Navy’s tall ship set to sail south

LCdr Mike Wills

LCdr Mike Wills

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

HMCS Oriole’s upcoming sail is one of the farthest in its 96-year history.

Two weeks into March, the 31-metre sailing ketch, with 20 eager sailors on board, will leave Esquimalt Harbour with the compass set for Charlottetown Harbour in Prince Edward Island.

If all goes as planned, Oriole will glide into the East Coast harbour late-June after sailing more than 10,000 nautical miles,(16,000 kilometres) just in time for Canada’s 150th Anniversary celebrations.

Along the way the crew will be changed out, and the sailing ketch will make some impressive ports of call.

“The crew is super excited because they truly recognize this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says LCdr Michael Wills, Oriole’s skipper. “As the deployment progresses the crew will gradually be replaced and in the end probably 40 or 50 personnel will be part of this deployment. The chances of being selected are pretty slim, and while I’m not going to say I will never be able to do such a trip again, the opportunity for me is also historically sparse.”

The southerly course down the Pacific Coast and through the Panama Canal and Caribbean will include stops in the United States, Mexico, Jamaica, and Bermuda for the Tall Ships Bermuda 2017 festival on June 1. Part of the festival is a regatta, a series of races including a trans-Atlantic race to Bermuda and on to Boston, Quebec, and finally Halifax.

The final leg of Oriole’s journey will take her into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence for Canada 150 celebrations in Charlottetown, followed by a variety of short visits throughout the Maritimes and Quebec.

“It’s both an honour and incredible opportunity to be part of this event when you consider Oriole has been sailing in Canadian waters for 96 of those 150 years of Confederation,” says LCdr Wills.

Following the sesquicentennial celebrations, Oriole will remain on the East Coast for a refit during the winter.

In April 2018, the sailing ketch will take a shorter, more direct 7,000 nautical mile homeward journey through the Panama Canal, arriving back in Esquimalt in August.

LCdr Wills says the deployment is among Oriole’s most ambitious. While it did complete a deployment to the East Coast and Quebec in 1984, the lengthiest sails were to Australia and New Zealand in the latter half of the 20th century.

Before it sets sail in March, Oriole is undergoing significant equipment renewal with replacement of both generators and its water maker, plus establishment of an Internet connection and a significant rebuild of the navigation suite. The vessel will stock “far more than the usual” contingencies of equipment and fresh and dried food.

The supplies will help the ship’s company survive the wide range of sea states expected from the Pacific Ocean through to the East Coast. LCdr Wills and his crew will rely heavily on Maritime Forces Pacific and Maritime Forces Atlantic for weather updates, and other logistical requirements.

Unlike a warship that has warm and dry lower decks and bridge, Oriole is open to the elements.

“Members of this ship will spend many hours on the upper decks, exposed to the weather, and the motion of the boat,” LCdr Wills says. “It’s going to be a culture change for a lot of folks used to working in an air conditioned, temperature-controlled room.”

The skills and experience earned during this open water sailing on a wind-powered vessel will transform even the most seasoned sailor says LCdr Wills.

“In the end the folks posted to Oriole will be a much more capable group of sailors than when they started. While many of the sailing skills they will learn are not platform specific to their trades and jobs in the military, these skills will eventually transform into the furthered success of the modern fleet.”

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