Assignment Arabian Sea: At Sea And The War On Terror – Part 3

Crew from HMCS Fredericton zip out over the Gulf of Oman in the ship’s Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boat during RHIB-sticking drill. [PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES]

Crew from HMCS Fredericton zip out over the Gulf of Oman in the ship’s Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boat during RHIB-sticking drill.
PHOTO: CANADIAN FORCES

Freddy And Her Fast Boat

On Freddy’s starboard side: toes over edge of deck; eyes staring between feet at swirling water, 6 1⁄2 metres below; brain suddenly more cognizant of how the side of the massive grey warship—the freeboard—angles in and down, and how the 7 1⁄2 -metre-long rope ladder—called the “jumping ladder”—swings freely until its lower wooden rungs are held against side of moving ship by two crewmen who—at this moment—are balancing like surfers in the bottom of a small boat riding the swells to keep pace with the 134-metre-long frigate.

Freddy is short for Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Fredericton, and long for the ship’s other popular name—Mom. We are moving at roughly five knots through the Gulf of Oman and the blue silvery water sliding by between boat and ship will soon become one with the aqua-blue wake fanning out behind us.

Leading Seaman Michael Wood is coxswain in the 24-foot Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boat (RHIB), and he’s busy “sticking” the RHIB against the side of the frigate as sailors take turns descending the jumping ladder. My mind flips back to the times I’ve used an extension ladder to string Christmas lights. Yes, the ladder was not made of rope and wood and yes the ground it was sitting on wasn’t moving and neither was the house, and, of course, the ladder was angled away from the house, not towards the basement.

There are other differences. If you fall stringing lights you will stay where you land—stuck to the sidewalk, hedge or snowbank. Falling into water from a moving ship presents other options, and most can also end badly. That is why “man-overboard” drills are performed regularly on warships. Fredericton’s crew takes it very seriously; earlier in the week, the ship’s coxswain, Chief Petty Officer (1st Class) Percy Rasmussen, stood on the starboard side bridge wing, anxiously timing a drill that recovered the victim (a mannequin named Oscar) in four minutes, 12 seconds.

This is the last of our series on HMCS Fredericton’s deployment to the Arabian Sea. As with parts 1 (Stalker And His Mom) and 2 (Stalker On The Prowl), you can stick with the BLUE COURSE to learn about the ship and its company, go GOLD to discover more about the ship’s naval boarding party or chart GREEN for a glimpse at how one civilian spent life at sea.

The Blue Course: In The Gulf, Part 3

Thin, black life vest—slightly heavier than a winter scarf—around neck and down sides of chest. In one pocket—on upper right side—a small cartridge that, when exposed to water, will cause the vest to inflate—in another pocket, a whistle.

Fredericton’s Chief Bo’s’n Mate, Chief Petty Officer Gerry Ross, observes a fuel replenishment at sea. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Fredericton’s Chief Bo’s’n Mate, Chief Petty Officer Gerry Ross, observes a fuel replenishment at sea.
PHOTO: DAN BLACK

Commence descent to Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boat. There are no hand rails on the jumping ladder, but two large slots in each wooden rung for your hands. The trick is to stay vertical and maintain three points of contact with the ladder while descending. Every sixth rung is a longer board—an anti-twist batten.

Ocean swells can make it a chore to keep the bottom of the ladder in the RHIB. Depending on sea state, the distance from the last rung to the RHIB can vary according to the size of each swell. And so you have to be patient; you have to anticipate the right moment to step off the ladder into the boat. Members of the ship’s naval boarding party use the ladder two, three, four times a day—maybe more—while bulked up with 60 to 70 pounds of kit. And while they make it look effortless, they are quite focused because falling between ship and RHIB could prove disastrous, although it is likely that anyone in that awkward predicament would be hauled out within seconds—because they train for that as well.

