What are you reading? Life on board HMCS Saskatoon during Operation CARIBBE

Navy News / April 27, 2017

By Sub-Lieutenant Susannah Anderson

The tropical heat has settled like a wet wool blanket over the ship and the Weapons Engineering Technician is wedged into a small sliver of shade on the sweep deck, avidly reading a paperback on his break. “Have you read Ready Player One? One of the boatswains gave it to me; I just can’t put it down.”

On Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Saskatoon, 47 days into a deployment in the eastern Pacific on Operation CARIBBE, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is being passed from hand to hand throughout the ship.

In a world of instant connectivity, sharing a beat-up paperback with friends seems old fashioned. The loss of instant connectivity can come as a shock to new sailors; internet speed at sea varies based on the position of the ship’s mast or the necessity for operational security. Even with transmitting and receiving turned off, access to cell phones is strictly controlled and instant texts are replaced by thoughtful emails or a mail drop in a port far from home. The lack of connectivity with home quickly fosters a deeper connectivity on ship: meals are taken together, sleeping is done in bunks stacked two and three high, and crew members work together on watch.

Common experiences and shared books like Ready Player One are links in a chain that bring crew members closer together, Lieutenant-Commander Todd Bacon, Commanding Officer of HMCS Saskatoon explains. “Saskatoon sailed from Esquimalt in February 2017 with a new crew, brought together from across Canada, both Regular and Reserve Force. Through hard work and excellence in training, they have grown together and have performed seamlessly in theatre. After two months sharing the exhilaration of successful interdictions long days together at sea, the crew is more than a group of sailors, they have become a family.”

Life in the oak-paneled wardroom is centred on the dining table. “Have you read Ready Player One?” asks an officer over pancakes and fruit in the Officer’s Mess. The novel is an avid topic of conversation between crew members of all ranks and trades.

Conversation is stilted in the breakfast line as tired crew members come in from the night watches and brightens once the rich smell of coffee starts wafting through the ship. The reliability of satellite television fades within days of going to sea, replaced by black folios of DVDs. Movies are watched together in the messes and what is shown on the big screen is determined by who had the foresight to toss DVDs into their kit bag before sailing. Sentimental movies are often rejected in favour of movies that speak to the camaraderie and determination that the sailors face daily.

Cabins are shared between three or four personnel. Knowing who likes quiet in the morning and who will bounce out of bed singing to the morning wake-up song is important for maintaining peace. Understanding when a cabin mate needs space and privacy or when they need a supportive shoulder means that friendships deepen quickly. The long night watches lend themselves to meaningful conversations.

“The mids (middle watch from midnight until 4 a.m.) conversations are my favourite,” says Saskatoon’s Operations Officer, who cannot be named for operational security reasons. “We keep the ship safe and on course throughout the night. While watching for contacts, we talk, tell stories and discuss ideas. Saskatoon’s sailors are from diverse backgrounds and different parts of Canada. Everyone has an interesting story to tell; the long night watches are the place to tell it. There is a book everyone on ship is reading that has led to some really interesting conversations lately.”

HMCS Saskatoon is on its way back to Esquimalt, B.C., and its sailors will once again be instantly connected to the world. The connectivity ashore, however, cannot match the deeper connectivity of a life shared at sea. Over the last two months, the crew has sailed from Canada to Panama and back, helping to seize over 1,100 kg of cocaine and to disrupt an estimated 1,500 kg along the way.

After 11 years, Operation CARIBBE continues to be successful in its mission of interrupting the northward flow of drugs into North America. Life on board HMCS Saskatoon is about more than the mission: it is about the sailors and lasting connections they forge at sea. There is this book everyone is talking about, Ready Player One? Would you like to borrow it?