I was having beers with lunch. For me, you must understand, this was a very rare thing –– as I’ve previously stated, I only drink beer on special occasions, and to do so with lunch was literally unheard of. More shocking still: I was the only one drinking. Two other people were in the room, and I was the only one touching alcohol.
Because the other two were on duty, or within four hours of their duty shifts, and while the Royal Canadian Navy allows its personnel two beers a day aboard ship, good officers don’t abuse that privilege –– don’t even come close.
And even on a Saturday, as their ship was alongside the waterfront of the port after which she was named, the officers of HMCS Halifax wouldn’t abandon their responsibilities. They would, however, prove wonderful hosts to a nosy author.
It was a strange turn of events that led me to Halifax’s wardroom that Saturday; I’d been attending a ceremony to commemorate the role of the Merchant Marine in the Battle of the Atlantic. Because my grandfather sailed in merchant ships, that was particularly meaningful for me… but as I sat in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, I couldn’t help but notice that, overnight, Halifax had been moved to sit alongside the boardwalk opposite the building, and it appeared as though she might be open to the public.
After the ceremony finished, I wandered up to HMCS Sackville‘s Pat Jessup, and asked if she knew who to ask about a possible tour. Now, you must understand who Pat Jessup is: to put her in terms that Defense Command readers might understand, she’s sort of like Rufus Chang, minus the explosives. When something needs to happen, she makes it happen. On that Saturday, I was still learning this… and I got quite a lesson when Commodore Darren Hawco, commander of our Atlantic Fleet, came over to say hello to her.
Yeah, go ahead and guess what happened.
Within five minutes, I was being led out of the museum by the Commodore’s Flag Lieutenant –– a fine officer named Cook, who’d just been seconded to the Flag Staff from Fredericton, because that frigate was in for her mid-life refit. With braid wrapped around his left shoulder, the Lieutenant led me right out to Halifax, through the temporary gate that controlled access, then up onto her quarterdeck.
And the whole time, I was quietly panicking.
I mean, just imagine being Halifax’s day officer –– the one responsible for the ship on a Saturday alongside the waterfront –– when a Commodore’s staff officer appears unannounced, towing a slightly overdressed and dour-looking civilian. Good news: a pain in the ass has arrived!
Being very conscious of this, I was sheepish as Lieutenant Cook spoke to the men and women on the quarterdeck (or is it a flight deck on a frigate these days –– I actually don’t know!), then led the way into the hanger. Turns out, there was a small tour aboard, and the officer of the day had just gotten started leading it. We caught up in the opening moments, and then I stood back to watch for scowls or other signs of what an imposition I was about to become. As usual, I was overdramatizing my own importance.
It just so happened that Lieutenant Davies, Halifax’s day officer, was also on assignment from Fredericton –– he and Cook were members of the same mess, and were pleasantly surprised to see each other. Good news. So when it was explained that I was an author who’d donated books to the fleet, and that the Commodore had sent me aboard, it was all pretty laid back… though, honestly, Davies seems a pretty solid, laid-back guy, so it was probably going to be that way no matter what. Either way, I was on the tour.
And quite a tour it was. I’d never been aboard one of our frigates, and I must say I was impressed. Halifax had just finished her mid-life refit (Davies was aboard to get experience with the new systems, so he could bring expertise back to Freddy), but what was most valuable for me was not the technology, but the character of the ship. After being aboard Sackville so often during the preceding days, this was really like going aboard a starship –– a Belt Squadron ship, perhaps, or the Excelsior
But it was after the tour that the real adventure began. I lingered after the others left, to thank Davies and apologize for being ‘that guy’ sent aboard by a Commodore. He didn’t mind at all, and was most indulgent of my follow-up questions. See, as much as I was fascinated by what he could explain about damage control, or the way information went to and from the bridge, what I really cared to learn more about was the people.
I think it’s clear by now that I’ve held the RCN on a bit of a pedestal –– have thought highly of many of its personnel. I’m no blind idealist; I know there are oxygen thieves and dangerous individuals everywhere… but I happen to believe that our fleet has more than its share of excellent people. This was my chance to talk to one –– to someone not schooled by a PR department, not expecting to get grilled about fleet life, not ‘on message’ the way our senior officers need to be.
And after I explained my interest –– that it was easy enough for me to read factual accounts of action in history books, but not to understand the genuine culture –– he looked at his watch, said he was due for lunch, and asked if I wanted to come down to the mess for a couple of beers.
Yes. Yes I did.
So I ended up sitting down on the comfortably worn leather couches in Halifax’s wardroom, with steak and mashed potatoes (the galley apparently cooks six or seven meals a day, recognizing the odd duty shifts of a ship’s crew), and drinking a couple of beers while Davies lunched, and a Sub Lieutenant who was aboard that day (but on a course, preparing to move from the reserve to the regular force), joined us.
What followed was the most ideal experience any author could have hoped for. Not a planned tour stop, not a massaged and tempered exchange of talking points, but a lengthy and candid discussion about what life in the frigates, and the destroyers, is really like. It was the sort of conversation you could have in a pub, but better in that I’d been invited as a guest into these officers’ club.
If you want to know what the mood was like, how these two officers related, or the sort of laughs we shared, I can honestly point you to Defense Command. Because with Davies, and the Sub Lieutenant named Karen (I failed to get her last name), I might as well have been lunching with Jim Hannigan and Shelby McLaws. Different personalities, but absolutely the same quality… and that was such a relief. I cannot be so presumptuous as to say I felt like I belonged in their mess –– I was just a guest –– but as I sat there, ate and drank in their company, I felt as though I recognized these people.
They were as my grandfather always was –– funny, unpretentious, and serious about their jobs. Davies would always pause if there was a shipwide pipe, to make sure he wasn’t required somewhere. Both were always attentive to the goings on beyond the mess door… and yet very gracious in putting up with my questions. The kindly pair even laughed at my poor jokes.
It was one of the most rewarding lunches I’ve ever had, and as I left I don’t think I properly thanked either of them for it. But it meant a great deal –– and it reflected so very well on the RCN. Granted, these were just two random officers who happened to have caught Saturday duty while in home port… but combined with all the other naval personnel I met, they confirmed my faith in this fleet. And, quite selfishly, I felt they validated Defense Command as well.
Throughout those twenty books, we’re constantly hearing that the crews of the Belt Squadron are the best. Other formations, and other branches of the armed forces, definitely have problems, but the crews from Wolf, Lion, Cheetah, Friendly, Lady Grace, and (of course) Sackville are invariably impressive. Even I can get cynical when were hear such praise over and over –– perhaps it verges on lazy character development. After all, real naval personnel can’t be so tiresomely good, can they?
Yes. Yes they can.
No one is perfect, nor should expect to be. But hard work and dedication count for a lot, and I’ve seen plenty of that in the men and women of the RCN thus far. Whether that’s my luck for meeting the right people, or our country’s good fortune for having so many, I can’t say with certainty… but I’m clearly biased towards the latter.
Perhaps that’s because, beyond just the people currently serving, I spent many hours speaking to those who’ve already retired from the fleet. It’s to those people I’ll turn in part two of this note.
To be continued…