Lalo Espejo bunks down on a Canadian Warship
Moments after entering the officers’ mess on the HMCS Calgary, I’m grabbed by a very drunken sailor, hustled off to the flight deck, and grilled as to my intentions with his ship—as if I’m taking her out to the prom and he wants her back with her honour intact. But let’s back up a bit.
It’s a freezing Friday night this past winter, and I’m heading down to Prince Rupert’s waterfront toward the lit-up grey mass of this Canadian patrol frigate. The silhouetted weaponry of the 443-foot warship already feels like a subtle warning that I’m entering a type of foreign territory. I ascend the gangway and pass uniformed sentries into an atmosphere of military bearing and tradition. Clearly, I must look out of my element. The ship’s number-two guy, Lieutenant Commander Brian Costello, takes me around for introductions, which is when I meet my, um, protective friend.
I can’t blame him, really. One minute, he’s drinking with his colleagues, letting his crewcut down, and the next a civilian media type from the soft city down south crashes his party. I try to explain that I’m here as an embedded playwright to research my next monologue—a difficult enough concept to grasp when sober, I know. It turns out he’s the weapons officer (!), and he’s accusing me of slavery to media masters in need of a sensational story. Gradually, I convince him that my intentions are honourable; I’m just a poor freelance writer, unattached to a media conglomerate, with the freedom to keep an open mind. (Too open, perhaps. A few days later, when I mention to a group of officers that I think Brokeback Mountain is a fine movie, there’s a momentary pause as I wait for the sound of crickets to break the silence.)
The general concept I’m looking to explore is Canadian identity through its military, which is why I’m tagging along for one week on the Calgary’s sovereignty patrol along the BC coast. From Prince Rupert, we’re heading past Haida Gwaii to Dixon Entrance, just beneath the Alaska Panhandle, where Canada has a border dispute with the United States. The Canadian Navy stepped up these patrols throughout its territory since 9/11, but the public generally became aware of them during last year’s spat with Denmark over a glorified Arctic pebble, Hans Island. By deliberately sailing into territory claimed by two parties, Canada builds its case for the international courts, should that day ever materialize. I feel privileged to be aboard for what amounts to a diplomatic “bite me” to the Americans.
I’d managed to wrangle an invitation to this outing a few months earlier, when I checked out the HMCS Vancouver during its Grey Cup stopover at Canada Place. I chatted up the captain of that ship, Kurt Salchert, who was intrigued enough by my idea of using the armed forces as a metaphor for Canadian identity that he kindly took me to meet the commodore of the Pacific fleet, Bruce Donaldson. We bonded over a conversation of theatre, politics, media and history, a pleasant interlude that caused me to neatly leapfrog weeks of potentially tedious communications with the military’s PR department.
On Saturday night there’s a dinner on board for local dignitaries including Prince Rupert’s mayor and business leaders—the Calgary’s effort to establish goodwill in ports away from home. and she just removes a new outfit every 20 minutes. I imagine that to my companions—sailors who have travelled the world—anything less than ping-pong balls shot through a ring of fire is as interesting as a five-day cricket match. But I digress.
I officially join the HMCS Calgary on Monday morning at 7 a.m. The dock and deck are buzzing with the controlled hustle of a crew preparing its ship for sea, hauling in the anchor and releasing the big ropes from their moorings. I head down that first hatch like it’s my own private rabbit hole. Below, everyone is now in fitted blue work uniforms, zipping to and fro in the narrow spaces separated into quadrants by heavy metal doors. If the ship ever gets hit by enemy fire, each area can be sealed off tight to preserve the others. Before we cast off, the chief petty officer, Robert Okoh, gives me a run-down on safety procedures, which I distill to “hang on tight.”
I’m sharing a three-bunk cabin with two fisheries officers who are on board as part of a resource-sharing initiative between the fisheries department and the navy. (This close relationship goes back to 1910, when the Canadian Navy was launched with two surplus British cruisers to be used as training ships. The crew was a mix of Royal Navy and the Canadian Fisheries Protection Service personnel.) In fact, there are quite a few outsiders on this patrol—a veritable Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza with a “cast of a thousand extras,” if you will—including six keener cadets from Calgary, six seasoned Rangers (a volunteer force serving remote areas) from Vancouver Island, the two fisheries officers packin’ heat, and one suspect writer from Vancouver.
We head north to put our collective boat-print on the disputed waters. My regular perch is on the bridge, squeezed in alongside the officers-of-the-watch in charge of the ship, who call instructions to two sailors who steer and control the frigate’s speed. From this vantage point I’m privy to the two main visuals of the entire trip: a grey, choppy sea shrouded in fog, or narrow passages hemmed in by snow-topped mountains on one side and evergreen islands on the other.
I’ve been granted full roaming privileges, so when I’m not up on the bridge, I’m poking around below, talking to the crew. One of the things I’m curious about is morale, because that’s often a media focus when reporting on military operations, whether in the Balkans, Persian Gulf, or Afghanistan. I’m told that this ship has a reputation for being high in that department, partly based on the leadership style of the top brass. This is significant because public opinion is less forgiving of the armed forces than of other organizations. My point is this: If you are unhappy with your job, well, so what? Peter Mansbridge isn’t going to discuss it as a national crisis in your living room. But if a military person is unhappy with his job, then the public demands the right to know, even if all Master Seaman Bloggs is thinking is, “Geezus, who said anything about morale? I’d just prefer to have my own fly-fishing shop...”
For those who are sure they’ve made the right decision to join, there’s a lot of pride—even tales of one-upmanship. Over lunch, Okoh tells me about the Calgary’s war-game exercises with the Americans last summer. The main purpose was to put a US submarine through its paces of dodging torpedoes and other evasive maneuvers. The Americans, of course, have every modern bell and whistle going, with technology coming out of their wazoos. The Canadians make due with technology that’s a decade old or more. However, while we don’t have the latest gadgets, we excel with what we do have. Chief Okoh is beaming: “We hit ‘em four times! They accused us of cheating!”
It doesn’t take long to get my first insight into how quintessentially Canadian our forces really are. Costello tells me about the different rules of engagement followed by the Canadians and the Americans that he observed during a tour in the Arabian Gulf. For the U.S. sailors, he reported, it’s a pretty simple equation: There would have to be a clear aggressive action—say, a charging boat—for the Canadians to issue a radio warning. Even then, we’d wait for the first shot. After all, we understand that the attackers ar first shot—I mean, hey, they might miss—we’d get kinda pissed off and open up on the little cocksuckers (I’m paraphrasing).
Another ongoing discussion I have throughout the week is the crew’s impression of their perception by the Canadian public. The consensus is that there are, for the most part, two types of Canadians: a) those who have a base in town, know quite a bit about the forces, and are largely supportive, and b) those who don’t, and whose impressions are formed by what’s floating in the media ether—that, is if they pay attention at all. This reality doesn’t seem to stress them. Their personal pride trumps trifling annoyances around public (mis)conceptions, and they’re happy to educate wherever they can.
“There are a lot of people who disqualify us as non-military. We’re ‘peacekeepers,’ or some kind of government agency,” one of the officers tells me (a sharp contrast, of course, to what’s now happening in Afghanistan). “I’m constantly amazed at how many people don’t realize we have a navy.”
Despite my early run-in with the crew’s drinking habits, as an outside observer I feel surrounded by paragons of professionalism throughout the week. When they’re not focused on regular duties, they’re in briefings, refresher courses or emergency drills. It actually strikes me how comfortable I feel in their hands, as if they’re the grown-ups and not 10 years my junior. It’s noteworthy that the average age of the officers is in the early to mid-30s range, yet that there’s a palpable sense of maturity that permeates the bridge in particular, like it’s eau de responsibility no. 5.
Which is not to say that we’re not having any fun, especially not with the two fisheries officers hanging around. Prince Rupert’s Mike Ballard and Bella Coola’s Greg Askey spend the week playing Good Fisheries Officer/Bad Fisheries Officer, and the rest of us tease them about their jobs. A week earlier, they had boarded one fishing vessel to check for a valid license and inspect it; should they think it necessary, they have the authority to ask that the frigate pull up to any boat for this purpose. So, whenever we see a forlorn vessel on the gray horizon vessel, we playfully goad, “Sic ‘em, Mike!” Of course, if it seems that they are actually considering a random check we’d chime in with the opposite. “You guys are such bastards!” “The poor sum bitch is just trying to feed his family!” “Hardy har har!” Ballard, unflappable under our merciless barbs, gives us his unnerving dead-pan Métis look (oh, and by the way, Mike’s Métis) many times over.
It’s just my luck that this week is also one of high winds and rough seas. Remember that February week during which BC Ferries cancelled sailings to Vancouver Island? You can imagine what it was like in open waters. In fact, the captain even changes plans for a stopover at a remote hot spring on Haida Gwaii to keep us on an inside route—a perk we don’t mind foregoing, given the conditions.
The ship pitches and rolls, which is entertaining to watch from above for a while, but the charm eventually wears off. After that, the weather is just a pain in the ass. Many of the sailors tell me they start a regimen of seasickness drugs the day before sailing out, and I’m surprised by how common t is to take such a drug, be it a patch or another form. (One would think that not being susceptible to seasickness might be a key factor in choosing a naval career.) It’s worst at night. The best place to be on the ship is low and in the middle. I suspect that bottom bunks are prime real estate. Me? I’m all the way forward on the top bunk—strategically the worst place to be. It’s like being on the teeter-totter with the fat kid who keeps jumping off when you’re way up. Throughout the night I’m pulling zero gravity like a levitating swami, minus the eternal consciousness.
After a (thankfully) calm night in Kitasu Bay, we swing out and around Price Island and start heading through the narrow channels and spectacular scenery between Campbell Island and the Coast Mountains. Two eagles sitting on the branches of a bare tree watch dispassionately as we cruise by. We next head up Fisher Channel and follow it all the way up the inlet to Ocean Falls, an isolated community accessible only by air or sea. Thirty years ago it was a pulp and paper town. Now, it has a permanent population of about 60 residents that swells to about 145 in summer. It also has its own power plant, and the nearest RCMP detachment is an hour away by speedboat in Bella Bella.
We just head into the bay, do a donut, and head out. It’s meant to be an informal “hello,” but probably comes off as a tad intimidating. As our armed frigate comes into full view of town, we wonder whether the good folk are frantically burning their pot plants. There’s also a lone boat—a shrimper—that Ballard’s peering at with binoculars. He’s leaning toward boarding it. Askey thinks it’s too inconsequential. Meanwhile, the chorus: “Bastards!” “Go get ‘em!” “Leave the poor guy alone!” “Hardy har har.” (Note to self: Bill Department of Fisheries for consulting fees.)
After a night in Namu, protected from winds and rough seas by Hunter Island, the sun comes out for the last leg back to Esquimalt. Our route takes us through Blackfish Sound between Hanson Island and Harbledown Island. A pod of dolphins follows the ship as we slalom through the narrow passage and then the islands of Johnstone Strait near the top of Vancouver Island. At around 3 p.m., as we approach Robson Bight (a famous spot where whales go to scratch themselves on the pebbles), an air-force Buffalo airplane spots the ship and flies by low to wag his wings at us.
I’m at my perch on the bridge when word spreads that a Sea King helicopter, the perennial brunt-of-the-joke of the Canadian Navy, has crashed in waters off Denmark while trying to land on the HMCS Athabaskan. It’s a sore point, and the most publicized example of equipment that sorely needs replacing. Commander Tom Tulloch tells me that years of budget cuts have been frustrating, but that he’s encouraged by what seems to be a broad consensus among political parties to get the military back on its feet. This point is true. I mean, I put in, how badly off do things have to be for the NDP to be in full support of increased funding for the military? (Full disclosure: I vote NDP). Tulloch chuckles: “I don’t know whether to be reassured or frightened by that point...”
He points out that the Canadian military has been involved in more operations in the last decade and than in the preceding 40 years. Public appreciation, he believes, has risen since he joined in 1979, especially post-Somalia. “Since then we have gradually built up and gradually been involved in a lot of key operations around the world. People have had a chance to see a bit more of what we do, and I can sense a bit more support for the rebuilding of the military.”
I, like many Canadians, want to be proud of what our military’s exploits. Quite a few crew members tell me that they are very happy the forces aren’t in Iraq, because we don’t belong there. Of course, they’d go if the political masters willed it. The idea behind our engagements, as Tulloch explains, is to bring the Canadian persona into the international arena to influence and assist parts of the world that may not be as important to the U.S. as they are to Canada. This is especially important when you consider how easy it is for our forces to get painted with the American brush. So the hope is that while the U.S. is perceived as very aggressive, and other countries are bitch-slapped by contemptuous warlords, Canada maintains a three-bears reputation of being just right. We don’t pick the fight, but we don’t run in a stare-down.
As we round the last bend and come into the base at Esquimalt, I’m struck with this odd sensation. A lefty feeling of pride for Canada’s military. And a last word for my friend, the weapons officer: Sean, I brought the ship back—and I didn’t even have to get the condoms out.
Copyright © Lalo Espejo, 2006