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Boat, Ship, Tender…Orca



The first of the Orca-class.

They’re wooden-hulled and worm-eaten and they’re finally being retired. Quite possibly the oldest fleet in the Canadian Navy, the Yard Auxiliary General (YAGs)–built between 1954 and 1958–have long been the navy’s dedicated training platform, logging hundreds of thousands of nautical miles while generations of naval officers learned basic seamanship and navigation. While the YAGs are cramped, dingy and don’t smell very good, they have become something of a naval institution. However, they are also very, very old. They are so old that worm-infested hulls are a real problem.

But now, the $70-million project to replace the YAGs with modern vessels is nearing completion. The first of the YAG replacements was delivered in November 2006 and was scheduled to be ready for training use on April 1, 2007.

Its official name is Patrol Craft Training Orca, but in reality, no one’s really sure what to call it. It’s not the formal name that’s the problem–for that, everybody just calls it the Orca. Instead, it’s the issue of that old navy shorthand–is it a ship, a boat, a vessel or a craft? Or is it something else entirely?

Built at Victoria Shipyards, the Orca is 33 metres long, with a displacement of 210 tonnes. It has 24 berths and a top speed of 20 knots. It is fast, sleek and totally modern. It has a dedicated space for training and an extra-large bridge to handle students and observers. The navy is scheduled to receive eight Orcas in total, with the second expected to be ready for use before the end of the year, and the last being delivered sometime after 2008.

Now, if you talk to the sailors who run the Orcas, without exception they call it a boat. Unlike other ships in the navy, which bear the HMCS designation, the Orcas will not be commissioned. It has no permanent crew; and for that matter, it’s too small to be a ship–it can be safely sailed by a crew of three. However, if you talk to the men in charge of Victoria’s Maritime operations group, they call it a ship. A boat is something you put on a ship. And the Orca has boats on it, hence it’s a ship. Plus, as they note, you could get in trouble calling it a boat, but no one will object if you call it a ship.

It turns out you have to go all the way to the top to find someone with a definitive answer. Commodore Bruce Donaldson, commander of the Pacific Fleet, says it’s neither a ship or a boat, it’s a tender. In navy parlance, a tender is simply a small ship or boat. Now, while this may be a solution to the question, it’s hard to see the sailors who run the Orca calling it anything but a boat.

Regardless, the Orca is a thing of beauty for sailors accustomed to the old YAGs. “This is the Rolls-Royce of junior officer training,” said Lieutenant (N) Darren Johnston, the Orca Project Implementation Manager. “It’s purpose-built for navigation training. It really effectively mimics the frigates,” added Johnston, who’s an Australian serving in the naval reserves.

“In terms of performance and comfort, there’s really no comparison between the Orca and the YAG,” he said. “It’s got a closed bridge, a dedicated training space. It’s got showers, laundry, a galley that’s far superior. With the speed and larger size, the Orca will open up some water for some different levels of training.”

Onboard, the Orca is spacious and comfortable. In appearance and feel, it is not unlike some of the large private motor yachts seen around Victoria’s inner harbour. Cruising up the Juan de Fuca Strait the Orca is nimble and, according to the sailors, a dream to handle. Inside, the bridge is bright and there are views in every direction. The cabins are large and open too, unlike on most navy ships, and spending a couple weeks on an Orca would be a pleasure. “Overall, the big story here is that we’ve gone from 1950s technology to 2007. It’s a huge advance and it’s really going to improve training–no other Commonwealth navy has anything like the Orca.”

The Orca’s principle users will be the sailors from the Naval Officers Training Centre (NOTC), called Venture. NOTC is run out of some red brick buildings at Work Point in Esquimalt, B.C., a short distance from the dockyard. The students–regular force, reserve and sea cadets–come here to learn the basics of seamanship. While historically much of this training would have been either in the classroom or on the YAGs, there is now a new and very cool middle ground–the navigation and bridge computer simulators.

To be sure, the Orcas aren’t the only new and high-tech gear used by the staff at NOTC. Inside the Venture buildings are several rooms outfitted to resemble a ship’s bridge, including one–the largest, resembling a frigate–complete with a glass-enclosed structure in the middle of a huge underground room. In each of these rooms are a series of screens that do a very good job of making the students believe they are in Victoria harbour or Halifax harbour or the Panama Canal or, of course, pitching and rolling on open seas.

It’s remarkable how good these simulators are at making your body think it’s actually on a ship at sea. In the largest room, the screens surround the bridge in 360 degrees, so when the controllers dial in heavy seas and the horizon starts pitching and yawing, your body reacts accordingly. It’s hard not to feel a little goofy doing a drunken-sailor stagger across a perfectly flat and unmoving floor.

In February, not yet ready to take on Venture students, the Orca was doing training of another sort. The NOTC instructors were getting ‘checked out’ on the vessel in order to have all their qualifications in order for the spring. On the day Legion Magazine visited, Lieut. (N) Jeff Hopkins was doing final preparations for his upcoming test to gain qualification to command an Orca. If successful at that upcoming test, Hopkins will be the first NOTC instructor to qualify as an ‘officer-in-charge’ of the Orca. But first, he will have to hone his skills at navigation, communication and emergency drills.

