`Hellll-o sailor': Aussies roll out red carpet for visiting navies

Sydney Harbour was chock-a-block last week with the biggest peace-time gathering of warships ever, and the sailors had Sydney ogling. Here for the Australian Bicentennial Naval Review, 61 gray vessels from 16 countries disgorged more than 17,000 web-footers into the city.

And in a Mae West ``Hellll-o sailor!'' sort of welcome, the Aussie Navy set up a ``Dail-a-Sailor'' program.

``It's not a dating service,'' insisted Royal Australian Naval officer Ken Norton, who commanded the program's squadron of 14 telephone operators. ``It's to help the sailors meet real people, so they don't get into the syndrome of going from one port to another and only seeing the inside of a bar.''

Uh-huh. But who called?

``Well, yes, the majority of the callers are young ladies after a night out. But I have to stress that we haven't just had calls from single women.''

Really?

``There have been a lot of family offers for a home-cooked meal,'' said Officer Norton.

Indeed, Dial-a-Sailor was inundated with offers from about 10,000 aspiring hosts and hostesses. Nearly every visiting crew member had a social engagement.

Invitations ran the gamut. One family invited several sailors for two days of camping to give them a taste of the rugged outback. Another placed an order for a bevy of British seafarers to attend a birthday party for their daughter who was homesick for English accents. Other offers included yacht trips, scuba diving, and tickets to a Mick Jagger concert.

But the most common invitation was a ``boy-meets-girl night of dinner and dancing,'' Norton said. ``Actually, it's usually three or four girls hoping to meet an equal number of sailors,'' he added.

The male British, American, and New Zealand sailors were the most sought after. But callers are even more specific. ``We've had requests across the board. For black Americans, Mormons, Jews, every religion. And one family wanted to invite some Texans over to show them `what a real horse farm looks like,''' laughed Norton.

But the mariner mania was not shared by every segment of Sydney society.

The battleship USS New Jersey and British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal were met by a flotilla of dinghies, kayaks, and surfboards skippered by protesters who said the ships could be endangering the city by carrying nuclear weapons. The ``Paddlers for Peace'' achieved maximum publicity by darting close to the bow of the 57,000-ton New Jersey.

Still, the sailors seemed to enjoy the welcome. ``We've had Dail-a-Sailor at nearly every Australian port,'' says gunner's mate third-class Tom Givens of the USS Ingersoll. ``I've been horseback riding, gone on picnics, been out dancing. ... I've had nine offers of marriage so far.

``Dial-a-Sailor is the best thing that's happened to the US Navy.''

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