• W.S. Petty

The day I caught the train

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

I never saw it as the start of something so profoundly life changing when I joined The Royal Navy at the tender age of sixteen. But life changing is exactly what it was and it has defined my very existence ever since.

I left secondary school with very low aspirations and below average GCSE results. Looking back I can remember seeing this coming a mile off. Towards the end of my fifteenth year I took a giant leap in maturity, I grew up rapidly. Prior to this accelerated mental development I’d been quite immature for a youth of my age. I wasn’t very confident making friends, very awkward interpersonally and physically, I wasn’t interested in competing in any sport and despite my insecurities, I was the class clown. It came as no surprise to me, considering how poor my behaviour had been over the previous four years, that many of my teachers had simply given up on me. At one stage, I had pleaded with my Maths teacher to submit me for the intermediate GCSE Maths paper. The school had entered me into the foundation paper, as such the highest possible grade I could achieve was a D. The problem with that was the roles, courses and apprenticeships I was looking to apply for once I’d left school, all required a GCSE grade C or above. I was becoming anxious for my future.

Once I’d left school I enrolled in the local sixth form college. My poor GCSE results were holding me back and I was placed on an intermediate GNVQ course in engineering. I also took a re-sit GCSE maths course. The intermediate GNVQ is a level 2 qualification on the national qualifications framework. The only thing I could see it being useful for was to lead into the advanced GNVQ, a level 3 qualification. At least with a level 3 I thought that I could use it to gain meaningful employment. College was no fun, there was a tedious bus journey there and back, the engineering course was in no way challenging and it attracted some of the worst underachievers in the local area, like me! Unlike me, many of these guys had no desire to improve themselves and I could tell this wasn’t a healthy environment for me to be in, surrounded by the dross of society. I simply couldn’t stand the thought of going there for a further three years, three long years in full time education, with no proper job (I was washing up in a local cafe at weekends) and no real income!

Living by the sea I had for a long time seen ships in transit in and out of port. In the summer I enjoyed swimming through their wake as it rolled across the beach and I remember being taken to the sea wall on numerous occasions as a small child. I especially remember my Grandad taking me when there was a vessel of interest going past, such as a large warship, The Royal Yacht or a submarine! I dreamed of what life must have been like on one of those awesome looking things and I even wrote in an essay at the age of twelve that I’d like to join the Navy when I grew up. I’d forgotten about the essay by the time I left school at the age of sixteen.

One rainy Sunday afternoon I met with a good friend in the local snooker club. The snooker club sits opposite the sea wall. After knocking a few frames of snooker around we called it a day and I headed home the long way, by walking along the beach. I was feeling very sorry for myself! The depressing prospect of going into that damn college Monday morning filled me with dread. As the rain further dampened my spirits I stopped to look out to sea. Out of the gloom, the murky silhouette of a warship began to emerge. I remember feeling a little smug that I could tell it was a type 23 frigate, as I could with the silhouette of all the types of British warships of the time. Then it hit me like a ray of sunshine, “what on earth am I doing here, I want to be out there on that thing,” I said out loud to myself. I’d had my light bulb moment. I began to think of my Grandad and all the times he’d brought me to the sea wall. All the times we’d walked up and over to the beach to see the ships go by and I remembered the essay I’d wrote as a twelve year old. This was my dream, I’d dreamed of being someone, to be remembered for the right reasons, not for being a clown or a looser with rubbish qualifications. Somehow I knew that the Navy had its own selection tests, so qualifications such as a C grade in GCSE Maths weren’t necessarily necessary. I just had to pass their tests! With my rediscovered vision of a brighter future fuelling me, I ran home to tell my Mum.

Quite surprisingly Mum was very encouraging; she told me to telephone my Dad as the armed forces careers offices was near to where he lived. A few weeks later I was invited to attend a career consultation with a Chief Petty Officer and my application began. Back in my school days, during my final year we had received careers advice from a variety of potential future employers and professionals. This culminated in a day of mock job interviews. I had requested and been selected by the British Army for interview, the other armed forces weren’t in attendance. I was interviewed by an Army Major and if I’m honest, I didn’t do very well at all. However, the advice this guy gave me regarding body language, posture, speaking direct, eye contact and confidence thankfully stuck with me. One year later and the way I applied his advice was put to the test during my application to join the Royal Navy!

For me, selection into the Royal Navy consisted of psychometric testing, a formal interview and a medical examination. I’d been asked previously how I felt about the possibility of service aboard nuclear powered submarines, I was asked again at my interview. In all honesty I’d thought of nothing else since the subject first came up and here in my interview, trying desperately to look professional and apply the advice of the Army Major, I struggled to contain my enthusiasm. The thought of doing something so different, that no one else I knew would ever dream of doing, not to mention all the doubters it would silence, gave me a determination to succeed like I’d never felt before. My application was successful and my course was set. I was service bound and set to become a Royal Navy rating in the submarine service.

When the day eventually came to leave home and head for HMS Raleigh in the South West of England, my Mum decided to accompany me. It took some convincing, but she eventually agreed to only come as far as Paddington station in London. At Paddington I boarded the train and found my seat shortly before departure. Mum was waiting alongside the train. I could see her through the window I was sitting next to. I slipped my headphones over my head and switched my minidisk player on to play a random tune. The train began to move, I waved at Mum, she blew a kiss and at that very moment Ocean Colour Scene and The Day We Caught the Train began to play. I smiled and thought that is was very appropriate and that I’d never forget this moment. And I never have! The song didn’t gain its full significance until the day I left the Navy, exactly seven years later. My Dad drove all the way to Devonport to pick me up in his van, as I had amassed a lot of stuff that needed bringing home. Quite literally as we drove through the gate of HMS Drake, The Day We Caught the Train came on the radio, spooky!

What the Royal Navy did for me was to give that awkward, immature, underachieving, class clown a professional start in the world of work. Serving in the submarine service gave me membership to a brotherhood like few others. It has given me an identity and a thirst for self improvement, not just for myself but to help those around me too. I am a better man for having served and while I appreciate serving in the armed forces isn’t for everyone, I believe that a great deal can be learned by the youth of today from those who have served. This is especially applicable to those who, like me, were slow to mature, slow to realise what they want in life and slow to realise exactly how to get what they want. Alternatively, the armed forces may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there are other organisations which require similar aptitude and will have similar rewards if you are willing to scratch the surface to look. Once you are spat out of full time education as an adult, it becomes an expensive business to retrain, re-qualify or improve any area of your life. Expensive not just in terms of money but also in time, effort and how bothered you are to make a change. It’s certainly not impossible though and where there’s a will there’s a way.

While in the Navy, I also discovered what it truly means to make friends. From the civilians I left behind, those who took the time to keep in touch and send care packages, to the guys I went to hell and back with. My friends, my Oppo’s!

I hope that in sharing this story I’m able to inspire young people into taking a leap of faith in themselves. I hope that readers will realise that they don’t have to settle for a suboptimal life after being pigeonholed by their past performance.

Please feel free to share your thoughts about any of my articles by copying a web link into Twitter and Tweeting @WSPetty, that way we can discuss openly any points you might wish to make.

W.S. Petty

For more information about Careers in the Royal Navy, click here.

OCS The Day We Caught The Train available in [US] - [UK]

Ocean Colour Scene should be visible below, enjoy!

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