Operation CARIBBE during COVID-19

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Navy News / November 27, 2020

By Lieutenant Sheila Tham

Lt Sheila Tham is a Public Affairs Officer who has spent her five-year career split between the Royal Canadian Air Force and Canadian Army. Believing this deployment with the Royal Canadian Navy on Operation CARIBBE would round out her career experience, she documented the following first impressions of sailing and the reality of operational travel during COVID-19.

Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Summerside departed Halifax on October 26, 2020, headed for the Caribbean Sea as part of Operation (Op) CARIBBE, Canada's participation in U.S.-led enhanced counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean Sea and the eastern Pacific Ocean. Canada often conducts multiple iterations of Op CARIBBE in a year — the last deployment was with HMC Ships Nanaimo and Whitehorse earlier this year.

On March 18, 2020, Maritime Component Command ordered that HMC Ships Nanaimo and Whitehorse cease activities under Operation CARIBBE and return to Canada earlier than planned due to the worldwide spread of COVID-19. The current deployment of HMCS Summerside, which departed Halifax on October 26, 2020, is the first Op CARIBBE since, and came with a myriad of new considerations and precautions to ensure the safety of personnel.

The members of Summerside were required to adhere to self-isolation measures prior to sailing along with undergoing a COVID-19 test prior to departure. The same conditions were given to the United States Coast Guard (USCG) Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) participants who were picked up enroute in Miami. Due to the precautions in advance of sailing, members were not required to wear masks while at sea or adhere to physical distancing.

Normally, sailors would be able to take some time off in port cities to explore; however, this has not been possible due to the pandemic. Staying onboard the ship fostered a sense of camaraderie amongst the crew as we were required to socialize with each other instead of going our separate ways in a port city. However, it was evident that many of the crew felt that they were missing out by being so close to civilization and yet so far.

The closest we got to mingling with the locals was during resupply. Only the physician assistant, executive officer and chief cook were allowed on the jetty to screen the supplies arriving, dressed in non-medical masks and gloves and required to wash their boots and use hand sanitizer before returning to the ship. The rest of the available personnel mustered at a sanitizing station at the fo’c’sle (the front of the ship) wearing gloves. Personnel who formed a chain on the brow wore non-medical masks and gloves to pass packages up to the members on the fo’c’sle. Each package was passed with an instruction—sanitize the box, leave on the fo’c’sle, wipe down each package, discard the box—repeated as each person passed to the next. Once the ship was resupplied it was considered secure and most of the crew were able to relax.

Keeping spirits up

Since we weren’t allowed off the ship in Miami for our first port visit of the deployment, or for any future port visits, the ship’s captain hosted a sundowner on the back of the ship, called the sweep deck, where the crew watched Miami locals on jet skis and yachts. A few party boats passed with loud music. It was Halloween night and we were hosting our own costume party, cheering on those brave and creative enough to don a costume. There was even modified trick-or-treating as some of the crew had bags of candy and chocolate to pass out.

After two days alongside, the crew was rested and ready to sail to the Caribbean Sea for operations, and integrate with the USCG LEDET that was now onboard. The time alongside was different than usual, so I hear, anyway. Op CARIBBE is my first Navy deployment and Miami was my first port visit. Despite the disappointment of not being able to visit the city, I didn’t hear a single complaint as we sailed away. In fact, one member of the crew told me that this port visit was better because we were all able to spend time together, get to know each other better, and build some team cohesion. I’ll report back on what they’re thinking after a few more weeks at sea!

Operation CARIBBE is Canada’s contribution to U.S. Enhanced Counter-narcotics Operations under U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATFS). The intent is to conduct international detection, monitoring, and interdiction of illicit trafficking in the Caribbean Sea and off the Pacific coast of Central America. To make this happen, Canadian ships embark a Law Enforcement Detachment from the United States Coast Guard (USCG). The synchronization of capabilities between the RCN and USCG enables greater success in reducing drug trafficking while strengthening international interoperability.

Canada has been conducting Op CARIBBE since 2006 and the Canadian Armed Forces has contributed to the disruption or seizure of approximately 105 metric tonnes of cocaine and more than 6.7 tonnes of marijuana.