Lt.-Cmdr. Peter Chu, left, is commanding officer of HMCS Windsor, one of four Victoria-class submarines operated by the Royal Canadian Navy. (Bruce Campion-Smith/Toronto Star)
The Toronto Star recently joined the crew of HMCS Windsor for 24 hours as it sailed submerged in the Atlantic Ocean off the Nova Scotia coast.
ONBOARD HMCS WINDSOR—On the surface, the submarine seems restless, out of its natural domain. It rolls in the waves, its black mass seeming vulnerable.
Eyes glued to the periscope, Lt.-Cmdr. Peter Chu gives a sweep of the view outside and then gives the order. “Diving now, diving now.”
Vents are opened, water floods ballast tanks and the sub settles below the waves. A gauge ticks off the depth – 10, 20, 30, 50 metres. Down here, the ride becomes silky smooth. A hush seems to take over the boat.
“Normally we like to be dived … where we feel more comfortable in our natural environment,” Chu said.
The Toronto Star recently joined the crew of HMCS Windsor for 24 hours as it sailed submerged in the Atlantic Ocean off the Nova Scotia coast. It gave a window into the life of Canada’s submariners and the work of the complex machines they operate.
The control room is the crowded hub where crew members navigate the diesel-electric sub, steer it through the water, work the sonar and operate the weapons stations. Overseeing it all is Chu, the 42-year-old commander. “It’s the reason I joined the military, to be a submarine captain,” he said.
But it’s not a life for everyone. There’s a reason submariners get paid more than sailors serving on surface ships, which they jokingly deride as “skimmers” and “hotels.”
Subs are all utility. There’s no laundry, no email access, no Internet, no satellite television and precious little space.
The 48 crew members quickly get used to squeezing past each other in cramped wardrooms, narrow passageways and the small sleeping quarters, where bunks are stacked three high. Visitors sleep in the weapons bay, sharing space with the torpedoes.
“Life on a submarine . . . it’s definitely an acquired taste. Once we go deep, there’s very little contact with the outside world,” said navy Lt. Devin Matthews, the boat’s executive officer.
“Me, I find that a bit of a blessing … Without that outside interference, it lets you focus on the mission,” he said.
For the personnel who endure the cramped quarters onboard the submarine HMCS Windsor, the food is a highlight. Master Seaman Thomas Forrester is one of three cooks who turn out meals and snacks that would rival any diner. (Bruce Campion-Smith/Toronto Star)
The hardships are eased by the efforts of chief chef Tony Cooper and his two assistants who serve up morale-boosting meals from a cramped galley about the size of a small walk-in closet. “There’s no shortage of eating. That’s all you got down here,” Cooper says.
Black-hulled submarines, the ocean’s silent stalkers, are menacing by their look, their history and their role, from the Nazi U-boats that hunted Allied convoys to the nuclear ballistic missile subs that today remain hidden in the ocean depths.
Canada’s current subs — purchased second-hand between 2000 and 2004 from the British navy, which had mothballed the boats— suffered a tough first decade, raising questions whether Ottawa had been sold a bill of goods.
Concerns over the state of the fleet were driven home in October 2004, when HMCS Chicoutimi suffered a fire during its maiden voyage to Canada, killing navy Lt. Chris Saunders.
Other problems over the years — fires, floods, a seafloor collision and, more recently, faulty welds — have kept subs in dock and out of service. Today, only HMCS Windsor is at sea. The three other subs — Corner Brook, Chicoutimi and Victoria — are in various stages of maintenance work.
Yet those on Windsor insist that subs are a vital part of Canada’s maritime defence. Chu, for example, says the mere possibility that a sub might be operating unseen in an area of ocean has a huge deterrent effect. And he said the subs excel at intelligence gathering, thanks in large part to their stealth capabilities.
George Smith, petty officer, 2nd class, leads the team of sonar operators who are the ears — and eyes — of the submarine, especially when it’s cruising submerged.
HMCS Windsor was the first of the fleet to be equipped with a sophisticated sonar of the same type used by the U.S. Virginia-class nuclear submarines.
Ocean noise — ships, dolphins, whales and persistent crackling of shrimp — appear on the sonar displays. Still, as with the movie Hunt for Red October, it comes down to the ability of the operator to read the sensors and pick out the telltale noises that betray a ship’s location and identity.
“You can hear whether or not they have serviced their equipment, whether their engines are bad, whether their engines have bad bearings … how many propeller blades are on the shaft, how fast the shaft is turning,” Smith said.
Smith has heard the cries of dolphins as they ride in the sub’s bow wave. “I could hear the joy in their voices,” he said.
HMCS Windsor packs a wallop with its load of up to 18 Mark 48 torpedoes — each with almost 300 kg of explosives — that can speed towards a target at more than 50 km/h and break the back of a ship with their devastating blast.
Chu was the combat officer onboard HMCS Victoria when it fired a live torpedo at a decommissioned U.S. ship during a 2012 Pacific exercise. “The bang when it exploded was like nothing like I experienced.” Chu said.
So, too, were the tortured sounds as the crippled ship turned up on its bow and sank. “It really brought home the significance of what we do,” the commander said.
The crew wear the coveted dolphins on the uniforms, the mark of a submariner and a testament they have passed the training demanded of those who live below the waves, much of it devoted to emergency drills.
“It’s a lot of stuff to remember … Once you get dolphins, there’s a lot of respect,” said Leading Seaman Robert Boutette, of Windsor, Ont.
The crew are relaxed in their duties. But reminders of the dangers are all around. Air masks connected to an emergency air supply hang ready to be grabbed in the event of fire. Hoses and firefighting gear are stowed along the passageways. Receptacles for oxygen-generating candles are found throughout the sub.
“If you understand the boat, you don’t worry,” said Petty Officer Nick Dubasouf as he tended the machinery control console, the complex board that oversees the sub’s propulsion.
Back in the galley, Cooper is in the middle of the lunch rush, pushing out orders of pork stir fry and stuffed peppers.
“They refer to us as a special breed to come down here and do it,” he said of submariners. “You either love it or hate it. And the guys here all love it.”