Camaraderie during pandemic, Operation Caribbe

Royal Canadian Navy members work on the helm console of HMCS Summerside during Operation Caribbe in the Atlantic Ocean on Oct. 29. Members are not named for operational security purposes. Photos by Lt Sheila Tham, Public Affairs Officer

Royal Canadian Navy members work on the helm console of HMCS Summerside during Operation Caribbe in the Atlantic Ocean on Oct. 29. Members are not named for operational security purposes. Photos by Lt Sheila Tham, Public Affairs Officer

Lieutenant Sheila Tham
Operation Caribbe

I am a Public Affairs Officer and have spent my five-year career split between the Air Force and the Army. I was asked to deploy with the Royal Canadian Navy on Operation Caribbe and decided it would round out my experience. I had heard the slogan “join the navy, see the world” and, given the global pandemic, have spent most of 2020 at home with the urge to travel. It sounded like the perfect opportunity to learn about the navy and head to the tropics. This is my first impression of sailing and the reality of operational travel during COVID-19.

HMCS Summerside departed Halifax on Oct. 26 and headed for the Caribbean Sea as part of Operation (Op) Caribbe.

Canada often conducts multiple iterations of Op Caribbe in a year – the last deployment was with HMC Ships Nanaimo and Whitehorse earlier this year. However, Maritime Component Command ordered the ships return to Canada on March 18 due to the worldwide spread of COVID-19.

The deployment of Summerside is the first Op Caribbe deployment since, and came with a myriad of new considerations and precautions to ensure the safety of personnel.

The crew was required to adhere to self-isolation measures prior to sailing along with undergoing a COVID-19 test prior to departure. The same conditions were given to the United States Coast Guard (USCG) Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) participants who were picked up in Miami, Florida. Due to these precautions, members do not have to wear masks while at sea or adhere to physical distancing.

In normal times, sailors could take time off and go into port cities to explore. In COVID times, the crew must stay on board.

But staying on board has fostered a sense of camaraderie amongst the crew as we now socialize with each other instead of going our separate ways in a port city.

The closest we got to mingling with the locals in Miami was during a resupply. Only the Physician Assistant, Executive Officer, and Chief Cook were allowed on the jetty to screen the supplies arriving, dressed in non-medical masks and gloves and required to wash their boots and use hand sanitizer before returning to the ship.

The rest of the available personnel mustered on the front of the ship (the fo’c’sle) at a sanitizing station wearing gloves. Personnel who formed a chain on the brow wore non-medical masks and gloves to pass packages up to the members on the fos’c’le. Each package was passed with an instruction: “sanitize the box,” “leave on the fo’c’sle,” “wipe down each package,” “discard the box,” repeated as each person passed to the next. Once the ship was resupplied it was considered secure and most of the crew was able to relax.

Keeping Spirits Up

Since we weren’t allowed off the ship in Miami for our first port visit of the deployment, and for any future port visits, the Captain hosted a sundowner on the back of the ship, the sweep deck, where the crew watched Miami locals on jet skis and yachts. A few party boats passed with loud music but it wasn’t long before the volume on Summerside drowned out any noise of passing boats. It was Halloween night and we were hosting our own costume party, cheering on those brave and creative enough to don a costume. There was even modified trick-or-treating; some of the crew came with bags of candy and chocolate to pass out.

After two days alongside, the crew was rested, ready to sail to the Caribbean Sea for operations, and integrate with the LEDET that was now on board.

As Op Caribbe is my first navy deployment, Miami was my first port stop. Despite the disappointment of not being able to visit Miami, I didn’t hear a single complaint as we sailed away. In fact, one member of the crew told me that this port visit was better because we were all able to spend time together, get to know each other better, and build some team cohesion

About Operation Caribbe

Operation Caribbe is Canada’s contribution to U.S. Enhanced Counternarcotic Operation under U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force South. The intent is to conduct international detection, monitoring, and interdiction of illicit trafficking in the Caribbean Sea and off the Pacific coast of Central America. To make this happen, Canadian ships embark a Law Enforcement Detachment from the United States Coast Guard (USCG). The synchronization of capabilities between the Royal Canadian Navy and USCG enables greater success in reducing drug trafficking while strengthening international interoperability.

Canada has been conducting Op Caribbe since 2006 and the Canadian Armed Forces has contributed to the disruption or seizure of approximately 105 metric tonnes of cocaine and more than 6.7 tonnes of marijuana.


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