It's been more than a week since I returned from nearly two weeks aboard HMCS Winnipeg, the Canadian warship that had been participating in a NATO-directed counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. Here, in brief, are some of the things I learned:
It is a difficult, arduous and often thankless job being a sailor. It takes a lot of work to keep a warship operating smoothly, and stuffing 240 of them into a floating tin can, with about five or six hours of sleep a day (taken in two, 2-3 hour spurts) and keeping them away from friends and family for months at a time really takes a toll. After two weeks on board, I do not know what it's like to spend six months at sea. I did get a glimpse into just how difficult a job this is, and how I'm not cut out to do this full time.
That among the Canadian frigates named after Canadian cities, Calgary is in first place when it comes to supporting its namesake ship. Everyone else is tied for last place. Given Manitoba/Winnipeg's propensity for volunteer efforts and charity, it seems odd that we don't have a more robust community effort to support the ship and the sailors. I'd be very interested in hearing any ideas from the community about how this city/province can provide more support, and perhaps some additional creature comforts, for the men and women toiling on the Winnipeg. (Hint: DVD box sets of popular television series provide an enormous boost to morale in the long, deathly boring nights onboard.)
That sailors are not, as I had imagined, genetically impervious to sea sickness. We never hit rough waters, and thankfully I never got sea sick. We hit a rough patch when we sailed quite close to the Somali coast that veteran sailors said was "Sea State 3," a term that refers generally to waves of about three metres. I didn't get sick, but completely lost my appetite for three days. The sailors said they expected to hit Sea State 7 waters near Australia later this month. And yes, that means waves of seven metres or more. And, according to the sailors, that means everyone save for the gastro-intestinal freaks get down on the knees and start performing the Technicolor yawn.
That I'm really glad the ship's company decided not to treat the reporters on board the Winnipeg to a traditional crossing-the-equator ceremony, despite the fact we crossed the equator. Normally, the crew hazes (good naturedly of course) any sailor who has not crossed the equator. I'm sworn to secrecy about what actually happens, but Neptune, deli condiments and lots and lots of ladies underwear (not all worn by ladies) are involved. Nuff said.
That the economics of patrolling the Gulf of Aden, the gateway of one of the world's richest and most heavily used shipping routes, doesn't make much sense. In our 13 days at sea, the Winnipeg burned up about $1.25 million in fuel. The average ransom paid to recover a ship and crew seized by Somali pirates is about $1 million. There are 50 warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden -- you do the math.
That merchant ships must do more to frustrate the pirates. Hydrodynamics dictates that hull length is the most important determining factor in the speed of a ship. For example, the Winnipeg has two gas turbine engines. Operating on one of those engines, the Canadian frigate can reach a top speed of about 26 knots. With both engines operating, the ship can go 30 knots. Now, merchant ships are in many cases much longer than the Winnipeg, so hydrodynamic principles indicate they should be able to go much faster. The truth is merchant ships are extremely slow and thus easily picked off by pirates in glorified row boats with outboard motors. These ships have sacrificed thrust for cargo space, and some are so weighed down, there is little more than a metre of freeboard. Despite these shortcomings, the ships have virtually no counter-piracy measures. No barriers to prevent pirates from boarding, no razor wire and no armed guards. Instead, the commercial interests that own the ships and cargos are relying on a hideously expensive deployment of warships to keep their goods safe. Fair is fair, and it's time for the shipping companies to do their part.
There is a theory that Somali pirates only do what they do because they were forced into the pirate life. Much has been written about the fact that Somali pirates only seize ships and crew to punish developed countries for over fishing and the dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters. Although both of the above are true, piracy is an age-old problem in this part of the world, and the criminals who cruise refugee and displaced-person camps recruiting pirates do not preach payback to the nations that overfish and dump waste. They tantalize prospective pirating recruits with luxury SUVs, electronics and big paydays. The pirates initially did provide a cut of their booty to fund schools and medical clinics. Those days are long gone. It would seem this is really nothing more than organized crime, organized in a country that has no rule of law.
That getting back from the Seychelle Islands, where I disembarked the Winnipeg, is a horrible experience. A sleepy Creole-inspired nation comprised of countless coral islands, the Seychelles are beautiful in sort of a south-Pacific kind of way. They are also remote, located about 1,500 kilometres from the east coast of Africa, just off the tip of Madagascar. The remoteness, and the cost of airfare from this tropical wonderland required me to undertake the following routing home:
Victoria (Seychelles) to Doha Qatar