The RHIB is powered by a 220-horsepower (in turbo mode) motor, and on this day the “sticking” drill pushes the envelope. The sea state is only between one and 1.5 metres, but those in the boat feel every bump as sailors take turns pushing the craft to its limits, rocketing over waves and “catching air.” The latter creates a sensation of weightlessness, accompanied by the cat-like whine of the propeller, followed by the heavy smack of ocean against the hull and some ripe words from sailors holding on to the grab rope.

Over and over again the drill takes the RHIB and her crew out across the choppy water and then back in—on a slight angle—alongside the towering warship. Sailors take turns at the helm, and the trick is to maintain the proper angle and speed to keep the RHIB against the side of the warship at the bottom of the ladder.

On a counter-terrorism mission such as this, the warship has to be ready—at all times—to deploy the RHIB and her boarding party. The drill keeps everyone associated with the evolution sharp, but it also presents an opportunity for a break from life on board ship. “I’m usually standing up in the RHIB during these drills, but this time was different because the boys decided to have a little fun and get some air time off the waves. It is good for morale to get off the ship,” explained Leading Seaman Michael Kennedy, a naval combat information officer who is usually holed up—in 12-hour shifts—in the dark confines of the Operations Room, known as the “mushroom factory.”

Kennedy grew up with his younger brother, Kevin, in the fishing town of St. Lawrence, located on Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula. Dad was a teacher. Mom worked in a fish plant, and the town remains famous for a game both Michael and Kevin got to know well: Soccer. “It was a great place to grow up, and we had a soccer ball at our feet every day.”

Boarding party drill in HMCS Fredericton. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Boarding party drill in HMCS Fredericton.
PHOTO: DAN BLACK

Since joining the navy, Michael has also served in HMCS Winnipeg and HMCS Toronto. This is his first deployment to the Arabian Sea. “Sometimes it’s a little slow on this mission, but overall it’s really about establishing a presence out here. I’m doing my job—what I’m trained for. It’s a good crew and I’ve made a lot of friends.”

Michael seems typical of the young men and women who join the navy. He was looking for adventure—wanted to make a difference—and travel. Kevin loved to travel too, and was also serving his country when he—along with five other soldiers—was killed by an IED blast in Afghanistan in 2007. “I tried to talk him into joining the navy—with all the travel—but he was pretty set on joining the army. He always had a fascination with it. We joked with each other a lot, but had a lot of respect for each other.”

Michael was on board HMCS Toronto when he got the news. “The ship was alongside in Halifax. It was cold—I’ll never forget that day. I had just come off my watch and into my mess when the officer of the day called me up to the wardroom. He said he had some information for me, and I could tell it wasn’t good. Mom was on the phone and it took her about five minutes to actually get out what had happened—she was crying and I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Finally she got the information out that Kevin was killed.”

It was stormy back in Newfoundland when Michael’s mom looked through the window and saw three RCMP officers walking toward the house. “She knew then that something bad had happened.”

Michael could have left the military after that, but he kept going. “I’m still here…. Kevin died for a cause, and I also believe in the cause. The general public has mixed feelings about Canada’s involvement in the war, but it’s what he wanted to do. He was a soldier.”

Soldiers, sailors and airmen, regardless of where they are deployed, will always miss important moments back home. It is part of the sacrifice they make. Back in Fredericton, and up on the bridge, Sub-Lieutenant Mark McShane knows what it’s like. For the moment—as officer of the watch—the 29-year-old is focused on running the ship’s routine. He has three children at home—all under age three. His youngest was born a week after he deployed, and so on this day—four months into the deployment—he has yet to hold his newborn son. “I will be seeing him in a couple of months. Knowing that is helping me get through this trip…. I can’t imagine what the feeling is going to be when we pull into Halifax on May 4th.”

Meanwhile, e-mails, letters from home and video conferencing helps. McShane’s wife is constantly posting photos of the kids and sending him videos. “It’s been a struggle, but she has a lot of family support—parents, grandparents—from both sides. So it’s not too bad—not as bad as it could be. But family support is one thing. She is the one who is there 24 hours a day, taking care of three little ones, but she’s from a navy family and knows how it works.”

