Aircraft carrier’s departure for major Nato exercise postponed at last moment

The fleet flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth had been expected to depart from Portsmouth Naval Base last Sunday to lead the largest Nato exercise since the Cold War, involving more than 40 vessels.

But the sailing of the £3 billion warship was called off at the last minute after an “issue” was found in final checks with the starboard propeller coupling.

The setback came 18 months after HMS Prince of Wales broke down off the Isle of Wight, when it also suffered a malfunction with a coupling on its starboard propeller.

Since the cancellation was announced, the crew and base workers have been busily preparing the HMS Prince of Wales to take over its sister ship’s role in Exercise Steadfast Defender – which will take place off Norway.

As part of the preparations, scaffolding which was seen on the carrier’s flight deck had been removed ready for the sailing.

People lined the walls of Portsmouth Harbour to watch the 65,000-tonne warship on Sunday.

Spectators gather near Portsmouth Harbour to see the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales before the sailing was cancelled (Gareth Fuller/PA)

But after Ministry of Defence (MoD) police boats had secured the area and the harbour mouth was closed to traffic – the normal protocol for the departure of a carrier – the channel was reopened and HMS Prince of Wales failed to leave the jetty.

It is unclear if the sailing was cancelled before the carrier was set to leave or whether it had made its first movements from the jetty at Portsmouth Naval Base.

One member of the public who had come to wave off the carrier said: “I hope it hasn’t broken down again.”

After about 20 minutes, the hundreds of people gathered to see the ship started to disperse as word spread that it was not leaving.

An MoD spokesman said that the sailing had been postponed and added that an announcement would be made later on Sunday of a future sailing time for HMS Prince of Wales.

But the spokesman did not give a reason for the last-minute postponement of the sailing.

He said: “The aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales is due to sail from Portsmouth soon, subject to suitable tide and weather conditions.”

Having HMS Queen Elizabeth out of action could affect the ability of the Royal Navy to deploy an aircraft carrier to the Red Sea amid the continuing threat by Iran-backed Houthi rebels – which armed forces minister James Heappey has suggested was being considered.

HMS Queen Elizabeth deployment
Aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales (top right) berths alongside aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at Portsmouth Naval Base (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Announcing the change of plans, Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Andrew Burns said: “Routine pre-sailing checks identified an issue with a coupling on HMS Queen Elizabeth’s starboard propeller shaft. As such, the ship will not sail on Sunday.

“HMS Prince of Wales will take her place on Nato duties and will set sail for Exercise Steadfast Defender as soon as possible.”

A Royal Navy spokesman said: “On completion of initial investigations, HMS Queen Elizabeth will sail for Rosyth in Scotland so any necessary repairs can be carried out in due course.

“The cause of the issue with HMS Queen Elizabeth is wear and tear of her starboard propeller shaft coupling.”

HMS Prince of Wales broke down as it was heading to a diplomatic mission to carry out exercises with the US Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and the US Marine Corps.

The carrier came to a halt off the Isle of Wight and was brought under tow back into harbour for the problem to be identified.

Inspections by divers and engineers found the carrier’s 33-ton starboard propeller – the same weight as 30 Ford Fiesta cars – had malfunctioned, with a coupling holding it in place breaking.

Spectators near Portsmouth Harbour
Spectators near Portsmouth Harbour hoped to see the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales off (Gareth Fuller/PA)

An MoD spokesman said the issue on HMS Queen Elizabeth was “separate and not linked” to the earlier defect on its sister ship.

He said: “The issue identified is with the ship’s shaft couplings. The ship’s propeller shafts are too big to be made from a single piece of metal, so each shaft is made from three sections, which are connected using shaft couplings, which bind the shaft sections together.”

HMS Prince of Wales was taken to the Babcock shipyard where it was built in Rosyth, Fife, to undergo repairs to a propeller shaft, which took nine months to complete.

On that occasion, HMS Queen Elizabeth acted as the replacement for its sister ship on the US deployment.

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