Full Ahead!

PUBLISHED: 15:27 23 July 2009 | UPDATED: 16:08 20 February 2013

Captain John Harvey

Captain John Harvey

Stephen Swann meets Captain John Harvey, a man for whom the phrase 'the right stuff' might have been coined

I am chatting to Captain John Harvey in the first-floor sitting room of his 18th-century cottage whose bow windows overlook Weymouth's picturesque Old Harbour. Almost directly below us the Weymouth lifeboat is moored. Until recently John was Chairman of the lifeboat, now he is Operations Manager. It's a voluntary job and one John is pleased to do in his retirement after an illustrious career in the Royal Navy, but things could have been very different for John.

At the age of 20, Essex-born John found himself working for Barclays Bank, but the prospect of a life in banking didn't exactly fill him with joy so he applied to the Royal Navy as a pilot, flying fixed-winged aircraft and joined the Navy in 1967. However, he was assessed as being 'potentially dangerous as a fixed-wing pilot' - his words, not mine - and was assigned to helicopters, becoming a navigator/observer with responsibility for tactics and weaponry.

Whilst doing part of his training in Yorkshire he met his wife, Lesley, and in 1970 John was transferred to Portland where the couple bought their first home, at Southwell. Soon after, John embarked on a tour of duty on HMS Eagle to the Far East and Australia; there he acted as a warfare instructor, with exercises involving helicopters sitting ahead of the carrier looking for 'enemy' submarines, in this case the enemy being Australian or US subs. "I flew for around 10 years," John tells me. "I loved it. I eventually got to do the initial flying trials for the 'Lynx' at Yeovilton."

Not content with remaining on helicopters John took his Watch-Keeping certificate, his first ship in this capacity being the frigate Ghurka. The early '80s saw him as Commander on the frigate Ambuscade. "She was a boy-racer's dream," enthuses John. "A lovely, sexy thing. In 1984 I took her down to the Falklands where we were tasked with patrolling the waters around the islands."

A shore-based job followed - cocooned far below ground in a bunker at Northwood, where John was Operations Officer for the Fleet. "I ran the Fleet on a day-to-day basis as directed by those above me," says John. "It was during the First Gulf War, which did add a certain excitement to the job. We had frigates protecting British-flagged ships and I would get commanders asking me to clarify the rules of engagement, with the sound of gunfire in the background."

From an underground bunker to taking charge of the Royal Yacht Britannia, it sounds as if those who dealt with postings were writing a script for the Navy Lark! Yet the Royal Yacht is where John found himself next. As for insights about life afloat with Her Majesty and other members of the royal family, John is discretion personified.

From there John went to the United States for three years, working at NATO in the mid-'90s as Head of Naval Intelligence - again another totally contrasting posting, which only serves to illustrate what an amazing chap John Harvey is. Then in 1995 John, in his words, landed the 'perfect job' that saw him based full time in his beloved Dorset as Commanding Officer of Osprey at Portland. A great job, but also a sad one for it involved John in shutting the place down.

Retirement followed, though John is not the sort of chap who would be happy pottering his way through his later years. In fact, he trained as a truck driver and got his HGV licence. "I worked for Eldridge Pope, driving 40 tons of booze about," says John. "I also did some driving on pop tours such as Tina Turner and AC/DC."

It's time for me to take a picture of him and we make our way down to the lifeboat. John climbs aboard with an ease which belies the fact that just hours earlier he had undergone radiation treatment at Poole Hospital. "Are you OK with this?" I ask.

"Where do you want me?" comes the reply.

I should have known better than to think that a little thing like a potentially life-threatening illness would stop John from getting aboard a boat. I wouldn't be surprised if next year he takes part in the TT Races. Didn't I mention the fact that he rides a BMW motorbike and is restoring a 1936 Norton?

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