HMS Magpie is the newest addition to the RN’s hydrographic squadron, commissioned in June 2018 to replace veteran survey launch HMS Gleaner. Here we examine this small and unusual vessel in detail.
Inshore survey vessel HMS Gleaner (15 meters long) served in the RN from 1983 before being replaced by HMS Magpie. She was based on the Halmatic Talisman GRP hull, with an aluminium superstructure and powered by 2x Volvo Penta TAMD 122A engines. She conducted surveys around the coast of the UK but occasionally went as far as the Channel Islands, European ports and made a rare visit to Switzerland by transiting the River Rhine. Surveying ports, estuaries and coastline in shallow water where the larger survey vessels cannot reach is an important task. Inshore survey contributes to the operational safety of RN vessels and, more widely, to all mariners by updating Admiralty hydrographic charts which are also sold commercially. Her last major role was surveying Rosyth Dockyard, the Firth of Forth and Portsmouth harbour to ensure safe navigation for HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Gleaner had originally been scheduled for replacement in 2007 but soldiered on, accumulating 35 years in service before she entered Devonport for the last time in January 2018, formally decommissioning on 16th February. In 2019 the MoD offered her for sale priced at £40,000 with all survey equipment removed. She was sold via Apollo Duck online marine marketplace to Wisbech-based marine engineering services company Drake Towage in Oct 2019. For many years she was the smallest ship in the navy and was technically HMSL “Her Majesty’s Survey Motor Launch”. With a crew of 9 and packed with surveying equipment she was somewhat cramped, a more spacious and comfortable vessel equipped from the outset for the digital age was required.
HMS Magpie was procured as part of the RN’s Project Vahana – a contract worth £48m awarded to Atlas Elektronik UK (AEUK) in August 2017 for the delivery of up to 38 workboats of various sizes. The workboats are all constructed by AEUK and its subcontractors in England, apart from Magpie which was subcontracted to Safehaven Marine based in Cobh, Ireland. Magpie is based on their Wildcat 60 design already proven in use for a boat delivered to the Geological Survey of Ireland in 2015.
Safehaven are specialists in high-performance small craft and pilot boats optimised for speed and stability in heavy weather. Following initial sea trials off Ireland, Magpie was delivered to Portland where AEUK fitted additional equipment and carried out acceptance trials. She arrived in Devonport for the first time in June 2018 and was handed over to the RN. Her name was selected partly as a nod to the Black Swan-class sloop of the same name commanded by the Duke of Edinburgh (1950-53). The Duke personally endorsed HMS Magpie’s motto ‘Lux in tenebris lucet’ (shine light into darkness) shortly before he passed away in 2021.
HMS Magpie is a major upgrade on HMS Gleaner, with a big increase in displacement from 22 tonnes to 38 tonnes (full load). Magpie is also capable of double the speed and transits in rougher conditions. She is rated as a Category 2 vessel under Maritime and Coastguard regulations which allow UK vessels (up to 24 metres load line length) to carry a maximum of 12 people and operate out to 60 miles offshore. Top speed is 25 knots and can transit in Sea State 4 conditions up to 20 knots.
Magpie is propelled by two 900hp Yanmar 6AYM 20.3 litre diesel engines driving Hamilton HM521 waterjets. The jets have a steerable nozzle to turn the boat and can rotate the vessel 360º around its own axis, making it highly manoeuvrable and able to berth in very confined spaces. A split-duct deflector is lowered over the end of the water jet to produce astern thrust and can be used to move the vessel sideways or to a stop very smoothly and rapidly in an emergency. Waterjets are ideal for shallow water operations as there is no propellor or rudder and are simple to maintain and install.
The waterjets, diesel engine series, steering and controls, seating and navigation systems are common to the other SEA class workboats for simplified logistic support and familiarity for users across the fleet. A Fisher Panda 20kW generator provides electrical the main AC electrical power.
The catamaran hull form provides great stability and a wide deck with an island cabin allowing easy and safe access right around the boat, protected by high bulwarks and railings. The raised focsle is accessible by twin steps and is protected by railings all around. The spacious quarterdeck is optimised for hydrographic work with a crane and small winch for towing and recovery of sensors. A deck rail system provides easy restraint of additional deck cargo. On the transom of each hull is a platform with its own ladders for access to the waterline for equipment deployment and recovery or diving operations.
The main cabin is spacious and light in contrast to the cramped work area of HMS Gleaner. There is comfortable seating for up to six hydrographers at workstations and the associated computer racks. There is a small settee and table used as a messing area with access up to the bridge forward and stairs on each side down to the accommodation in the port and starboard hulls. A 43,000 BTU air conditioning unit maintains comfortable living and working conditions.
Magpie is equipped to undertake independent voyages of up to 7 days, although this is rarely needed. There are two sleeping cabins, one in each hull with bunks for up to 9 sailors – typically 2 officers 7 ratings. The galley in the port hull is fitted with a fridge freezer, dishwasher, oven, hob and microwave. The starboard hull has a large head and shower compartment.
Besides IMO-compliant navigation equipment and Abex-supplied communication systems, there are three main survey systems manufactured by Kongsberg. The hull-mounted EA 2040 Single Beam Echo Sounder (SBES) and EM2040C Multi-beam Echo Sounder (MBES) are used for accurate mapping of shallow-medium depth waters. The 2094 Side-scan sonar is a towed body streamed from a winch mounted on the quarterdeck and used for scanning deeper water and larger areas. It is fitted with a dual-frequency transducer that can operate down to 1,000m.
Like all the SEA-Class boats developed by AEUK, Magpie has a modular cabin which can be removed and replaced by another module for use in other roles if required. This provides a measure of future-proofing but she is likely to be dedicated to survey work for the majority of her RN service. She is also designed to be fitted with an autonomous control system to provide a remotely operated uncrewed or even autonomous capability should this be wanted in future. She is light enough to be transported by road on a low-loader if required or easily loaded onto a cargo ship if her capabilities were needed overseas.
As part of Project Hecla, the RN aims to remodel its approach to Military Data Gathering (MDG) and is increasing the use of autonomous systems in its hydrographic survey and seabed surveillance missions. HMS Magpie is likely to be involved in the trials, development and deployment of these technologies
During 2022 HMS Magpie is undertaking her most-extensive deployment yet, operating around north east England and the coast of Scotland. She left her home port of Devonport in March and will not return before October.