Navy sailors back at home after spending seven weeks in isolation off coast

While they weren’t greeted with the usual fanfare of ship homecomings, nearly 500 sailors on three Royal Canadian Navy ships returned to their home port at CFB Esquimalt Friday after seven weeks in isolation off the coast of Vancouver Island.

HMCS Calgary, HMCS Regina, each with a crew of 225, and the smaller maritime coastal defence vessel HMCS Brandon, with 45 sailors, have been cruising through domestic waters in a self-quarantine exercise to ensure they’re ready to deploy while staying free of COVID-19.

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The crew was usually within sight of Vancouver Island and would periodically sail into the jetty at CFB Esquimalt for refuelling, said Commodore Angus Topshee, commander of Canadian Fleet Pacific. The crews could not come ashore because of concerns they could bring the virus onto the ships. Navy crew who were not at sea were also kept quarantined to ensure they were ready to be deployed.

“It’s tough on sailors to know that they’re home but they’re not home, because they need to stay on the ship to be in isolation,” said Topshee, who could sometimes just make out his wife and four daughters waving at HMCS Calgary from their home on the base.

The quarantine strategy has helped the fleet avoid coronavirus outbreaks that have been seen on navy ships in the United States, France and Taiwan.

“When we made the decision back in March that we had to put the ships at sea, we were very strict,” Topshee said.

“We said: ‘That’s it, these ships are in bubble. No one is joining those ships who has not been with those ships from the start, or who has [not] been sequestered, on their own in a room for 14 days.’ ”

The sailors have been at sea since mid-March, which is when B.C. declared a state of emergency. “We left before the pandemic really took hold … as the world was changing, but before it changed,” Topshee said.

Once they were certain no one aboard had the virus, everyone could interact as normal: sitting beside each other, shaking hands and other habits that are now verboten in the outside world.

Topshee said it will be difficult to get used to the strict physical-distancing measures the rest of society has been practising.

HMCS Calgary was originally set to deploy to Asian-Pacific waters on Operation Projection, but that mission has been postponed because of the global pandemic.

Sailors spent the time at sea conducting training exercises and ship maintenance.

Now that the larger warships have docked, four maritime coastal defence vessels will do rotating four-week patrols at sea.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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