When a lookout onboard HMCS Vancouver spotted a strange object bobbing in the waves of the Mediterranean Sea during the height of the Libyan conflict last fall, little did Petty Officer 2nd Class Duane Gall realize it would put his 22 years on the job to the ultimate test.
The warship was deployed to the region last July to work alongside NATO allies to ensure arms weren’t getting into the war-torn nation.
The vessel will return home to CFB Esquimalt Sunday morning (Feb. 19). Among the dignitaries who will be on board the ship as it sails into Esquimalt harbour will be Gen. Walt Natynczyk, chief of the defence staff, Wai Young, MP for Vancouver South and Mark Strahl, MP for Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon.
Many of the 250 naval and air force personnel watched history in the making as Libyan skies were lit up by tracer ammunition rounds.
The lookout’s alert on Oct. 6 added an element of excitement for Gall, who finally had the chance to put decades of demolitions training to work.
The bosun and his team were ordered to destroy an unidentified steel cylinder found floating. It was one metre in diameter, about nine metres long and its purpose will remain a mystery to the crew.
The object caused a lot of excitement on board “just because we didn’t know what it was,” the Colwood resident and demolitions team section leader said. “Just because of the way it was in the water, it was a hazard to navigation.”
The team waited until 6 a.m. the next morning before constructing their charges from three blocks of C4 plastic explosives.
Two small boats headed away from the ship, one carrying a backup safety team and the other with Gall and two fellow bosuns.
Meanwhile, HMCS Vancouver headed for safety about three kilometres away.
“We had only seen one picture of the object the night before, so (I was) a little excited, a little apprehensive coming up to it, not knowing exactly what I was going to get into,” Gall said.
Members of the warship’s boarding party also faced several unknowns during the deployment.
“When we get off the ship, we’re literally our own support,” said navy Lt. Scott Meagher, the officer in charge of the boarding party. “It’s definitely a higher-risk job. The adrenalin is pretty high when we depart to do boardings.”
Last fall, the 12-member team boarded three vessels to look over crew identification and other paperwork, inspect any cargo and search for weapons.
The team, decked out with ballistic vests, pistols and C8 assault rifles, first boarded a Libyan tug in early September. The three-hour search produced one weapon, kept for self-defence.
Under the arms embargo “we were looking for weapons, military-related items such as clothing, ammunition,” said Meagher, a Langford resident.
The potential to come across improvised explosive devices, as well as the hazards that come with inspecting large vessels, are on every boarding party member’s mind.
“You leave the comfort of the ship and you go to the unknown every time you board, so there’s a lot of risk involved in boarding,” Meagher said, adding that the stakes were higher in a region impacted by civil war.
The team boarded a Singapore gas tanker on Sept. 19, “which literally kind of just showed up out of the blue,” he said. “That one was full of gas that they were actually trying to sell to the Libyans on spec, and the odd thing about that one was nobody in Libya knew they were coming.”
The frigate’s crew needed to figure out where the gas was going, “whether it was going to the pro-Gadhafi forces ... or the anti-Gadhafi forces,” Meagher said.
Like the tug, the tanker was cleared and allowed to continue its trip.
A Turkish merchant ship, which had dropped off wheat in Tripoli, Libya, was searched in October, capping off a successful run of inspections.
Like the boarding party, extensive training proved critical for the demolitions team. The bosuns expertly rigged the bobbing cylinder with explosives, a detonator and a timer fuse.
Once the fuse was ignited, they headed to a safer range and waited for the top to blow off the object, causing it to sink.
“It was hard to stay calm,” Gall said of the memorable experience. “There was a fair bit of adrenalin.”
Gall and Meagher were just a few of many Vancouver personnel who experienced many firsts during the unique mission in a combative environment.
“Now when you look back at it and you look at the accomplishments of the boarding team and the demolitions team, we’re quite proud,” Meagher said.