Lt.-Cmdr. Mark Raeburn peers out the Canadian frigate’s windows.
Ahead, layers of ice coat the surface of the Arctic waters against a backdrop of snow-covered hills. Snowflakes begin to fall.
This is the Arctic – only the view from the ship’s bridge is computer-generated, just as the snow and scenery are.
Raeburn works the control panel inside the simulator at Venture, the Naval Officers Training Centre at Work Point in Esquimalt, and the snowflakes disappears.
The school recently made Canadian naval history when seven students were put through their paces during a new Arctic operations course.
The navigation course is one of four in the world, and one of two that provides Arctic training.
For five days, three Canadian and four New Zealand naval ship commanders, navigators or operations officers learned what it takes to sail Canada’s Arctic waters.
“Aside from going up there yourself, this is about as (realistic) as we can make it,” said Raeburn, head of navigation training at Venture, and one of five instructors who taught the pilot project. “It’s very hard to get this kind of experience.”
The course, which took a year to develop, will next be offered in February 2012 as part of a full Arctic training program. The navigation portion, including simulator training, will be offered at Venture.
For three days in the classroom, students learn about Arctic regulations and sovereignty, ice formations, ship design and manoeuvring through ice. They take what they learn and apply it to situations they face in the simulator.
“It’s a very challenging environment and certainly you do need some kind of training before you’re up there, especially when it comes to ice – 90 per cent of it lies under the surface and that’s what you have to worry about,” Raeburn said.
Even veteran mariners face countless challenges in the Arctic, such as limited global positioning system coverage. Navigating the Northwest Passage – a sea route through Canada’s Arctic archipelago that connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans – is also risky.
“As soon as you start straying off those (routes), you’re actually operating into unknown territory,” said Raeburn, who has travelled to the Arctic and Antarctic.
The timing of the Venture course is no accident, given the federal government’s move to assert its authority along 162,000 kilometres of Arctic coastline.
Currently, Canada’s naval vessels aren’t able to sail year-round in northern waters, especially when there is ice, but that will change when two federal shipbuilding contracts – worth a combined $35 billion – are awarded, possibly later this month or in October.
Up to eight armed Arctic and offshore patrol ships will be built to navigate and crunch through ice-filled Arctic waters, conduct surveillance, enforce Canada’s sovereignty and do search and rescue operations.
“We’re actually looking then at extending the navy’s reach into the Arctic, and that’s why we have to start these courses now, for us to get a corporate knowledge of the Arctic and start building that back up again,” Raeburn said. “We’re trying to generate that now so that in five years’ time, when we start operating these vessels, we won’t be going up there blindly.
“We’ll have a good idea of what we’re getting ourselves in for.”