Canadian Leaders at Sea: civilians get an unforgettable experience

Image Gallery

Crowsnest - Fall 2016 / October 24, 2016

By Kylee Mackay

Spending a few nights onboard a Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) warship is a rare opportunity for most civilians; so when 10 business and community leaders set sail for a two-night transit from Halifax to St. John’s onboard Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) St. John’s, they took full advantage of everything the ship had to offer.

Very few Canadians living away from the east and west coasts of the country have even seen a major warship, let alone watched its sailors in action. The RCN’s Canadian Leaders at Sea (CLaS) program is designed to help familiarize civilian stakeholders with the work of sailors and the capabilities of their ships – and also to bring Canadians closer to their navy.

This past summer, Commodore Craig Baines, Commander Canadian Fleet Atlantic, hosted the CLaS group onboard HMCS St. John’s, one of 12 Halifax-class frigates in Canada’s fleet.

“We invited a select group of Canadians who are leaders in their professional sector or in their community,” says Cmdre Baines. “By exposing them to the work of our men and women at sea, they gain a newfound appreciation for how the RCN protects and defends Canada at home and abroad. They can then help us spread that message to Canadians when they return home.”

CLaS programs are run several times a year on both coasts, and each one is a unique experience. The action-packed and physically demanding three-day, two-night program includes navigation, seamanship, weapons and mechanical briefings, tours of the entire ship, and hands-on participation in many exercises and drills. By the end of their time at sea, many civilian sailors are exhausted.

One of the most exciting exercises on this trip was the chance to ride in the ship’s rigid-hulled inflatable boat, or RHIB. The RHIB is a key tool when a ship’s boarding party investigates suspicious vessels while deployed on operations. It’s lightweight, fast and extremely manoeuvrable.

Getting into the RHIB was an adventure in itself. Each person clung tightly to a suspended net as it was lifted from the deck, up and over the ship’s railing by crane, and carefully lowered over the side onto the waiting boat, two storeys down on the ocean’s surface. Meanwhile, the RHIB was being expertly manoeuvered by its coxswain to stay directly alongside the 135-metre frigate as it moved through the water.

Once in the high-speed RHIB, the quick turns and choppy waves made for a thrilling ride with an incredible view of St. John’s. Then it was back up the way they came – into the swinging net and onto the ship’s deck. Driving the RHIB was surpassed only by the movements of the ship itself.

“I was surprised by the agility and the sophistication of the frigate – how fast it can go, how manoeuvrable it is,” says Nik Nanos of Nanos Research. “When you’re on deck you realize that it can stop and turn on a dime, and you forget that it’s nearly 5,000 tonnes and 135 metres long.”

“It’s a stealthy, high-tech piece of machinery,” continues Mr. Nanos. “There’s no substitute for the experience of being here. It provokes people to think more clearly about the navy’s multidimensional role, and how it affects them and their lives.”

The ship’s company was proud to demonstrate some of their regular and ongoing drills, including how they fight fire and flood damage, treat casualties, or locate and retrieve a man overboard. Participants were surprised to learn that these training exercises involving the entire ship’s company are done several times a week while at sea to keep skills and procedures sharp.

After the demonstrations, the visitors received some firefighting instruction of their own from the ship’s patient and thorough hull technicians. They then suited up in the heavy gear, complete with air tanks, thermal imaging cameras and the multitude of other tools needed to “fight” a fire in a compartment filled with smoke. Harmless smoke, but blinding nonetheless. Each one came out triumphant that their “casualty” had been found and rescued.

“The CLaS program is an outstanding opportunity for the sailors onboard as well,” says Commander Rory McLay, HMCS St. John’s Commanding Officer, during the trip. “Nothing sharpens your skills more than teaching it to someone else. The ship’s company takes full advantage of a new audience to demonstrate all aspects of war fighting and shipboard emergency capabilities.”

No time at sea would be complete without a few surprises. Halfway through the trip, St. John’s was alerted to an unmanned solar-powered robot boat whose propeller had become snagged in fishing gear. The four-metre Solar Voyager had been attempting to complete the first autonomous transatlantic crossing by boat when it got hung up, and was now drifting aimlessly off the coast of Nova Scotia. Communicating with Solar Voyager’s owner, the ship made the decision to retrieve the experimental vessel to eliminate any potential hazard to shipping. St. John’s came alongside the small boat early in the morning and members of the ship’s company were able to hoist it onboard. Solar Voyager made for an interesting conversation piece for visitors and crew members alike as it rested on the deck for the duration of the sail.

Without fail, every member of the 230-member St. John’s team welcomed the visitors they encountered in the corridors or in the messes (dining areas). A quick question or two about their job onboard led to chats that clearly demonstrated just how dedicated they were, and how proud they were to contribute to the daily operations of the ship, and to the defence and security of Canada.

Their commitment and positive attitudes made a huge impression on the visitors.

Carolann Harding, the Director of International Business Development with the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, was struck by how the ship’s company works together as a community. “It’s a very strong partnership between everyone on the ship, and they have a tremendous sense of pride and professionalism. The public has no idea of the high skills, the training and the education of these men and women. I learned something every minute and now I can bring this back to my community and share the message of how important the navy is to Canada.”

As a native Newfoundlander, Ms. Harding was not at all surprised by the thick fog the ship encountered during the trip. As the sail was winding to a close, and HMCS St. John’s finally emerged from the gray mist off the coast of Newfoundland, she and the rest of the newly minted sailors could see the beauty of St. John’s Harbour in the distance.

No one was more proud to be onboard St. John’s as the ship sailed into its hometown harbour than Danny Williams, former Premier of the province.

“It was truly an honour and a privilege to be invited to participate in the Leaders at Sea program,” says Mr. Williams. “I think I can speak for everyone when I say that it was an outstanding adventure. I was particularly fortunate to be aboard HMCS St. John's with such a remarkable group of professionals. You could really sense an authentic feeling of community and camaraderie, which no doubt is reflected in the important work they do in service to our country. Aside from being friendly, welcoming and extremely capable; their deep commitment to their life's work was unmistakable. The entire crew represented the best of what it is to be a Canadian.”