Britain’s second and newest aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, has squeezed out of Rosyth dockyard – marking the vessel’s maiden voyage.
Measuring 280 metres in length, the sister ship of HMS Queen Elizabeth left the Scottish basin where she was assembled on Thursday to begin nine weeks of sea trials.
But the process of getting the four-acre military operating base on to the Firth of Forth marked one of the most delicate manoeuvres the warship will have to undertake.
Navigators, pilots and tug boats had the slimmest of margins to deal with as they guided the 65,000 tonne behemoth out of the basin through a narrow opening during high tide.
The gap the aircraft carrier had to pass through is little more than 40 metres wide – allowing around one metre of clearance either side and half a metre between the bottom of the ship and the sea bed.
Captain Darren Houston, the commanding officer of HMS Prince of Wales, told the PA news agency ahead of the departure that he was not worried.
“We feel prepared, we are absolutely ready for this,” he said, adding how they have practised in a simulator and that he was on board HMS Queen Elizabeth when she left Rosyth in 2017.
“We won’t be relaxed until we actually get safely into the channel. The focus will be on making sure we get there properly.”
Once in the river, the £3.1 billion aircraft carrier will anchor for three to five days before waiting for a low tide to pass under the Firth’s famous bridges.
To do so, the mast pole on top of one of the islands, which operates on a hydraulic system, will be lowered so the ship can pass under the bridges and head towards the North Sea.
Captain Houston said there was a “real air of excitement” among the 650 ship’s company and 300 contractors, adding he was proud of the work they have done to get the vessel ready for sea trials which will test areas including the engines and radar systems.
Having previously served as second in command on board HMS Queen Elizabeth, he said he saw exactly what happened during her sea trials and knows how this aircraft carrier will react.
With a mixture of new Royal Navy sailors and old hands making up the crew, Captain Houston said for him there is a “sense of pride and a real privilege to be the first captain” to take the ship to sea.
With HMS Prince of Wales setting sail, it will see both of the UK’s biggest and most powerful warships at sea together for the first time.
Rear Admiral Martin Connell, assistant chief of naval staff aviation and carrier strike, said: “I was the commanding officer of HMS Illustrious – our former aircraft carrier – and if someone had told me at the beginning of this decade we would have two brand new aircraft carriers at sea by the end of the decade, I wouldn’t have believed them.
“In a matter of days, perhaps weeks, we are going to have HMS Queen Elizabeth on the western Atlantic operating F-35s stealth fighter jets, as well as HMS Prince of Wales around the UK doing contractor sea trials.
“That is a remarkable feat in terms of the project.
“But, also what it gives us is the ability and the confidence to think we will have a continuous carrier capability for decades.”
During their 50-year service, the two aircraft carriers can be pressed into action for various work such as high intensity war fighting or providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
They have been built by the Aircraft Carrier Alliance (ACA) – a partnership of BAE Systems, Babcock, Thales and the Ministry of Defence.
Overall, six shipyards around the UK – Appledore, Birkenhead, Govan, Portsmouth, Rosyth and Tyne – have been involved in building various parts of the carriers.
Minister for defence procurement Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who toured the ship ahead of the departure, said it is “fantastic that we have got our carrier strike capability back”.
“These are Formula One ships – extraordinary beasts delivering both global power projection and indeed the ability to deliver hard power if we need to against our enemies,” she added.
HMS Prince of Wales is expected to head into her home base of Portsmouth once sea trials have been completed, and will commission into the Royal Navy at the end of the year.