HMNZS Te Kaha returns to Devonport after 171 days at sea, and having visited 10 countries.
In the vicinity of Whangaparaoa Peninsula, HMNZS TE KAHA lingers as the ship is made ready for its welcome to New Zealand, back on 28 July after nearly six months on deployment. In the junior rates mess, sailors visit in groups armed with their passports and completed arrival card, like returning citizens at an airport. “Nothing to declare, no food in your bags?” ask the Ministry for Primary Industries officers, while Customs Officers stamp the passports. An MPI officer says souvenirs, particularly from Asian countries, can be problematic. “When you go to overseas ports, you look for souvenirs, something that says you’ve been there. And they think it’s all right, but it might be elephant tusk, or wooden items. But these guys are okay. The POs and Chiefs tell them what they’re not allowed to have.”
On the flight deck, the Seasprite flight crew are getting ready to return their helicopter to 6 Squadron. Both flight commander Lieutenant Commander Christiaan Robertson and pilot Lieutenant Sam Williams describe working with a Carrier Strike Group, and carrier USS NIMITZ, as a career highlight. “It was a bit surreal, it’s like landing on a small airport, surrounded by 10s and 10s of jets and helicopters,” says LT Williams. LTCDR Robertson said it was an amazing opportunity. “We integrated into their force protection umbrella – when they had their helicopters up, we were also up. They asked for us and incorporated us into it. That’s historic.”
Below decks, Ordinary Chef Melissa Kurylo had been hoping to be home for her 20th birthday, and she’s just made it. Her birthday is today, and her mum, dad, sister and aunty will be waiting to greet her. “It’s been great seeing these different countries, but it’s been hard work. I managed to finish my task book.” It was her first deployment after completing her training last year, and she was flown to Singapore to join the ship. “This is definitely what I signed up for. But I really wanted to be home for my birthday, I missed everyone else’s.” She stayed in touch by buying a cheap SIM card at every port, and using her half-hour ration of ship’s wifi each day.
Twin sisters and ship’s stewards Petty Officer Junior Pahulu Junior and Leading Hand Ane Pahulu are expecting a big family turnout. LSTD Pahulu is a solo mother, she says, and her six-year-old daughter Bessie has stayed with the sister’s parents. The pair joined the Navy 10 years ago and this was their first time on the same ship. LSTD Pahulu is the oldest by only 15 minutes but in her family, hierarchy is everything and minutes count – except at work, where POSTD Pahulu Junior outranks her. “I’m the boss at home,” says LSTD Pahulu. It was heart-breaking telling her daughter she would be away for so long. “I told her, mummy is going to China. She had a moan, but then all the world’s toys are made in China.” During phone and FaceTime conversations, Bessie would fire questions at her. “What are you up to, when are you coming home, can you buy me this, are you in China yet?”
Lieutenant Commander Tuijo Thompson, the ship’s executive officer, says many of the Ship’s Company “will be looking forward to the ordinary” for their leave. “People don’t plan to do the exceptional. What is ordinary for families on shore is exceptional for us. We’re looking forward to personal space. Lie-ins. For many, it’s simply cooking for yourself – there’s a certain sense of freedom in cooking your own dinner.” He says the Ship’s own official Facebook page, a first for the Royal New Zealand Navy, allowed a culture of inclusion and support for families in what TE KAHA did in that time.
Commander Steve Lenik, TE KAHA’s commanding officer, says he is very proud of the sailors. “Some of them weren’t even born when TE KAHA was commissioned, and to see them grown into professional sailors made me really proud. They understand what we do, in advancing New Zealand’s interests, and they do it with strength of character, resilience and passion.” It was also a proud moment to be involved with the Carrier Strike Group. “You hear so much about them, their capability, and to be up close and personal with that, it was just awe-inspiring. The Americans were absolutely amazed by our camaraderie aboard TE KAHA, and that opened them up to being friendly and trusting of us. They are very professional in their work, and their passion in what they do came across.”
As TE KAHA rounds North Head, it is easy to see the crowds at Devonport. 17 guns are fired from TE KAHA, to acknowledge the Chief of Navy, with Devonport firing seven guns in return. Around 700 relatives and friends move to the wharf to wait. Sailors on board, standing along the starboard rail, can’t resist a wave as faces start getting recognisable among the placards and signs. CDR Lenik and LTCDR Thompson join in the ship’s haka, returning the haka from shore. The CO is the first one ashore, and his embrace with his family starts the exodus, as sailors reunite with their loved ones.
Ange Dixon, mother of Leading Electronic Warfare Specialist Chelsea Dixon, had told her daughter to look out for a large Welcome Home placard. “It’s fantastic to see her,” she says. “We’ve missed her so much. We don’t really worry. She’s got a neat bunch of friends, and a good crew.”