CLaS program takes guests to Sable Island

Parks Canada staff, CLaS guests, Cdr Scott Nelson and members of the ship’s company of HMCS Halifax raise a new Canadian flag for the Parks Canada station on Sable Island during a visit on May 17.

Sable Island trip a highlight for special guests aboard HMCS Halifax

Par Ryan Melanson,
L’équipe du Trident

The Canadian Leaders at Sea program (CLaS) routinely offers unforgettable naval experiences to influential civilians from a variety of different backgrounds, and the program’s latest outing was no different. This time, however, as HMCS Halifax set sail with eight special guests aboard on May 16, some members of the crew were getting ready for a once-in-a-lifetime trip of their own.

The three-day CLaS program involved a thrilling visit to the Sable Island National Park Reserve, a large narrow sandbar located about 175 kilometres off the coast of Nova Scotia. Sometimes known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the island was first explored in the 15th century and is known for being the site of hundreds of shipwrecks in the years prior to its first lighthouse being installed in 1873. Today, the area is under the jurisdiction of Parks Canada and technology has made shipwrecks a lesser worry, but ships still exercise caution due to the always-shifting sandbars of the island and the thick fog that frequently rolls in.

And despite the fog presenting its usual challenges, Halifax was able to anchor offshore, launch its small boats, and conduct a number of successful transfers to and from the beach early in the morning on May 17. The CLaS guests and others got a 90-minute tour of the island from the Parks Canada staff who embarked Halifax for the sail. They ran into multiple groups of the famous Sable Island horses, along with the thousands of grey seals that line the beaches at the edge of the water.

It’s Canada’s farthest offshore island, and has a number of characteristics, including its wild animal populations, that make it both intriguing and worth protecting.

“It’s a hugely dynamic sliver of sand. It’s persisted for thousands of years, but it also changes significantly as the sands shift,” said Alannah Phillips, Park Manager for Sable Island.

“It has an amazing combination of natural history and cultural or human history, which is part of the reason it’s been made a National Park Reserve.”

Ali Ehsassi, the Member of Parliament for the Toronto riding of Willowdale, came as a guest on the trip, and even had the opportunity to raise a new Canadian flag at the island’s Main Station along with Halifax CO Cdr Scott Nelson. He described the island as breathtaking, and said after witnessing the extensive work and planning required to make it to the shore, he felt extremely lucky to be one of the few Canadians to see it firsthand.

“Sable Island was beautiful, of course, but it was really quite an adventure just getting to the island, that in itself was very intriguing and something I won’t forget. A lot of credit goes to the people who worked hard to get us there,” he added. The guests donned full immersion suits, transferred from the anchored ship to a RHIB via the Billy Pugh rescue net, and travelled about 1.5 kilometres to the beach, transferring again to a smaller, beach-landing boat near the shore.

CLaS guests assume roles on the bridge of HMCS Halifax during a watchkeeping demonstration.

Members of the ship’s company who also made it to the island included the command team, the small boat crew, and 15 sailors who won the chance by participating in a raffle on ship.

“This is something a lot of the sailors had interest in, and unfortunately there just isn’t time to send everybody, so we asked people to pitch in $5 to enter the draw,” said ship Coxn CPO1 Gerry Doute, adding that money raised was donated to the Children’s Wish Foundation Nova Scotia chapter.

After a very early start to the day, everyone was back on board Halifax in time for soup at 10 a.m., and the intensive CLaS experience continued from there. Guests fired weapons, including the .50 calibre and C9 machine guns, in a force protection scenario, suited up to fight simulated fires, tried their hand at different positions on the bridge, and learned about a few RCN traditions during a Spiffy Dins in the Wardroom, just to name a few activities.

The goal of the program is to leave guests with a greater understanding of the RCN’s work defending Canada at home and abroad, provide some insight into day-to-day naval life, and highlight the impressive skill sets and advanced technologies found in a ship, submarine or maritime helicopter. Along with the stay on board Halifax, guests toured MARLANT, CFB Halifax and 12 Wing Shearwater sites on land, visited the construction site of the future fleet at Irving Shipbuilding, and had briefings from both Cmdre Craig Skjerpen, Commander CANFLTLANT, and RAdm Craig Baines, Commander MARLANT and JTFA. 

As a former Naval Reservist, CLaS guest Maureen Harquail, now the Director of Anti-Money Laundering and Anti-Terrorist Financing Policy for CIBC, said she left Halifax feeling more up to date on her knowledge of today’s RCN. She said she was enthused seeing the professionalism of the personnel, the level of support and respect shown for the crew by leaders like Cdr Nelson and his XO, LCdr Nick Buxton, and the level of confidence shown by Cmdre Skjerpen in Halifax’s young and energetic command team.

“I feel like I’m seeing a different culture and a change in the mentality of leadership that’s very positive, and that could be attractive in getting more young people engaged and interested in joining the Forces.”

She added her thanks for the hospitality shown to the whole group, and said she hoped to see the RCN continue to focus on outreach and allowing civilians to experience a taste of naval life.

“Canadians don’t know their Navy as well as they should, and it’s a shame, because they’re missing out on an awesome group of people who do some incredible work.”