Stalker On The Prowl
Roughly one hundred metres above the Gulf of Oman: cargo door open; all senses engaged. Shadows and human silhouettes against sunlit water; vibrations still typing rhythmic pattern up spine to neck; deep muffled engine and main rotor noise in helmet overlaid with sudden invite from 423 Squadron’s Captain Adam Power: “Would you like to come up and fly for awhile?”
Immediate outward response: “Love to.”
Less immediate, but more measured nonverbal response: “Is that really a good idea?”
Disengage communications link and safety tether known as “the monkey tail”; squeeze past equipment and tactical co-ordinator Capt. Rene Laporte and co-pilot Capt. Elton Learning; climb into left front seat of Stalker, adjust seat and strap in; re-engage communications link and try to look cool. One joystick between knees, another next to thigh; feet above peddles; eyes darting from dials and switches to horizon to more dials and switches.
Follow instructions: Move Sea King up, then down. Work peddles and joystick: swing left, then right; each moment unfolding heavy and slow, like an elephant trying to pass through a garden hose. Bulbous clouds drifting like mast airships on horizon; tension dropping; comfort level rising. “How old did you say this helicopter is?”
On radar, Capt. Laporte finds a contact to our left. The information is conveyed to Mother—Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Fredericton. The 47-year-old Sea King is instructed to go in for a closer look. Capt. Power tells me to turn left, and then assumes control of the helo, eventually descending to 150 feet off the water.
For an overview on HMCS Fredericton’s time in and around the Arabian Sea stick with the BLUE COURSE. To check out the risky role and operations of the ship’s naval boarding party, go GOLD, and for a logbook on how one civilian adjusted to life at sea, chart GREEN. We’ll wrap up the series in the September/October issue with a look at the logistics and some other components of the ship’s six-month deployment. To read Part 1 follow the link Assignment Arabian Sea: At Sea And The War On Terror – Part 1
The Blue Course: In The Gulf, Part 2
Stalker is flying her second two-hour patrol of the day; conducting what is called a SSC—Surface Surveillance and Control mission that takes her crew approximately 150 kilometres from Mother. The latter has been very busy conducting counter-terrorism patrols as part of Combined Task Force 150, and in the last couple of weeks has dispatched its armed and trained boarding party to investigate half a dozen vessels of interest. The helo is the warship’s eye in the sky, a capability that helps the ship build a “maritime picture.” On this afternoon—during their time over the Gulf, somewhere south of Pakistan and Iran—Stalker and her crew will investigate two dhows, and take a closer look at a large bulk carrier. They will also conduct a proficiency gun shoot with the mounted C-6 machine-gun pointed out the cargo door at a dropped flare.
While moving in on the contact, Laporte tells Mom where the vessel is, the direction it is sailing in, the type of ship it is and—when close enough—the number of people spotted on board. “We report any useful information—a flag, no flag, a name, no name, port of registry and any tripwires—anything suspicious.”
Master Corporal Kelvin Card, the crew’s airborne electronic sensor operator, is, meanwhile, preparing to photograph the vessel through the helicopter’s cargo door. With the sun streaming in and the ocean whipping by, Card—armed with a digital camera—is kneeling on a floor mat next to the C-6. As he leans forward with a monkey tail attached to his back, Card aims his camera at a cargo dhow cutting through the waves below. All he needs is about eight seconds to shoot several good photos. “On something like this we usually do a 270-degree rotation around the vessel,” explains Capt. Power. “Then we usually bugger off, and resume our patrol with good coms with Mom. If we need to go back for another look, we will.”
While skirting around the south side of the dhow, Stalker maintains a relatively safe distance, but still within range of various portable weapons, including rocket launchers. The possibility of being shot at may be remote, but it is something the crew has to be prepared for. If someone on the dhow decides to pull a gun and start firing, the Sea King could respond with suppressing fire from its C-6, but more than likely would be turning left for a quick escape vector. “We’d be trying to get out of there,” explains Power. “We wouldn’t stay in a fight in that situation. It’s not because of any difficulty or anything, it’s because we have a 440-foot-long warship that is capable of a lot more destruction than a Sea King with a C-6. We would go off to a safe standoff distance and tell Mom where it (the dhow) is, and she would drive in with all she has and we would be alleviated of any risk. And they (the dhow) would most likely not challenge a warship.”
During the helo’s three-quarter rotation of the vessel, her crew gets an excellent view of the dhow’s wheelhouse and upper decks. “Our cargo door is on the right hand side so we always set it up so we fly in a clockwise [direction] so that the person with the gun and the person with the camera both have a good view of any activity on the upper deck,” explains Capt. Power.
