July 2021

The Nation Reviewed

Supply and command

By Jock Serong
The young captain of HMAS Supply is transforming navy culture

In April this year a media storm erupted over the smallest of things: an urban dance troupe gyrating on a wharf in front of the grey hull of a warship. An ABC News story about the incident showed silver-haired admirals looking on in apparent disapproval beneath a nearby marquee. Only they weren’t. Sloppy editing had created a misleading impression of what had actually happened earlier in the day. The context was the commissioning of a new naval vessel at Garden Island in Sydney. Amid the confected outrage, the name of the ship was easy to miss. It was HMAS Supply, and its entry into naval service is a more interesting story than the one about the dancers and the admirals.

It’s late May in Eden, six weeks after the ABC footage was aired, and a powerful westerly whips across Twofold Bay, just north of the Victoria–New South Wales border. Captain Ben Hissink is delicately manoeuvring Supply across the bay from the ammunition wharf to the township. It will be only the third time the vessel has ever been berthed.

The steep sides of Supply catch an alarming amount of wind – enough to make the vessel swing and strain against the restraint of its bow thrusters. Supply is as long as the playing surface of the MCG and dependent for its movements on a combination of bow thrusters, propellers and two huge tugboats; the process cannot be rushed. There is scrutiny: as well as the veterans invited aboard, there’s a sense that the town is bristling with binoculars. Eden is Supply’s ceremonial home port, and the locals are keen to familiarise themselves with their new resident.

Hissink is all calm intensity, perched on the bridge wing with $300 million worth of steel beneath him. He stands in the wind at a pelorus, a navigational device, with a radio clutched in his fist. He’s wearing a wind-jacket, fatigues and the informal ship’s cap common to all crewmembers. As Hissink’s orders are relayed across the bridge and down to the control centre below decks, he is at once a technical expert sailing a vessel and the manager of what is equivalent to a mid-sized listed corporation with 171 personnel – a floating float. It’s even got helicopters.

There’s a new-car smell in the bridge, chemical and strangely pleasant, and everywhere are the discordant overlays of old maritime culture and future tech. An officer wears a holster full of iron spikes and a worn-looking butcher’s knife for handling the mooring lines; he stands at a computer monitor that digitally tracks the heartbeats of the massive diesel engines.

When the berthing choreography is complete and the tugboats have withdrawn, there’s an audible sigh of relief. The coming weekend holds shore leave, a reception and an open day. The sailors are smiling now, relaxed and joking around. The faces under the caps reflect their diversity: 15 crew, or nearly 10 per cent, are First Nations people, and 24 per cent are women. The ship’s chaplain (Hissink fondly calls him “padre”) says religious affiliations across the ship’s company range from Catholic to agnostic, First Nations cosmology to Jewish, pagan and even Norse traditions.

As I’d watched the crew working moments earlier, I was struck by how young they were: their average age is 24. This has always been the way, of course: young people who might otherwise be trades apprentices or university undergrads, operating the vastly expensive machinery of the military. During the berthing, the reflected gravity of the task made them seem older, sterner, but now they have reverted: their language and postures have lost their tautness. An informal party is cleaning the bridge, washing windows, sweeping the floor. A young officer who, minutes ago, was calling orders to position the ship is now swooshing computer screens with a featherduster. She sees the contrast, and is laughing.

The first ship in Australian waters called Supply was, of course, HMS Supply, a provisioning ship for the First Fleet. It lives in the nation’s consciousness either as an antique curio or as an emblem of invasion – a prop in the dispossessor’s theatre of tall ships and flags.

The name reappeared in 1962 as HMAS Supply, which in its two decades of service earned widespread affection. Supply (I), as it’s now known, was sent to Mururoa Atoll in 1973 to bear official witness to the deeply unpopular French nuclear tests there. It had also been rushed to Darwin after Cyclone Tracy in 1974 to provide power to the devastated township. Such vessels, known variously as combat support or “oilers”, can export electricity to shore. They’re as much about humanitarian work – even pollution clean-ups – as they are weapons of war.

Hissink’s ship, Supply (II), was built for the Royal Australian Navy by Spanish shipbuilder Navantia. It will carry fuel, cargo, water, food, ammunition and spare parts to support forces operating far from home. Long-range capacity is becoming increasingly important: the government’s 2016 Defence White Paper highlighted our need to operate in the South China Sea. Military priorities aside, this vessel will inevitably be a first responder to natural disasters and humanitarian crises in the region. One doesn’t have to look far to understand the need: the beaches of Eden are still lined with charcoal from the Black Summer infernos.

Captain Ben Hissink grew up near Bega, 55 kilometres north of Eden, with socially conscious parents who were involved in permaculture, protests and other kinds of activism. His father, Michael, was a primary-school teacher-librarian who founded the Bega Environment Network Centre and built a mudbrick cottage without power tools for the family. There were kero lamps, a canvas shower, a house cow. Michael would ride a bike 20 kilometres to the site of their new home to do a day’s building, with the infant Ben riding in a carrier.