The naval boarding party investigates a dhow. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

The naval boarding party investigates a dhow.
PHOTO: DAN BLACK

While e-mails are great, there’s no matching the joy sailors get from a care package. Photos of wives, husbands and kids adorn mess walls, pinned or stuck next to children’s artwork above shelves with trinkets from home. Fredericton left Halifax in October and by end of February she had received 394 bags or 5,809 kilograms of mail. The first batch—10 bags—was picked up in Barcelona, Spain. On Christmas Day, it arrived by barge—all 117 bags.

Sergeant Ken Riles forecasts the ship’s weather and oversees the mail: “Six volunteers can sort 80 to 100 bags inside two hours. The ship knows it and the captain knows it; mail is a huge morale booster. And with e-mail people know there’s a letter or package on the way.”

McShane relishes contact with folks back home, but “out here…I very rarely call home because you try to stay in the game. When you go alongside that is when you call and talk for hours. You think about home a lot, but the more you do the more difficult it is. So you try to separate it a little.”

This morning, McShane is part of a team helping to build a RMP (Recognized Maritime Picture). The ship, which at this moment is heading in a westerly direction, has only recently joined Combined Task Force 150. She is in a patrol box “somewhere” south of Iran. Other ships with a role in CTF-150 are also contributing to the “picture.” “We are essentially building up what the pattern of life is out here. We want to know what is normal and what is not.”

The preparation for the mission, he adds, was first-rate. It began months before deployment. “You put in a lot of work…a lot of training and when you get to do it and do it well, it gives you pride….There are a lot of drawbacks…a lot of things that make it extremely difficult, but it’s rewarding.”

Out here—this time of year—weather systems are slow. “We’ve been watching a low pressure system moving across our north and it has been moving for four days,” explains Riles. “Back in Nova Scotia, it is a day and the system has gone through.”

Riles and his junior tech cover weather for the ship and her embarked Sea King. For the ship, it is mainly winds and sea states. For the helo, they need to know more: precipitation, cloud cover, water temperature and winds—from the surface up to 2,000 feet. They must also know about the chance or presence of thunder and lightning which could impact flying or refuelling.

Sea states of one or two metres in the Gulf are a far cry from what the ship’s company endured crossing the North Atlantic last fall; sailors were forced to strap themselves into their racks, and just about everybody was sick. “We ran into six- and seven-metre seas for three days straight. There was a strong low off our north and it didn’t go away. It plagued us the whole way across—almost like it was following us,” recalls Riles.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Keith O’Brien in the galley. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Petty Officer 2nd Class Keith O’Brien in the galley.
PHOTO: DAN BLACK

Good or bad sea state, having the right supplies and services on board is crucial to any mission. The person overseeing the “receipt, accounting, care, custody, control, maintenance and distribution of all materiel” on board ship is the logistics officer or LogO. On this deployment it is Lieutenant (N) Chris Grant. “We’ve been sailing for four months and all the planning and preparations by the Logistics Department prior to departing Halifax could not mitigate every challenge we faced at sea or in foreign ports,” he explains.

Grant’s department of 32 personnel covers four sections: Supply, food services, stewards and administration/financial services. “The department is literally responsible for everything from soup to nuts when it comes to support.”

The initial grocery bill was $220,000. “That was just to get out the door (at Halifax),” adds Grant who by February was expecting the bill to amount to about $1 million. Not surprising when you consider that every day the  ship uses up 600 eggs, 110 litres of milk, 500 pounds of meat and fish, and 250 pounds of potatoes and rice.

Fuel costs for ship and helo were originally budgeted at $7 million. By February, Grant was expecting the final bill to be around $5.2 million. “Our consumption rate has been lower than anticipated because we’ve been sailing at slower speed through the patrol areas, and so there will be a lot less spent there.”