As it turns out, the 40-metre dhow—like hundreds of other vessels transiting the Gulf of Oman—does not appear—from our distance anyway—to be up to anything unusual. What Stalker’s crew is looking for are “tripwires”—anything that might suggest the dhow is engaged in illicit activity, such as drug smuggling or hauling weapons or individuals that could be used in terrorist activities. But the nicely painted wooden vessel maintaining her course below seems to be in pursuit of legitimate maritime trade—an assumption drawn from the dozens of sheep cramming her upper deck.
Laporte and the others are looking forward to eventually spending time on the CH-148 Cyclone, but in the here and now they have no worries about the Sea King. In fact, everyone on board and everyone back on ship who is connected to either flying in or servicing the big blue-gray helicopter seem comfortable with it. The technicians know every inch of it, and have the talent and spare parts to keep it flying on the mission thousands of kilometres from home base, 12 Wing Shearwater, N.S. “It is old and it does require a lot of maintenance, but I would fly on it any day,” was the unequivocal testimony received from 423 Squadron’s Master Corporal Darren White, an avionics systems technician.
“Sure, we have some kit that’s a little old, but it is not always about what you have, it is how you use it. It is a great platform for taking digital imagery of the vessels we come across,” added Laporte.
With two-hour missions twice a day, the Sea King can cover the ship’s patrol box twice a day. Pre-assigned, two-hour missions give the crew and the ship the flexibility to extend a mission because the Sea King is topped up with a lot more than two hours of fuel. “If something happens and we get caught out there for whatever reason,” explains Laporte, “we have enough fuel that could be used to extend the mission outside three hours.”
This flexibility came into play earlier in the year when HMCS Fredericton was patrolling for pirates in the Gulf of Aden off the Horn of Africa, and the helo was flying three missions a day. The ship and her helicopter had located a suspicious skiff. “Mom was two hours away from where we were,” explained Laporte. “We wanted to remain on station, so instead of returning home (to the ship) we just monitored our fuel, throttled back the engine so we weren’t burning as much and waited for Mom.”
Whirling away from the back of a moving ship, in a helicopter model that first went into service in Canada in 1963, is definitely something for adrenalin junkies, but Stalker’s crew is quick to say their role in the CTF-150 operation is just one of several key capabilities provided by the patrol frigate and her crew of approximately 250. Everybody—from the captain to the cooks to the meteorologists to the men and women who perform various deck duties and evolutions to the operators and supervisors in the Ops Room or “mushroom factory”—is vital. And as Commander Steve Waddell points out, they have to be on top of their game 24/7.
It is a rare opportunity for a civilian to visit the Ops Room during a mission. Located on 2 Deck near the front of the ship, it is roughly 30 feet forward to aft and is home to the ship’s combat department—the nerve centre. It is where the sensor data from outside the ship is channelled into, where they “fight the boat from,” says naval combat information officer, Leading Seaman Gordon Rittwage. Included in the mix of talent are naval electronic sensor operators responsible for the above-water sensors as well as the electronic warfare equipment. Nearby is the fire control radar system. “During an action station situation you will have the operator closed up here, scanning for targets, taking direction on where to lock the gun up as well as firing the gun…. Three people work here: two operators and a fire control supervisor.”
The mix includes a ship-borne air controller, an anti-submarine plotting operator, an air raid reporting operator and a sonar operator. It is the latter who hears the “ping—ping through the headset,” adds Rittwage.
Raw data gathered from outside the ship by the sensors is displayed, evaluated and disseminated among various co-ordinators and directors, and decisions are made on what course of action to follow. Top dog is the Ops Room Officer. “In the absence of the captain, this guy will be making the decisions as per captain’s orders,” but he is also given a certain amount of leeway when it comes to more routine decisions.
Parked in front of the ship’s command and control system is Lieutenant (N) Ben Seaby of Aylmer, Que. All the sensors in the room feed into the system. “We will have these green ‘paints’ on radar, but that alone doesn’t tell you much—doesn’t tell you what type of aircraft or ship it is or what their intentions are.” The goal is to build situational awareness—to know all the time what is going on in the area of the world the ship is in—to identify who is out there, what they are doing or intend to do.
Seaby likes the job and is proud of the people he works with. He also says whoever gave the room its nickname was right. “Down here you feel like a mushroom—all white and pasty.”
The Green Course: Reporter’s Logbook, Part 2
Friday, Feb. 19:
“Good morning Fredericton.” No bark in the voice—no jarring snap to attention. Just soft-on-the-senses intercom greeting flowing through darkness into your rack, but loud enough to slip under spongy earplugs, one of which has fallen out during the night and attached itself to left side of jaw.
