falklands, I fell in love with photography and found out the Navy had photographers. I made it my goal to become one of them. By 1991, I had obtained the required experience and changed branches to photographer.
Up until that point my trips and my home time were quite structured because I was part of a ship’s programme. However, when I became a photographer, I was much more reactive, almost living out of a suitcase at the time, responding to world events or news stories as they broke. I would get a phone call, jump on a plane and I’d be in the thick of it.
When I first joined the Navy I knew I’d see the people again and everything was exciting. I missed my routines a little bit because it was all so alien. My people were replaced with people, but my routines were replaced with something completely bizarre. But when I got married my whole perspective on homesickness completely flipped, as did my career. Before, I found myself wanting to be away all the time – I joined the Navy to see the world, the typical cliché. Once I was married, I started wanting to be based at home more and have some sort of stability.
In 1998, I remember going to my Divisional Officer and saying, “Can you tell me what the plans are for me, because me and my wife are starting to think about having children?” Ironically, as soon as we started trying for kids, I got deployed on an aircraft carrier. That was particularly hard because partway through the posting my wife gave birth to our first daughter.
As soon as she was born, I got three days at home and then was straight on a flight to Dubai to catch up with the ship. That was one of the hardest departures I’ve ever made. And it wasn’t really because I was leaving my new daughter, it was because I was leaving my wife. It just didn’t feel natural. That was the first time that I really felt homesick.
When I say “homesick” I mean that I was constantly worrying about whether she would be able to cope and whether I would be able to cope when I got back. I wouldn’t have seen my baby for three or four months, would she know who I was? I’d never had to think of anything like that before.
I definitely increased my communication to home – I started writing letters or emails every day. I just wanted constant updates. As soon as our child came along it was, “Oh god, I thought she was going to walk today”, or “We’re plotting the pins on a map to try to explain where you are”. Whenever I could I’d be on my mobile spending a fortune from foreign places. There were a lot more things to share, and me and my wife were very aware of what I was missing that I would never get back.
I just wanted to be at home and had to really seriously consider my time in the Navy. But I was close to promotion (which would mean that I would stop going away so much), so we sweated it out.
My nickname in the Navy is ‘Scooby’ so my little ’un, via my wife, got me a Scooby-Doo beanbag toy that I’ve taken on each ship and I still have with me now in my room. But, being a photographer, the biggest thing is photographs. When I was at home before I sailed, I used to always make a point – sometimes too much of a point – of getting that family picture with all of us in it. I always carry photos with me, nowadays on my phone, but I still have those that I put up, so if I’m out and about somewhere, I’ll Blu-tack them up in my work area.
After 2003, I became much more stable. I’ve become a ‘weekend warrior’, as we call them. Most Fridays I jump in the car in Portsmouth and I get out in Lowestoft six hours later, spend the weekend at home and then do the reverse on a Sunday. I’ve gone from being constantly away to almost the opposite – constantly sending my guys away, bless ’em.
I see some of the people that work for me now having kids and they tell me, “We’re having a baby and I’m putting my notice in now.” And I think, “Ah if I’d done that, I wonder where I’d be now…”
But by the same token it’s allowed me to provide for my family. I do regret missing things with my first daughter, but I kind of tried too much with my second one – trying to make a milestone of every single thing that happened, video camera in her face every 20 seconds!
With some of the youngsters that come through now it’s like, “What do you mean there’s no Facebook at sea?” Even though technology kind of makes it worse, because people are used to being a lot more connected than they used to be, we can quite often use that technology now to keep them in contact as well. So I feel quite lucky that the Navy recognises homesickness and the importance of the guys and gals keeping in contact, now more than ever.