Leaders from business and government get their sea legs on 48-hour navy experience

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Navy News / January 26, 2017

By Ryan Melanson

Eight civilian leaders from a diverse set of public and private sector backgrounds were the latest to get a once-in-a-lifetime experience with the Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) Canadian Leaders at Sea (CLaS) program, travelling more than 400 nautical miles from Halifax to Boston, Mass., as guests aboard Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Ville de Québec.

After a tour of key Canadian Forces Base Halifax sites to contextualize the experience, the group set sail at 4 p.m. on November 30, 2016, accompanied by Commodore Craig Baines, Commander Canadian Fleet Atlantic, and immediately began a jam-packed schedule designed to show off the modernized frigate in as many ways as possible.

They spent time on the bridge as the ship performed high-speed manoeuvres in rough weather, toured the inner workings of the vessel through the engine and auxiliary machine rooms, got a crash-course in combat systems engineering, and even learned about the life of logistics officers, the “most exciting” job on board, according to Lieutenant-Commander Robert Cyr. They ate in each mess, bunked alongside sailors, and saw almost every inch of the vessel during the trip. The many improvements made through the Halifax-class modernization process were also highlighted, like the new Combat Management System, Integrated Control System and navigation radars.

There were plenty of hands-on experiences for the guests as well. On their first night on board, they took to the flight deck in the darkness to fire off smoke grenades and parachute rocket flares used in search-and-rescue scenarios, and the second day at sea brought even more hands-on excitement through small arms training and firing. After an extensive safety briefing and one-on-one instruction, each participant fired rounds from a 9mm pistol and the C7A2 automatic rifle at targets set up on the flight deck, and they also each shot one of the ship’s .50 caliber machine guns.

While there was a bit of lighthearted excitement leading up to the shoot, the seriousness of the weapons used by the RCN and Canadian Armed Forces was made paramount.

“It makes you stop and appreciate the firepower that they have on board, and that this can be a dangerous job,” said CLaS guest Sandra Hassan, Assistant Deputy Minister Compensation and Labour Relations with the Treasury Board Secretariat.

During a damage control presentation, the civilians were able to test out the fire extinguishers and spray the fire hose off the flight deck while suited up in full gear, but they also watched as the crew went through a training scenario, with the attack team heading to a smoke-filled section of the ship and others tending to a simulated casualty with advanced first-aid procedures.

Fires are one of the most common dangers in a warship, explained Lieutenant (Navy) Eric Bertrand. Every member of the crew receives training, and exercises are done often to ensure sailors are ready to respond.

“Damage control is something we take very seriously, because fires do happen. But when incidents occur in our navy or around the world, we’re able to learn from that and change the way we do business to get better,” he said.

Needless to say, the group was out of their element if comparing life on the frigate to their own workplaces, but some could still draw comparisons, like Honorary Navy Captain Tom Paddon. As the Chairman and former President and CEO of Baffinland Iron Mines Corp, HCapt(N) Paddon was familiar with the idea of caring for workers who are away from their homes and families.

“Of course it’s still difficult to compare, but for the drivers of supporting people in a non-local environment, there are a lot of similarities. We have to feed them, we have to heat everything, treat our water and sewer, bring all the supplies in, bring people back and forth. You’re basically running a town, and it happens to be in the shape of a ship,” he said.

Through two full nights in Ville de Québec, guests also had the chance to experience downtime at sea, spending time in the mess as sailors socialized, shared stories from their careers, or simply relaxed by watching a movie or live sports from the satellite entertainment on board. And with no wireless internet and limited communications of any kind, some guests said they quite enjoyed the rare chance to unplug for a few days.

“It’s almost like being on vacation,” joked Pierre Le Fevre, advisor to the CEO at Via Rail.

But the seriousness of the work done by RCN crews, and the often dangerous nature of that work, wasn’t lost on any of the CLaS guests. With an Honorary Captain (Navy) and a former Honorary Royal Canadian Air Force Colonel on board, as well as experienced government employees, discussions about the business of the RCN and the challenges of operating a globally deployable navy were frequent and well informed. The visitors quizzed Ville de Québec’s command team and Cmdre Baines on topics like Arctic sovereignty, Russian aggression, the South China Sea, and the RCN’s plan for dealing with current capability gaps.

Upon arriving in Boston on December 2, the guests had a final luncheon with Cmdre Baines and the ship’s Captain Commander Guillaume LaFrance, where they expressed their gratitude for the immersive trip to sea and talked about how they can use what they learned and experienced to act as ambassadors for the RCN in the future.

Cdr LaFrance left the group with a message on the basics of the navy business that are sometimes lost on the public: defence of Canada and North America, and contributions to international missions as an honest and trusted broker.

“By us existing and working here and abroad, ensuring those problems that exist don’t percolate back to Canada, it can be more difficult for people to appreciate what’s being done,” he said.

Kelly Block, a Member of Parliament since 2008 for the Saskatchewan riding of Carlton Trail–Eagle Creek, said she was grateful she could free up her Ottawa schedule enough to make it aboard. She said any parliamentarian could benefit from the experience, and she’ll be strongly promoting the CLaS program as an option for her colleagues in the future.

“Actually being on the ship and being able to experience some of what goes on, it provides me with a much stronger resolution to do what I need to do as a Member of Parliament to support our men and women and make sure they have everything they need. I’ve always felt strongly about that, but this has reinforced for me what a valuable asset we have,” she said.

The RCN plans to continue taking civilian leaders to sea with the CLaS program in coming years, and planning for the first 2017 engagements has already begun.