Preserver’s final voyage

HMCS Preserver performs a replenishment at sea in 1971.
Photo: DND

The sun dips on Preserver, last of the Protecteur-class AORs

By Blair Gilmore,
Research Fellow, RUSI (NS)

August 2, 2017 marked the end of an era for the Canadian built Protecteur-class Auxiliary Oil Replenishment (AOR) ships when Preserver transferred from the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) to her new owners, Marine Recyling Corporation. Navy tugs towed the vessel one last time a short distance off her berth at the Halifax Naval Dockyard. She will be transferred to a civilian tug and then towed to a special facility in Sydney, Cape Breton for breaking and recycling.                                                                                                   

As I toured the flats taking part in the last official tour of the vessel, I reflected on the by gone era represented by the ship and her predecessor, Protecteur. Standing on the bridge next to the Officer of the Watch’s station by the Engine Room speaking tube, I could envision the numerous sundowners that area had witnessed. How many times had the Captain and his ship’s officers spent a few quiet minutes up in this spot? How peaceful it would have been on some far off ocean, sipping a beer and perhaps indulging with a cigar, contemplating life at sea, as the fiery orb of the sun sank once again into the abyss. As we traveled through the stripped out 555-foot ship, I wondered how many Duty Roundsmen had followed these paths? How many thousands of times had the decks been scrubbed or the brass fittings polished? How many dignified cocktail gatherings, channel fever parties, baptisms, summary trials, mess dinners, RPCs (Request the Pleasure of Your Company), and countless other functions were held in the Officer’s Wardroom, Chief & POs’ Mess, Hangar and the Main Cave? What was the number of sea ditties floating about the fleet generated from decades of good-natured Preserver sailors’ high jinks? The old ship’s motto was Heart of the Fleet but it was the continuous presence of thousands of RCN sailors serving, living and toiling aboard her over all those decades that brought life to inanimate steel. Their salty souls permeate the bulkheads and deckplates.                   

But the old lady’s time has come, and she is scheduled meet her fate at the breaking yard. Back on July 30, 1970 when she was commissioned at the Saint John Shipbuilding yard in New Brunswick, it was still common for ships to be powered by steam and she ended up as the last boiler powered vessel in the RCN. In addition, many materials used in her construction are long gone from today’s modern ships. Miles of PCB coated copper wiring run through her hull. Much of her interior surface is covered with the old ubiquitous Navy red lead paint. Marine Recycling will have a challenge to safely removing all those toxic substances. Helping to ensure their proper disposal, our RCN tour guide explained that the Department of National Defence will continue to play a watchdog role until the last 15 feet of the ship is left. The building and ultimate breaking of Preserver represents a true cradle to grave Canadian shipbuilding process.                                 

Preserver faithfully functioned as a vital force multiplier for the RCN. But as the world moved forward, parts for the old ship became scarce and tightening environmental regulations would have kept the single hulled fueling vessel out of most ports. But Preserver’s usefulness has not entirely waned as she will perform one last useful task for the Navy. The military always ends up in possession of material and equipment that has become obsolete or too expensive to dispose of. Much of this material ends up warehoused to collect dust. There is a unique item still onboard the ship that epitomizes this dilemma of how to dispose of items that have outlived their usefulness, namely, the Wardroom piano. Years ago, an upright piano was presented to the ship’s officers as a gift. It is said to have taken four days of work pulling up hatches and making openings to bring it to its home onboard. The time and effort to remove this unique musical instrument is now not worth the bother. So as is common in the military recycling business, the new owners will receive a ship full of extra bits and pieces of military surplus including a piano. Wouldn’t that be a rare find a few months from now on EBay?                                                                             

There is always a touch of sadness and nostalgia when you say good-bye to a ship, especially when it is the last of her type. The countless eyes that have witnessed innumerable sunrises and sunsets from her decks and stared across the thousands of miles of endless oceans are long gone. All that is left is for the graceful old lady to take her final voyage into the setting sun.