UK: First Female Sailor to Take Command of One of Navy’s Major Warships

First Female Sailor to Take Command of One of Navy's Major Warships

Sarah West is first and foremost a Royal Navy Officer. She is emphatically not a woman in a man’s world.

That she is the first woman to be given Command of one of the Navy’s major warships might be historically significant.

But to Lieutenant Commander West it is simply career progression. In April of next year, on promotion to Commander, she will assume command of HMS Portland, a Type 23 frigate.

It is a command she won on merit and in the face of tough competition. Her superior officers said that she showed “leadership, confidence, moral courage, sound judgement and exceptional people skills”.

She has demonstrated these qualities as Commanding Officer in a succession of Sandown Class mine hunters, namely HMS Ramsey, HMS Pembroke, HMS Penzance and HMS Shoreham.

“It is what I signed up for, Sailors should want to go to sea.”

She said.

She knows Type 23s well enough; she has served in HMS Somerset and subsequently as Operations Officer and then Executive Officer on HMS Norfolk.

“They are very versatile and capable ships and I am delighted and very proud to be taking command of HMS Portland. I start training for my new appointment in the New Year and I am very much looking forward to it.”

Lt Cdr West, 39, was born and educated in Lincolnshire and she graduated from the University of Hertfordshire with an Honours Degree in Mathematics.

She was sitting in an office at work one day, wondering what the future held, when she glanced as a newspaper advert.

“The next thing I knew I was walking through the doors of the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth to begin my training as a Warfare Officer,”

she said,

“and I have loved every minute of it.”

The Royal Navy first allowed women to go to sea in 1990, five years before Lt Cdr West joined up – so she knew what she was doing and she knew she wanted to go to sea.

In her first two years she had served with HMS Battleaxe, HMS Sandown and, with HMS Sheffield, had been deployed to the Gulf.

She joined HMS Cottesmore in 1997 after selection as a small ship navigator and then it was back to Sheffield as Officer of the Watch and on to HMS Somerset as Navigating Officer.

She successfully completed the Principal Warfare Officers’ Course, specialising in under water warfare and then joined HMS Cornwall as a Principal Warfare Officer.

“I certainly had plenty of opportunities to go to sea, but as I say, it is what I signed up for.”

In 2005 she was appointed to the Commander Amphibious Task Group as the under water warfare specialist and her job there included the planning and execution of operations and exercises around the world, including the evacuation in Beirut.

2007 saw her move to the staff of the Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood where she helped coordinate UK operations in the Balkans during the time in which Kosovo declared Independence.

Moving to the Middle East Operations Team, her responsibilities included coordinating the maritime contribution of Operation Telic in Iraq.

And during this busy period in her life, she also found the time to complete an Honours Degree in Law.

Sarah is one of approximately 3,300 women in the Naval Service, of whom 620 are officers. This compares with almost 32,000 men, 5,990 of them of officer rank.

That’s just over 10 per cent – and this ratio is continued at sea.

As it happens, Shoreham’s current crew is otherwise made up entirely of men, but there will be women on HMS Portland.

She said:

“Actually, when I joined up, of the three services I thought that the Royal Navy offered the best opportunities for women.

“I have never experienced the slightest hint of any attitude in the Navy that prefers men over women.

“Of course, not everyone who joins the Navy wanting to be a captain will end up one.

“Not everyone in newspapers gets to be an editor in Fleet Street. That’s the nature of the lives we live.

“But I have worked hard and I have enjoyed my career so far and I have fulfilled my ambitions to go to sea and to command warships.”

She spent eight and a half months with her team in the Gulf – Mine Countermeasure Vessels (MCMVs) are small, with a crew of less than 40.

They are made up from the Sandown Class Mine Hunters and the Hunt Class which can both sweep and hunt for mines.

The CO of a small ship has to ensure that there is a camaraderie that might not be present in a larger warship.

The sailor in her admitted:

“When we joined the ship we were flown out to the Gulf, which is not nearly as much fun as making the 7,000 mile transit by sea, across the Bay of Biscay and into the Med via Gibraltar, then through the Suez Canal.

“When Shoreham goes back to the Gulf next year, she’ll sail and her new Commanding Officer will get the ideal opportunity to train and develop his, or her crew – and more importantly, to get to know them.”

Lt Cdr West, who is single, has enjoyed a rich and rewarding career and she isn’t finished yet.

“I have no particular ambitions, save to do the very best I can. But if there are glass ceilings in the Navy I haven’t encountered them yet.

“Portland is a fine ship and I am very much looking forward to taking Command. I have seen the world and I have loved every minute of my 16 years in the Service.

“I have recommended the Navy to my friends and I am proud to say that some of them have taken my advice and joined up.

“They are all doing very well. It’s a great life.”

Naval Today Staff , November 22, 2011; Image: royalnavy