Governor Martyn Roper only had to step outside his door Friday morning to see his beach being invaded.
A large landing craft slid onto the sand just north of the governor’s mansion, loaded with troops in camouflage and equipment from Britain’s Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Not long after, trucks, personnel carriers and a large tractor with a skip loader rolled across the sand, leaving monster treadmarks on a surface usually marked only by bare footprints.
The annual visit from the RFA is part of its training operations in preparation for hurricane season and any other natural disaster where a Caribbean island might need outside assistance. The force can provide humanitarian relief, medical services and heavy equipment.
On hand for the event was Britain’s Minister of State for the Commonwealth and United Nations Lord Tariq Ahmad, who stood on the beach with Roper, watching the action unfold.
Ahmad, whose responsibilities include the British Overseas Territories, said the drill was “an example of how in the instance of any emergency, we can respond quickly. We stand ready to assist”.
Roper said he was impressed by the operation.
“That was the first time I’ve seen a beach landing,” Roper said. “It underlines what an incredible asset RFA is for the region.”
The landing craft and equipment were deployed from the RFA Mounts Bay, which sat several hundred yards offshore. Stationed in the Caribbean, the ship has a contingency of 180 personnel on board and in an anticipated hit from a hurricane more crew members, such as medical personnel, can be added. The ship is equipped to handle up to 450 crew members and, in an evacuation situation, it can carry 3,500 people for a few hours.
Along with the heavy equipment it carries, the ship has a helicopter, which later ferried Governor Roper and Lord Ahmad from the Ritz-Carlton hotel landing pad to Owen Roberts International Airport where they were to pick up a flight to Cayman Brac, returning later in the day by police helicopter.
This is the second of three planned rollout exercises for the Mounts Bay. The first was in St. Vincent, where the troops did not go ashore. Another beach landing is planned in Anguilla, said the ship’s captain Jed MacAnley. He said such exercises are critical.
“Every year there’s a new mix of people and we need to train and practice and look for the deficiencies so you can counter them,” MacAnley said.
That is particularly true, he said, because the crew never knows for sure what it will be facing.
“The nature of what we’re doing here is unpredictable,” he said. “You never know what it’s going to be. You might plan for six or seven scenarios, but you might get an eighth.”
Captain Tom Booth oversees the engineering group that trains specifically for the landings and relief work. He said his team likes hitting the beach.
“We have to keep ourselves occupied on the ship,” Booth said, adding that the troops train daily for their role. “But there is a bit of downtime. We actually look forward to coming ashore and doing our job.”
Unlike last year, when the RFA members spent part of their shore time clearing brush around Her Majesty’s Prison, this year they planned only to drive their vehicles to the north end of Batabano Road and then to a site where they went through the motions of setting up a water and supply distribution station.
“The main thing is to prove the capability to everyone and that everyone’s on the same level,” Booth said.
Roper said the ship and the support from the UK are an important supplement to Cayman’s own resources. Coordinating ahead of time with Cayman’s premier and Hazard Management Cayman Islands is critical, he said.
“It’s a really important signal of what the UK can bring,” Roper said of Friday’s drill and the presence of the Mounts Bay in the Caribbean. “It’s a fantastic asset, an asset we could deploy immediately.”