I am not, to put it bluntly, in love with boats. Never a strong swimmer, I can handle being on a ferry or being the weak link sitting in the front of a canoe while the good canoeist steers in back, but I find motorboats noisy (and painful when they THUMP THUMP THUMP over waves), sailboats terrifying (see “never a strong swimmer”) and never have had much interest in big boats, be they cruise ships or military vessels.
But when it’s the birthday of your sweetheart, who loves boaty bits from sailboats to aircraft carriers, you take one for the team.
That’s how, a few years ago, I ended up on HMCS Halifax, docked for a few days in its home harbour and open for public tours.
Somewhat confusingly, HMCS Halifax was the first of a dozen Halifax-class frigates (the other 11 frigates have names of other Canadian cities) built in Saint John, New Brunswick. HMCS Halifax entered service to the Royal Canadian Navy in 1992 and has already been through one refurbishment in 2011. It and its ship siblings have anti-submarine capabilities and helicopter decks.
You would think that Canada, with our enormous coastlines along our east, west and northern coasts plus the shared Great Lakes with our American neighbours, would have a large, well-funded, high-priority naval service. Such, however, is not the case. As the Canadian Encylopedia puts it, “Canada’s navy has defended Canadian interests in home waters and overseas since the early 20th century — despite often struggling for ships and resources under sometimes neglectful governments. The navy was a vital part of Canada’s contribution to the Second World War, including the Battle of the Atlantic and the Allied invasions of Italy and Normandy. In the decades since, the navy has served consistently around the globe with the United Nations and NATO, while protecting sovereignty on Canada’s three coasts.”
At the end of the Second World War, Canada did have the world’s fourth-largest naval fleet, behind the U.S., Britain and Soviet Union, with 400 warships. Today, that’s reduced to the 12 Halifax-class frigates, four patrol submarines, 12 coastal defence vessels and eight unarmed patrol/training vessels.
Much of the ooh-awe over technology was lost on me when we toured HMCS Halifax. I was more intrigued by things such as the ship’s crest, which features a kingfisher — the centrepiece of the city of Halifax’s heraldic arms — holding a trident.
This frigate is designed for combat — although it has also served in humanitarian missions, including a six-week deployment to Haiti in 2010 to help with earthquake disaster relief — so there was plenty of (carefully unloaded) mounted weaponry that few could resist pretending to shoot out into the harbour. We were guided up, down and across the frigate, with a highlight being able to take the captain’s seat on the bridge. But perhaps the most popular part of the tour wasn’t something normally set up on the ship: there was a display table of no-ammunition weaponry that drew little (and big) boys like bees to flowers.
I should clarify that my list of things I don’t love, beyond boats, includes weapons of all descriptions. However, hanging on to that team spirit, we spent some time perusing all manner of guns: pistols, light machine guns, sub-machine guns, and assault rifles. I was miserable. My beloved has never had as big a smile on his face, before or since.
I am grateful that, over Canada’s history, there are those who have been willing to defend this country, fight injustice, and keep peace elsewhere in the world, serving in our army, air force, and navy, all three services now under the governance of the Canadian Armed Forces. And I am equally grateful that, in my Canada, I only touched such weaponry as part of a voluntary tour, on a brilliant sunny day in Halifax Harbour.
Main photo: Chris Moorehead.