“Nothing like my job back home”: A Reservist engineer’s experience on Operation CARIBBE

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Article / March 27, 2017

By: Sub-Lieutenant Susannah Anderson, Public Affairs Officer, Operation CARIBBE

Despite the heat and the swaying movement of the ship that regularly forces him to pause in his efforts, the propulsion supervisor couldn’t be happier. A key piece of piping in one of the diesel alternators onboard Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Saskatoon needs attention, and the main propulsion supervisor is standing on the sweep deck, hundreds of miles off the coast of Central America, preparing to start the repair.

“This job is nothing like my job back home,” he says. “My father was a Marine Engineer in the Reserves; it is a family tradition. My employer was really supportive in making this opportunity happen and I am finally out here, making a difference, keeping the ship sailing.”

HMCS Saskatoon is sailing on Operation CARIBBE, Canada's contribution to the multinational effort to counter drug trafficking operations in the Caribbean Sea and in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The ship is equipped with sensors and communication equipment that enable the ship to track and interdict the small, fast-moving boats loaded with drugs out on the open ocean. But it is the steady rumble of the engines beneath the computers in the dimly-lit operations room that indicate  the ship is moving and able to carry out its task of stemming the tide of drugs flowing into North America.

The propulsion supervisor serving aboard HMCS Saskatoon, who cannot be identified for operational security reasons, works full time in software sales and is a part time Naval Reservist. He speaks with pride about his work in the noisy, hot spaces deep inside the ship.

“Engineering is a job that requires creativity, flexibility and physical endurance to ensure that the ship has propulsion at all times, for whatever situation should come up,” he explains. “There is no hardware store we can drive to for spare parts; we have to think outside the box to fix any issues.”

During his daily watch, the propulsion supervisor oversees between one and four engineers. Their goal is to keep the main propulsion machinery operating, ensuring the watch-keepers on the bridge of HMCS Saskatoon have power available for the mission.

HMCS Saskatoon is a Kingston-Class vessel, one of 12 maritime coastal defence vessels in the Royal Canadian Navy.  Onboard, four diesel alternators create electricity which power two motors, which in turn drive the shafts of the two azi-pods, commonly called “Z-drives”. Able to rotate 360 degrees, the Z-drives make HMCS Saskatoon extremely maneuverable.

“This ship is more maneuverable than most ships out there, even more than a Halifax Class frigate,” says Lieutenant (Navy) Christopher Shook, the Executive Officer of HMCS Saskatoon. “We can turn 180 degrees in 11 lateral yards and go from full speed to stopped in less than a ship’s length. We can even drive the ship backwards, full speed, if necessary. Rather than relying on speed, HMCS Saskatoon relies on agility.”

Aside from the challenge of taking care of alternators, engines and Z-drives thousands of miles from home, the engineering spaces themselves present challenges. The tight spaces are deafeningly loud and frequently exceed 40 degrees Celsius. The engineers must work as a team to ensure that no one becomes exhausted by the heat and humidity. Working in shifts of two, the crew of eight marine system engineers staff the machinery control room, with its board of flashing lights indicating the status of hundreds of sensors in the engine spaces, twenty-four hours a day. With regular inspections they make sure that any issue is quickly caught and resolved, allowing the ship to be ready for full power the moment a target presents itself. Daily drills like simulated steering gear breakdowns or imminent loss of propulsion exercises test their skills, ensuring that a real-time emergency can be quickly resolved.

The main propulsion supervisor has been planning to sail on Operation CARIBBE for  years.

“I have been a Naval Reservist for twenty-two years,” he says. “I am a senior administrator at my unit, overseeing the training of junior engineers. Operation CARIBBE personally brings me invaluable experience that I can bring back to my reserve unit and pass on to engineers under training. It is also more than that; Operation CARIBBE is different. We are sailing as part of a multinational operation with an important mandate, to stop the flow of drugs in the eastern Pacific. Operation CARIBBE is not just about the work we do out here; the drugs we interdict here will never make their way back to North American streets.”

Shortly after the pipe repair is complete and the diesel alternator is returned to service, the ship receives a message. A suspicious vessel has been spotted nearby. The engineers report to the bridge, “Four DAs online, full power available,” and HMCS Saskatoon speeds into the darkening night.

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