The Oldest Ordinary Seaman

Having spent over 30 years in fast jets, and more recently hanging out with the Army, it was time to set sail as part of the Canadian Forces familiarization program.

I embarked on HMCS Algonquin (DDG 283) on a sunny day at Esquimalt, dressed in the natty dark blue work dress of an Ordinary Seaman. After settling in to a cabin that was just outside arms reach on all four walls, it was off to the bridge to meet the Skipper. I won’t complain about the cabin; at least it was private and there were chocolates under the pillow (on the first night). Commander Hugh Fitzpatrick added to my uniform confusion by giving me one of his scrambled-egg ball caps to wear.

The next five, foggy, rainy days were spent under the guidance of Lt (Navy) Peter Dibben as we explored every nook and cranny of this veteran flagship of the West Coast Navy and met many of the crew. I learned that even the nooks and crannies have nooks and crannies and, most importantly, I learned how to DUCK. The wounds on top of my head are starting to heal after the painful ­experience of learning to parallel the ship’s ladders as you climb.

Leading Seaman Shawn Mosson looks a mite nervous as Hawn takes control of the RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat) belonging to HMCS Algonquin.

To say that I was impressed with the crew and the ship would be an understatement. Algonquin may be a bit long in the tooth, but upgrades to the plant and the weapons systems are keeping her effectiveness at a high level, making her more than capable of operating with and, in fact, commanding the fleets of our allies. The firepower is impressive, with a variety of surface-to-air, surface-to-surface and surface-to-subsurface options. I watched most of it in action, and even got to pound off a few rounds with some of the personal weapons.

The ship’s crew was very welcoming and I confirmed that Canadian sailors are no different than airmen and airwomen and soldiers. They are professional, capable, dedicated and spirited. The time at sea was filled with exercise inputs (and a couple of no-duff situations) that tested the crew’s readiness and gave opportunities for the less experienced to learn and increase their “sea-locker” of knowledge.

One of our tasks was to be the “bad guy” to work up HMCS Calgary for an upcoming deployment. We spent hours stalking Calgary and trading shots. I won’t say who won, because both ships would claim victory, anyway. What was interesting was using the same intercept geometry that I used in the CF-18, only in one less dimension – and about 30 times slower.

Evenings were spent in the messes, dining and socializing with all rank levels and confirming that, no matter the colour of uniform, the spirit is alive and well. I did have to endure fighter pilot and politician jokes over the ship’s PA every morning, but would have been disappointed with anything less.

Sunrise on the bridge of a Canadian warship at sea is a unique experience and provided an excellent opportunity to ­discuss history and the future of the Canadian Navy with the Skipper, XO, Coxswain and many others. Our navy may be smaller than it once was, but it is no less capable, pound-for-pound. As with the other branches of the Canadian Forces, we have the necessary task of rebuilding and revitalizing the Navy to meet future foreign and domestic commit­ments and, as a strong side benefit, strengthen Canadian industry.

Finally, just to keep things in perspective, after I had left the engineering spaces after poking around and asking a lot of questions for two hours, one veteran seaman was heard to ask, “Who was that 80 year old Ordinary Seaman and how did he get away with being so nosy?”

LCol (ret) Laurie Hawn, the Conservative MP representing Edmonton Centre, has just been appointed as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence.
© FrontLine Defence 2007