Last Updated October 7, 2004
CBC's Dan Bjarnason aboard HMCS Windsor (Photo: Brian Kelly)
Recently, Canada purchased four diesel-powered submarines from the British government. Two have been delivered so far. HMCS Victoria was the first. Victoria is the nickname given to this class of ship.
The latest Victoria-class sub to join the fleet is HMCS Windsor. It finished a two-year re-fit in Britain and sailed on its maiden voyage to Halifax in October, 2001. It will now undergo Canadianization, with specialized equipment and facilities. That process may take another year to complete.
These subs were "used"; they were built by the British in the early 1990s, then mothballed when the British submarine fleet went to all-nuclear power. But they're virtually new in submarine terms. Windsor, for example, had only 30,000 miles on it, just sort of a spin around the block.
In October, the CBC's Dan Bjarnason got a feel for what it's like to live and serve on a Canadian submarine.
He spent two weeks aboard HMCS Windsor, joining the crew for their voyage home across the Atlantic from Britain.
Here are Bjarnason's journal entries for the trip, including pictures he and camera operator Brian Kelly took along the way. His television report was aired on CBC News on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2001.
Day 1 | Sat. Oct. 6, 2001
First day at sea. Submarine HMCS Windsor casts off from Barrow-in-Furness, England, and is now just south of the Isle of Man.
Encountering 2.5-metre-high waves while proceeding on surface to the north Atlantic where six-metre waves await us. Dive scheduled for late afternoon Sunday and remainder of patrol to proceed submerged. But if weather does not moderate, sub will probably not dive at this time, and ride it out on the surface.
Lunch: Pastrami sandwiches.
- Dinner: Roast beef.
Day 2 | Sun. Oct. 7, 2001
CBC's Dan Bjarnason (right) with camera operator Brian Kelly
Submarine Windsor dived at approx. 1420 GMT. Now proceeding across the Atlantic submerged. Ironically, passing near position where Allies scuttled Nazi U-boats at the end of the Second World War.
Just finished first night aboard. Sleeping space for myself and cameraman Brian Kelly is in weapons bay at front of sub in racks where torpedoes normally stowed for action. Unbelievable how little room and space there is anywhere here. Also surprising how quickly you accept it as normal.
Monday, Windsor to conduct ďdeep diveĒ tests. Info on actual depth to be reached is classified.
Day 3 | Mon. Oct. 8, 2001
Typed at 400 nautical miles west of Barrow-in-Furness, England, 2000 hrs GMT. Depth: 17.5 metres.
Inside a submarine is a symphony, a haunting orchestration of strange and weird noises. On the surface, listening from the inside, there is the constant sound of water rushing by as it ripples along the side of the hull while the sub slices forward through the sea. A sub is surprisingly noisy while under power on the surface, and itís also rather rough sailing. A sub is most unstable while it is "up top."
We have been underwater for more than a day now, and will remain under for the entire trip across the Atlantic.
Submerging, you are surrounded by the noise of loud, long gurgles as water sloshes and surges through the highways of pipes that are the subís arteries. And soon there is a whooshing sound as water is pumped in and out of tanks as the boat changes its buoyancy and centre of gravity and manoeuvres its way beneath the waves. As the sub goes under in a little over a minute, the sensation is like being on the downward swoop of a swing a ride with no windows.
Today, HMCS Windsor did a "deep dive" test, its first real operational workout. Periscope depth is about 17.5 metres. In the test dive, Windsor went to 250 metres. In the final few minutes of the decent, there is scarcely a word spoken. A dozen or so seamen in the control room are glued to their gauges showing pressures, knots and angles of diving planes that project from the sides of the sub. Everyone is glued to the crisp reports from the helmsman steering the sub while reading out the depth at five-metre intervals as we pass downward. The ride down is velvet smooth, smoother than on any plane.
At 250 metres, the sea exerts immense pressure on the subís hull. Water pressure down here is 365 pounds per square inch and the sub actually shrinks a little. It is very eerie. At 250 metres the sub itself scarcely makes a noise except for the dull hum of the engine as we move forward at about five knots.
Day 5 | Wed. Oct. 10, 2001
Eight hundred nautical miles west of Barrow-in-Furness, England. Depth: 17 metres.
On a submerged sub at sea there is a crisp vigilance that is never relaxed. Ever.
