It was the strangest of naval homecomings.
On the one hand, the families of 189 of HMS Westminster’s sailors were jubilant at the return of their loved ones after a tough seven months in the Gulf.
On the other, there was an undercurrent of deep sadness that one sailor, Timmy MacColl, is missing.
Seventy-seven days after the 27-year-old dad-of-two mysteriously vanished following a night out in Dubai, his ship returned to Portsmouth without him.
His absence was marked simply with a gap among the ratings who were lined up on deck in the traditional way.
Children, wives and parents shrieked and waved as the ship arrived home.
Banners were held aloft and the sailors responded with big smiles and waves.
Meanwhile, Timmy’s pregnant wife Rachael, 25, watched the joy and celebration from a discreet distance inside the base after declining an invitation to go on board the ship.
‘She wanted to see the ship come in, in private,’ said her mother Jacqui Brien,
‘Rachael is so brave and she hides things so well, but waits until she is on her own to release her emotions,’ she added
At the dockside, Westminster was soon tied up and the gangway put in place.
Suddenly, sailors rushed ashore beaming with joy.
‘It’s so good to be home,’ said Petty Officer Michael Jeffrey, 31, of Milton, as he cradled his baby daughter Laura, who was born just seven weeks ago.
Petty Officer Michael Cooper, 35, of Gosport, kissed his wife Sara, daughter Olivia, two, and his six-month old son William.
He said: ‘I saw him being born and then I flew back out there at the end of March so this is the first time I’ve seen him since then. It’s overwhelming.’
Like all of Westminster’s sailors, PO Cooper had been ordered not to talk about Timmy MacColl to the press.
‘We hope we find him. It was really hard, but I can’t comment much on it,’ he said.
Proud mother Julie Allen, 41, of Gosport, was among the few people on the jetty wearing a yellow ribbon to signify Timmy’s absence.
There were tears in her eyes as she waited for her son, Luke Allen, 23, to appear.
‘What’s happened has really affected us,’ she said.
‘We are so grateful Luke has come back fine. We’ve come here excited about Luke coming home but Timmy is very much in our thoughts.’
Debra Jones, of Gosport, kissed and hugged her husband, Chief Petty Officer Kevin Jones, 43.
She said: ‘It’s amazing, I’ve missed him so much.
‘There is a tinge of sadness there though and our thoughts are with Leading Seaman MacColl and his family. Everyone is hoping we can find him and bring him home safe and sound.’
Westminster’s commanding officer Captain Nick Hine was keen to stress the deployment had been a successful one despite the disappearance of one of his men.
He said: ‘We’ve been one of the most successful ships that have been out there.
‘We’ve done three counter-piracy disruptions, secured £16m of heroin and done a significant number of anti-submarine warfare exercises with our American allies. We’ve been off the east coast of Africa, providing a presence for safe navigation of the region throughout our time there.’
Asked about Timmy, he said he couldn’t comment about the ongoing Dubai police investigation.
He did, however, pay a warm tribute to his missing sailor and said: ‘He’s a typical sailor and an excellent gunner. He’s a good leading hand and a family man.
‘We used to talk about motorbikes, because I’ve got a motorbike and so has he, and we also used to talk a lot about our families.
‘He never posed any form of a problem on the ship, so for him to go missing is very much out of character.’
The captain revealed he’d spoken to Timmy the day before he disappeared during a run ashore in the Emirate.
He said: ‘We were having a joke. He told me he was going to the Ducati Cafe in Dubai Mall and having his picture taken with (Moto GP racer) Nicky Hayden and I was joking about how I thought Ducatis are unreliable and not worth having.
‘I see most of the ship’s company every day and nothing struck me that there was any sort of issue.’
Capt Hine flew home early to meet Timmy’s wife. He said: ‘Our thoughts are very with Rachael and the family, and we are doing all we can at this difficult time.’