Sadness and optimism of carrier’s last captain

HOPEFUL Capt Mike Utley says he would like to see Illustrious preserved after her decommissioning   Picture: Allan Hutchings (141964-840)
HOPEFUL Capt Mike Utley says he would like to see Illustrious preserved after her decommissioning Picture: Allan Hutchings (141964-840)

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CAPTAIN Mike Utley says he is optimistic for the future of the Royal Navy following the retirement of HMS Illustrious – and he hopes the 32-year-old carrier can be repurposed.

Capt Utley brought his ship back to Portsmouth from Scotland, where Illustrious and her crew had taken part in the naming ceremony for HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier.

He said: ‘It seemed like there were thousands of people out there cheering us on from Southsea.

‘I have never seen that many people there and I have made many entries to Portsmouth.

‘I want to say a huge thank you to people for coming out.

‘I am sad but also extremely proud and optimistic for the future of the navy.

‘We were lucky enough to be at the naming ceremony for HMS Queen Elizabeth and you just can’t comprehend the size of her. Without a shadow of a doubt the highlight of my time on board Illustrious was the help we gave the people of the Philippines.’

The Ministry of Defence is now considering bids for the future of HMS Illustrious.

The government has previously stated it would like to see the carrier preserved for the nation in some way.

A number of ideas have been put forward, and those are now being considered.

Capt Utley said he would like to see Illustrious kept.

‘I hope it happens, because being retired in however many years I would love to be able to go on board and walk around my old ship,’ he said.

Firing her gun and blasting her horn, HMS Illustrious made sure her final entrance to Portsmouth was one to remember.

Hundreds of people stood beneath the sunshine to welcome home the last of the Royal Navy’s Invincible-class carriers as she heads for retirement.

They lined the waterfronts on both sides of the harbour to get a glimpse of the 22,000-tonne carrier as she steamed into harbour yesterday.

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On the Round Tower in Old Portsmouth, the walls were thronged with retired sailors who came to see their old ship once more.

And on the jettyside in Portsmouth Naval Base, families of those on board waited to meet their loved ones off the ship.

Warrant Officer Steve Barr, 51, from Fareham, was met by wife Joanne, 46, and daughters Annabel, 15, and Felicity, 11.

He was one of the first crew members to join after she was commissioned in the aftermath of the Falklands conflict, and is one of the last off.

WO Barr, pictured right with his family, said: ‘I’ve got mixed emotions.

‘It’s sad but tinged with the fact that it’s retiring and I’m retiring next year so I’m happy to spend more time with my family.

‘It is sad but this is old technology, it’s done its time and served its purpose.’

WO Barr’s daughter Annabel has her heart set on joining the Royal Navy when she is old enough.

And Felicity wants to join the Royal Marines Band Service. Annabel said: ‘The homecoming was quite exciting and I’m glad it’s something I got to see.

‘I can’t wait to join the navy myself now. I want to follow in the footsteps of my parents as I’m proud of them.’

Lusty’s final homecoming was in stark contrast to that of her sister ship, Ark Royal.

The Mighty Ark returned to Portsmouth for the last time on a bleak winter’s day, watched by hundreds of people who braved snow and ice to reach the waterfront around Old Portsmouth and Gosport.

On that day, there were more tears than cheers, as Ark Royal’s decommissioning was sudden and controversial.

But yesterday there was sunshine and smiles, as the ship’s company of Illustrious saw the ship out on a high.

On the jettyside, ice creams were handed out while the Royal Marines Band of HMS Collingwood marched.

The warship arrived with her 700-strong ship’s company, flying a 210-metre decommissioning pennant, shortly after 1pm.

As reported in The News, the government has repeatedly stated it wants to see HMS Illustrious preserved for the nation rather than scrapped, if a viable option is put forward.

The Ministry of Defence says it has received a number of ‘interesting’ bids and is now looking into them.

Illustrious will be decommissioned at a ceremony in Portsmouth later this year.