The Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) longest-serving ship is a sailing vessel, and is still looking sharp and working hard at 100. Sadly, here role is now limited to recruiting during summer months. Harsh East Coast winters preclude operations for much of the year. On the West Coast, Oriole was used year round for training.
Say Happy Birthday to HMCS Oriole, built in 1921 as a private yacht, commissioned as a Navy ship in 1954 and used by the RCN today for sail training and public outreach. Over its nearly seven decades in the Navy, Oriole has trained many a young sailor, taken part in races and tall ship festivals too numerous to name, visited ports the world over, and hosted military leaders, prime ministers and royalty.
“Any command appointment is special, but being in command of the oldest commissioned ship and a sailing vessel like Oriole is unique,” says Lieutenant Commander Robert Pelton, Commanding Officer of HMCS Oriole. “Only a select few people have had the chance to do that, and on such an occasion as the ship’s Centennial, is very special indeed and is such an honor.”
Technically a Bermuda-rigged sail training ketch, Oriole is a close cousin to a schooner, except its mizzen mast is smaller than its mainmast and is steeped further aft. Fully rigged, HMCS Oriole sets more than 1,200 square metres of sail – every inch of it worked the old-fashioned way, by hand: no winches on this ship except the one that lifts the anchor. The hull is steel but the decks, cabin house, skylights and hatches are all teak.
Originally built for George Gooderham, commodore of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, the ship was launched in June 1921 as Oriole IV and served as the club’s unofficial flagship from 1924 to 1928. In 1941, Oriole was sold to the Navy League of Canada for Sea Cadet training, and in 1943 it was chartered to the RCN as a training vessel. After the war Oriole was returned to the Navy League, was chartered again by the Navy in 1950 for training purposes, then finally commissioned as HMCS Oriole in 1954. Oriole even has a unique battle honor, the only Canadian Navy ship that has it: “Dunkirk 1940,” granted by perpetuation because she shares the name of a Royal Navy ship that won that honor.
Time spent training in Oriole teaches more than basic seamanship: it fosters teamwork, self-confidence and leadership.
“Oriole is the only sailing vessel in the RCN and those members that have a chance to sail on board get an experience like no other,” Pelton says. “You are exposed to the elements (wind, sea, rain), it’s hard work and requires a lot of teamwork as well as individual leadership. Everyone that comes on board gets at least some sailing experience which will complement their career within the Navy when they go back to their respective units.”
Just as important is Oriole’s role as a floating ambassador for the RCN, a way to reach out to the public like no other. The ship sails the Great Lakes every summer (except during the pandemic) and hosts many day sails, port visits and other events to show Canadians their Navy up close.
“When we’re in port, the ship turns heads and people want to see the ship and just ask questions,” the commanding officer says. “During non-COVID times, you can come onboard, touch, feel and walk on the ship. We go to places and ports that other RCN ships are unable to get to. We help to connect with Canadians on a different level.”
Former Oriolers reminisce
Rather than give you more facts and figures, we thought you might want to hear about Oriole firsthand from those who sailed in the ship. We found three ex-Oriolers, one who was a trainee and two who were crew, and they share their stories.
Commander Ramona Burke, currently working in the Acting Chief of the Defence Staff’s Office, was an acting sub-lieutenant training to be a naval warfare officer in 1997 when she and 10 other trainees were selected for a 17,000 nautical-mile (31,484 km) journey in Oriole from Esquimalt, B.C., to Sydney, Australia. She recalls:
My first real deployment was on board HMCS Oriole. We left Esquimalt October 14 and arrived in Sydney December 19. As part of the crew, we learned how to operate all the sails and conducted navigation by the sextant using the sun and stars to guide us. Everything was done the old-fashioned way, by hand, as there were no winches or capstans.
Our first port visit was San Francisco, where we sailed under the famous Golden Gate Bridge and were given free tickets to an HBO comedy special.
Then it was on to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where we sailed past the USS Arizona Memorial and visited Waikiki Beach, Honolulu.
Our next stop was at anchor in the lagoon of Palmyra Atoll, a very small island south of Hawaii. There we met the very large and scary coconut crab and I had a close encounter with a reef shark.
Then we visited Canton Island, which is part of Kiribati, an island nation threatened by global warming as it is only two metres above sea level. Canton is visited by ships so infrequently that we had to use a British Admiralty chart dating to the time of Captain Cook!
Our fifth port visit was to Apia, Samoa, a paradise that is also the burial place of the author Robert Louis Stevenson. We stayed at Aggie Grey’s Resort, a famous hotel that hosted many famous stars from Hollywood’s golden age, including Marlon Brando, Gary Cooper, and Dorothy Lamour. After Samoa, we stopped in Suva, Fiji, then Nouméa, New Caledonia.
Sixty-six days after we left Victoria, we arrived in Sydney, sailing past the iconic Sydney Opera House. It was a few days before Christmas, 40 degrees in the shade, and we had a few days in the city before flying back to Victoria so we could all be home for Christmas with the best tans we ever had.
I grew up in Cape Breton, mere feet from the ocean, and though I had spent a large part of my youth on the water and thought I knew about life at sea, I was not quite prepared for the challenge of living and working in a 102-foot sailing vessel in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
It was an incredible trip, but not an easy one. I kept a daily journal and re-reading it after 25 years brought back memories of hard work, beautiful sunsets, teamwork, and the ruthlessness of the sea. I remember terrifying squalls and breathtaking night skies. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and as a sailor, the trip gave me a profound respect for Mother Nature and the tremendous power of the sea.
Lieutenant(Navy) Thomas Eagle, currently operations officer with Patrol Craft Training Unit Esquimalt, B.C., was Oriole’s executive officer when the ship sailed some 10,000 nautical miles (18,520 km) from Esquimalt to Halifax in 2017 to take part in the Tall Ship Rendezvous in honor of Canada 150. He recalls three hair-raising moments from the voyage:
While hove to off Northern California in 60 knots of wind, the radar blew clean off its mount in the middle of the night. It was dangling by its cables and quite unserviceable. We just so happened to have weapons engineering folks onboard who could install a brand new one, purchased at the West Marine store in San Diego.
The commanding officer managed to get the ship up to 16 knots* while surfing a wave on the way into San Diego later that week. The humming from the hull sounded a little like a high G on a violin. The sunrise photo is from the next morning after things had calmed down slightly.
* Nearly 30 km/h is very fast for a sailing vessel like Oriole. For comparison, 16 knots is just above the maximum continuous speed of the Kingston-class Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels.
While racing from Boston to Halifax in bullring fog and 20 knots of wind, we managed to hold our own against the much larger Bluenose II for a little while. They overtook us by the southern shore of Nova Scotia. We pulled into Lunenberg vice Halifax to have the bowsprit swapped, thus we didn’t officially ‘lose’ to Bluenose.
Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class (CPO2) Jason Bode, currently with Canadian Armed Forces Transition Centre Esquimalt, was a petty officer 1st class and served as coxswain when HMCS Oriole sailed from Esquimalt to Halifax in 2017 to take part in the Tall Ship Rendezvous for Canada 150. CPO2 Bode recalls:
In total, this was a five-month trip for the core crew of Oriole, taking her from Esquimalt on March 16, 2017 until we flew home in late August 2017. There were many challenges and a lot of work to get her there, but if you ask any of the crew that sailed in her for this endeavor, almost all of us would say it was the sail of a lifetime.