Grab shaving kit, toothbrush, towel; slip on sweats and sandals; slide like a Ninja on a dust mop to locker. Down hall to head. Turn right at urinal; past sinks and mirrors—and three guys shaving—without electric razors; notice and remove orange earplug from right ear.
Strip down, enter shower. Reach for tap, but feel brain Rolodex spinning to something I read: Section Eight, Subsection A, Paragraph 8, Canadian Forces Guidelines for Embedded Media. “Water discipline: Sailors do not waste water. When showering, do it the pusser way: wet down quickly (one minute), turn off water, lather up and shampoo, turn water on to rinse (two minutes)….”
Anything longer or remotely similar to an everyday shower is a “Hollywood.” Take one while at sea and any number of unhappy scenarios could develop.
More interviews and photo ops. Treadmill time on 3 Deck; ears plugged into MP3, listening to Dylan’s Tweeter and the Monkey Man when ship leans to starboard, then port—like running forwards, then backwards on teeter-totter. Nearing three-mile mark; ship leans harder to starboard, then back; start thinking about shortest distance between treadmill and sickbay.
Saturday, Feb. 20:
Ship in patrol area; full sun over calm sea; iridescent flight of fish over spray; warm breeze, light haze on orange and purple horizon; ghost-like smudges of distant cargo ships. Learning best way to keep footprints off head is avoid going up down ladders. Messmates report noise emanating from locker—“something rolling around in there.” Enter darkened mess (people sleeping)—switch into Ninja mode. Investigate with flashlight. Find tiny bottle of wart remover left behind by someone not too concerned about fate of newbie.
Sunday, Feb. 21:
Work week is 24/7; nothing nine-to-five at sea. “Sunday another word for Monday.” The food on your plate tells you what day it is: Thursday is steak; Friday, fish; Saturday, pizza; Sunday, roast beef.
Monday, Feb. 22:
Reports of tadpoles turned into shellbacks after ship crossed equator Dec. 30, en route to Mombassa, Kenya. Long-standing navy ceremony called Crossing The Line, involving King Neptune and Davy Jones, and a whole mess of pink scrambled eggs and green bacon and noodles—stand-ins for salmon guts, seaweed and entrails. Explanation: “Tadpoles are folks who’ve never crossed the equator at sea. A shellback is what a tadpole becomes after being scrubbed with a trout and slopped with aforementioned stand-ins.”
Fire port side .50-calibre machine-gun; thumbs on dual trigger; short, then longer bursts; acrid smell drifting back with blue-white smoke; sharp, solid pounding infiltrating helmet, concussive force of gun’s action on face, shoulders and arms. Instructions: Aim lower and walk rounds into target. Watch bullets skip across water between red tracers.
Tuesday, Feb. 23:
Always remove cap before entering wardroom, main cafeteria (Main Cave) or petty officers’ mess. Unattended cap in Main Cave can result in obscene artwork, including depictions of gender-specific body parts, on inside of cap.
The Gold Course: Tripwires, Part 2
Ok. Imagine this. You are still hunkered down in that Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boat. The stern of that ‘vessel of interest’—an ancient looking cargo dhow—is only 50 metres off the bow. Every member of the boarding party has certain responsibilities, and everyone is well armed and kitted out.
“The boarding team has gone through quite an evolution. The equipment we have now coupled with the specialized training has made this one of the best Canadian boarding teams deployed. We have better ballistic vests with ceramic plates, better holsters for side arms—making it easier to access in a hurry if you need to.”
With Mother observing from a short distance, the RHIB moves in. The dhow has already been requested by the ship to maintain a slow, even speed. This makes it easier for the RHIB’s experienced coxswain to “stick” the RHIB against the side of the dhow for the boarding. However, the RHIB has to maintain the same speed as the dhow, and take into account the swell that can vary greatly depending on the sea state.
The biggest or heaviest guy is first up the ladder. If it doesn’t break under his weight, then the rest of the team will follow. Just getting up the ladder is tricky, dangerous business, especially if the dhow is rolling, creating large gaps between the bottom of the ladder and the RHIB. Once on board, the first guy does a quick assessment and if all is well gives thumbs up to the team waiting below. “There is a lot of unknown and that is why we train as much as we do,” says the boarding party’s leader who can’t be named.
The local merchantmen are well aware of Fredericton’s presence, and so far the ship’s boarding parties have been well received. “There is a language barrier, a lot of gesturing to get our points across, but they understand we are here for their security, to stop or deter the different types of illegal activity….”
When the entire team is on board it performs a quick, but careful security sweep. It is, at this point, not a complete search. That will come later. They are, however, looking for those tripwires—items that may have been quickly hidden from view or perhaps the residue of something tossed over the side.
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