Plying the ancient trades
The calm, dark grey surface of Esquimalt harbour is the first sign of the smooth sail ahead for the warship being prepared for a day-long voyage.
“Heave it on six handsomely,” comes the bosun’s call on the quarterdeck of HMCS Vancouver.
Just as quickly he gives the stop order to three sailors working in synchronized unison to unwind a thick white rope from a spool on deck. “Avast!” he barks.
Three more sailors brace themselves to haul in another heavy rope before the ship can pull away from a dockyard jetty. “Heave it on six, hand over hand, slowly!”
This language is one of the hallmarks of the boatswain or bosun trade, one of the most ancient professional sailor trades in the Canadian Navy.
The sailors working the frigate’s lines aren’t all bosuns, but everyone must be able to pitch in where needed.
“You’re a sailor first and a tradesperson second,” says Chief Petty Officer Malcolm Conlon, who began his navy career as a bosun 28 years ago.
Some aspects of his trade have been replaced by more efficient methods. The bosun’s call was once used regularly to direct sailors in their work.
Still, there is a place for the past, even as the navy is modernized to prepare for new and evolving threats and challenges.
“You still need that knowhow of old sailors to go hand in hand with new techniques,” Conlon says.
“You still need the people in order to bring the ship alongside. Technology can’t do that, people can.”
The lines used by bosuns on board must all pass through the hands of skilled tradespeople working in the rigging loft at CFB Esquimalt.
A rigger’s skills continue to be in high demand at the naval base, whether it’s to string an intricate web of fibre ropes along a ship’s deck or install wire ropes used to crane in supplies on the vessels.
After thousands of years, rigging has become a perfect blend of the traditional and the modern.
“A lot of the rigging we make, you can’t buy anywhere,” says master rigger Terry Schafer, who estimates he ties hundreds of knots a week, including 50 different kinds. “Everything is calculated. It’s very technical.”
Stepping inside the circa-1891 dockyard rigging loft where he works is like stepping into the past.
There, four journeymen transform rope into usable lines, and pass down their expertise to four apprentices just as they were instructed, though with stricter weight-bearing requirements and safety standards.
Their skills are also required elsewhere on base, 16 storeys up on cranes where they maintain hoist cables used to lift and transfer heavy loads. Schafer will never forget the first time he went up.
“I said to myself, ‘You’re an apprentice rigger. If you want pay day in two weeks you better get out there,’” he recalls with a chuckle.
More than three decades later he is trying to inspire young people to embrace his ancient trade.
Every summer high school and post-secondary students come to the rigging loft to gain a new appreciation for a little-known career that is far from becoming obsolete.
“We’re always looking for a next-generation rigger,” Schafer says.
Back on board HMCS Vancouver, Leading Seaman Clayton Mills is always prepared for the worst.
When the hull technician responds to an emergency, there is likely a critical problem with the ship, such as a fire main break or a hole in the hull or bulkhead caused by a collision or attack.
There are five hull techs and their three supervisors who must direct the battle against flooding. While much of their trade has changed, there are still timeless techniques that continue to work best.
While the supports they use to shore leaks and floods are metal, they still rely on the traditional use of wood beams because, as Mills says, wood floats, making the beams easier to manipulate.
“You might be shoring a hatch that might be three feet under water,” he explains.
Up on the third deck, action in the galley is just heating up as cooks filter in to prepare the mid-day meal.
Two large stainless steel pots simmer away, but even with about 240 officers and crew to feed, the pressure in the galley never reaches the boiling point.
“Absolutely, it’s a challenging trade,” says Master Cpl. Tom Chester, who has been cooking for all of his 28 years in the military. “They say we’re the heart of the ship.”
Five meals must be plated seven days a week, even though sea conditions might not be conducive to cooking, or hearty eating for that matter. The team of cooks toil away even when the ship is running down pirates or drug runners.
“However long (the military) has been around, cooks have been around,” Chester says before checking in on Ordinary Seaman Adrien Radhuber, who is toasting an endless supply of hotdog and hamburger buns.
It’s the new cook’s first day on board a navy ship.
“It’s a good first day,” the 20-year-old says calmly, belying the tight deadline he faces. “It’s pretty exciting and it feels good to know how things are at sea.”
Canadian military cooks are well known in militaries around the world for their ability to put on a bountiful spread, as is their talent for serving tasty soups at the daily 10 o’clock stand easy, or break.
“Some people get truly bent if they don’t get it,” says Sub-Lt. Rowan Wilson, an officer on the Vancouver.
The soup menu is plentiful: tomato, chicken noodle, seafood chowder, creamed corn, French onion and taco soup made from leftovers.
“Add a little Tabasco and it’s mmm,” Wilson says appreciatively.
“A little cup of soup will bring you right up,” agrees his colleague Sub-Lt. Mark Fifield.
Mid-morning soup may seem like one of those traditions that could one day disappear from navy life, just as other aspects have.
“We’ve lost a lot of the hands-on skills as more and more things become automated,” Conlon says. “The military has changed its role too.”
Still, there is room for the old and new even as the Canadian Navy evolves to remain a relevant force at home and abroad.
“You have to know where you come from,” says Conlon. “Traditions are important. Some things can’t change.”