The dark grey hull of the HMNZS Canterbury loomed menacingly in the distance as we emerged from the Lyttelton tunnel. It was a stunning blue sky day with little wind and the temperature was rising.
I glanced across at the heavy soft blue velvet bag sitting on Michelle’s lap and swallowed the lump in my throat suppressing the butterflies in my stomach. This was to be Grahame’s final sailing.
Chief Petty Officer Grahame James Roll, known to his fellow Naval friends as ‘Bread’ was a friend of my mother’s. They’d known one another for a long time through their mutual interest in race horses. Grahame passed away on the 4th March 2020, having his funeral just before the COVID-19 lockdown last year.
Grahame was born on the 11th December 1940. At age 17 he left home and then spent twenty years serving in the Royal New Zealand Navy between 1957 – 1978, and had at one stage been deployed in the Malaya campaign and also went with the NZ Navy to protest the French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll. He didn’t have any children, and with his brother overseas my Mum took care of him when his health declined. When he passed away Grahame very kindly left his estate to my Mother’s three grandchildren.
Since his passing, his ashes had sat at Mum’s house, with his final wishes to be scattered at sea from a Navy ship. With most of the Royal NZ Navy ships being based in Auckland, we had a choice to fly up there from Christchurch, or alternatively to wait until one of the ships came in to Lyttelton. When the HMNZS Canterbury was announced to be arriving in to port for the 10 year commemoration of the Canterbury Earthquakes, it was finally Grahame’s turn to head back to sea.
My sister-in-law Michelle and I gathered in the car park with some other misty-eyed families clutching their caskets. Mum had chosen to forego her opportunity to head out on the ship. Mum isn’t a big fan of the water, and she’d been warned that there could be some shimmying down rope ladders in to small boats involved. Michelle and I were happy to take her place for the rare opportunity to get on board a Navy ship sailing out of port and to give Grahame his final send off on behalf of Mum and our grateful children.
We were mustered on to the ship with the other families, given safety briefings and chocolate biscuits while we waited for the ship to prepare for departure. We were able to visit the bridge and watch from the deck as the lines were cast and the tug pulled our stern away from the wharf and we steamed out of the harbour. We sat Grahame’s casket on the upper bridge deck as we enjoyed the spectacular views of Lyttelton harbour and watching the little Hectors dolphins doing flips on the bow in the twinkling teal blue ocean.
As we rounded Godley Head at the entrance to Lyttelton Harbour, the ship strategically turned in to the building Northerly breeze and slowed down to a crawl. The families gathered on the aft helicopter deck for a short service with Navy Chaplain Rob Thomson, and a couple of other people from the ship’s crew. Rob is a lovely kind man and had officiated Grahame’s funeral service the year before. Rob mentioned each person, and read the NZ Navy karakia (prayer). Then each family was invited to step forward one by one for the scattering.
Michelle and I fumbled with our precious cargo. The ashes were in a plastic bag, inside a small casket, inside a cardboard box, inside the sapphire blue velvet bag. Rob stepped in to assist, opening the disc on the bottom of the casket and cutting open the bag inside.
The warm northerly breeze swept the ashes streaming from the bottom of the casket up high in to the sky, swirling around in the wind and then down again in to the teal blue Pacific Ocean. Grahame was finally back at sea again for the last time.
When we thought the box was empty, there appeared to be another small bag inside, I pulled it out – it had “Rosie – Pet Cremations” written on the bag. Grahame’s dog’s ashes were in the box with his! She’d died and been cremated a few years before him. It was only fitting that she went along with her owner so she too had the honour of being scattered at sea from a Navy ship.
With the formalities over, Michelle and I washed our hands as the ship turned around and headed back in to the harbour entrance to drop us off. We had another safety briefing and donned helmets and life jackets and clambered down a ladder (thankfully not a rope ladder) in to one of the Ship’s tenders. The tender was craned out over the port side of the ship and lowered down in to the ocean. Our coxswain started the motor as we were right alongside the steep sides of the ship to match the speed and then accelerated away, the salty ocean spray washing the ash dust off our faces.
Mum was waiting for us back at the marina. She’d been watching the ship sail from on shore. We headed out for lunch to tell her all about our adventure, and to share a toast to Grahame. “He would have loved being farewelled by two lovely ladies.” she said.
Farewell Grahame. Rest In Peace.