Tea and sympathy: Canadian frigate helps Royal Navy solve a high-seas catering crisis

The Canadian Navy came through for its U.K. cousin this past week by donating badly-needed stocks of Earl Grey tea to HMS Queen Elizabeth while at sea in the Pacific.

HMCS Winnipeg boosted British morale with three boxes of Earl Grey

HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea on Sept. 9, 2021. (UK MOD Crown copyright)

Had it gone on any longer, it could have been a calamity.

Sailors in all navies are used to austere conditions, but there are certain things — especially in the Royal Navy — that are simply sacrosanct. Things like tea — that steaming amber liquid that steadies frayed British nerves and takes the chill out of almost any wet, weary bone on watch.

The flag officers' mess aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, the United Kingdom's newest aircraft carrier, suffered a shortage of tea while at sea in the Pacific over the past week.

The crisis of morale was averted thanks to the quick-thinking commander of HMCS Winnipeg and with the likely assistance of one of his stewards.

The commander of the British carrier task force paid a 90-minute visit to the Canadian patrol frigate recently — a routine check-in with one of the allied escorts. HMCS Winnipeg and HMS Queen Elizabeth both took part in a massive allied naval exercise off Japan last weekend.

"I went across thinking I would be offered traditional Canadian hospitality, whatever that may be," Commodore Steve Moorhouse told CBC News this week. "And they very, very kindly laid on English tea, afternoon tea."

Whether he was expecting something a little stronger than tea is unclear. The Canadian Navy has banned the consumption of alcohol while warships are at sea.

Commodore Steve Moorhouse UKCSG carries out interviews on the flight deck on Sept. 6, 2021 during the visit of Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi to HMS Queen Elizabeth in Yokosuka, Japan. (UK MOD Crown copyright)

"So I had a cup of Earl Grey and English scones with cream and jam," said Moorhouse, who seemed genuinely touched by the gesture.

"I said, 'Hey, that's fantastic, we've just run out of Earl Grey tea in the flag area on Queen Elizabeth.' I returned to the ship weighed down with probably a thousand tea bags."

The commander of the Winnipeg said it was the least they could do to help an allied unit suffering through the privation of a long sea voyage.

"We gave him three boxes and he sent me an email afterwards and said I was a hero going back to a British ship with tea from Canada," Canadian Commander Doug Layton said with a chuckle.

HMCS Winnipeg, HNLMS Evertsen and RFA Tidespring in formation on Sept. 9, 2021 during Exercise Pacific Crown. (UK MOD Crown)

Moorhouse's staff may have expected something more exotic, since navies are in the habit of exchanging trinkets of appreciation on a regular basis.

"Whenever you visit a ship, sailors will say, 'Hey sir, what did you get? What did they give you? Was it maple syrup or something like that?'" said Moorhouse. "And I said, 'No, I've got Earl Grey tea bags.'"


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.