By Petty Officer 2nd Class Travis Litke USN
I recently had the opportunity to sail with the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) for Operation Limpid, which is an annual patrol of the Arctic Ocean and Canada’s Northwest Territories.
The group of ships I deployed with was comprised of several marine coastal defense vessels from the eastern and western coasts of Canada. I joined the Kingston-class coastal defense vessel HMCS Yellowknife (MM 706) ship, commanded by RCN Lt. Cmdr. Donald Thompson-Greiff, in Nome, Alaska on Sept. 22.
I wasn’t the only foreign crewmember aboard the ship. Yellowknife also embarked two other U.S. Navy Sailors and a sailor from the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN).
“I will take every opportunity to sail with a joint crew,” Thompson-Greiff said. “I think there is no better learning experience for these kind of missions than to sail with foreign navies aboard.”
RNZN Able Seaman Karaitiana Maxwell from Opotiki, New Zealand, and Electrician’s Mate 2nd class Aron Yelton from Ardmore, Oklahoma, were engineers and joined the Yellowknife’s engineering department. Quartermaster 1st class Daniel Wilson, from Jacksonville, Florida, joined the ship’s navigation watch team, and the ship’s deck officer became Wilson’s mentor and trained him as an officer of the watch. As a mass communication specialist, I became a part of naval combat information operations (NCIOPS) department.
With such a small crew, most of the jobs normally found on U.S. ships were integrated into much broader categories. The engineers aboard did the jobs of machinist mates, electrician’s mates, and damage controlmen. My department, NCIOPS, performed duties that would be split between operations specialists, intelligence specialists, aerographer’s mates and sonar technicians in the U.S. Navy. Our watches consisted of monitoring radar, photographing surface and air contacts, and taking weather and sea state data.
The routine was not unlike what I experienced on my last ship. Every day began at 7 a.m. with a pipe played over the ship’s public address system, informally referred to as “wakey wakey.” The boatswain of the watch piped and announced “hands to breakfast.” Then, the officer of the watch began the day’s schedule with a “good morning, Yellowknife.” Those of us who didn’t have the midwatch the night before rolled out of bed and made our way to the galley at the center of the ship. Every morning, without fail, our cooks put fresh fruit, smoothies and some kind of baked goodies out for the crew.
Royal Canadian Army (RCA) Cpl. Mikhail Grizhanov, one of the cooks on board, greeted everybody the same cheerfully polite way, every morning.
“Good morning, Mr. Litke, what can I make for you?”
After grabbing a plate of whatever Grizhanov had served up and a cup from the line at the galley, we’d make our way into the crew mess. There were three on board; one for the junior ranks (JR’s Mess), one for the petty officers and chiefs (POs and CPOs Mess), and one for the officers (wardroom).
It turns out that no matter their nationality, every Sailor will spend a solid chunk of their career cleaning their ship. Right after breakfast, around 8 a.m., the boatswain of the watch piped “hands to cleaning stations.” The crew finished up their food and coffee (or tea, as it turns out was the most popular) and headed out to their areas of the ship to wipe everything down and give the decks a wash. With such a small ship, I assumed it to be much easier to clean, but the Yellowknife ran their cleaning stations for 90 minutes. It wasn’t just the junior sailors cleaning, either. I often found myself side-by-side with the CO taking his trash out of the stateroom and sweeping up the lavatory he shared with his executive officer.
From there, the daily routine was fairly straightforward. There was often some kind of training lecture held in one of the messes, mostly about damage control, engineering and mine warfare, since Yellowknife is technically a minesweeper. Every available sailor attended if they could, and it was impressive how knowledgeable the crew was. RCN Leading Seaman Kyle Uligh gave tours of the ship’s firemain and damage control systems once a week, with the same gusto every time. He never hesitated to offer remedial training or further explanations if one of us had trouble understanding.
“You have to know the fire system,” Uligh said. “It’s just the few of us out here. Everybody needs to be ready to move if there’s an emergency.”
Part of Yellowknife’s mission was doing community outreach with villages in the Canadian Northwest Territories. Every few days, the ship dropped anchor outside a village, and the commanding officer, coxswain, and I would take a small boat in to meet with the village elders, mayor, and the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment. The villages were very similar, but each had its own character. Tuktoyaktuk, our first stop, was the largest town and also the quietest. There were very few people out both times we stopped there. Our second stop, Ulukhaktok, was about half the size but as soon as we were out onto the beach locals started to swarm in to meet us and ask questions. They rode out on all-terrain vehicles, two or three on each, and parked down by the water to come and meet us and ask questions about the ship. Ulukhaktok is also home to the world’s northernmost nine-hole golf course.
Our third stop in Sachs Harbor was a fair mix of the first two stops. It was a town of roughly 100 people, mostly fishermen and hunters. They had displays of seal skin and musk ox wool clothing set up for us to look at and buy, as well as freshly-fried donuts and baked cookies for the few of us who had taken the rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) to shore. They were extremely hospitable and happy to spend time with us drinking coffee and talking about life in the harbor.
Our final stop before heading back to Point Barrow and down into the Bering Sea was Herschel Island. This island is an old whaling town which served as a base station for sailors out hunting Bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea. It is still maintained by Canada and has a compliment of rangers watching over it and giving tours. They get enough visitors, in fact, that the island has a small dirt runway running the length of it. Our time there included tours of the buildings, a native Inuvialuit drum and dance performance, and several crew members of our sister ship HMCS Edmonton (MM 703) participated in a “polar bear swim” diving into the water on the northern side of the island, then running back into the sauna built on the beach.
After Herschel Island, we began our week-long sail back around Point Barrow. The routine went back to normal, with watches, training, and drills. With all of our stops being only for a day or two, it was easy to fall back into our underway routine.
After a month out at sea, Yellowknife arrived in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, the last stop for Wilson and me. I believe my time on HMCS Yellowknife was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My month aboard was one of the most exciting and educational experiences I’ve had during my career in the U.S. Navy. I worked alongside some of the hardiest and smartest sailors I’ve ever met: people I would (and often did) trust with my life. Our sail through the Arctic Ocean was cold and exhausting, but if I were told to pack my bags and go back tomorrow, I absolutely would.