HMCS Ville de Québec focused on mental health of crew

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Navy News / June 25, 2020

By Ryan Melanson

Before returning to port in Halifax in early June, as one of two ready-duty ships on the East Coast, Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Ville de Québec took extreme measures to ensure its ship’s company remained free of COVID-19, including a two-week hotel isolation period before heading to sea in mid-April.

Keeping sailors physically healthy is crucial to the ship maintaining its readiness, but with crew members separated from their loved ones during a difficult time, taking stock of the morale and mental health on board became increasingly important.

“It’s certainly the biggest concern I had day to day, taking that temperature and trying to find new and innovative ways to negate those negative effects,” said Commander (Cdr) Michael Eelhart, Ville de Québec’s commanding officer.

Sailors were concerned about their family members and loved ones at home during the pandemic. Some members personally knew victims of the shootings in the Portapique, N.S., area, and all were coping with the tragic loss of their colleagues from HMCS Fredericton, as well as the news of the recent Snowbird crash.

While those who required it were given time to grieve, Cdr Eelhart said sticking to routine and keeping up with normal business at sea can be therapeutic for the crew.

They also made efforts to consistently plan fun or interesting activities for people to look forward to. Part of this has been the domestic presence operations the ship conducted over the past month, sailing to and anchoring near a number of communities in the Maritimes, including hometowns of many of their sailors.

Ville de Québec toured through the Bay of Fundy and Minas Bay on the first leg, sailing near Portapique in the days following the tragedy in that area, and proceeded to sail through the Northumberland Strait, making appearances off Prince Edward Island, northern New Brunswick and the Gaspé region of Québec. They used social media to announce their location and engage with communities when they passed by.

“We thought, ‘Let’s try to connect with Canadians as best as we can’,” Cdr Eelhart said.

“It was also a way to keep our sailors interested and engaged, maintain their readiness at the same time, and keep them from getting overly bored doing the same old things each day.”

They also planned some fun when they went alongside. A sports day in early May saw members hold an all-day ball hockey tournament on the jetty, and for the May long weekend they set up propane fireplaces and had a party with barbecue, s’mores, sing-a-longs and karaoke.

“We tried our best to recreate a cottage weekend on the jetty. It was probably one of the best ship parties we’ve ever had.”

The original plan for Ville de Québec was to sail to Québec this summer for a docking work period. Instead, the ship will undergo a full crew change, with the current crew of HMCS St. John’s set to come aboard and continue as the ready-duty ship starting in August.

After the crew came ashore they have been self-isolating like other ship crews who aren’t proceeding to sea for training. Any new crew member must undergo a two-week isolation period and be tested for COVID-19 before coming aboard, and any stores or other items coming from land are kept off the ship for about three days before being sanitized and brought on.

“It’s all part of the preventative measures we’re taking. Our day-to-day running at sea is relatively normal, but our interaction and the interface between the ship and the shore is very different,” Cdr Eelhart said.