Lieutenant (N) Chris Grant. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Lieutenant (N) Chris Grant.
PHOTO: DAN BLACK

While conducting her counter-terrorism patrols, Fredericton was refuelled by the United States Naval Ship Supply, a 230-metre-long, 48,800-ton replenishment vessel that can feed fuel to two ships at once, and did on more than one occasion in late February. “We have to try to keep the tanks full because we (the ship) could be tasked to go elsewhere—where there may not be a tanker on station,” explains Fredericton’s Chief Bo’s’n Mate Gerry Ross. The Replenishment At Sea evolution involves many hands from the ship’s deck department to engineers, lookouts and the medical team. It has been fine tuned; made safe by a combination of expertise and equipment, and an ongoing mentoring process.

The Green Course: Reporter’s Logbook, Part 3

Wednesday, Feb. 24:
Popular entertainment in cafeterias during R&R. Main Cave: Saw II; the Simpsons; Call of Duty II; darts and crib. Chief Petty Officers’ Mess: Dirty Harry; Sharpe (a British tv drama about a fictional British soldier in the Napoleonic Wars); Wii Golf.

Thursday, Feb. 25:
PT with boarding party. Multiple push-ups, sit-ups, knee-bends akin to riding bike without seat. Multiple laps around ship’s funnel house, past grimacing head of BOB, the Body Opponent (Punching) Bag, through hazy expression of diesel, past Oscar the man-overboard dummy. Witness more push-ups, sit-ups while attempting to put lungs back in chest. “Not bad for first time out,” offers one lad. “Feel free to join us tomorrow.”

Saturday, Feb. 27:
Late evening: Watch flying fish zip through brighter than usual bioluminescence in Freddy’s wake.

Monday, March 1:
Explosive cheers in wardroom, Main Cave and Chief Petty Officers’ Mess as Team Canada defeats Team USA in men’s Olympic hockey.

 The RHIB moves alongside Fredericton. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

The RHIB moves alongside Fredericton.
PHOTO: DAN BLACK

Thursday, March 4:
Visit galley; looking for numbers on amount of food prepared. Daily tally includes 80 loaves of bread; 1,000 meals; 15 kilograms of bacon; 40 to 50 litres of soup; 75 kilograms of flour.

Friday, March 5:
Results of yesterday’s RHIB ride: Hand burns from safety rope and calf muscles that feel like they’ve been injected with asphalt.

Sunday, March 7:
Warm goodbyes. Head home on flight out of Oman; too tired to worry about any complaining passengers.

The GOLD Course: Tripwires, Part 3

By now HMCS Fredericton’s boarding party is satisfied there’s nothing out of the ordinary on the dhow: no illicit drugs, no weapons or suspicious people or activity, just a handful of tired, but co-operative sailors transiting the Gulf—under the scorching sun—with a cargo of sheep. The party’s bridge team has met with the dhow’s master, visited the wheelhouse and examined the vessel’s documents, and its two security teams have finished their “sweep.”

This dhow doesn’t have a flag, and while that in itself is considered a tripwire, sailing without a flag is common out here—for many reasons. The master may have just forgotten or not bothered to fly it or they simply don’t have one. Another theory is that ships from India may not be too keen to fly their flag while transiting waters that hug the coast of a country they are at odds with.

Sailors wait their turn during RHIB-sticking off HMCS Fredericton’s starboard side. [PHOTO: DAN BLACK]

Sailors wait their turn during RHIB-sticking off HMCS Fredericton’s starboard side.
PHOTO: DAN BLACK

By speaking with the master, the team can glean useful information. The master may, for example, have heard about some illegal activity in the area. Co-operation aside, a boarding at sea can be upsetting for those doing nothing wrong.  “Having a large grey warship come up on you, and a well-armed and professional team come on board your unarmed vessel is certainly intimidating,” says Steve Waddell, commander of HMCS Fredericton. “Although we go across in a measure where we want to defend ourselves, we go across with an open engagement with them. We want to reassure them that we are not here to harm. We just want to figure out what’s going on so we can use that information…to find the people who are using the high seas for illicit reasons.”

This boarding lasts roughly 90 minutes—and that is typical when there’s nothing wrong. The team returns and Fredericton benefits by showing her presence and by gaining more knowledge of the sea and traffic around her—even if her boarding party comes back smelling like sheep.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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