Five time zones and half a world away we arrived at our destination of El Ferrol Naval Base in northern Spain, home of the Spanish auxiliary oil replenishment (AOR) vessel, ESPS Cantabria, on October 18, 2015. Twenty-eight Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) sailors of different ranks, trades and experience levels then embarked on an adventure that would prove both challenging and extremely rewarding at the same time. Our mission was to observe, gather information and ultimately integrate within the ship’s company of ESPS Cantabria in order to maintain skill sets and return with best practices for replenishment-at-sea (RAS) operations, while attached to an allied navy.
With ESPS Cantabria taking part in Exercise TRIDENT JUNCTURE shortly after we arrived, Canadian sailors worked hard to ensure they had a solid understanding of Spanish equipment, methodology and procedures. The lessons learned from this experience will help the RCN build a solid knowledge base within which to design training packages for future exchanges.
During the introduction to the ship by Commander Francisco Javier Roca, ESPS Cantabria’s Commanding Officer, he stated that the Canadian contingent should not look upon themselves as onlookers or “riders”, but as a welcome addition to the Cantabria team. His goals for the exercise were parallel with ours – to fully integrate the Canadian team and conduct seamless replenishment operations within the task group. His crew, including Canadian sailors, took this direction to heart and accepted the challenge – no small feat when you consider the language and cultural differences between the personnel of the two navies. However, the challenge was not only accepted, but overcome, due in no small part to the enthusiasm shown by Canadian and Spanish sailors alike.
While there are some differences between the practices of the Canadian and Spanish navies, the main concept of operations is shared and many of the equivalent trades were able to discuss and exchange ideas on how we each carry out our tasks. As with most militaries today, secondary duties are the norm as bunk numbers decrease and the use of training hours must be maximized. ESPS Cantabria is no exception. For example, the supply officer on board doubles as the ship’s boarding officer and as the landing safety officer during helicopter operations.
Lieutenant-Commander Jason Walsh, our mission Officer in Command, guided us through the tough times and the rewarding times, ensuring interoperability was constantly the watchword of the day. Following direction from both Canadian leadership and ESPS Cantabria’s Commanding Officer, LCdr Walsh ensured that no opportunities were missed during RAS operations, damage control scenarios and daily routine.
Canadian sailors were employed as bridge watch keepers, helmsmen, RAS deck members and small boat operators. LCdr Cindy Hawkins, second-in-command of the mission, as well as head of the engineering sections, ensured that the embarked engineering personnel gathered information on all aspects of liquid cargo management, bunkering and fueling operations, as well as automated damage control systems. Ensuring marine engineers, marine electricians and hull technicians were swept up on all aspects of RAS operations, as well as routine maintenance required on the platform, was of critical importance.
Another facet of this fact-finding mission was to study the training requirements throughout the various trades. This duty was charged to Lieutenant (Navy) Chris White, representing the Naval Personnel Training Group, but involved all sailors studying the trade progression in each section, both technical and operational. Comparing notes with allies is a continuous process the RCN utilizes in order to ensure Canadian sailors maximize their training opportunities and to provide feedback as to how the RCN can move forward in developing future training for our sailors. The Spanish model, although slightly different than the progression plan that we know and understand, has many benefits that could be adapted within our Canadian training models.
One of the main goals for this current mission was to see the Spanish ship manned by Canadian sailors while fueling the Canadian-led task group. From RAS deck personnel to cage operators, as well as communicators and bridge watch keepers, the aim was to safely fill as many of the positions on board as possible with Canadian personnel during a RAS. This aim was accomplished, speaking volumes to the determination, drive and effort exerted by both Canadian and Spanish sailors throughout the exercise.