I spent Christmas 1966 and New Year 1967 at
the boarding house where I was living, located at the corner of Stannus Street
and Gray Street in Windsor, Nova Scotia. On Wednesday morning 4 January 1967, I
packed my kit bag, said goodbye to Mrs Whalen and to my friends, and headed for Halifax.
I remember it was a cold
morning and water vapours were hovering over Halifax harbour as I proceeded
to Jetty 4 and climbed the gangway of HMCS GATINEAU. After reporting to the
ship's office, I was soon put to work in loading supplies onboard. The ship
was getting ready to depart for Exercise Maple Spring in the Caribbeans.
The ship departed Halifax
two days later and headed south. The ice that covered
some parts of the ship soon melted as we entered the warm Gulf Stream within 24
hours of departure. The next two months were spent in sunshine as the ship operated in
the Caribbeans with frequent stops at Roosevelt Roads and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
We finally headed home and arrived back in Halifax on a warm spring morning.
Ships Divers (SCUBA) Training
Upon returning to Canada in March
1967, HMCS GATINEAU spent a few weeks tied up in Halifax and then operated off the coast of Nova Scotia.
I took advantage of this period in home port to become a Ships Diver (SCUBA).
The course lasted 6 weeks and was taken at HMCS Granby on the Dartmouth side of
Halifax harbour. Over 60 sailors started the course but only 9 completed and
passed the course. At least 15 to 20 sailors quit within the first week
of the course because they were out of shape and could not take the physical
part of the course. Many others quit when masking tape was added to cover the face mask
and simulate a night dive. The final straw came for
many when it was time to actually train in the harbour late at night and in the
dark at the bottom of the harbour.
Each morning started with a 3 mile
run and then a dive and a swim on your back in the cold water of Halifax harbour.
All we had on were a suit, hood and flippers (no air bottles). The purpose of
the morning swim was to train your legs to provide
maximum propulsion using flippers (legs straight and no bending at the knees). We normally swam from the ship, up
the harbour to Shannon Park, and then back to the ship. We used a dry suit for
the first two weeks and then we switched to a wet suit for the remainder of the
As soon as we had returned from the 3 mile run, we had only a few
minutes to get ready for the swim.
This did not create any problem with the wet suit but it was another matter with
the dry suit because help from someone was needed to put on the neck piece which
made the suit "dry". When time was up, we had to jump in the water even if the dry
suit's neck piece was not in place, which meant that cold water would enter the
suit and the swim would be very uncomfortable.
As for the jump itself, it was
made from the forecastle (fo'c'sle) of HMCS Granby. I did the jump in my own way
by climbing over the railing, stepping on one of the lines tying the ship to the
jetty, hanging upside down from the line and diving into the harbour head first while
yelling "SCUBA". (not a good way for a diver to enter water but we did
not carry any air bottles for the morning swim so it was OK to go in head
first although there was a possibility to hit floating debris or floating ice if
Being a Ships Diver in the Navy is
not a full time job. It is something you do in addition to your main trade which in
my case was "RADIOMAN". Ships Divers were used on occasions to perform
special tasks in the water or underwater. The two main tasks were the search for mines under ships
and assisting in rescue
missions at sea. In rescue missions, the diver would jump in the water with a
horse collar attached to a rope and would swim to the victims while a boat was
being launched over the side of the ship. If the diver arrived at the victim first, he would
slip the horse collar over the victim's head and under the arms, and the victim
would then be pulled onboard the ship.
A big part of the course was spent
in learning the various search techniques for mines under a ship and not missing
any area during the search, from the water line down to the keel and back up to
the water line on the
other side; and the entire length of the ship from forward to aft of the ship.
Some search techniques involved multiple divers while other search techniques
could be perform with only one or two divers. If there were mines, they had to
be found, even in total darkness. But we also learned to work
underwater and to perform many tasks in light and in darkness.
I remember being asked to cut a chain at the bottom of the harbour
using a chisel and a hammer; or to
take a 4x4 piece of wood with a saw, to bring it to the bottom and to return to
the surface with the piece of wood cut in two. The challenge was not only to cut the
wood; it was also to bring the piece of wood to the bottom and to secure it so you
can cut it while preventing it from floating back to the surface. I finally
succeeded in bringing the piece of wood to the bottom by putting it
between my legs and pulling myself down to the bottom using a chain under the
wharf. Once I had secured the piece of wood under rocks, I started cutting and all was going well
until the piece let go and suddenly took off for the surface with the saw stuck
in it. So I had to go up and bring everything back to the bottom so I could
finish the task. Performing these tasks were important since there were
possibilities that, as Ships Divers, we could be asked to participate in special
operations if required.
At the end of the 6-week Ships
Divers course, two of the 9 sailors who completed the course were invited to
become Clearance Divers (Hard Hats) and I was one of them. I was very proud to
have received this invitation but some serious thinking was required before
deciding what to do. First of all, a clearance diver is a full time trade. By
accepting the invitation, I would have to abandon my trade of Radioman and the
exciting world of radio communications. On the other hand, becoming a clearance
diver would be quite a challenge and an honour. A clearance diver is a naval
specialist and a deep sea diver who regularly use explosives underwater. They
can be used to remove obstructions in harbours and shipping channels as well as
to perform dangerous naval underwater work such as removing unexploded ordnance
or working on shipwrecks at depth exceeding 200 feet. After a few days of
reflexion, I finally decided to refuse the invitation and to remain a
This decision had an impact in my future. I had spent
over 45 years in the wireless and radio communication field when I retire on 29
July 2011. However, to this day, I wonder what my career would have been
like if I had become a Clearance Diver back in 1967. Some of my shipmates who
became Clearance Divers eventually had exciting careers in the Navy as well as
in the private sector, mostly in bridge and oil rig construction.