Back in May I was approached by the commander of the local corps of Royal Canadian Sea Cadets to help them organize a service for Battle of the Atlantic Sunday. I get the impression that the Sea Cadets are a bit thin on the prairie, and struggle to stay viable, thanks to their leaders and parents, which is a pity, as it is a fine organization that gives young people real challenges and leadership skills. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with these young people and their leaders, and so I was very pleased to get an invitation to speak at their mess dinner last night. Below is the text of my talk, given to an audience ranging from ages 12 to 65. For the young cadets, the evening was an introduction to the mysterious ritual of the mess dinner, and I have to say, I had a better time than I have had at more than a few mess dinners.
Thank you for the invitation to speak to your mess dinner tonight. As you can see, I am wearing a red coat, which means that either I'm a soldier or a Mountie, and either way therefore no expert on being a sailor. In fact, everything I know about ships and the sea comes from books and movies. Well, almost everything. Tonight I want to tell you about two Canadian warships that I have visited in the last two years, and what I learned from those ships about navies and about sailors.
Aboard HMCS Sackville, Halifax, NS, August 2010
In 2010 I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia and visited HMCS Sackville, the Canadian Naval Memorial. Ifmyou are ever in Halifax it is worth the time to visit, as you will get no better feel for what life was like at sea for your grandparents' generation. Sackville was a small warship called a corvette, built to hunt and destroy enemy submarines and to escort the convoys that took troops and supplies to Europe in Workd War Two.
By today's standards, Sackville is tiny and primitive. There isn't a single computer on board. The guns were controlled by eye and calculating range and angle by brainpower and experience. The weapons used to attack submarines worked the same way, you used sound to find the submarine under water, you used math to calculate where and how fast the sub was going, and then you tried to get there to drop your depth charges, or undersea bombs, on top of him.
When you weren't hunting submarines you tried as best you could to stay warm and dry, but in a North Atlantic storm, good luck with that. Corvettes were small and rolled badly in high seas, leaving their crews soaked, bruised, and exhausted. You always thought about the enemy torpedo that might be coming through the water to hit your ship, and whether you would die in the explosion or be drowned in the cold oily water. Men sometimes cracked under the stress.
Corvette crews were volunteers and most had never been to sea before the war. They had to learn on the job. They relied on the experience of a few professional sailors, they relied on their training, and they relied on each other. When you went down to bunk far below the waterline, with little chance of escaping if you got hit, you relied on the men on watch to stay alert and to give a good warning if they saw danger.
On the stern of the Vancouver, Esquimalt Dockyard, November 2012
Last month I was in the Navy dockyard at Esquimalt, on Vancouver Island, and I had the chance to take a tour of HMCS Vancouver. The Vancouver is a warship called a frigate. It does the same basic job that the Sackville did sixty five years ago, patrolling the ocean, protecting friendly ships and hunting enemy ships and submarines. That's where the resemblance ends.
The Vancouver looked like it was five times the size of the old Sackville. It's crew is twice as large as Sackville, around 200. It uses modern missiles and carries a helicopter. It is stuffed with computers, which control the weapons, the engines, the navigation, everything. The crew still have to understand math and geometry and navigation, but the computers help them do these things much faster than they did on ships like the Sackville. In terms of firepower, a ship like Vancouver today is probably ten times as deadly as many ships from World War Two were. The other thing that was very different from World War Two was the presence of women in the Vancouver's crew. In fact, Canada now has at least one warship captain who is a woman.
So that covers some of the differences. What hasn't changed? The Vancouver still goes out into storms. Sometimes it rolls so badly in high seas that many of the crew are badly seasick and need to take pills. The living spaces are still cramped. There's little room for privacy. There's still stress. I spoke to a young woman, a weapons controller, who described what it's like to be in the combat control centre. It's a big room, full of people and computers. It's kept dark, so the only light comes from the computer screens. There are no windows, so your only sense of what's going on comes from your screen and from your headphones. As this young sailor told us, she has to focus and do her job and not think about the torpedo that might come and break their ship in half like a twig. Instead she has to trust those around her to do their jobs, just as they are trusting her. Anyone who sailed on the Sackville would get that.
Vancouver had just gotten back from six months off the coast of Somalia, hunting weapons smugglers and pirates, and she was going into drydock for long and expensive repairs. Te next day I read a newspaper story about the problems our Navy has. The story said that we don't have enough ships, that the ones we do have, like Vancouver, are getting old, and there's not enough money. I'm sure the story was right, but you know, it's always been that way in Canada's history, In World War Two we didn't have enough ships at the beginning. We built small ships like the corvettes because our shipyards were too small to make bigger ships. We didn't have enough sailors, so we trained volunteers, including a lot of prairie kids who had never been to see before, and they got the job done. The same was true of the army and the airforce. The same thing was true of the Canadian Army when we first went to Afghanistan. All our gear and clothing was green because we never planned on going to a desert country, and there's not a lot of green in Afghanistan. Our vehicles weren't well defended, we didn't have the right helicopters to move our troops around, etc etc. What kept us going until we got the good stuff was our people.
If you were in church back in May at the Battle of Atlantic service you heard me say that I was surprised to learn that there were sea cadets here in Medicine Hat, on the prairie. I kind of thought you needed to be close to oceans and ships to be a sea cadet or a sailor. But now understand better what it takes. Visiting the Sackville and the Vancouver told me that a ships' crew don't just need seatime and technical training, though those things are good. They also need leadership, and teamwork, and the ability to trust their leaders and peers. They need courage and patience to deal with stress. If you can learn those things on Sea Cadets, then you'll be off to a good start and well on your way to going to sea, or wherever else you go in life.