It’s like a big family

Semaphore training for Portsmouth Sea Cadets
Semaphore training for Portsmouth Sea Cadets

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Under the watchful eye of Field Marshal Montgomery, about 30 children and teenagers stand to attention.

The youngsters of Portsmouth Sea Cadets are performing one of their weekly parades beneath a big picture of the unit’s first president .

The photograph of the military leader sits high on the wall at the unit’s base on Portsmouth’s Whale Island and the youngsters have gathered for an evening of activities.

But first they must follow a Royal Navy tradition and raise their ensign.

‘It brings all of our young people and staff together,’ says Sub Lieutenant Katrina Lappin, the executive officer of the Portsmouth unit.

‘It’s our formal way of touching base with everyone and talking about anything we need to go through. But we also do it because Sea Cadets is still based on the customs and traditions of the Royal Navy. Although we’re not a pre-service organisation, we mirror the traditions.’

But after the formality it’s on to some fun as the cadets, aged between 10 and 18, practice sempahore signals or learn piping – giving a large range of commands and signals on special whistles.

This is a winter session of the Portsmouth Sea Cadets. In the summer they are out and about, enjoying all kinds of activities like sailing, powerboating, canoeing and even windsurfing.

It’s easier to get the young people on the water in the summer, but even in winter there are plenty of things to do and learn. Last week cadets went to Longmoor army training camp near Liphook, where they did physical activities, first aid, cookery and even silver service training.

‘It’s a lot more varied than people think. We can normally keep a child occupied doing something every weekend of the year,’ says Katrina.

‘And while a lot of our activities are obviously afloat and a big proportion of the cadets are here for that, not everyone likes it. Some people prefer the drills and ceremonial side.’

However, new recruits are given plenty of time to settle in and find out if they’re going to like it.

‘We would rather they understand everything about it and really want to be here, it makes it easier for us,’ laughs Katrina.

When they join they’re following a long line of Sea Cadets. Records dating back for the past 70 years show one million members, including Sean Connery, Paul O’Grady, Dan Snow and John Prescott.

The Portsmouth unit was formed in name in 1942 and then properly in 1947 with Montgomery as its president. Its base is known as TS Alamein, named after the famous Second World War battle.

Katrina explains how Sea Cadets has benefited generations of people, including herself.

‘I think you learn self-discipline and are encouraged to take pride in yourself and what you are doing. You learn to take responsibility for yourself, just by making sure you have packed everything properly, things like that. And I don’t think there’s anywhere better for becoming a good team player, that’s probably one of the biggest things you go away with.’

Not surprisingly colleges and employers are often impressed with the values and skills cadets can demonstrate. Members rise through the ranks and the older cadets help with classes and the organisation of activities, assisting the volunteer instructors.

They also have the chance to achieve all kinds of qualifications. These include RYA (Royal Yachting Association) and BCU (British Canoe Union) qualifications and BTECs in subjects including music, public services and engineering.

Cadets can also take part in exchanges with similar organisations in other countries.

‘There are plenty of opportunities to meet new people and make friends,’ says Katrina.

‘One of the girls went to India in 2009 and made a friend there and now they’ve gone off travelling together.’

Although it isn’t a training service for the navy, the Sea Cadets offers an excellent start for anyone wanting to enter the services. It has also proved a good starting point for other maritime careers. The chief instructor at Hamble School of Yachting went through the Sea Cadet ranks.

Another former cadet is Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Geoff Palmer, During his career he has often acted as a ship’s Sea Cadets liaison officer, providing a link between units and naval vessels.

He explains why he has kept his links with Sea Cadets - he’s now Portsmouth chairman.

‘I think it’s fantastic, what you see here is amazing, how people grow and develop. They learn so much. And people often come back to it, as volunteers or just to tell us how they’re doing. It’s a bit like a family, you keep coming back.’