Learning how to be a sailor

Navy News / March 23, 2016

By Lieutenant (Navy) Linda Coleman

In 2012, I was offered an opportunity to work at Maritime Forces Pacific (MARPAC) Public Affairs in Esquimalt, B.C. By this point in my career, I had been a Public Affairs Officer in the Army Reserves for seven years, participating mainly in land operations and exercises. At the time, I didn’t know much about the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), and was walking into unfamiliar territory.

The opportunity at MARPAC came at the perfect time in my life when I was willing to relocate, challenge myself and start a new adventure. And a challenge is what I got! On day two of my contract, I was thrown into a seven-hour meeting for an upcoming TGEX. I didn’t even know what a TGEX was (Task Group exercise, if you were wondering). I kept hearing “Ottawa”, “Vancouver” and for the first hour I thought they were referring to the cities. As it turns out, they were ships. Someone asked me if I knew where the “heads” were. The what?! I had no clue what was going on or what “heads” were (washrooms), and it seemed that no-one was speaking in English.

I had to learn fast, which I did over the course of my year with MARPAC. I grew to embrace the navy and all of its culture, quirks, traditions and language (which I’m still learning.) Living in Victoria wasn’t so bad either.

Fast forward a year later, and my application for employment with the Regular Force went through. I accepted an offer, switched to a naval uniform and embarked on an adventure with the RCN. This leads me to where I am today, on the Naval Environmental Training Program (NETP) preparing for my first naval deployment on Operation CARIBBE – Canada’s contribution to Operation MARTILLO, a multinational campaign against transnational criminal organizations in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

NETP is a four-week course consisting of both officers and non-commissioned members and entails everything from safety procedures on a ship, to force protection, weapons training, sea survival, learning how to use harnesses and damage control. Anyone who serves in Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships must take NETP to learn the basics of seamanship.

My class consisted of cooks, sonar operators, hull techs, stewards and a Sea King helicopter pilot, of all different ages and walks of life. Some were new recruits to the Canadian Armed Forces, while others had been in for over 15 years.

The course ended up being more useful than I ever imagined. From little things such as understanding what the numbers and letters on doors and hatches mean, to more difficult tasks including conducting force protection scenarios, fixing leaking pipes and fighting fires, you truly gain an overall knowledge on how to be a sailor in a warship.

Damage Control School took up the last two weeks of the course and is arguably the most intense portion of NETP. The RCN’s Damage Control School is conducted in a state-of-the-art and environmentally friendly facility in Colwood, B.C., and includes 15 burn rooms for firefighter training and two flood tanks for flood control.

The training area is a mock-up of compartments in a ship where you’re subject to different types of flood and fire scenarios. As a team, we apply what we’ve learned in class on how to react to different damage control situations. As I dealt with a giant hole on a bulkhead with water gushing through while in waist deep cold water, or fighting a fire in an engine room with flames only five feet away, I can assure you that the training is intense and realistic.

“When you’re at sea, all you have is each other, so you have to depend on each other,” said Master Corporal Sean Armstrong, our fire instructor at Damage Control School. “No matter what one’s duties are in a ship, the discoverer of a flood, fire or any other emergency must learn how to take the appropriate actions.”

This information resonated with me and my biggest take away from NETP is that no matter what trade you are, every member of a ship’s company plays an integral part in ensuring the safety in a ship.

As a Public Affairs Officer, I’ll hopefully never have to do flood repair or fight a fire on a ship. However, learning the basics of these lifesaving skills gave me enough basic knowledge to provide effective assistance in a real-life emergency should the need arise. As I prepare to embark on Operation CARIBBE, I can thank NETP, and the staff who administered it, for helping me feel much more confident about myself and my abilities to serve in a warship.