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Most people in life experience the fear and trepidation of starting a new job. The more responsible the job and the bigger the organization, the more frightening it can be. One of the most difficult of all, must surely be taking over command of a warship with a ship’s company of 325 officers and sailors. The influence and power of a captain is unparalleled ashore, and everyone wants to know what the new captain is like. Because he lives in isolation, it can take a long time for the crew to get to know a captain well, but the one sure thing on which he can be immediately assessed, is how well he drives his ship. Is he a good ship handler? Is he gung-ho, does he drive it like a sports car or is he a lamb when he comes alongside and departs the wharf? The first departure therefore for a captain can be very daunting indeed with everyone watching. The psychology of management and leadership in this situation is very interesting.

I was executive officer, second in command, of an Australian warship in 1982, when the captains changed over. The ship was in a three week maintenance period repairing the main engines when the new captain took over. As we were programmed to go out to sea for the day to carry out engine trials, we got approval from Fleet to hold a families’ day. This was when all the ship’s company’s families and friends were invited to come to sea for the day and to see what their loved ones did and where they lived. To add to the situation, there must have made a total of more than five hundred people on board at the time. This naturally placed even greater pressure on the new captain for his first opportunity to show his mettle.

When I called on him earlier that morning, I could see that he was he was already very nervous and apprehensive about taking his ship to sea for the first time in front of so many people. In addition there would be senior officers from the Admiral’s staff, on the wharf, assessing him. The ship was to sail at 1000 and the Captain’s pre-sailing brief was programmed for 0940. I saw the captain quite a few times in the interim and I could see his nervousness was getting worse, and as a good second in command, I tried to assure him that all would be well.

At about 0930, there was a broadcast on the ship’s public address system for the executive officer and the captain’s steward to report to the captain’s cabin at the rush. I ran as fast as I could up the several decks to his cabin, which was situated at the top of the ship, just behind the bridge. I courteously knocked on his door and went in. On entering his cabin, I was utterly amazed to see the captain standing in the middle of his sea cabin literally covered in excrement or shit. It was all over his face and his uniform and he was standing there numbstruck with an astonished look on his face. All I could say was “ Christ sir, what happened?” He said, "Pete, Pete, you wouldn’t believe it. I thought I would go to the toilet before the pre-sailing briefing, but when I finished I pushed the flush and the whole bloody thing exploded and shit went everywhere. It’s all over the ceiling and the walls, and its all over me, Look at me, what a mess I am in. We’ll have to delay the sailing as I will have to go home to get changed." I politely advised him that it would take too long and we had all the families on board waiting. In addition we had to conduct the engine trials, which would take up most of the day.

By this time the captain’s steward. had arrived and I suggested that he help the captain clean up and I would see if I could get another commander's uniform from another ship. The problem being that the captain lived ashore in Sydney and he had not brought all of his uniforms on board yet. The captain agreed to this and strongly addressed me and his steward to tell us, in no uncertain terms, that we were not to breath a word about what had happened to anyone. This we naturally promised.

As it was now getting close to the time of the pre-sailing brief, I decided that it was necessary to let everyone know that the briefing and the sailing would be delayed. So on the main broadcast I advised that due to technical problems the sailing would be delayed by 45 minutes. This was plausible, as the whole aim of the day was to trial the ship’s main engines, but I had a very curious engineering officer chase me to find out what these technical problems were. I naturally told him I couldn’t say, which left him most puzzled. I managed to find the captain a clean uniform and we duly sailed. The engine trials went well and the families had a good time. The captain had passed his first test. Some six weeks later, whilst conducting navigation training at the entrance to the Derwent River, we anchored for the night off Tasman Island. That evening we held our ship’s concert, where all the messes were expected to put on an act. The captain and I and the other two heads of department were sitting in the front row enjoying the concert, when it was the turn of the Petty Officers’ mess. The curtain opened to reveal a replica of a dunny, complete with a toilet bowl, which had been unbolted from one of the ship’s proper toilets. A petty officer was sitting on it wearing a commander’s uniform, complete with gold braid, and at the side was another petty officer in a dress with a book in his hand, pretending to be Pam Ayres, the English comedienne. Using a West Country accent he began to recite the ‘Ode of the Captain’s dunny’ and when he got to the bit where the captain pressed the flush, a thunderflash went off and all forms of rubbish and crap flew out of the toilet bowl. This was accompanied by great fits of laughter from the assembled audience. The captain turned round to looked inquiringly at me. I had a very difficult job to convince him that I had not told anyone about the incident with his toilet. Fortunately, as there had been two of us in his cabin that day, his steward and me, he was never able to determine how the secret got out.