Couple makes history by commanding same Canadian navy ship

Victoria and Chris Devita say they're in the same boat as many other married couples trying to strike a balance between work and family. There's just one big difference: the Devitas' boat is a warship.

Victoria and Chris Devita met in British Columbia as reservists fresh out of basic training

Royal Canadian Navy officers Lt.-Cmdr Victoria Devita and Lt.-Cmdr. Chris Devita are shown in this 2017 handout image. The pair has made history by becoming the first married couple to have skippered the same Canadian naval ship. (Maritime Forces Pacific-Mona Ghiz/Canadian Press)

Victoria and Chris Devita say they're in the same boat as many other married couples trying to strike a balance between work and family.

There's just one big difference: the Devitas' boat is a warship.

The lieutenant-commanders are the first married couple to have skippered the same Canadian naval ship, according to naval historians.

The military has advanced in their ability to deal with family situations … If they hadn't done that, we would never be in this situation.- Lt.-Cmdr. Victoria Devita

"In today's day and age, it's so important to demonstrate gender equality and that work-life, family-military balance," said Chris. "It's also good that it seems to be the time for these kinds of things to just be happening naturally now."

Victoria commanded HMCS Glace Bay between 2013 and 2015, and Chris succeeded her at the helm in August.

Chris said the Glace Bay was the first East Coast ship he sailed on as a young officer in the navy, so returning to the vessel felt like "coming home" — in more ways than one.

"It's been a very supportive environment," he said. "A couple of sailors have come to me and said, 'You know, I sailed with your wife, sir. It's kind of neat to sail for both mom and dad."'

While some officers might be intimidated to take over command from their spouse, Chris said it only felt natural for him and Victoria, who now works at Maritime Forces Atlantic headquarters in Halifax.

Source of support and 'ribbing'

They met in Chilliwack, B.C., as reservists fresh out of basic training and have spent the past two decades as partners in marriage and professional colleagues, he said.

"Victoria has been a great source — a resource, quite frankly — for advice," said Chris. "I can share problems with her and she can do the same with me, and you have that professional level of analysis you can get to in a very safe environment."

While their relationship is built on mutual support, Chris said they also make room for "professional ribbing" between ship commanders. Victoria has jokingly warned him to "not scratch the paint" on the Glace Bay, he said.

HMCS Glace Bay is shown during a simulated man-overboard scenario in the Atlantic Ocean on Oct. 18, 2017. (Cpl. Trevor Matheson/14 Wing Imaging/Department of National Defence)

The Devitas have been on parallel career paths as their 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son grew up, Victoria said, and the couple switches off duties so one parent can look after the home while the other pursues their professional ambitions.

"As we progress, sometimes one of us has to do something first," Victoria said. "By allowing each other to have the time to pursue command at sea, we will both have fulfilling careers, and yet be able to have a fulfilling home life as well."

On occasion, the couple's deployments at sea will conflict with each other, Chris said, so the Devitas rely on a support network of friends, families and neighbours to look after the kids while the lieutenant-commanders mind the waters.

Victoria said the military has taken strides to make taking care of the family unit part of its mission.

"The military has advanced in their ability to deal with family situations," she said. "If they hadn't done that, we would never be in this situation. One of us would be in a desk job and the other would be pursuing a career."

Handling the crew at home

Chris said he and Victoria try to abstain from shop talk while at the dinner table at their home in the Halifax suburb of Bedford, but there are times when their roles as captain and parent overlap.

He said the challenges are different, but the problems are often the same — both schools and ships can invite trouble with assignments or conflicts with peers.

"Managing a home life is very similar to managing a ship. I mean, the ship is always considered a family away from home," Victoria said. "You have to make sure that everyone is looked after both psychologically as well as in their own individual pursuits."

While both of their children are considering pursuing naval careers of their own, Chris said it's an "even race" between his kids and his crew when it comes to not listening to his orders.

"Everybody has a good day and a bad day, and I would say that both of them are equally fantastic," he said.

While Chris insists his wife is the clear commander of their household, Victoria said she's less certain.

"If you get a bunch of officers together, they never make a decision," she said. "No one wants to take charge."