With the words "what the hell is that?" Lieutenant James Denney was the first to notice that the crew of HMS Nottingham had set their £115m destroyer on a collision course with a rock.
By the time the navigation officer checked the charts, it was too late. Thirty seconds later the Navy's most capable air defence destroyer smashed into Wolf Rock, leading to a £39m repair bill and one of the most embarrassing incidents in recent naval history.
Yesterday, Commander Richard Farrington, 43, and three of his officers were sentenced for their part in the affair at a court martial at Portsmouth Naval Base.
Commander Farrington was being entertained by dignitaries on Lord Howe Island off the east coast of Australia on 7 July last year, the day of the accident. In his absence, three of his trusted officers kept altering the course of the destroyer. When he returned by helicopter they changed direction yet again to help the flight crew get the Lynx back into a hangar. They failed to check their charts and did not notice that they were four minutes from the rock.
Commander Farrington admitted yesterday neglecting to delegate command properly and received the lowest sentence of a reprimand. His barrister, Hugh Anderson, said: "He bears no responsibility for the actual grounding but Commander Farrington stands shoulder to shoulder with his team. Whatever you do today, no punishment can match how Commander Farrington felt to see his ship so close to being lost and his crew endangered."
Lt Denney, 28, officer of the watch responsible for the ship's safety that night, admitted negligently causing the crash and was dismissed from his current ship.
Lieutenant-Commander John Lea, 38 - who had been in charge at the time - and Lieutenant Andrew Ingham, 27, pleaded guilty to negligence in allowing the ship to be stranded. The former was dismissed from his current posting while the latter received a severe reprimand.
Commodore Phillip Wil-cocks, sentencing, said: "This incident has undermined the high reputation of the Royal Navy and caused significant embarrassment."
HMS Nottingham, which had recently had a £55m refit, was on a nine-month deployment when the accident happened. She had left Cairns three days earlier and was in the Tasman Sea passing Lord Howe Island, bound for Wellington, New Zealand.
There was a medical emergency and a crew member was taken to the island. Twelve members of the crew, led by Lieutenant-Commander Lea, were dispatched to thank the islanders for their help while the ship anchored in a bay.
But they realised that Clive Wilson, the marine services manager on Lord Howe Island, had provided drinks and food in the hope of meeting the commanding officer. Commander Farrington said that he would fly over and meet Mr Wilson when the party returned. It was agreed that HMS Nottingham would continue and pick him up later.
Commander Farrington handed responsibility to Lieutenant-Commander Lea without returning to the bridge or noting the delegation of duty. Over the next two hours, HMS Nottingham changed course repeatedly, eventually heading back towards land. As Commander Farrington's aircraft landed in the dark, Lieutenant-Commander Lea and his navigation officer decided to alter course yet again.
Stuart Crozier, for the prosecution, said: "Critically, Lt Denney gave the order for the ship to alter course, having omitted to check the ship's position on the chart.
"[It] was some four minutes from Wolf Rock travelling directly towards it at 12 knots. Lt Denney didn't know where the ship was when he executed this final crucial alteration.
"Not one of the three complement officers knew where the ship was in relation to the chart and thus not one of them paid heed to the developing danger."
Lt Denney then noticed the rock, exclaiming: "What the hell is that - looks like moonlight on the water." As Lt Ingham rushed to check the charts, the warship hit the rock. Commander Farrington raced to the bridge and took control, ordering emergency stations. HMS Nottingham was stuck on the rock for three minutes.
The ship's company of 253- several of whom were later decorated - fought for hours in chest-deep water to save her. Experts said yesterday that it would have cost £250m to build a new destroyer.
Rear-Admiral David Snelson, head of UK Maritime Forces in the Gulf War, gave evidence on behalf of Commander Farrington, who is now budget planning at naval personnel headquarters, praising his tenacity, courage and leadership after the ship crashed. Barristers for the four men pointed out that, while they accepted their guilt, they were highly respected officers with previously spotless records.
As he left court, Commander Farrington said: "This incident reminds us all that the sea is an unforgiving master."
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