Seas and sailors

At the Navy Information Centre where I work we like to talk about building bridges with international partners.

We bandy about terms like enhancing cooperation and strengthening interoperability, terms that sound good in a news release but don’t always mean much to the average person, or sailor. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve asked – But what are they actually doing in the exercise?

Tonight I attended a cocktail by a host of foreign warships berthed at Changi Naval Base. On the flight deck of the USS Fortworth, Americans, Koreans and Singaporeans danced in a group to pop music. At the foot of their gangway men and women from the US and Korean navies swapped belts from their all-white uniforms. I toasted a Indian sailor with makgeolli and soju on the ROKS Incheon; a Chinese sailor on the CNS Yulin invites American visitors for a shot (or three) of the very potent 茅台酒.

On the flight deck of the Australian HMAS Perth one of their servicewoman notices I am on the periphery of the party and she asks where I’m from, what I do, where I’ve been. I tell her about the two Exercise Tridents I’ve been on, about parts of her country I’ve visited and loved. She tells me they didn’t have time for shore leave today, but I wish she could have done the same in mine.

When the cocktails wind down and I walk down the wharf to leave there are groups of sailors returning from shore leave, carrying bags of shopping – mostly from Mustafa – for their loved ones waiting at home. It is a familiar sight. I have watched our servicemen do this at so many ports, after so many liberty runs. The seas divide, but they can also unite. Sailors all miss home the same.

When the handshakes have been shaken and the contracts have been signed and all the rhetoric has been said, tonight people came together. Tonight we laughed, talked, drank, and danced. Tonight we found company and familiarity in one another. Maybe tonight that’s all defence relations needs to mean.

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