Article

 September 1, 2016   Michael Collins

HMCS Oriole
Canada’s only navy sail training vessel – teaches seamanship and Spartan living to those who hope to one day command modern warships.
Story and Photos by Erik Manchester

PO1 James Gilbert (coxswain) calls cadence as crew seated on deck applies their collective strength to adjust sails.

Two-Six, HEAVE! The perpetual cadence focuses power to sheets and halyards. The combined effort of crewmembers, who often sit down on the job, is needed to control immense sails, and to weigh anchor. A conga line of sailors – heels braced against the deck, calloused hands gripping thick nylon braid – strain their backs and legs in unison against mighty resistance. While Two-Six, Heave began aboard gunships of a bygone era, at least one sailboat relies on that rhythm to power its winches today.

Photo courtesy Canadian Forces

Photo courtesy Canadian Forces

She is sprightly, belying her 84 years. Her 104’ height and 102’ steel-hulled length are majestic in proportion and elegant in form. Devoid of powered winches, 15,700 square feet of sails are controlled by the brute force of a 22-person crew. HMCS Oriole – Canada’s only navy sail training vessel – teaches seamanship and Spartan living to those who hope to one day command modern warships.

The boat was born Oriole IV, a yacht owned by George Gooderham in Toronto, Ontario. The George Owen-designed ketch was to have been built in Toronto, but labor strife caused it to be completed and launched in Neponset, Massachusetts in 1921. Two decades later the vessel was willed to the Navy League of Canada. It saw Royal Canadian Navy training duty during World War Two. Oriole was based on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic coast before sailing to British Columbia in 1954. Having been commissioned HMCS Oriole in 1952, the craft bears two longevity honors in the Canadian Navy – the oldest vessel, and, the longest serving ship.

Ncdt Alan Doucette cheesing the sheets (coiling), housekeeping chores after sails come down.

Ncdt Alan Doucette cheesing the sheets (coiling), housekeeping chores after sails come down.

Oriole is also one of the busiest craft in the Canadian Navy. While she doesn’t go on long-range deployments over extended periods, the ship follows an endless course of short voyages around the British Columbia coast, in addition to countless training and public relations daytrips throughout each year. It helps many coastal communities raise money for worthwhile charities, who auction day-sails aboard Oriole. “It’s a way for us to give something back”, said Oriole’s skipper, lieutenant-commander Gary Davis. “We often go to communities that otherwise never have contact with the navy.”

Indicative of the old boat’s youthful spirit, Oriole regularly competes in regattas including Swiftsure, and Vic-Maui (which she won). Her 2005 sailing schedule is ambitious – racing in Swiftsure and Van Isle 360, and joining a tall ship flotilla cruising from Victoria, to San Francisco via Tacoma.

Occasionally Oriole undertakes major coastal expeditions, such as the one in 2004 which spanned 51 days, and covered 1,700 nautical miles. That voyage, which included 25 ports of call around the British Columbia mainland coast, Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands, was sailed in celebration of the boat’s half-century of west coast service, and to do some low-key recruiting. “The ship serves as a calling card that maybe triggers curiosity about a naval career”, said commodore Roger Girouard, the navy’s commander, fleet Pacific – under whose auspices Oriole sails.

The boat’s business continues around the clock. Its crew is split into two watches, and often the entire complement is mustered for some tasks. Seamanship training is ongoing, on deck and in the wardroom – led by the skipper and senior NCOs.

LS Wayne Mellville in the combined galley and cook’s quarters, barely the size of a walk-in closet. “The diesel stove isn’t gimballed, so cooking underway is a challenge. But, I can stir the soup from my bunk, if I lie just right.”

LS Wayne Mellville in the combined galley and cook’s quarters, barely the size of a walk-in closet. “The diesel stove isn’t gimballed, so cooking underway is a challenge. But, I can stir the soup from my bunk, if I lie just right.”

Like most of the crew, leading seaman Wayne Melville (cook) hadn’t been on a sailboat before joining Oriole. He quickly learned to cope with life leaning to one side or the other, in a combined galley and cook’s quarters barely the size of a walk-in closet. “I was overwhelmed by the compactness of my space”, recalled Melville, “The diesel stove isn’t gimballed, so cooking underway is a challenge. But, I can stir the soup from my bunk, if I lie just right.”

The ship’s cadre is the skipper, coxswain, chief boatswain’s mate, engineer and cook, who serve for fixed tours. The remainder of the crew, comprising various ranks, are aboard for weeks or months awaiting other assignments – and who “sometimes are a challenge,” joked navy and sailing veteran LCdr Davis. “Being cooped up with a gang of twenty year-olds can be an adventure all its own.”

View from top spreader (75’ up) on 104’ mainmast, while transiting Tolmie Channel, along Inside Passage.

View from top spreader (75’ up) on 104’ mainmast, while transiting Tolmie Channel, along Inside Passage.

Oriole’s navy career hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Support for the yacht ebbed and flowed with the tide of navy command changes through the decades. Its continuing role was questioned, since few of the world’s navies still have sail training ships in service. For the foreseeable future Oriole continues to have its place in our Pacific fleet, according to Cmdre Girouard. “In our resources-constrained environment, Oriole represents a tiny expense – especially considering her high worth as a unique, successful outreach mechanism. And, she’s an icon, symbolic of our roots.”

Due to Oriole’s close quarters, the crew also learns to live and work together as a cohesive group with little tolerance for individualists. Aboard a vessel that relies on the collective strength of its company to harness the elements, most of the young mariners come to realize that the ship and its crew are one in the same. But, what they likely won’t appreciate until they’re older salts, is that no matter what their naval careers entail, they’ll never be closer to the sea than now – for here they really are sailors. Two-Six, Heave!

Eric Manchester is a Victoria-based freelance writer and photographer. He can be reached at ewmanchester@shaw.ca