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A life at sea – reflections by retiring RFA chief officer Dave Gatenby, RFA

21 January 2021

In 1982 a young 22-year-old Dave Gatenby embarked on his first ship, RFA Gold Rover, a small fleet tanker, to start his career in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service. Now the long-serving Nautilus liaison officer reflects on a 40-year career ahead of his retirement in April

Following in the footsteps of dad Terry and brother Chris, I joined a service that I had been involved with as a small child visiting ships that dad was serving on.

I travelled all the way from Edinburgh to Portland by numerous trains to find my ship had not yet arrived. My first night was spent on another RFA vessel, Engadine, until my ship arrived the next day. I remember my first bollocking, asking the captain and chief officer to make a tannoy and being strongly rebuked as 'we use pipes on ships'… there was a whole new language to quickly learn.

The Falklands conflict began, and my ship headed to the Gulf to cover HM ship duties; all other ships went South. A 10-month trip ensued until return to the UK.

I worked on all classes of RFA vessels as a baby assistant purser until being promoted to purser and suddenly being 'in charge', a daunting thought. Reaching senior purser (C/O(LS) RFA rank) followed, and my final seagoing trip was on Argus, a ship I stood by the conversion of in Harland & Wolfe, Belfast.

Deep sea travel being the norm, I got to travel the world and meet a whole host of interesting people along the way.

I sailed off to the Gulf War 1 on RFA Sir Galahad at the same time as my brother and the media took a lot of interest as 'The Brother in Arms' went off to war. Thankfully we both returned home unharmed. Many operational tours followed but most memorable were Sir Galahad's involvement in Angola, providing the United Nations with support to stabilise the country following many years of civil war.

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'Brothers in arms' 

This was the first time the RFA was officially recognised as being part of a UN peacekeeping force.

Galahad was awarded the Wilkinson's Sword of Peace and I received a Queens Commendation for Valuable Service for pioneering logistical support to the operation.    

RFA Argus also supported UK efforts to combat Ebola in Sierra Leone and I was proud to have played a part in assisting the fight against the virus.

I was appointed RFA public relations officer and worked in RFA HQ in London before it moved to Portsmouth Naval Base. I was the first RFA Training Officer in HMS Raleigh, collective training policy lead and have had two opportunities as RFA/Nautilus liaison officer representing many members in their time of need.

It is hard to summarise just under 40 years at sea, but I have met and worked with some amazing people, assisted in some very difficult situations and faced a lot of challenges but would certainly do it all again.

I have met and worked with some amazing people, assisted in some very difficult situations and faced a lot of challenges but would certainly do it all again. Dave Gatenby, RFA chief officer

What is a lay rep?

Nautilus lay representatives are members in the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland who play a vital role in the Union's negotiations with employers and provide support for colleagues at companies that have a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with Nautilus.

Nautilus has four types of lay representatives across its three branches, who are selected in different ways through formal or informal processes.

  • Liaison officers (UK branch)
  • Partnership at Work (PAW) delegates (UK branch)
  • Kaderleden – Dutch lay reps (Netherlands branch)
  • Vertrauensleute – 'trusted people' (Swiss branch)
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