Also along for the ride were a group of Venture students lucky enough to get a respite from a day of classroom instruction to check out the navy’s newest craft. However, it was a bit of a painful experience for some of them, as they would be returning to the crusty old YAGs for the remainder of their training. “This thing is awesome,” said one, “but this is the biggest tease of my life.”

On Hopkins’ practice run as an Orca commander, the crew, under the watchful eye of Johnston, simulated a fire in the engine room, a loss of steering and a man overboard drill. Not all of the tests went perfectly smoothly.

During the man overboard drill, the Orca’s crew struggled in the tight aft confines to get the rescue boat launched. With time ticking away the sailors hurried as best they could but failed to make the deadline for retrieving the lost sailor. Luckily, it was only a drill and on their second try they worked out the crane’s operation and there were no further problems.

At the end of the trip, in what would prove to be a stern test of skill, Hopkins attempted to dock the boat in a 20-knot crosswind. The first approach ended ingloriously with some crunched timber on the dock, a few new scratches on the Orca’s hull and some dramatic shouts of “full astern, full astern.”

In the end, with a little help from Johnston, Hopkins managed to make it smoothly alongside without incurring any further jibes from the crew.

While clearly well-suited to their role as trainers, the Orcas–in theory at least–have a secondary role as inshore patrol vessels. To this end, they have a relatively high top speed and a 12.7-mm gun mount on the fore deck. However, as Johnston explained, the primary reason why the Orca isn’t really useful as a patrol boat or in maritime security operations is that getting on and off the boat quickly is rather difficult. “For one thing, maritime security requires boarding parties, and the Orca really isn’t suited to launching those.”

And it is these maritime security patrols that form a large part of the navy’s role on the west coast. In the last few months, such patrols have spotted things like illegal logging, environmental hazards like oil spills and lots of other suspicious activity related to drug smuggling and illegal immigration. As Commodore Donaldson explained, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of ships transiting Canadian waters everyday and it’s the navy’s job to know what’s going on out there.

“Maritime security extends from supporting what is essentially the mandate of other government departments in areas that relate to Canadian security and the security of our people, our trade, our national interest, within Canadian waters, within Canada, and it extends right out to managing our relationships in the Pacific and providing a credible deterrent to those who might consider acting against Canadian interests,” said Donaldson. “Knowing what’s going on is 90 per cent of maritime operations, doing something about it is the easy part.”

Interestingly, the navy itself is rarely solely responsible for doing something about issues of maritime security. “Most of the threats that we’re talking about are covered by Canadian law. And so it’s a law enforcement function, and different departments have jurisdiction over different laws. So, for example, illegal immigration is now a Canada border services enforcement problem. They have the mandate to enforce those laws. So we co-operate with them. They come with us.”

What this means is that during many maritime security patrols there are often RCMP members or representatives of the Canadian Border Services Agency onboard the navy ships. In fact, ever since the terrorist attacks of 2001, there has been a strong push to get all of Canada’s security agencies working together to gather and share information. The navy, in some ways, is leading the way in this new joint approach to defence.

“We have a maritime security operations centre that we’ve stood up in the last couple of years, that is an evolution of an information sharing and collection and display system that we’ve had going on for a number of years, that involves representatives of other government departments,” said Donaldson. “But certainly we have increased the level, the depth of exchange and the mutual interest in the product (information) significantly in the past few years. Now, I wouldn’t want to characterize it as a perfect system, because we are still learning more about how to do business.”

As Donaldson says, however, there are still some issues about how these different agencies share information. Though certainly all are committed to the same goal–defending Canada–sometimes differing short- and long-term priorities can create problems. “There are information-sharing challenges that are governed by legislation, and they’re governed by other information-sharing agreements, so we have to be careful that we form this in the right way and in a way that doesn’t jeopardize some of the other arrangements that we have.

“You know, we have a military-to-military exchange, and when we signed up for that, it wasn’t so that we could then hand information to the Department of Fisheries. So, you understand that there can be sensitivities for some of the intelligence information that we have. We have to use it the right way, put it together the right way and use our maritime awareness in a way that supports what everyone is trying to do, and that is focused on Canadian interests.”

Despite the Orca’s relative unsuitability for maritime patrol, there is still some chance they’ll be used on occasion for search and rescue or even, for example, as harbour patrol boats during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

And that’s not to say they won’t still play a role in maritime security. As Donaldson says, “the training vessels are up and down the coast all the time, showing grey hulls. They’re not really set up to be operational platforms but it’s kind of nice to see a cop car drive by once or twice, and that kind of presence we’ll continue to maintain in our waters.”

The remaining Orca-class vessels will be named Raven, Caribou, Renard, Wolf, Grizzly, Cougar and Moose. If these names sound familiar, it’s because many of them were also given to the “armed yachts” the government acquired in the early years of World War II.

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