STEADYING their nerves, the crew of HMS York braced themselves as they squeezed into the entrance of the Panama Canal.
The tense moment came as the Type 42 destroyer began her voyage home to Portsmouth after five months away.
It took 10 hours to safely transit the 51 miles from the Pacific to the Caribbean, where York emerged and switched to drug-busting duties on the way to Jamaica.
The warship’s Lynx helicopter was scrambled once to search for a suspected drugs boat but nothing was found.
When she got to the capital, Kingston, York’s crew helped make over an orphanage.
Sailors worked flat out to give the home a lick of paint and spruce up the garden of Christian Boys Home while youngsters were given a tour aboard York.
Fannie Knight, the 103-year-old director of the orphanage, said: ‘I feel very good about getting the help, and the boys were so excited about going on the ship.’
Meanwhile, there was time for an emotional family reunion for one sailor.
Leading Seaman Silma Whitely, who is from near Kingston, said: ‘Since joining the navy eight years ago, this is the first time I have returned home in a warship.
‘It was really exciting – all of my family came to see the ship and have a look around.
‘They were as excited as I was.’
The warship left Portsmouth for the South Atlantic in February. But she was soon diverted to evacuate refugees out of Libya as conflict broke out between rebel and government forces in the country.
York was relieved from Libya by her sister ship HMS Liverpool and went on to patrol the Falkland Islands before heading west to Peru.
On her way west, she needed to be refuelled by a Chilean tanker for the first time in 10 years. The tanker blasted out rock music on the upper deck as it simultaneously filled up York and the Chilean warship Almirante Williams – formerly the Royal Navy frigate HMS Sheffield.
York’s captain, Commander Simon Staley, said: ‘It was an extremely slick and professional connection and transfer of some 350,000 litres of fuel from the impressive tanker.
‘There was a real sense of pride and camaraderie throughout the three-hour evolution.’
The warship is in the Atlantic and is scheduled to return home to Portsmouth Naval Base on Friday, July 8.