Ship sail

Navy’s oldest ship calls at NOTL

Perhaps one of the greatest old sailboats in the world called Niagara-on-the-Lake home last weekend.

HMCS Oriole, the oldest ship in the Royal Canadian Navy, docked at the NOTL Sailing Club June 17-20.

The ship’s executive officer, Lt. James Craigie, said working on the tall sailing ship was probably the best job in the navy.

A reporter from The Lake Report spent the better part of two hours aboard the vessel, chatting with the crew and appreciating a well-preserved relic from the age of sail.

Indeed, being on the ship evoked some of the immortal opening lines of Herman Melville’s legendary novel “Moby Dick”, as the author describes his and humanity’s fascination with the sea.

“If they knew it, almost every man of his degree, at one time or another, cherishes much the same feelings toward the ocean as I do,” Melville writes in the novel’s opening.

Even for members of the navy, having the chance to train and work on a real sailboat of yesteryear offers special and unique experiences.

“You get a better appreciation of the sea itself. You’re closer to the water, so you feel the spray on your face, especially with an open deck like this,” Craigie said.

“You’re in the element, unprotected by the deck or deck windows. You are in (the sea), you are not just looking at it.


Craigie gave details of almost every aspect of the ship, far too many for one story. Here are some relevant details.

HMCS Oriole was built in 1921 to serve as the flagship of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto. She was commissioned into the navy in 1954 and is the oldest ship available to the navy.

It has a dual purpose: training ship for sailors and popularization ship for the public.

The Oriole is a 102-foot-long relative of the schooner. Craigie described it as a “taking of Bermuda”.

She has a draft of nine feet and a maximum beam of 19.5 feet. One thing that differentiates it from a schooner is the size and positioning of its masts.

The main difference is that her mizzenmast (or aft, or, in layman’s terms, aftmast) is smaller than the mainmast and placed further aft, according to the navy’s website.

Her mast is 70 feet while the mainsail is 103 feet.

It’s not just the proximity to the ocean, as Craigie describes, that makes the Oriole a unique and one-of-a-kind experience for Canadian military sailors.

The vessel, when fully rigged, puts out 13,133 square feet of Dacron sail, with every inch of it handled entirely by hand.

“Usually we have six people in a sled team, three people on the halyard, one person on the downhaul and the master bosun leading everyone.”

It is physically demanding work and requires teamwork to keep the vessel running smoothly. This is why the ship is used as a training ground. There is no automated system to fall back on when the going gets tough.

And it can get tough, as anyone who has spent time on the high seas or a windy day on one of the Great Lakes can attest. All this work allows sailors to pass their time quite easily when they are not on watch.

“A lot of people just sleep because you’re tired after a day like this. It’s exhausting,” Craigie said.

He said sailors worked three hours with six hours off.

The ship, although equipped with large sails, has an engine. But it moves faster under full sail than the engine could ever handle, Craigie said.

He said the fastest he had ever done on the ship at full sail was 14.2 knots. The engine usually runs around six but can be pushed to 10, although Craigie said this is not good for the engine and hardly ever happens.

As the ship’s general manager, Craigie’s responsibilities generally revolve around directing the ship and where the helmsman steers the ship.

“I’m the one who sets the course and I usually have a coxswain. I order him a route to follow, he looks at the compass and follows the route.

And he really has top equipment to do it.

“We have the same thing we have on all warships. So our electronic mapping system, where I put all my tracks, is the same thing you would find on a Halifax-class frigate or a winter-class submarine.


“The current mission is that we are doing a huge outreach. The navy lacks a thousand men.

He said the age limit for applying for the navy was 60.

“We support the recruitment operation that is underway at the moment to recruit a thousand people into the navy. It’s been down since COVID and we’re trying to turn it around. »

The current mission has taken the Oriole from the Halifax docks to the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes where it began 101 years ago.

The mission ends on Canada Day when the Oriole reaches Sault Ste. Marie on the St. Mary River, between Lakes Superior and Huron.

Sailing up the St. Lawrence River was the toughest challenge of the entire cruise.

“There was a time around the Richelieu Rapids where we were at full throttle and barely moving forward. We were just going left and right in the river,” Craigie said.

“At one point the current was almost nine knots. We were planning to turn around, drop anchor and wait for the tide to turn.

In the heyday of river navigation, ships often had to travel upriver when the current was too strong. According to the Collins dictionary, this old sailing term means that the crew literally pulls the ship down the river with ropes while walking along the shore.

Or, if you like to learn from the tradition, “Now that the current has its boys, we’ll take some slack. We’ll float it to Shawneetown and roll it back”, according to the words of the old song of the American boaters “Hard on the Beach Oar”.

Unfortunately, the crew of the Oriole had no barracks ready to sing in port, but considering the lengths they went to get the ship to NOTL, it’s hardly worth noting.

But we are confident that the men and women of HMCS Oriole will continue to impress Canadians as they sail towards the end of their recruiting mission, calling between here and the Sault.

Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative reporter, The Lake Report