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More than a dozen small inflatable boats loaded with marines, supplies and ammunition dip and rise with the waves as they motor along. Behind them the Portuguese navy’s tanker, the Bérrio, is silver-grey in the sunshine, solid and reassuring. Just 30 minutes earlier the 100 marines had been loitering on its lower deck, texting and chatting. Now, as they make the 7km journey to the beach, they are calm but quiet. Tension rises as land nears. A pause, a briefing and then, engines on full throttle, the boats fly onto the sand and men in camouflage gear storm over the top, some pulling the boats behind them and others running ahead to provide cover.

These marines are part of Operation Swordfish, a 10-day naval-training exercise off the coast of Portugal. Seven Portuguese and three Spanish ships are involved, including frigates, submarines and the Bérrio, along with naval helicopters, air-force fighter jets and more than 1,600 troops from Portugal and Spain.

Commander David Almeida Pereira is the commanding officer of the Bérrio. Formerly a British ship – it served in the Falklands as the Blue Rover – the Bérrio joined the Portuguese fleet in 1993 and today its task is to refuel the rest of the fleet and serve as a landing craft. Cdr Almeida Pereira signed up a few years earlier in 1986 and says “the naval paradigm has changed completely” in the 30 years he’s been serving. “Before the end of the Cold War our threat was very clearly identified and all our procedures were directed at facing that threat. Now there are other challenges: piracy, terrorism, drugs and arms trafficking, rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean. It’s more demanding. Diplomacy plays a much greater role too. The navy now has to reflect Portuguese, EU and Nato political interests.”

Portugal has a long and venerable naval tradition. Its navy, which dates back to the 12th century, is considered the first in Europe and one of the oldest in the world. The country’s culture is steeped in the Atlantic and Portuguese seafaring heritage and includes names the entire world knows: from Vasco da Gama, who opened up trade routes to the east, to Ferdinand Magellan, credited with the first circumnavigation of the Earth. Its position at the western edge of Europe also means its seas hold important strategic interests: 53 per cent of EU external trade passes through Portuguese waters and about 60 per cent of the country’s foreign trade travels by sea, as do 70 per cent of its imports, including oil.

Today Portugal’s economic exclusion zone, which includes the archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores (the latter some 1,500km from Lisbon), encompasses 1.7 million sq km, a space 19 times larger than its land territory. The navy’s surveillance duties extend to an area of 5.8 million sq km, an area roughly 62 times larger than Portugal itself. Despite this the navy is relatively small – comprising 35 vessels, including five frigates, three corvettes and two submarines – and not inured from Portugal’s ongoing financial difficulties.

Captain Carlos Oliveira Silva is commander of the Portuguese Maritime Force. With a round face, wire-framed glasses and a quick sense of humour he is more like a favourite teacher than an iron-fisted commandant. The men are not nervous of his presence but they defer to him in every respect: no one starts their lunchtime meal until he picks up his fork and says “Bon appétit”.

“We have seen naval manpower decrease since the early 1990s. In the 1980s we numbered 20,000; today we are about 8,000,” says Cpt Oliveira Silva. “The number of vessels has seen less of a decrease, in part, because we still operate ships that are 45 years old; normally we would retire them at 25 or 30. I don’t think the structure of the navy will change dramatically in the next 10 years. We want to maintain numbers but it will be hard to develop new programmes or increase our capacity.”

Two Trident-class submarines were ordered in 2004 from German manufacturer Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft and delivered in 2010, amid public outcry about their cost, which was in the region of €1bn. The Arpão, along with sister ship the Tridente and a squad of divers, now constitute the navy’s underwater squadron.

Painted black, the Arpão is sleek and stealthy. Inside, the main operating room is evidence of its modernity: double-height screens, a digital navigation table and a black periscope that retracts with a whirr bring to mind the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. “Our previous submarines were more than 40 years old; modern conventional submarines are more versatile and can work coastal waters,” says Arpão’s Commander Paulo Santos Garcia. “To patrol our responsibilities effectively we would need quite a few ships and the navy can’t support that. Submarines can theoretically be anywhere so we need fewer to act as a deterrent for illict activity at sea.”

The Portuguese navy is dual purpose. Along with its military duties it also comprises the National Maritime Authority, which undertakes coastguard functions such as search and rescue, among other duties. The Arpão regularly supports police anti-narcotics missions, as do the country’s marines, and is involved in monitoring people and weapons trafficking. “It’s easier to detect activity at sea by sound than visually and doing so underwater is most efficient because that’s where sound travels the fastest and the furthest,” says Cdr Santos Garcia.