There is zero administrative fat down here. There is no room for a single crewmember who doesn't directly contribute to the operation, safety and fighting capability of boat, with six hours on duty, six off, then six on, and another six off, day after day after day.
Individual sleeping berths are three deep, each about the size of a coffin, as the crew sardonically points out. In reality, there is truly no personal time. No lounge. No recreation room. And for sure, no stroll around the deck.
The crew watches movies on the VCR and DCV (Digital Compressed Video) systems in the three very, teeny eating areas ("messes" theyíre called, although they're actually spic and span).
The mobster series The Sopranos is a hit here. So is the movie The Perfect Storm, a true story about a killer hurricane off the east coast of the U.S. in the early 1990s. In fact, some members of the Windsor crew were aboard another Canadian submarine, Onondaga, while the real life "perfect storm" was raging. Onondaga was 300 feet directly below, taking 10 degree rolls, rolling side to side.
But the real favourite here below the surface is Das Boot, the utterly terrifying film classic about submarine warfare in the Second World War.
Thoughts of contemporary dangers and combat are part of the consciousness on Windsor these days. Tuesday evening, the crew were informed of the Canadian naval contingent being sent to the Afghanistan crisis. Almost everyone on board here has friends aboard a warship that's going, or has served on one of the vessels himself.
Day 6 | Thurs. Oct. 11, 2001
There are who-knows-how-
many thousands of valves, dials, gauges and electronic gizmos that keep a submarine in business. And the chances are excellent that some of them eventually will leak or breakdown or fog up or give you a false reading, at the most inconvenient moment possible.
A sampling: the galley (kitchen) garbage disposal mysteriously backed up today, spewing some kind of gorp all over. Toilets (there are only three for 61 people) occasionally malfunction or clog up, sometimes even "blow back" as they say here.
Temperatures can range from torrid in the engine room, to almost airless in the berths where most crewmembers sleep, to damp and clammy in the torpedo stowage bays where condensation drips from pipes onto sleeping bags such as mine.
And now thereís a glitch in the water supply system. Water use has been cut back, showers first restricted to one every three days and then showerheads were removed altogether (except for crew who handle food or work in that boiling engine room). Faces are slowly taking on a weathered look. Chin stubble becomes more evident. And grizzled sub veterans dazzle newcomers with tales of long-range missions when no one showered for a month.
Yet sailors volunteer for this inconvenient and isolated existence. Through it all, the crew dines like royalty. Three cooks toiling in a kitchen the length of a Volkswagen run a bakery and turn out meals that would could be in a Michelin guide. .There's been French toast and pancakes, ice cream and pie, pork chops and lamb, roast beef and salmon. On Thanksgiving there was turkey. We canít shower down here at fifty metres but the steak and tiger prawns for dinner tonight were delicious.
Day 7 | Fri. Oct. 12, 2001
Depth: 17.5 metres.
Speed: nine nautical miles an hour.
It's the last dash for home. Tonight at about 2130 hours GMT, HMCS Windsor passed the half-way point on its submerged maiden voyage to Halifax. Now, only 1,375 nautical miles to go.
For many of the crew, it's a sea voyage thatís taken two drawn-out, frustrating years. Updating and modernizing the used sub, which was bought from Britain, took far longer than anyone anticipated. The program was plagued by glitches and delays. As the months stretched out into the two years, several of the crew married local British women who'll beat their husbands home to Canada and will be waiting on the dockside when Windsor finally surfaces off Halifax on Friday, Oct. 19.
The sub's shower, which was out of operation for the last two days, is back in operation againÖ for now. But thereís always something. Water is being consumed at a faster rate than it is being de-salinated and so showers may have to be curtailed again at some point. And now the hydraulic system that powers the diving planes at the rear of the sub is leaking fluid, at a rate that can just be tolerated, if it doesn't worsen. The concern is that the escaping fluid can turn into a spray or mist which can catch fire. And fire is the greatest fear in submarines, especially while submerged.
Fire fighting and damage control drills are practised every day with deadly seriousness. Fighter pilots scramble at a snailís pace compared with the furious speed with which a sub crew responds to a fire alarm. Down here, everything is at stake.
