NEWCASTLE knows how to welcome home its own.
Just after 9am on Wednesday, as the last of the city's commuters scurried to work, HMAS Newcastle gracefully cruised out of a soft-lit morning and across a calm sea, heading for history.
For the final time in its more than 25 years' service for the Royal Australian Navy, the Newcastle sailed past Nobbys and into the port of its namesake city.
At the end of June, HMAS Newcastle, the first RAN ship to carry this harbour city's name, will be decommissioned.
So Newcastle was never going to let its ship, and this moment, slide by unnoticed.
Hundreds had gathered along the foreshores and on the headland crowned with Fort Scratchley.
On the fort's flagstaff, a message for the Newcastle fluttered in the north-westerly breeze. The signal flags proclaimed, "Our City, Our Ship". But the fort wasn't about to to be just seen and not heard in welcoming the Newcastle. The volunteers at the fort's historical society ensured the greeting boomed out across the water.
"Number two gun! Fire!", bellowed gun commander Steve Bowling. It was an order he would give to the gun crew seven times.
"Newcastle. It means a lot to me, both the city and the ship," Mr Bowling said, explaining when he worked in defence recruiting, he had interviewed a young man who would go on to command the Newcastle.
Fort Scratchley's seven-gun salute was acknowledged with a volley of shots from the Newcastle as it tracked the breakwater. RAN ships rarely return a salute like that, so it was considered special.
On the bridge of the Newcastle, overseeing the ship's entry, was the commanding officer, Anita Sellick.
"The reception from the city of Newcastle for HMAS Newcastle is unlike any I've ever known before," Commander Sellick said.
Not that the welcome came as a surprise to her. Anita Sellick knows what Novocastrians are like. For she is one, having grown up in Merewether.
Anita Sellick has been the Newcastle's CO since January 2018. Little did Anita Sellick know when she joined the RAN in 1994 that she would be in command of the Newcastle for its farewell voyage to her hometown .
'For me, it's a one-off, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I have, and it's really hard to put that into words, as to how special that is," Commander Sellick said.
And she knew she was not alone in experiencing that special feeling.
"I've got 21 Novocastrians on board, which is 10 per cent of my ship's company," Commander Sellick said. "I think I've been collecting those over the last 18 months. They're all very happy to be here, and there was certainly a buzz in the ship ... when we came in."
On the bridge with Commander Sellick was another Novocastrian. Well, almost. Lieutenant Benjamin Liddell grew up in Port Stephens.
In the early morning, he had cruised past the landmarks of his childhood, before helping navigate the ship into port.
"It's definitely up there as one of my favourite pilotages I've ever done, that's absolutely for certain," said Lieutenant Liddell.
"It's always a really good feeling coming back into Newcastle, especially for the last time on the Newcastle."
That "I'm home" feeling reached into all parts of the ship. The Newcastle had been on deployment for about four months, participating in the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 operation in the region, so there was plenty of anticipation on board.
Able Seaman Georgia Clark, from Pokolbin, kept an eye out for familiar faces along the shore.
"I think it's just nice to know my family are watching," she said.
Leading Seaman Timothy Walker, from Merewether, was trying to gauge from the deck what was different, and what was the same, about his hometown.
"Bit of a different skyline this time with a few things missing, but still very much the same thing as when you were a young kid walking around the foreshore," he said. "But you look at it from a different perspective coming back.
"It's going to be sad not being able to do it again on the Newcastle, but we'll see how we go with a different ship next time."
Beyond the presence of fellow Novocastrians, the Newcastle has held reminders of home. Some of them are physical. The ship's helicopter is named Hunter, and the main passageway is marked with well-known street signs. They read "Hunter Street".
But Leading Seaman Walker reckoned that the Novocastrian spirit washed through the ship in ways that couldn't be seen.
"It holds the sort of Newcastle Knights feel to it," he said. "It's a very teamwork, very sporting-related type of ship, which is great."
For the ship's final entry into Newcastle harbour, there was one Novocastrian on board who was not wearing a uniform. But Margaret McNaughton did have a connection back to the ship's beginning.
As the Lady Mayoress of Newcastle, Margaret McNaughton was the ship's "launching lady" in 1992, taking a few attempts to break the champagne bottle on its bow. And she was on board when the Newcastle was commissioned the following year.
Margaret McNaughton estimated she had been on the Newcastle more than a dozen times since then.
"It's in my heart, this ship," Mrs McNaughton said. "It's been a big chapter in my life.
"It's sad that it has to come to an end."
But her sadness was tempered by one last voyage.
Wearing a cap from the first time she sailed on the ship, Mrs McNaughton was flown out to the Newcastle early on Wednesday morning. Once more, she walked along "Hunter Street", following the signs that her husband, former Lord Mayor John McNaughton, had presented to the ship when it was commissioned. And she stood on the bridge as the frigate glided into port.
Mrs McNaughton was given a new cap, which she proudly wore, along with some indelible impressions.
"I'm on Cloud Nine," she exclaimed, after disembarking at West Basin Number Four.
"That's my ship. I bonded with it. I couldn't believe you could do that with an inanimate thing, but the living thing has been all the commanders and crews. I've had a close association with them through the years."
The Newcastle's 210 officers and crew have a busy week in town. On Saturday, they will participate in a Freedom of Entry ceremony and march in the city. A group will also be visiting Newcastle Senior School, which the ship's company has supported and raised funds for.
On Tuesday, HMAS Newcastle will depart this harbour for the final time, sent off with another seven-gun salute from Fort Scratchley. The Newcastle will return the salute before passing Nobbys.
Standing by the guns on the hill, as he has done so many times before to greet and farewell the Newcastle, will be the president of Fort Scratchley Historical Society, Frank Carter.
"I find it very emotional," Mr Carter said. "It's going to be the end of an era, as far as I'm concerned."
In its quarter of a century on the seas, the Newcastle has been involved in operations in the Middle East, East Timor, and Solomon Islands, and it has helped out close to home, including during the 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race tragedy.
"HMAS Newcastle has had such a fine history," said Commander Anita Sellick. "There are so many things the ship has contributed to in our region."
As for the future of the Newcastle, there is the 75-nautical mile voyage to Sydney, where she will be decommissioned at a ceremony at Garden Island on June 30. As for what is next for the frigate, that is unclear.
Commander Sellick said the ship was still in good condition, and she hoped it could be sold, "so that it can continue its life, albeit with another nation."
But for now, the officers and crew can reflect upon what has been, what they have done, where they have been, and where they are now in HMAS Newcastle.
For quite a few, they are home. For the rest, they will be made to feel at home.
After all, as Leading Seaman Timothy Walker said, "It's a different feeling, coming into Newcastle."
The reception from the city of Newcastle for HMAS Newcastle is unlike any I've ever known beforeCommander Anita Sellick, CO of HMAS Newcastle