With a crew of 33, the submarines are able to remain underwater for 15 days, dive to a depth of 350 metres and maintain an underwater speed of 20 knots. It is human elements that usually limit their underwater time. “The limiting factor are smokers,” says Cdr Santos Garcia wryly. “In the past, when people have been anxious I’ve surfaced just so they can have a cigarette.”

While naval officers seem by nature to be relatively sober and contained, submariners have a cheekier glint in their eye, joking with one another and displaying little visible difference between the ranks. In part this is down to the crowded conditions: sailors sleep in bunks strung from beams, officers sleep three to a compact room and there are just two showers for the entire crew. Dinner is eaten at a row of camping-style tables in a corridor or in the officers’ dining space, which resembles a caravan.

The inherent vulnerability of a submarine also plays a part. Being underwater on a modern submarine is a calm and peaceful experience – you hear only the hum of air-conditioning and feel nothing more than a tiny tilt in your feet as the submarine dives. But if you let the thought of the hundreds of metres of water above enter your mind it is a fundamentally frightening experience, even if you do it regularly. “You are always vulnerable on a submarine, threatened by the elements,” says Cdr Santos Garcia. “It does add stress and pressure.”

The Portuguese navy has been recruiting women since 1992 and today they constitute about 11 per cent of the force, though none have yet volunteered to become submariners. Later we visit the frigate Vasco da Gama, where there are 27 women on board, including both female officers and ratings such as sailor Catarina Farias, a signalling specialist of 18 months who is using semaphores to communicate with other ships during a simulated attack. She’s workmanlike and calm as she hoists the flags. “My mum was in the navy and also worked in communications,” she says. “She loved it and advised me to join.”

Farias knew the sacrifices that being in the navy takes – her mother was away for three years when she was young and she grew up with her grandparents – but she was unprepared for how difficult it would feel. “It’s hard when you’re away and there are lots of days without seeing or talking to your family. I like the things the navy gives me. In a professional way there are lots of opportunities. But it also takes things away. A lot of people lose friends and partners because of the lifestyle.”

It’s a common refrain. Back on the quayside families are preparing to say goodbye to sons and daughters, partners and parents. The Sagres, a three-masted tall sailing ship that serves as a navy-training vessel, is about to depart on a three-month deployment to Brazil. The quayside is crowded with families and the emotion is tangible. Sailor Diogo Amorim and his girlfriend Daniella hug on the dock. Officers kiss their wives and hold their babies and as they wave goodbye, one puts on dark sunglasses and surreptitiously wipes his eyes.

Officers in the Portuguese navy are the product of the Escola Naval, a university that is part of the force and which offers a five-year master’s programme that includes academic study and practical training as part of the officer cadet force. Each year cadets spend about a month on board a ship, honing their practical skills. This year some 60 second-year cadets have joined the Sagres to master sailing and seamanship skills.

The cadet programme has a more informal benefit too: friendships formed on this trip and throughout the cadet programme serve future officers well. “I graduated in 1986 and I’m still friends with people from my course,” says Almeida Pereira.

Friendships and the camaraderie that clearly exists on board are an important element in retaining crew of every rank. Every ship has a bakery that offers daily fresh bread along with other sweet treats. On the Dom Francisco de Almeida the pasteis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts) made by sailor Leonardo Costa are a particular favourite. Costa, who has been a baker since he was 16, joined the navy at 22 to gain a recognised qualification. He had planned to leave after his six-year stint but is now hoping a vacancy will come up that will allow him to stay permanently. “The space is small, the ship is always moving and there are fewer ingredients to use but it’s like being part of a family when you’re on board,” he says. “I like the feeling of friendship.”

The sea, too, exerts a strong pull. At night the bridge is pitch black, the only light the pale-green glow of the navigation terminals. The few crew on watch are wraithlike shapes in the dark. Outside, the sea is inky and the stars shine in the night sky. The ship’s motor hums but otherwise everything is peaceful. Cdr Almeida Pereira believes the Bérrio will be his last sea deployment. Tonight he is awake, absorbing the dark night, savouring every minute. “I’m trying to sleep just a few hours so I don’t miss anything,” he says.

Cpt Oliveira Silva, too, is changing roles: a likely promotion to Commodore will see him land-bound from September. He is sorry to see his sea-based command over and it’s not just the military operations that he’s sad to leave. “I joined the navy after school and I’ve been so happy for the past 35 years. I love being at sea, having the natural world around me: the sunrise, the thunderstorms, seeing whales. I’ll miss it all.”

Trish Lorenz has been living in Lisbon since 2014, reporting on the culture, business, politics and people of the Iberian Peninsula for monocle and a range of other publications, including the Financial Times and The Guardian. Formerly a columnist at The Independent, her previous roles have included acting section editor at Guardian Weekend, homes editor at Elle Decoration and news editor at Design Week.

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