Esquimalt-based submarine back in port after epic journey

Family, sailors, submariners and commanding officers were on hand at CFB Esquimalt on Wednesday to welcome home HMCS Chicoutimi after a record deployment.

HMCS Chicoutimi, a Victoria-class submarine, and her 59-member crew were deployed in the Asia Pacific region for 197 days, the longest Royal Canadian Navy deployment ever for that class of sub. The previous record of 101 days was established by HMCS Windsor in 2015.

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The deployment also marked the first time a Canadian navy submarine has visited Japan in nearly 50 years. The last vessel to do so was HMCS Grisle in May 1968.

Rear Admiral Art McDonald, commander of Canadian Maritime Forces Pacific, said the long voyage, the exercises completed and the diplomatic goodwill established by HMCS Chicoutimi are part of what is expected of all Canadian navy vessels.

“So this is like pay day … You can see it in the smiles and the pride in the faces of every family and sailor here today,” he said.

While on the deployment, HMCS Chicoutimi also visited Guam and Hawaii and took part in exercises with the U.S. and French navies and the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force.

HMCS Chicoutimi is one of four diesel-electric submarines of its class in the Canadian navy. HMCS Victoria and HMCS Cornerbrook are also based out of CFB Esquimalt, while HMCS Windsor is based out of CFB Halifax.

All the subs were built for the British navy. They were purchased by Canada in 2000, and underwent a lengthy refit.

Early on, the purchase appeared to be ill-fated. Technical problems were ongoing, and in 2004 there was a fire on HMCS Chicoutimi in which one person died and nine were injured.

But navy Capt. Chris Robinson, commander Canadian Submarine Force, said Wednesday those technical issues are well behind and the sub class can be regarded as “steady state.”

Robinson said HMCS Chicoutimi’s deployment came out of a decision to operate the submarines around the world, part of a plan to project Canada’s naval strength.

Robinson said it was a good experience for the vessel and crew, as regions have different ocean temperatures, marine traffic patterns and fishboat densities.

“It’s good for the boat, good for the crew,” Robinson said.

“It gives them all a chance to operate in areas they don’t normally.

“And they all performed really well,” he said.

“This is a great submarine crew, one of my top submarines.”

Dockside greeters had little on their mind save the return of loved ones.

Kyla O’Rourke, waiting for her husband, P.O. Derek O’Rourke, said their youngest, two-year-old Liam, has little awareness of what’s happening.

But six-year-old Michael is a different story. Michael is looking forward to a promised fishing trip with his father, perhaps as early as Friday.

“He’s very aware of what is going on and how much he has missed his dad,” O’Rourke said.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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