Ben and his two brothers were raised with an understanding of the region’s forests, of the presence of the Yuin nation and of the bloody history of settlement. In 1986, Michael Hissink somehow convinced the navy to visit the boys’ tiny school in a Wessex helicopter for a library project: nine-year-old Ben was winched aloft on its rescue cable. In the ensuing years, six of the school’s 16 pupils joined the navy. All three Hissink brothers have served: Ben for 25 years, Joel for 19 (and another five as a reservist medical officer) and Paul for 10.

Ben Hissink joined in 1996 and has passed through a dizzying array of courses, ranks and appointments. He’s served across the range of Australia’s fleet, has sailed everywhere from East Timor to the Middle East, and was only 43 when he assumed command of the brand-new Supply in December 2019. With his relative youth, he set about creating a unique culture on the ship.

To begin with, he permitted the crew to vote on selecting Eden as Supply’s ceremonial home port, a choice that happens to reflect Hissink’s own history in the region. The location also offered a new wharf capable of handling Supply’s depth requirement of at least 9 metres, and access to the nearby ammunition wharf.

Next, Hissink devolved as much responsibility for Supply’s culture as possible to his crew. Who did they want to be, as a ship’s company? They wanted to embrace the Eden community, including the Yuin and other First Nations people of the region. They chose the orca as their mascot, an animal with deep cultural links to the coastal Yuin (Katungal) people.

Hissink and the crew then developed a “ship’s voice”: a series of signs throughout the vessel telling the story of Supply’s culture and connections to the community. The idea is that a visitor to the ship will be met by a living narrative, rather than just an assemblage of machinery.

The story centres upon a painting by Eden artists Alison Simpson, of the Wiradjuri nation’s Galare clan, and Joe Stewart, who is of Yuin and Kamilaroi ancestry. Called Drifting Protectors, the painting features blue for the waters of Twofold Bay, traditional figures for the ship’s crew, and spears and coolamons evoking the provision of food and water. There are lines that denote meeting places for young people, families and Elders. The outline of an Indigenous shield symbolises Supply’s motto, “Strengthen the shield.”

In the belly of the ship, running for more than 100 metres, is a wide corridor lined with hundreds of wiring and plumbing looms, lights, sensors, instruments and hatches. It is an aorta, a vessel within the vessel, and naval tradition dictates that this vital conduit is named after the main street of the ship’s home port. In ­Supply’s case this would be Imlay Street, but the namesake Scottish Imlay brothers are entangled in dispossession: they were whalers and archetypal colonists. Looking for an enduring name, the ship’s crew came across the Bundian Way, the traditional Yuin route from across the bay at Bilgalera (Fisheries Beach) on the coast to the high country at Targangal (Mt Kosciuszko), 265 kilometres away. As Hissink puts it, this is “one of the oldest known trade routes on the face of the Earth”, linking the summer bogong moth harvest with the winter whale hunt. It has been researched and written about by John Blay, a friend of Hissink’s late father, Michael.

All of these measures are unprecedented. A painting, an orca symbol, an ancient path through country – how much do they matter to what is, after all, military hardware? Hissink radiates a sense of confidence that this is how things should be done, and will be done from here on in. As he walks a group of us through Supply’s Bundian Way, he talks about trying to cultivate a sense of purpose, of belonging.

“People want to have a voice,” he tells us. “You give them a say, and you’re triggering a voluntary commitment from them. On the commissioning day, the sailors brought family on board and showed them through. The first place they took them was to our Yuin shield signs. If the ship doesn’t tell a story, it’s just a whole lot of steel.”

Somewhere, the brass must be watching with interest. In a deeply hierarchical organisation, these measures are close to a flat management structure. Sailors are queuing up to join this ship.

There is a hint, listening to all of this, that Hissink’s thinking originates from the thousands of hours he has spent completing courses: in warfare, seamanship, people management. But some of it clearly comes from deeper down, from his family’s history on this coast, and from his activist parents. Hissink uses the term “shipmates” a lot – it seems to stand in for family. They’ve been together as a ship’s company for 16 months: Hissink has already spent long months away from his wife and three small children. By August next year, he will be redeployed; his replacement has already been selected.

Ship’s commands are called “drives”, and most captains will receive only one in their career. It seems a massive investment of passion in a project of only two years. Reflecting this, Hissink has asked the sailors to imagine what they hope to see at their reunion on the vessel in 2055.

What they plan to do tonight is easier to answer: they’ll all go ashore and crowd into the Great Southern Hotel. And will Hissink huddle at the local footy on Saturday among the enlisted sailors, like any other punter? He grins. “Absolutely.”

Jock Serong

Jock Serong is the founding editor of Great Ocean Quarterly. He writes feature articles in the surfing media, and his novels include On the Java Ridge, Preservation and The Burning Island.

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