Investigation underway into HMCS Winnipeg sailor going overboard

A military investigation will try to piece together what happened to the CFB Esquimalt sailor who went overboard while HMCS Winnipeg was off the coast of San Francisco, just days away from the end of a 4½-month deployment.

The investigation will include interviews and analysis of ­surveillance footage.

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A memorial service for 47-year-old Master Sailor Duane Earle, involving family members and the 230-member crew, took place Friday morning aboard HMCS Winnipeg during a stop at Canadian Forces Ammunition Depot Rocky Point in Metchosin.

The frigate sailed into CFB Esquimalt at 3:15 p.m. Friday as Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Royal Canadian Navy Commander Vice-Admiral Art McDonald looked on from Duntze Head.

Cmdr. Mike Stefanson, the ship’s commanding officer, told reporters Friday that interviews are underway with the ship’s company, particularly those who were close to Earle, and those who saw him last, before he went overboard.

Earle, a 30-year navy veteran and boatswain, is believed to have gone overboard about 5 a.m. Pacific time Monday about 500 nautical miles west of San Francisco. His absence was not noticed for about 7½ hours. An extensive 30-hour search over 2,000 square miles failed to find Earle after he was discovered to be missing.

Stefanson said there are cameras on board the ship in certain areas, but he did not say if there was a camera where Earle might have gone overboard. Investigations are being conducted by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service and a Canadian Armed Forces board of inquiry, ­Stefanson said.

Stefanson said the ship’s upper decks are out of bounds after sunset as a safety ­precaution. A small area of the upper deck remains accessible for people who want to smoke, but that area is secured, the commanding officer said.

There are also duty personnel who patrol the upper decks and various parts of the ship after dark, but access is closely controlled and monitored, Stefanson said. Earle was not part of the duty personnel, he said.

Amy Mahar, the mother of Earle’s sons, ages seven and 10, said in a statement: “Duane was taken too soon, leaving an unfillable void in our lives. He will be forever missed.”

She said Earle loved the sea and adventure. “If he wasn’t with his boys, he was combing snowy mountains or chasing waves with his kiteboard,” she said.

Mahar said the boys were his priority — “they simply adored him.” She said Earle had always dreamed of buying a boat and sailing the world with them.

Earle had bought a boat just before the deployment and was looking forward to exploring the seas during retirement, said his best friend since kindergarten Mike Foster.

Earle’s spouse, Tracy Hull, said in a statement that Earle “is the love I never thought I would find after so much heartache.”

“We were on our way to a wonderful life full of dreams including plans to sail the world, travel to Europe, and continue with our cherished family movie nights, Duane’s weekend ­pancakes, family bike rides, daily Tim Hortons runs, and nerf gun fights,” Hull said. Earle loved all things Star Wars and was an avid diver, kite boarder, snowboarder and history and movie buff.

Earle was a true family man, Hull said, who showed his boys how one can chart their own path in life. He was also a loving stepfather to Hull’s teenage daughter.

Both Mahar and Hull thanked everyone who took part in the search for Earle.

The ship departed Aug. 1 to participate in the Rim of the Pacific exercise off the coast of Hawaii. It then sailed to the Asia-Pacific region for two missions — Operation Projection and Neon, enforcing maritime ­sanctions against North Korea.

Stefanson said the deployment was never going to be easy because, due to COVID-19, the sailors were not allowed to get off the ship for port visits, a period of rest that many look forward to. Despite that, morale remained high, he said. “That resilience is what’s going to help them heal in the days, weeks and months ahead.”

Speaking from Duntze Head, Sajjan said HMCS Winnipeg’s return was bittersweet, “having lost Master Sailor Earle on the way back from a very important mission.”

“His legacy is far greater than just the work he was doing — it had a significant impact,” Sajjan said.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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