This summer (2001), I got to go on a FOREX (FOReign EXchange) cruise on board the CMT "Tripartite" minehunter BNS Lobelia (M 921), along with USNA midshipman Benjamin Drew. I had an amazing time: The Belgians were extermely hospitable, I learned a lot about navigation, and I got an interesting perspective on our different navies and cultures.
Most Americans don't know much about Belgium. "Oh, you're going to Belgium...Do you speak Belgian?" people would ask before I left. So, what is it like? The Belgians have a bit of an inferiority complex, as they are a relatively new nation, surrounded by larger countries on all sides. It really is an amazing country, however; Belgium is one of the wealthiest countries in the world (second only to Switzerland in per capita income), hosts the capital of the EU as well as NATO headquarters (Brussels), has great food (especially beer and chocolate, not to mention that they invented "French" fries and "Belgian" waffles), and is home to some very fun, friendly people. Definitely a great place to visit--it is sadly overlooked by many people when visiting Europe.
The Belgian Navy is relatively small (only a few thousand people and a couple dozen ships) but it seems to have a great "family" feel because of its size. The bulk of the operational fleet consists of minehunters like the ones Ben and I visited, which still look for World War II mines! They also helped in the Gulf War, etc. The Belgian Navy cooperates closely with the French, Dutch, and German navies, and of course works with the US as part of NATO.
A lot of things were the same--Shipboard organization, rank structure, etc.--but there were still a few differences. For example, the Belgians go by the British system of using "cables" (1/10th of a nautical mile--I actually think it makes more sense than using yards) and calling the person in charge the "Officer of the Watch" rather than "Officer of the Deck." Some of this was a bit confusing at first. A British officer on an American ship seems to have had the same problem in reverse. There were also a few little things such as color coded eductors which I thought were cool.
The biggest difference, however, was the presence of alcohol on board. Like many foreign navies, the Belgian Navy allows its sailors and officers to drink on board ship, and the guys on the Lobelia certainly took advantage of this! As mentioned earlier, Belgium is known for its beers, so we certainly enjoyed the ample stocks of Jupiler, Kriek, Hoegaarden, etc. Generally people seemed to be quite responsible, though--drinking was relatively moderate after hours, and the only time it really got crazy was on the weekends in port. The US Navy used to have alcohol until 1914, as it turns out. (Sailors disgusted at only being allowed to drink coffee because of the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels' 1914 order apparently called their beverage "a cup of Jo.") Perhaps it is time for a return to the Days of Yore?
MIDN Drew and I were on different ships in the Belgian Nautical School's Summer Campaign, which is both a training cruise and a final exam for their students. The Belgian Nautical School is a bit like our Naval Academy, SWOS, and a Navigation School rolled into one: on board we had first and second-year "cadets" (they don't call them "midshipmen," oddly enough) from both the Military School and various civilian engineering schools, "brevnavs" who were studying to become enlisted navigators, and "social promotions" who were enlisted people training to become officers (a bit like Seaman to Admiral). Thus, the Lobelia had about a dozen students and 4-5 instructors on board in addition to its pared-down crew.
To accomodate everyone's training needs, we did a bunch of exercises. In particular, we did lots of "Narrow Navigation," which is something of a joke with shallow-draft ships like the CMTs (one need only "drive between the buoys") but it was good practice anyhow. We did lots of Replenishment at Sea (RAS) approaches, fleet exercises, etc. BNS Primula used to have some pictures on the Belgian Navy website of some of our operations, but they seem to have been replaced by photos of the MCMFORNORTH mission.
We had some amazing port visits (although to the Belgians it seemed a bit more ho-hum). There would usually be a reception where one could meet various bigwigs from the community, and then we'd have most of the weekend free. We visited the following places: