Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/5/2009 (2915 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
GULF OF ADEN — It’s Monday again.
Sailors will tell you that every day at sea is a Monday, right up to the day before you get to port. Then it’s Friday.
Saturday is the day the ship arrives at port and the crew get time to stretch their legs on dry land, sleep in hotels and generally try to recharge their batteries for another voyage.
As one of more than 50 international warships patrolling the pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa, the Winnipeg has responsibility for a 64-kilometre-by-97-kilometre patrol box and all the action therein.
In total, the ship will have logged more than 100 days at sea since it was deployed in February. That is three-and-a-half months of mostly Mondays.
The missions and the technology may change, but life on a ship like the Winnipeg follows rhythms and traditions that have been forged over centuries. The hierarchy and chain of command, the duties and watch schedule all pay homage to tradition.
It is, as it has always been, a life at sea.
Sitting at his office on three deck, deep within the ship, Chief Petty Officer Dave Bliss, the coxswain, is pulling together the paperwork he will need for today’s summary trial. One of the crew has run afoul of the ship’s code of conduct, and the coxswain is the man who investigates and makes a recommendation on whether to go to trial at sea.
In naval history, the coxswain was a ship’s helmsman. In modern times, the position has incorporated much broader and more important responsibilities. If a warship is like a floating town, then the coxswain is the sheriff. The Winnipeg Police Service crest affixed to the door of Bliss’s office says that in these parts, the coxswain is the law for the non-commissioned members of the crew.
But the coxswain is so much more than just a keeper of the peace. The most senior non-commissioned member of the ship’s crew, the coxswain is part of the "triad," a management structure that includes the executive officer (XO) and the commanding officer (CO). In this dynamic, he is the chief representative of all non-commissioned crew.
"My role is to be the crew’s advocate to command," said Bliss, an affable man with a lifetime of tattoos running up and down both forearms. "I take the daily temperature of the crew and see what’s getting at them."
What gets at the crew can be any number of things, from the pace of work, to pressures from family back home, to the stress that arises when 240 people work together in close quarters and under difficult conditions. Bliss conceded that it’s an environment that can wear on you.
One of the biggest stresses is that created by the watches. A ship at sea requires round-the-clock attention. This requires sailors to keep an inhuman schedule of watches. Bliss noted the Winnipeg currently observes a "1 in 2" schedule that sees sailors work five hours on, five hours off, seven hours on and seven hours off.
Off-hours are used for mundane tasks like laundry, recreation and exercise. And sleep. With one five-hour block and another seven-hour block of off time, sailors find they often sleep only five to six hours each day, and that is split up into two chunks. "You get used to it," Bliss said. "Is it healthy? Probably not."
The ship has many layers and divisions: age, gender, rank, experience and expertise. And in the ancient tradition of the navy, the ship’s very design is a manifestation of hierarchy and chain of command.
Commander Craig Baines’s quarters are located forward on the first deck level of the ship, one ladder and a short walk from the bridge. To maintain the perception of impartiality, and to give the other ranks in the ship the time and space to speak freely, Baines adheres to one of the most venerable navy traditions and eats his meals alone in his quarters.
Below Baines, on second deck, are the officers’ quarters and the wardroom, a combination bar-lounge-dining room where officers eat and relax. On the third deck are the messes (bunks) and lounges for non-commissioned members. This includes lounges and dining areas for able seamen and below, and department chiefs and petty officers.
"The officers make the decisions, but the non-commissioned members make it happen. It is an interesting relationship that might be difficult for people from the outside to understand," Bliss noted.
Although he is well-accepted as the law on the Winnipeg, it was not always thus. As is commonplace in navy life, Bliss was posted to the Winnipeg in January on short notice. The former coxswain had to be "chopped out" early from his deployment. Bliss was taking a course when he got a message via BlackBerry that he was going to meet the Winnipeg.
It is always a challenge to replace a coxswain, Bliss said, especially when it was patently clear that the Winnipeg was quite fond of the previous one. It made the first few weeks a bit anxious.
"Replacing the previous coxswain the way I did, it was a very tough and emotional experience," Bliss said. "I was very cognizant of the fact that the ship really enjoyed his leadership. The best thing I’ve experienced so far was when I realized the crew had accepted me."
If you ask the crew of the Sea King helicopter, they will tell you they have the best job in the navy and the worst job in the air force. It’s a motto that makes most sailors roll their eyes in disgust. And when they feel the need to return fire, the target of their contempt is the helicopter itself.
All things being equal, the Sea King is a pretty easy target for the sailors. Tied down to the aft flight deck, the 40-something aircraft is more than a little bit ugly, its dull grey fuselage streaked with exhaust from its engines. Inside, it is most definitely spartan.
In the air, however, the Sea King has an elegance that is undeniable. It carves the air and swoops down to just above the level of the sea with remarkable agility. It is a stunning contrast in styles, not unlike the surprise you would experience when witnessing an overweight prizefighter with nimble footwork.
It is tradition to give seagoing helicopters a nickname while on deployment, and this aircraft is no different. This helicopter is from British Columbia, but it’s commonplace now to find a nickname that has a connection to the ship’s namesake city.
Using some deep intelligence gathered by airmen who served in Manitoba, this helicopter is affectionately known as "Palomino," a tribute to the venerable country-and-western nightclub of the same name on Portage Avenue near the city’s core.
On the left shoulder of their khaki jumpsuits, each member of the flight crew wears a mission badge celebrating the nickname. The badge features a rendering of the rearing horse from the nightclub’s neon sign, and the motto: "The Cougars lair." (It is a reference to the bar’s well-earned reputation for producing short-lived May-December romances.)
Nightclubs and cougars aside, the Palomino’s mission on the Winnipeg is all business. The Sea King is unique because it can be used for almost any kind of mission, including search and rescue, combat and counter-submarine tasks. Its speed and range — the helicopter can reach 241 kilometres per hour and travel several hundred kilometres in one flight — give the Winnipeg a stranglehold on its patrol box. The incident of May 24 is a good example.
On routine morning patrol, Palomino spotted two pirate skiffs. The helicopter hovered over one of the skiffs until the Winnipeg arrived and deployed her boarding party. It also dropped smoke and radar buoys to mark the spot where one of the skiffs dropped a boarding ladder attached to a float.
While the boarding crew searched one skiff, the helicopter took off, found the second skiff, hovered, and waited for the ship to catch up. "The helicopter adds such an important dimension to our mission," Baines said. "It can cover so much water in such a short period of time, it is one of the most important tools we have to fight piracy."
It’s an important tool, and one that is being stretched to its very limit. The Palomino is sent on three patrol flights each day. Each flight lasts about three hours. The hours in the air can increase exponentially if there is an active counter-piracy operation.
"We’ve flown more now than most Sea Kings in our squadron fly in a year," said Major James Hawthorne, the air detachment commander. "But it’s hanging in there. It needs lots of tender loving care to keep the Sea King flying. Our big concern is parts; the aircraft is so old we have to have a lot of the parts custommade. But she still flies pretty well."
In fact, the Sea Kings are known among aviators as "Flying Cadillacs," Hawthorne said. "It’s not a sports car built for speed. It’s a big Cadillac."
Palomino’s main function on the counter-piracy mission is to "paint a picture" for the Winnipeg. While the ship navigates the patrol box, Palomino is out charting every merchant vessel within several hundred kilometres. Each ship is photographed and logged, creating a database of ship traffic and movement.
When a suspected pirate skiff is spotted, Palomino’s mission changes from intelligence-gathering to interdiction. Fleeing skiffs have become familiar with the sign the helicopter crew hang on its starboard side emblazoned with the word "stop" in Somali. One skiff crew in particular became intimate with Palomino’s combat capabilities.
On April 18, Palomino was ordered to fire warning shots to stop a fleeing pirate skiff. The shots were the first "fired in anger" by a Canadian maritime aircraft. The experience was exhilarating for the crew.
"I know the tempo for us will decrease dramatically once we return home," Hawthorne said. "But we know we’ve had a good run. So many people in the air force train for their entire careers and never have an opportunity to serve in a mission like this."
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The white tablecloths have been pressed, and the wine glasses have been set at the top of every plate on the wardroom dining table. There was no doubt this was a very special event.
As the ship’s officers arrived for dinner — a special menu of roast turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce — Maj. Warren Fensom looked on with a warm smile. The ship’s lawyer, Fensom was hosting a special dinner to celebrate the marriage of his son Kevin.
Fensom’s sudden and somewhat unexpected deployment with HMCS Winnipeg on counter-pirate duties kept him from the wedding, which was held in the stateroom in Esquimault, B.C., headquarters of the Canadian navy’s Pacific operations.
With a full table of ship’s officers, Fensom rose from his seat and explained that the dinner was not just an opportunity to celebrate his son’s marriage, but also to pay homage to all the sailors on this mission who are giving up time with family, partners, children.
As he raised his glass for a toast, many faces around the table looked down. Few were the sailors at this table who weren’t missing something important back home.
Fensom has an unusual insight into the emotional stress of a military deployment. His wife is a military physician who served in Bosnia, Ethiopia and Rwanda. His son has done two tours of duty in Afghanistan. And Fensom personally has served in Kosovo, Afghanistan and now on the high seas.
He’s seen the trials and tribulations of military families from all perspectives. And bar none, Fensom believes the most difficult assignment of all falls to those who stay at home.
"I’ve been away on deployments, away from my family," Fensom said. "I’ve also been the spouse of someone in harm’s way. And I’ve been the father of someone in harm’s way. And the worst is being the one at home, not being able to do anything to protect your family."
Although a life at sea is still one of isolation, it is not nearly as isolated as it once was. In bygone days, a sailor on a six-month deployment might have access to mail from home two or three times. Now, thanks to satellite telephone and Internet communication, sailors can keep in touch on a regular basis.
While this helps shrink the distance between sailors and their loved ones, it is a double-edged advantage. Along with the messages of love and support are complaints about the stress of long deployments, or worse. It’s rare for a crew of this size not to suffer multiple relationship breakups while deployed.
Over 13 years of sea time and five deployments, Sub-Lt. Jason Gallant has seen both sides of that advantage. Gallant spends hours on a laptop computer in the wardroom communicating with his ex-wife and step-daughter, and his new girlfriend Tammy and their brand- new baby, Madison.
Every day he opens the inbox of his email account, chances are there will be both joyous and disquieting news. Most often, he goes directly to photos and a video of his new daughter. The images bring a smile to his face right up to the moment he realizes that he has now missed most of her young life.
"It’s hard now to remember what she looks like," said Gallant, 39. "She was just three months old when I left and when I get back, she’ll be close to a year old. It’s very stressful for my girlfriend."
As for the future, Gallant said that after this deployment is over, he will take stock of his future. As one of the senior members of the Winnipeg’s boarding team, he will be called upon to help recruit new members for the ship’s next deployment, whenever that comes.
"I’d be lying if I didn’t say I would like to find another line of work that would keep me home," Gallant said. "But the other part of me wants to be in the action. I’ve been in uniform since I was a teenager.
"The fact is, I don’t think I could give it up."