Deployed sailors stay connected with home while at sea

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Lifestyle - Life at Sea / April 19, 2016

By Lieutenant (Navy) Blake Patterson

Few things say separation more perfectly than the image of Canadian sailors on a warship leaving home port as family and friends wave goodbye. 

Yet that iconic image of navy life is fast becoming a bit dated.

Today, thanks to the increased availability of satellite phones, cell phones, social media and email, Canadian sailors can now connect regularly, if not daily, with their families thousands of kilometres away.

“The strength and resilience of my sailors depends in large part on the support they receive from their military families at home,” said Lieutenant-Commander Paul Smith, the Commanding Officer of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Summerside.

Summerside recently deployed for more than two months as part of Operation Caribbe, Canada’s contribution to multinational efforts to disrupt illicit drug trafficking on the waters off the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Central America.

During the deployment, Summerside travelled more than 10,000 nautical miles and spent approximately 60 days at sea, but its sailors were never really far from home.

“Connecting with home while away – even if it’s only for a few minutes every week – makes it easier for our sailors to accept the demands of life at sea,” said LCdr Smith. “Communication with home really has become a pillar of morale.”

It’s a pillar of unquestionable importance, but also one that presents some undeniable challenges in a military environment.

A Canadian warship (like many Canadian military facilities) is divided into emission security zones to limit outside access to sensitive electronic data systems. As such, members of a ship’s company must turn off their wireless devices while at sea, and rely instead on other means of communication such as occasional use of satellite phones (often called “morale” phones on board) and limited access to the few computers on board that have internet access.

Master Seaman William Kerr, the Chief Boatswain’s Mate in Summerside, knows those limitations, but he also knows it’s worth the effort to make use of the communication tools available. He calls home every two or three days and emails most days.

“It’s nice to give yourself a moment to detach,” said MS Kerr. “Calling home lets you separate from the ship for maybe 10 minutes. For me, I can almost feel it charge me back up.”

Today, being able to text, chat, message and email at anytime from anywhere is a common expectation – particularly with younger members of the fleet. They may find it difficult sometimes, but just as sailors did before them, they are finding ways to adapt and overcome (or at least live with) the difficulties they face.

For his part, Leading Seaman Laurent Morin, a boatswain in Summerside, relies on the satellite phone to stay connected, despite the frustrating lag time between words spoken and words received. Easy conversation suddenly becomes a struggle as you try not to speak too soon and risk having your words cut short by the words coming from the other end.

LS Morin, a naval reservist, has certainly adapted. He calls his mom, dad and sister regularly, and stays in touch with his girlfriend twice a week to “let her know that I’m thinking about her and stuff like that.” He also emails and occasionally checks Facebook to stay involved in aspects of his civilian life in Calgary where he teaches social studies and math at the Grade 8 and 9 levels.

He considers it his responsibility to make every effort to contact home regularly – particularly when it comes to his girlfriend. “It’s on me to put the effort in to contact her since she can’t really contact me,” he said. “If I want to maintain that relationship moving into the future, it’s what I’ve got to do.”

MS Sebastian Ferns agrees. He too uses the satellite phone, but prefers email to stay connected to his family in Halifax.

“It allows me to feel like I still have a connection, like I’m still a part of their lives and they’re still a part of mine,” he said. “What I want to know is the minutia of their day-to-day life: ‘What are you watching on TV? What did you have for breakfast?’ It’s the real, mundane, day-to-day stuff that makes you feel like you’re still part of their lives when you’re away.”

One relatively new connection option for far away Canadian sailors is the availability of wifi hotspots on board ships while alongside during foreign port visits. The hotspots are like the wifi modems installed to provide wireless connectivity throughout your house. The ships purchase or rent the modems and arrange for a local internet service provider to connect them as soon as they arrive in port.

Once connected, the hotspot gives the sailors wireless connection in a designated area of the ship. In the case of Kingston-class ships such as Summerside, the sweep deck at the stern of the ship becomes a virtual wifi café soon after arrival.

As soon as the lines are on, stores taken on board, garbage landed, and the work of coming alongside complete, the sweep deck is awash with sailors talking on cell phones or smiling into iPads and tablets as they enjoy Face Time and Skype with their spouses, children and loved ones at home.

“It really is a fantastic thing,” said MS Ferns.

Not that long ago, sailors and their families had to wait weeks even months for mail drops to and from foreign ports, only to receive care packages and letters written weeks and months earlier. Likewise, the only phone privileges available involved lining up at pay phones in foreign ports just to make a five-minute collect call home before the next person in line was tapping you on the shoulder.

Today, thankfully, it’s a bit easier for sailors to keep up-to-date with folks at home while away at sea in places like the Mediterranean or the Caribbean. While recognizing the communications limitations and demands that come with conducting military operations, it’s certainly something the Royal Canadian Navy continues to improve as more and more world-wide connectivity options become available. Few things are better for morale than hearing the voice of a loved one.  

“Distance and time will always be a part of navy life,” said LCdr Smith, “but prolonged isolation from family and friends no longer needs to be part of the equation.”