The navy has a pandemic mission: stay healthy, stay connected

In normal times, running a Canadian warship means working in close quarters with crew. These are not normal times, however, and as Adam Walsh reports, that's necessitated some remarkable changes.

Navy personnel are using technology to keep operations running

Cmdr. Michael Eelhart stands on the bridge of the Halifax-class frigate Ville de Quebec. (DND)

In regular times, when you're the commanding officer of a Canadian warship, feeling disconnected is not something that happens. Every day, you have daily face-to-face interactions with your crew, and you're typically onboard your ship for work.

These, however, are not regular times.

Because of COVID-19 physical distancing requirements, Lt.-Cmdr. Daniel Rice has been on his ship, HMCS Goose Bay, only twice since March.

"Disconnected is definitely the key word there," Rice said on a Skype video chat from his home in Halifax. 

Skype has become part of the toolkit for his daily work. Maintaining connections means daily video conference calls with crew members, other commanding officers and his superiors.

Staying connected

Rice, like the rest of the Canadian Forces, is doing his best to stay mission-ready during the ongoing pandemic. Like many other professions, it means much of what was done in person is now being done online.

"We're just trying to maintain that connection to what's going on as best I can," said Rice, who is originally from Clarenville, N.L. 

Lt.-Cmdr. Daniel Rice, who is originally from Clarenvile, has spent 20 years in the Canadian Forces. (Submitted by Daniel Rice)

A father, Rice sometimes has video chats that involve guest appearances from his five-year-old son.

"The number of times my son has joined in on a Skype call is always amusing," he said.

"He's certainly really curious when he sees the laptop come out, the earpiece come in and the little talking heads come up on the screen."

Other parts of naval life have changed, too. When you get promoted in the Canadian navy, the ceremony is typically done in front of the rest of your shipmates.

That obviously cannot happen now — at least not in person. 

A change in regular procedure

Earlier this month, Rice used a video-conferencing app while he was promoting one of his crew members.

Everything was arranged with the member's spouse and the new epaulettes were dropped off the night before in the member's mailbox.

"We had some shipmates join us, we had some of his former unit there as well, and then his wife was the one who actually gave him his new promotion with his little four-month-old baby sitting on his lap," said Rice.

Rice said technology is helping crews stay connected. 

"[For] 110 years, the navy's been in business and we haven't stopped changing. We are usually slow to react to change," he told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show

"But now everyone's embracing this new technology, new change very quickly, which is very cool to see." 

Rice is now focused on getting ready for deployment — he expects his ship, and crew of about 40 people, will head to sea and await orders some time next month.

That will mean some form of quarantine, something that the crew of HMCS Ville de Quebec just completed.

"We spent two weeks in a hotel in Nova Scotia, totally cut off from everybody," said Cmdr. Michael Eelhart, the frigate's commanding officer.

Eelhart said the quarantine period involved a lot of video teleconferencing for planning, just checking in with one another and chatting with families on the outside.

He said it also involved a lot of in-room fitness training, which ranged from a couple hours of cardio per day to weightlifting.

Some went even further.

"We had two people do full marathons back and forth in their room. It took them eight, nine hours to do that," said Eelhart.

After the two weeks were up, the whole crew went through a health check.

Once the all-clear was given, the ship set sail last week and has been in the vicinity of the Bay of Fundy awaiting orders. 

That could be for a COVID-19-related response, helping in the event of a natural disaster if needed, or assisting with fishery patrols.

Heading to Newfoundland

The plan for the next few weeks is to circumnavigate Newfoundland.

While the ship can't do actual port visits, it can still sail by communities around the coastline.

Eelhart said he has about two dozen people from Newfoundland and Labrador on board, out of a crew of about 225, and the ship will try to sail by communities where members have relatives.

"We'll show the flag, we'll either get our helicopter out and hopefully fly over the parents' house or something like that and then we'll kind of go on to the next town," he said.

"It's basically to show that, 'Hey, look, the navy is out there, we're ready to help if we need.'"

Warrant Officer Darren Mushrow of Port aux Basques is the chief cook on HMCS Ville de Quebec. He’s in charge of menu planning and feeding the roughly 225 people on board. (DND)

One of the Newfoundlanders on board is 31-year veteran Warrant Officer Darren Mushrow.

Originally from Port aux Basques, Mushrow is the ship's senior cook.

In normal times, he said, he gets to visit home about once a year. He is rolling with the changes. 

"Sailing around and having a look at it, if that's all I can get right now, then I'll take it," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Adam Walsh

CBC News

Adam Walsh is a CBC journalist. He is the host and producer of the lunchtime radio program The Signal.

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