A citizen sailor hits the high seas aboard HMCS Ottawa

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Lifestyle - Life at Sea / May 2, 2016

By Leading Seaman Darcy Boucher

Coming from a long lineage of army and air force family members, I made a bold and rebellious move in joining the Royal Canadian Navy. I chose the trade of Resource Management Support Clerk in hopes of flexible work opportunities and transferable skills, while mentally resigning my love of travel and the ocean, acknowledging the fact that there isn’t much opportunity for my chosen trade to sail on our Reserve Force maritime coastal defence vessels…or so I thought.

After eight years in the Canadian Armed Forces, thanks to collaborative efforts between Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Ottawa and our land-locked reserve unit, HMCS Carleton, this citizen sailor (as well as five others) had the opportunity to experience life at sea for the first time. I had never been so excited, eager and terrified.

What do I pack? What am I going to be doing?  How am I going to live without cell phone service for an entire week? (A very real concern for those of us with full-time civilian job commitments.) Am I going to get seasick? These, and a million other questions, were running through my head from the moment I started the long journey from our nation’s capital to the West Coast, to the second I stepped foot aboard HMCS Ottawa for the first time in Vancouver at about 1 a.m. Monday morning (4 a.m. Ottawa time). Taking vacation time from work, spending our weekends jet-lagged due to travelling from coast to coast for a week of training, and leading a somewhat double life, are all realities of being a reservist.

What did my first week at sea teach me? How to survive without cell service, for one. Our sailors do without that and many other luxuries that we have become so accustomed to. I also learned just how prepared our navy really is for, well, anything. Not only were the sheer number of drills and exercises they perform on a daily basis, ranging from man overboards to casualty clearing, impressive, but so was their ease and expertise. In most cases, they have mere minutes to perform complex procedures and everyone knows their role and makes it happen.

Walking through the ship, you never would have known that there was a division of Regular and Reserve Force members. The stereotype of us being merely “weekend warriors” was lost at sea, and I was incredibly touched by the kindness of the crew. Every single time we stopped to ask a crew member a question, or for directions (yes, we got lost; it’s a big ship alright), they stopped what they were doing to explain, give us a hand, or not only point us in the right direction, but take us there themselves. They all exemplified astonishing patience and tolerance with our green questions and enthusiastic “we’re on a boat (ship)!” inexperience.  

One moment that I know particularly struck a chord with all of us first timers was when we pulled into Esquimalt, B.C., at the end of the week. As we quickly learned, the very first thing you do when coming alongside is get rid of the gash (garbage), and when you’ve got nearly 200 bodies aboard, there’s a lot of it. Not only was the commanding officer right there with the entire crew to take out the garbage, he actually cut in line to be the first one to do so! I couldn’t have dreamed up a better example of the ship’s motto “Eager Beaver”, or a better depiction of the dedication and spirit aboard this ship.

Although we call all of our orderly rooms “ships’ offices”, it was unique to finally see where that derived from. Performing our regular administrative duties presented many new challenges on ship. Slow networks and connections, and having to Velcro, lock, or tie everything down for sea states were added challenges that gave us a new appreciation for the comforts of our land-locked stone frigate at home.

From shooting the .50 calibre machine gun, to learning how the ship is steered, to participating in cleaning stations, I can safely say the six of us gained our sea legs that week, and for the first time in many of our reservist careers, truly felt like sailors. The concept of having “One Navy” isn’t merely a dream for the future, it is currently a reality in our Halifax-class frigates.

Bravo Zulu to the crew and command team of HMCS Ottawa. You made us all feel at home for a week and I think I can speak for all of us when I say we are all “eager beavers” to set sail again.