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The HNLMS Holland is designed, powered and crewed for
counter-drug, anti-piracy and relief missions. A trip on board reveals the
precise interplay of training, technology and teamwork in the Royal Dutch Navy.
The helicopter hovers precariously close to the deck of the HNLMS Holland. Rotor blades rhythmically whirring, the sea churning – the noise is absolutely deafening. One officer is winched down to the ship. He lands steadily, turns rapidly and pulls the rope taut so another officer can slide safely down to join him on board. Within minutes, they press rewind and return the same way, up the rope and back into the chopper.
With a quick salute, cheeky wave and slight nose dip, they head off into the distance, the pulsating sound disappearing fast into the horizon. Quite an action-packed display of military precision and agile teamwork!
It was not only a training exercise, but also an opportunity to test, practice and hone the skills of the crew on board the helicopter and on the HNLMS Holland, an offshore-patrol vessel from the Dutch Navy. This was all happening just outside the main naval base, in Den Helder, but it could equally have been a maneuver during any one of its international deployments. As the advanced technology and fine teamwork were on open display outside, on the inside, the team was just as coordinated, working together to exploit their skills, equipment and propulsion system to keep the ship perfectly in place – and the officers out of harm’s way. As the vessel is deployed for challenging security operations, such interplay of training, technology and teamwork is essential for success – and safety.
When we are on an actual mission, it’s even more important to promote the team spirit than it is right now.
“It was really important to do this in a structured way, otherwise it would have been just a survival of the fittest,” explained Executive Officer David Boom, who is second in command on the HNLMS Holland. “Our small boats and helicopter were crucial in getting aid to the villagers in the southwest of the island, as the roads were down and the harbors destroyed. The fact that we were so well trained meant that we could make a difference fast.” Over 21 days, they brought in 450 metric tons of relief supplies to land.
On completing the humanitarian side of the mission, they changed direction, continued to Curaçao and turned their focus to tackling illicit drugs. Within a mere three months, they seized 3,000 kg of cocaine. From the stories the crew are eager to tell, it’s clear that the combination of drug-busting and aid relief made the last mission exhilarating, personally rewarding and also very successful.
The bulk of work on the HNLMS Holland involves intercepting drug couriers passing from the Central American coastline to the Netherlands Antilles, most commonly to Curaçao. It’s a route where hundreds of kilos of cocaine are regularly seized on a single day. What’s missed often makes its way to The Netherlands, usually by air to Amsterdam and by container ship or even private yachts to Rotterdam, the so-called drug gateways of Europe.
The ship has the perfect design, technology and engines for such low-intensity, rapid-response security operations. Since the vessel is fitted with state-of-the-art sensor and communication technology, a Thales Integrated Mast IM-400 with high-level electronic and radar surveillance capabilities, the crew is able to detect and track both high- and low-altitude air targets, as well as sea targets, including the fast speedboats typically used for trafficking cocaine. They are usually no match, however, for the speed and agility of a Fast Raiding Interception and Special Forces Craft (FRISC) traveling at 45 knots, or the NH-90 helicopter, that both have their home on board and can take up the high-speed chase within minutes.
The response has to be fast and coordinated, or it will have no chance of success.
Powered by two MAN 12V28/33D diesel engines, which have been specifically designed for navy ships, the HNLMS Holland has at its disposal 10% more power than similar engines that are fitted in ferries. With up to 1,032 rpm, they have an output of 6,000 kW.
The chief engineer, Sergeant Major Marco Greene, Chief Platform Systems, highlights the capabilities that make a difference: “Once at working temperature, we can take the engines from start to a maximum power of 1,000 rpm in just a few minutes, depending on the air humidity.” With this combination of high-speed equipment and reliable propulsion power, the crew on board is more likely to succeed, whatever the mission. Detect, pursue, intercept, board and confiscate. All are possible in rapid succession.
On the bridge, Captain van Zanten is clearly in charge, but the atmosphere is relaxed and collegial. Together with Lieutenant Fraukje Kok, the Navigating Officer, they discuss procedures and maneuvers and are clearly attuned to each other. There is a lot of banter between crew members. And not just on the bridge. From the cook who plays an essential role in keeping the crew happily fed and healthy, to the engineers and technicians who ensure the smooth running of the equipment and engines on board, good humor shines through all around.
It’s no doubt a quality that helps the crew cope with the mental and physical demands of the longer missions abroad, when they can be separated from their friends and families for months at a time. A sense of humor is clearly important on the ship, which supports the great team spirit on board.
The captain sees his responsibility mainly in creating an environment for such a spirit to thrive and to instill confidence in his crew. “The main message I try to get across is that you are part of the team and we will take care of you,” van Zanten says. “We can achieve much more together than we can individually. It’s worth a lot to me that the team works well together. This seamless integration of the crew with all the systems on board is hugely rewarding when we get it all right. For us, for the navy, and for our country.” Kok backs up the captain. “It’s impossible to do some maneuvers alone,” she adds. “We need to work as a team, especially with the mooring. To be in control of the ship and to get it to safety, working closely with the bridge and the deck crew, is such an awesome feeling.”
Teamwork stretches across the whole ship, and every rank. All the crew members seem to instinctively know where they need to be, and what they need to do. Whenever the ship is close to shore, two engineers are required to monitor the engines from the control room next to the bridge. But normally the engineer on duty works on the phone. “We carry portable devices with us that provide realtime diagnostics of the engines,” explains the chief engineer Greene. This is enabled by the MAN SaCoSone control and monitoring system. Greene has been in the navy for 31 years, serving on many types of vessels, but much prefers working on the smaller Holland-class ships.
We are a smaller, tighter team, we have much nicer accommodation, and far better technology on top.
Suddenly, the call “All hands on deck!” goes out. It’s time for a completely different kind of display on the helicopter landing pad. One of tradition and recognition for the sacrifices these men and women are prepared to make. Captain van Zanten makes a short speech, there is more laughter and joking. Boom is awarded the Dutch Navy Medal, in recognition of his recent services in the Caribbean and for having spent over 340 days at sea within a period of three years. The crew’s applause and celebratory cheers feel sincere.
From the moment the ship set sail, to the very personal ceremony at the end of the day, the impression was one of a close-knit team and true respect. Their training continues and will get tougher and more rigid in the coming months. They need to be prepared for their next deployment to the Caribbean, in February 2018. Whatever that might bring.
We can achieve much more together than we can individually. It’s worth a lot to me that the team works well together.
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