Navy

HMCS Athabaskan offers final sail for veterans before decommissioning

Final goodbye to the 44-year-old navy ship is Friday

HMCS Athabaskan docks at the Rainbow Gate after the day sail Wednesday.   Francesca Handy

Former and current serving members of HMCS Athabaskan boarded the ship Wednesday for a short sail out of the Halifax harbour.

For many, it was the last time they will step onto the ship, as it was decommissioned Friday.

Some veterans sport Persian Gulf Tour jackets as they say goodbye to the HMCS Athabaskan.   Francesca Handy

The ship is the third with the Athabaskan name; the first one was part of Royal Canadian Navy in 1943. The second vessel took part in several NATO missions. The final Athabaskan was commissioned in 1972, serving in the Persian Gulf War. It was also used to provide disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Commanding Officer Jean Couillard on the bridge of HMCS Athabaskan.   Francesca Handy

Commanding Officer Jean Couillard, who’s served on Athabaskan for two years, says being part of such a historical ship is “humbling.”

Crew members work together to dock the ship on Wednesday.   Francesca Handy

“What I’ll remember the most is the atmosphere and camaraderie on board that we formed as a team,” said Couillard on Wednesday. “I don’t think you’ll find that anywhere else.”

Gordon Stewart served on the second Athabaskan. He stands on the bridge for the final firing of artillery.   Francesca Handy

Gordon Stewart served for two years on the second Athabaskan during the 1950s, while the ship was deployed on NATO exercises. At the time, crew members lived on the ship even when ashore, sleeping in hammocks instead of bunks.

Stewart called the day sail “a wonderful reunion of friends,” but said he was sad to say goodbye to the final Athabaskan.

Peter Rigby, who served in the navy for 19 years, calls the decommissioning of the Athabaskan “bittersweet.”   Francesca Handy

Peter Rigby agreed.

“The Athabaskan had one of the best crews I ever sailed with,” said Rigby, who served in the navy for 19 years before retiring two years ago as first class petty officer.

He said that when a scud missile flew over the ship during the Persian Gulf War, in the middle of the night, the crew went to their defence positions, or “action stations,” in under four minutes.

“That was from a dead sleep,” said Rigby of the missile alert. “I didn’t have to worry about people standing behind me or my counterparts beside me.”

The ship’s canteen where crew members can buy goods.   Francesca Handy

This version of Athabaskan is the last remaining of four ships built in the early 1970s specializing in air defence, known as the Iroquois-class destroyers.

The Athabaskan sailed by the “paying off” ceremony at the dockyard on Friday, where those who have a connection with the ship gave it one final salute. The term paying off comes from the British Commonwealth sailors’ tradition of paying a crew their wages once a ship reached its destination.

A crew member looks out the window of the bridge before the firing off ceremony.   Francesca Handy

After it is decommissioned, the Assistant Deputy Minister of Materiel — the organization which manages defence materiel for the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces— will determine what becomes of the ship.

Disposal plans for the Athabaskan have yet to be determined.

Current and former members of HMCS Athabaskan’s crew march off the ship after the day sail.   Francesca Handy

 

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