Luke with the BNS Lobelia in Oslo

Luke's Belgian FOREX Cruise

Photos: On the Boat (part 1) | On the Boat (part 2) | Brussels | Bruges | Oslo | London | Isle of Man

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.

On Belgians and Belgium

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.

Two Countries in One!

One key thing to realize is that it is in many ways two countries: Flemish (Dutch)-speaking Flanders in the north, and French-speaking Wallonia in the south, with Brussels right in the heart of Flanders (indeed, it is Flanders' capital) but nevertheless mainly French-speaking. (There is also a small German-speaking region in Wallonia, just to make things really confusing!) Back in the day, Flemish was treated as a second-class language (much like French was in Québec, interestingly...), but now both French and Dutch are treated as co-equals. Nevertheless, in part because Dutch isn't considered a "world language" like French, it seems that the Flemings put more effort (in their schools anyway) into learning other languages, so in my experience if a French and Dutch speaker meet, they usually speak in French just because the French speaker's Dutch probably isn't as good as the Dutch speaker's French. On the other hand, I really empathize with the French speakers because even if they do learn "Standard" Dutch (Algemeen Nederlands) they'll still have a hard time with the various Flemish dialects, while in constrast most Walloons speak more or less "Standard" French (le bon français). For more info on learning Dutch, etc., check out my page on Fun with Dutch.

Seperated by Common Languages

However, if there's one thing that unites the country, it's their universal hatred for the French and Dutch! Just as we often quip that the US and Britain are "two nations seperated by a common language," likewise the Belgians and their linguistic colleages to the West and (North-)East seem estranged. Both the French and the Dutch stereotype the Belgians as boorish and stupid; thus, the Belgians don't like them very much in return. Specifically, the Belgians say that the French have la grande geule, i.e. they are egotistical jerks. As for the Dutch, they are thought of as being stingy. Here's a Belgian joke about Dutch people: "How does a Dutchman vomit?" "With his teeth closed (so he doesn't loose any food)." Okay, I didn't think it was funny, either.

Want to learn more about Belgium?

Check out the Belgian Government's "All About Belgium" site for the party line and some basic info, An A to Z of Belgium for an Briton's irreverant look at various Belgian things, Belgium Overview has some great links, among them an interesting (and, as far as I can tell, accurate) description of Belgian Culture. Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There: Travels In Europe has some very funny chapters about Belgium.

On the Belgian Navy

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?

The Summer Campaign

Map of our route through the North Sea 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:

Photos: On the Boat (part 1) | On the Boat (part 2) |Brussels | Bruges | Oslo | London | Isle of Man

Back to NROTC