Two women command ships on Operation CARIBBE

Navy News / March 16, 2021

By Captain Sarah Harasymchuk

Two Kingston-class naval warships. Twenty-five thousand nautical miles along coastlines stretching from Canada to South America patrolled yearly. Thousands of kilograms of illicit drugs seized since 2006. This is Operation CARIBBE.

This year marks an historic occasion. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) ships deployed from the Pacific coast, Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships (HMCS) Brandon and Saskatoon, are commanded by women captains. It’s a first since the mission started.

“I’m very proud to be representing Canada and the Royal Canadian Navy on this deployment,” said Lieutenant-Commander (LCdr) Maude Ouellet-Savard, the Commanding Officer of HMCS Brandon. “Our dedicated sailors are some of the finest in the fleet. They amaze me every day with their professionalism, work ethic and motivation to see mission success.”

LCdr Ouellet-Savard assumed command of HMCS Brandon in 2019 as her first sea command appointment.

“It’s really exciting to have reached this milestone in my career. It’s no small feat to get through the training as a Naval Warfare Officer. Commanding a ship is something a lot of us strive for and I’m very pleased my ship turned out to be the Brandon, as this is where I first started my career sailing with the Navy.”

Lieutenant-Commander Nadia Shields assumed command of HMCS Saskatoon in 2020 as her first command posting.

“It’s an honour to be the Commanding Officer of Saskatoon and I’m thrilled to be leading our sailors on this mission,” said LCdr Shields.

“I’ve always looked forward to the opportunity to lead some of our finest sailors and I’m delighted to deploy with my dear friend, the captain of Brandon, on the same mission. It’s an important operation for Canada and has real-world implications by stopping illicit trafficking on our oceans.”

Operation CARIBBE is Canada's participation in the U.S.-led enhanced counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean Sea and the eastern Pacific Ocean. Naval warships and aircraft deploy to the region on a rotational basis to support the American-led multinational mission to suppress trafficking in international waters and airspace. The operation has seen many successful drug interdictions.

In the Question and Answer below LCdr Ouellet-Savard talks about who she is and what keeps her motivated as the Commanding Officer of a naval warship:


Are you the first person in your family to be in the military?

Yes, to the surprise of my family as they did not expect me to join. I’m still in 20 years later because I love the sea!


Why did you join the Navy?

Because I fell in love with being at sea when I was on a boatswain course with sea cadets. I decided then to seek out navigation as a career. My neighbours in Quebec City, a service couple, introduced me to the military and encouraged me to join. Opportunities for women in civilian shipping companies were limited at the time and I’d seen a few women go through military college already so I was swayed towards that path. Being from Quebec City, with the base at Valcartier nearby, there was a strong military community. Sea Cadets were also a great launching platform to introduce me to basic naval skills that piqued my interest.


What motivates you to be the Commanding Officer of a ship?

It’s a goal that all Naval Warfare Officers look forward to -- having a crew and executing a mission together is a great motivation to keep going and keep pushing through the ups and downs of the job. It’s a lot of responsibility as the team relies on me to make the best decisions for the ship and crew’s well-being. The reward of seeing sailors grow, and the crew as a whole succeed, makes the challenge worth it!


What was the hardest thing you’ve had to do in your career?

When I was on exchange with the Royal Navy, I was a Navigation Sea Trainer for Flag Officer Sea Training, and I had to maintain situational awareness and navigation safety during various training scenarios when embarked in ships from all over Europe and beyond. In English-speaking ships, I could easily manage, but it became a lot more complicated when bridge teams spoke German, Dutch, Norwegian or Portuguese. Speaking French became very useful when training with the Belgian Navy.


How did you get such an excellent crew on board?

A bit of luck at the beginning, but really just great people attracting great people. I think we’ve gained a good reputation for having good morale on board by fostering a welcoming environment that people are attracted to.


What is your favourite activity during your free time while at sea?

I like to be creative and do things that take my mind away from work. I’ve done painting, crocheting, drawing -- anything that allows me to disconnect and relax and still allows me to answer the phone every few minutes.


How are the maritime coastal defence vessels performing on this operation?

With all the training our crew has completed, and the versatility of the platform, [the ships are] extremely well suited to conduct this type of mission.


Why is Operation CARIBBE important?

It’s all about the way we can make a contribution to Canadians’ and North Americans’ safety and security by interrupting the flow of illicit trafficking in the region.


What are the top highlights of your career in the Royal Canadian Navy?

First, circumnavigating the globe in HMCS Calgary in 2008; second, navigating her Majesty the Queen for International Fleet Review in HMCS St. John’s in 2010; and finally, taking command of HMCS Brandon in 2019 and the opportunity to deploy on Operation CARIBBE with my team.


Were you ever in a situation of real danger on a ship?

The biggest threat I’ve faced is weather: a super typhoon called Jangmi, [which was] a Category 5 hurricane, in Asia in 2008. Acting as navigator for the ship, we were transiting back from Operation ALTAIR en route to Japan when Jangmi was making its way towards China. It was nerve wracking because I was very junior and responsible for the ship’s navigation. It was a great learning opportunity for me to push through those challenges and safely navigate the ship back to Victoria.


What’s one interesting thing about you that most people don’t know?

My first ship ever was HMCS Brandon during my Maritime Surface and Subsurface training. It was also the first time I sailed with my best friend, Lieutenant-Commander Nadia Shields. We met at Royal Military College and our careers have intersected ever since. It’s amazing to be the captain of the same ship where I first started sailing with the Navy and my best friend, and the fact that we’re now both captains on the same mission for Operation CARIBBE.


What’s your favourite part about your job?

There’s something new every day, there’s no monotony at sea. There are always new people, new challenges, new tasks. It’s never boring.


Where was your favourite place to sail in your career?

Croatia and Thailand were two very different areas I sailed to, but very beautiful in their own ways. I had great experiences there in 2008. I had a chance to go back to Croatia two more times after that and it was still as amazing.


What’s your favourite smell on a ship?

When the cooks make fresh bread. It’s a comfort smell that reminds me of home. I can’t say no to homemade bread!


What do you miss the most when you’re at sea?

My bed at home without the phone ringing!


What’s the first thing you do after a long sail?

I grab a bowl of Island Poké and get a good night’s sleep.


What would you like to say to your friends and family back home in Quebec City?

This last year has been challenging with isolation. I can’t wait to come home for a visit after the deployment and once COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed. There’s no better feeling than seeing friends and family after months away. Mom, we’re due for a poutine date!