“All the nice girls love a sailor”, or so the old music hall song has always informed us.
And vice versa, too, though how that Latin phrase ought to be amended when the nice girl turns out to be a sailor herself, I’m not sure – especially when it turns out that she’s not just one of your tattooed, rum-swilling, desk-swabbing bluejackets of popular conception, but a captain of one of Her Majesty’s ships. And, as if to heighten the prurience generated by the scandal, she is not one of your traditional grizzled old sea-dogs but the very first of her gender to command such a vessel.
The ‘nice girl’ in question, Commander Sarah West, captain of the Royal Navy frigate HMS Portland, stands accused of having had an ‘inappropriate relationship’ with one of her senior officers, Lieutenant Commander Richard Gray. As the officer in charge of ship defences and weaponry (as we have since learned) he must have been one of her closest advisers. Too close, it seems. Or, if you prefer to be waggish – as most of us are – you might be tempted, rather, to observe that her defences were no match for his weaponry.
Or possibly vice versa.
Although the precise nature of their offence has not yet been specified by their Lordships at the Admiralty, one can only presume that the couple were intimate in that sense of the word one used to find ubiquitously scattered across the inside pages of the late unlamented News of the World. As in, “The court then heard that an act of intimacy occurred between the skipper and her gunnery officer”. We do not know what actually did occur, or perhaps more critically, what the location was, but to quote from the old song again, “…. you know what sailors are”.
West, to add a few superfluous details, is a divorced woman of 41, Gray a married man of 35. A newly-married man, apparently. He reported for a seven-month tour of duty aboard HMS Portland a mere five weeks after his wedding, at which he and his new bride were greeted outside the church by a guard of honour of his shipmates from the Portland – which rather undermines the mitigation that they were doing what sailors by tradition get up to after many gruelling months at sea, away from hearth and home.
But then Winston Churchill’s famous aphoristic description of the navy as “rum, sodomy and the lash” has long been out of date. The Royal Navy no longer serves a daily tot of rum, and the lash was abolished about the time sail was giving way to steam. What became of the third aphoristic element is something about which one can only speculate.
The navy regulations state, apparently, that ‘relationships’ among members of the crew are permitted so long as they are conducted with appropriate discretion. A hearing will determine the fate of West and Gray by establishing whether, or how, they breached such rules of decorum.
To quote from the song again, “bright and breezy” is okay but not “free and easy”.
I suppose there must be a military imperative, as opposed to a moral one, that will determine the outcome of the case, but only the Naval Review Board can determine what that is.
I for one hope that they find in favour of the old seafaring saw that a happy ship is an efficient ship. But what do I know?