In the days ahead, that leaking hydraulic fluid in the aft will be watched constantly by the unsung heroes back in the engine room, where itís always hot and noisy and unglamorous. These are the quiet guys who never get any good roles in all those submarine movies. But in real life, theyíre the guys that get you home.
Day 9 | Sun. Oct. 14, 2001
A break from daily routine, no wake-up call today the regular 7 a.m. torpedo firing drill held each morning four metres from my pillow in the torpedo stowage bay.
And also today, no fire/emergency drill, although last night, as we watched The Sopranos, there was a brief flurry when an alarm instantly sent the crew pouncing on what was feared to be a malfunction in the sub's compressed air system. For a brief moment my heart skipped a beat. Windsor's submerged trip home has been plagued with a string of infuriating glitches.
A sampling: most of the sonar (which lets the sub "see" underwater) is now out of whack; the hydraulic system continues to leak at a steady rate (immensely irritating but so far, tolerable); the radar is not operative because the tube that raises it to the surface has filled with seawater; another tube that sends a snorkel to the surface allowing the submerged sub to breathe ("snorting") made funny clanking noises and raised eyebrows this morning. If we could no longer "snort" for any reason, then we'd have to complete the mission on the surface, where the weather is rough (we're near the site of the "perfect storm"), which would add additional time to the trip. These sailors would vote to row the last leg rather than further delay their homecoming.
The crew copes with this growing litany of malfunctions with flair and sardonic humour. For the past two years the sub's been refitted and upgraded in a British shipyard. So, it is asked, why are so many gremlins still loose in the system?
Windsor's making itself a difficult boat to love. Sailors word it in more salty language.
Day 11 | Tues. Oct. 16, 2001
Windsor is about 700 nautical miles from Halifax as I write this Tuesday morning. We're just passing the Grand Banks, wrapped in thick fog. And now weíre sailing on the surface where visibility is about 300 yards.
Captain Art Wamback
We're all alone for now, but we are about to enter busy fishing areas. With the sonar (which uses sound echo impulses to alert the sub to whatís out there) not working properly and the main radar system inoperative, the captain, Art Wamback, opted to continue the Atlantic passage, for now, on the surface.
It would be too risky to continue submerged in the fog with the subís electronic eyes and ears unreliable. At least two men are always on up on the bridge (from where I just returned) when the sub is surfaced. Itís getting continuously colder and wetter outside, as we get closer to Halifax.
Windsor also surfaced briefly Monday and crewmembers scrambled across the deck to carry out makeshift repairs to the sub's exhaust and air intake systems; and also to a gizmo that fires underwater signal devices. It had got jammed somehow. In this hi-tech age of electronic warfare, it got unjammed by an innovative sailor jabbing away with a hockey stick from the deck of the moving sub while in the middle of the Atlantic.
Day 12 | Wed. Oct. 17, 2001
380 nautical miles east of Halifax. Depth: 17.5 metres.
Weather's clear. Submerged again.
This voyage is over on Friday. But everyone's eyeing Thursday as the big symbolic moment. On Thursday navigators in the control room will pull out one last map. The one that shows Halifax. It will be the final sheet of the 26 nautical maps used to chart Windsor's long route home, sector by sector across the Atlantic. For this crew, Thursday will be the longest day.
HMCS Windsor in Halifax
By Friday afternoon they'll be home. At dockside will be family, including recent English brides who flew on ahead and will be waiting for their husbands as the sub pulls in.
The last episode of The Sopranos ran last night. Today they ran Das Boot, an apparently traditional end-of-patrol favourite.
After two years away in England, there is great disappointment here that a hungrily anticipated one-month leave has been shrunk to two weeks because of the Afghanistan crisis.
Windsor's downright freakish string of glitches will continue apparently to the end. Today, the radar mast that had filled earlier with sea water is now actually dripping into the sub's control room, the boat's nerve centre. To cope, the crew has rigged up a homemade anti-leak contraption using plastic hosing, a water bottle and duct tape.
Thereís a quieter, more inward-looking mood aboard Windsor as this voyage enters its final phase. A "letís-just-get-home" atmosphere here is sharp enough to be tasted.
- Dan Bjarnason's documentary about life aboard a Canadian submarine. (Runs 22:02)
- CBC Radio's Andy Barrie talks to Dan Bjarnason about his two weeks aboard HMCS Windsor. (Runs 6:14)
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