THE crew of HMS Hurworth did not get the chance to enjoy the blazing sun of the Gulf. They were sealed inside the ship for days on end, protected from the threat of a chemical attack.

The Hurworth was playing a deadly game of cat and mouse, crawling through mine-infested waters to clear the way for the Royal Navy's big guns and the US aircraft carriers.

The Iraqi high command said after the conflict that the six British minesweepers deployed in the Gulf were instrumental in winning the war. These small vessels between them kept open vital channels that allowed the Navy to operate so effectively.

A decade later, the minesweeper and its crew of 40 are on duties less dangerous but equally as important. The Hurworth is on fisheries protection duties, patrolling the British coastline from Berwick-upon-Tweed in the North-East, round the south coast to the Isle of Man in the west.

So when the ship docked on Teesside last week, the captain made the most of the opportunity to re-affirm links with the village that gave his ship its name, Hurworth, near Darlington.

The D&S Times joined the mayor of Darlington, Coun Dot Long, dignitaries from Hurworth and members of the Hurworth Hunt on board for a trip out to the North Sea.

Capt Tim Johnston explained: "The ship is a Royal Navy hunt class, so there is an affinity both with the village and with the Hurworth Hunt." In fact, all the original hunt class ships were named after British hunts.

This is the second ship to be named after Hurworth. The first HMS Hurworth was built in 1941. A type two hunt class escort destroyer, it was captained by Lt Cmdr Johnny Birch.

His first command, the ship took part in the second Battle of the Sirte in March 1942, when the Hurworth escorted a convoy to Malta. Lt Cdr Birch was awarded the DSO for his bravery.

In May of the same year, the Hurworth and two other destroyers sank the German submarine U568, off the north coast of Africa. Lt Cmdr Birch was decorated with the DSC for this action. He was again mentioned in dispatches for the Hurworth's part in the sinking of a second German sub, U559, off Port Said.

The Hurworth was itself sunk on October 22, 1943. It was blown up by a German mine, just off the Greek coast.

The second HMS Hurworth was built in 1985. A hunt class mine containment vessel, it is made entirely out of fibre glass (a better conductor of heat than either aluminium or steel) and non-magnetic metal.

With a maximum speed of 14 knots, it is not the fastest vessel in the fleet. But in an area where it is mine sweeping, the ship moves painstakingly slowly, as one mistake could prove fatal.

It is lightly armed, having one 30mm cannon and two automatic machine guns. When the ship goes to a troublespot such as the Gulf, it is kitted out with a further two cannons.

In hostile waters, these are mainly used as anti-aircraft defences. But on fisheries protection duties for MAFF, the cannon provides a warning to errant trawlers.

It has a maximum range of about 9,500 yards and can fire 650 rounds a minute. Somewhat alarmingly, the gunner is the youngest crewman on the ship, 17 year-old Tom Pereira. But he gives us a breathtaking display of marksmanship in a target practice demonstration.

Our guide on board the Hurworth is trainee navigator Lt Jim Reid. He explained the ship's boarding procedure. "When we pull up to a ship and it refuses to stop, we warn it that we are about to fire.

"The first shot is placed 300 yards in front of its bows. A second warning shot is sent 150 yards in front of the vessel. If it still refuses to stop, we will fire into the ship."

With that the gunner opens up on a floating wooden target about 300 yards away from the Hurworth that is no bigger than a man. His first shot rips through its centre, followed by a hail of bullets that tear it to pieces.

But the real work of the Hurworth goes on below decks, in the operations room. The nerve centre of the ship, all minesweeping is run from this darkened room. So it is slightly worrying to learn that the technology running the sonar and radar systems that try to pinpoint the mines looks like a computer from the 50s.

The massive bank of computers commands a mere 64k of memory, but it is preferred to modern PCs because it can absorb the shocks thrown at it by bad weather or explosions.

The face of modern warfare has drastically changed since the Second World War, when trawlers were hastily converted into makeshift minesweepers.

The crew now face "intelligent" mines, and they have to out-think them. Some are perfectly spherical, so they cannot be detected by sonar. Others listen to the sounds or the magnetic field created by a ship, and are only activated when a large (and very expensive) vessel such as an aircraft carrier passes over them.

But the ones most feared by the crew are a new breed that target the minesweepers themselves. "There is a particularly nasty Russian variety that sits on the ocean bed and waits for a mine- sweeper to pass over it. Then it fires a torpedo at 40 knots at you," said Lt Reid.

But the tricks employed by the Hurworth are equally cunning. The ship drags behind it a massive cable in the shape of a big ship, with a generator in the centre. The generator creates the noises of all big Royal Navy ships in a bid to fox the listening mines into activating, and the cable similarly makes a large ship-sized magnetic field to con magnetic mines into coming up to the surface.

The mines are disposed of in two ways. If the crew can identify the mine, a remote-controlled submersible is sent down which plants a charge next to it. The submersible is then withdrawn and the ship retreats before blowing the mine out of the water.

If the mine cannot be identified, one of three divers in the crew will go down to check it out. These brave men are trained wearing blacked-out diving masks, and identify the mines by touch alone. Operating at depths of up to 80m, they have to rely on their sense of touch in the complete darkness of the sea.

The most striking aspect of watching the highly skilled crew carry out these specialist tasks is that they are all wear at least two hats. On board the Hurworth, all the 40 crew have to be a Jack of all trades as well as master of one.

Every crewman on a Royal Navy warship is a trained firefighter. Several are trained in first aid, and there are Spanish, French and Dutch speakers on board, necessary for giving orders to foreign fishing vessels in British waters. Even the captain is also one of the ship's two boarding officers.

The crew move around the small ship with practised ease, despite the number on board having been doubled by our party of guests from Hurworth.

The living quarters are a stark reminder of the importance of the chain of command on board. Only the captain has his own cabin. The other officers share two more rooms. In total, they occupy roughly the same space as the rest of the crew.

The mess sleeps 22 in 2ft-wide bunks. The crewman in charge is Leading Marine Engineering Mechanic Martin Jackson, from Acklam in Middlesbrough. "This is also our dining and recreation area," he said. "There is not a lot of locker space. I get four drawers and a cupboard. The lads only get three drawers. The lower down the chain you are, the less space you get."

The crew works in shifts of four hours on, then eight hours off. In times of danger, this is increased to six hours on, six hours off.

Time off for the crew has been revolutionised with the advent of the mobile phone. Leading mechanic Jackson, aged 30, has a nine year-old daughter and a six- year-old son back in Middlesbrough. "It's really changed things for us. Sometimes I can get a signal ten miles out to sea and sometimes I can't get one just off the coast. But it means I can speak to my kids a lot more."

The frustrations of living in cramped conditions are balanced out with job satisfaction for Leading Mechanic Jackson. But the officers find increasing Whitehall interference is turning them into pen pushers. All the officers agreed they spend 80pc of their time doing paperwork.

The trip mixed a Navy public relations exercise with the crew's genuine desire to forge strong ties with Hurworth. It offered a rare insight into the Royal Navy, and a unique celebration of a proud seafaring tradition.