Relatives waved off their loved ones as a Royal Navy warship set sail from its home port heading for Gibraltar amid diplomatic tensions with Spain.
HMS Westminster, a type 23 frigate, left Portsmouth naval base in Hampshire, to join nine other vessels taking part in a pre-planned international training exercise called Cougar ’13 in the Mediterranean and Gulf.
Friends and relatives held banners and flags as they cheered the crew members as Westminster sailed past Portsmouth’s Round Tower.
Tracey Kirk, from Redditch, West Midlands, had come to see off her daughter, Able Seaman Samantha Kirk, 19.
She said: “I will miss her but as long as she is well and safe…
“I know she’s with good people and they will look after each other. She’s doing what she wants to do.”
AB Kirk’s grandfather, Stephen Kirk, said the Gibraltar visit en route to the exercise was an important diplomatic gesture.
“Although it is pre-planned, I think they are sending a very strong message,” he said.
“It’s all wrong what’s going on but what is the answer if they cannot solve it diplomatically?”
Alex Burgery, 21, from Bognor Regis, West Sussex, was waving off his friend, Able Seaman Leigh Monk.
He said: “I wanted to see him off as he’ll be away for seven months.
“They had already planned to go to Gibraltar – it’s just come at a time when all this is happening.
“But the visit makes it pretty obvious to them that we have the capabilities.”
Thousands of Royal Navy personnel have set sail for Cougar ’13.
The helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious left Portsmouth yesterday, joining Navy flagship HMS Bulwark, which has sailed from Devonport.
Illustrious is set to visit the Spanish naval base of Rota on Sunday.
Other UK ships taking part are another type 23 frigate, HMS Montrose, and six Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) ships.
Cougar ’13 is a long-planned deployment involving the four Royal Navy warships, the lead commando group from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and elements of naval air squadrons.
This is the third time the exercise has taken place, with its aim being to demonstrate the ability to operate a highly effective maritime force anywhere in the world to protect UK interests.
After a number of planned port visits in the Mediterranean, the first major exercise for the force will be Albanian Lion, in the Adriatic.
Personnel will work with Albania’s armed forces with the goal of putting the lead commando group ashore and support it as it moves inland.
The ships will then sail through the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf, where the focus will transfer to the series of exercises with UK allies in the Gulf region, alongside Army and RAF units.
During Cougar ’13, Bulwark will operate as the command ship, which will be joined by Illustrious, with Montrose and Westminster acting as escorts as well as undertaking ongoing counter-piracy operations outside the exercise programme.