Though She Was Often Rough and Tough,
"St. Stephen's" Crew Were Proud
Of Their Ship and Their Job
In nearly three years, 67,000 miles and 16 appendicitis cases after commissioning, the Royal Canadian Navy weather ship HMCS "St. Stephen" was paid off August 31, 1950 and turned over to the Department of Transport to be manned by a civilian crew and patrol a Pacific weather station.
HMCS "St. Stephen" was first commissioned as a weather ship on Sept. 27, 1947, under the command of Lieut. (now, Lieut.-Cdr.) E. M Chadwick and with a crew consisting, except for a few key personnel, of men who had volunteered for the job. Late in 1947 the converted frigate made her first patrol of. Station "Baker", midway between the southern tip of Greenland and the coast of Labrador. It was a wild and stormy month, hut the spirits of the men were not dampened in the slightest. Throughout the years that followed the same esprit-de-corps was demonstrated by all who served in the ship.
For the next two years Lieut.-Cdr.Chadwick took the "St. Stephen" north at regular intervals. Her schedule called for a month on patrol and a month in port, at Halifax, during which time the US Coast Guard manned the station. On August 26, 1949, Lieut.-Cdr.G. H. Hayes was appointed in command of the "St. Stephen" and remained with her until she was paid off. He brought the ship from Halifax to the west coast in: a month-long cruise via the Panama Canal. Throughout her commission, a total of 42 officers and 337 men served in the "St. Stephen". This works out to an average of almost a year for each officer and man. Three men remained with the ship throughout her commission. They were the coxswain, Petty Officer Donald Hughes; a representative of the engine room department, Petty Officer William McCrimmon; and the officer-in-charge of the meteorological staff, Mr. Harry McPhail, of the Department of Transport.
The "St. Stephen's" principal responsibility was the provision of weather reports to be used in plotting the safest and most economical routes for trans-Atlantic aircraft. But she was also equipped and trained to carry out rescue work, if the occasion arose. The frigate never had to go to the aid of any aircraft but in March 1948, while enroute from Halifax to Station "Baker", she effected a dramatic rescue of the Honduran freighter "Everagra", which had been trapped in the ice with a broken propeller some 40 miles northwest of Sable Island. Ten miles south of the position at the time the Everagra broadcast her SOS, the "St. Stephen" altered course and soon picked up a radar echo. Contact was established shortly after 0100 and the freighter frantically signalled that her hull was breaking. The "St. Stephen" tried forcing her way through the ice but the ominous grinding and heaving of the floes, some about 18 inches thick and occasional pieces up to six feet in thickness, compelled discretion in lieu of valor and the frigate withdrew to the edge of the ice to await the dawn.
This move was not appreciated by "Everagra" and it was necessary to reassure her skipper constantly that he was not being left to a cold, clammy death. The work to prepare a tow commenced at 0400 and was completed at 0530. As dawn broke, it was seen that the "Everagra" was squarely in the centre of a huge "V" of ice, with the closest open water about a half-mile away. During the morning, fortunately, the prevailing nor'westerly increased and wind pressure forced open an L-shaped lead to the stranded ship. Steaming up the lead at 12 knots, the "St. Stephen" passed a tow line which later parted, passed another within a matter of seconds, and towed the "Everagra" clear, stern first. Once clear, the tow was transferred to the freighter's bow and course was set for Halifax. A tug subsequently took over the tow and the "St. Stephen" resumed her course to "Baker".
Boredom was perhaps the greatest factor to overcome while on station. This was alleviated by hobbies, books, study courses, contests and tournaments. The long hours of work while on station were amply demonstrated by the numbers of observations completed. Between Nov. 23, 1947, and July 2, 1950, the "St. Stephen" made 3,406 surface weather observations (SYNOS), 712 balloon ascents with no wind observations (RAOBS) and 429 balloon ascents with wind observations (RAWINS). The maximum height to which Rawin was traced was 52,493 feet on October 13, 1948, and February 18, 1950. On May 6, 1949, a RAOB was traced to a maximum height of 67,000 feet. Minimum pressure -----: 968.8 millibars was recorded on January 24, 1948, while the minimum temperature of minus 7 degrees above zero was registered in February, 1950, during a Force 10 gale. On July 18, 1949, the maximum temperature of 67.8 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded.
January 25, 1948, saw the worst storm of the entire three years. For about 12 hours a Force 12 gale, with gusts up to 90 knots, beat and shook the ship from stem to stern. Not one job aboard the "St.Stephen" was tougher than any other. During cold, icy weather, the seamen were kept busy chopping ice off the superstructure, while the cooks were struggling to keep the dinner off the galley deck and the engine room personnel were trying to keep the ship warm.
It was a lonely, painstaking, sometimes frustrating task on Station "Baker", but one which all hands realized was vital in many ways, and one in which all who served in the "St. Stephen" took pardonable pride. They carried out their commission in the highest traditions of the Royal Canadian Navy, and the "Crowsnest" proudly salutes the officers and men who served in Canada's first weather ship - HMCS St. Stephen.
Their job, the Navy's toughest, keeps the men of Canada's weather ship H.M.C.S. "Stephen", at sea for an average of 30 days at a stretch. Often in that whole time, they see nothing to indicate there is another living person in the world - no land, no ships, no aircraft, nothing but the grey North Atlantic waves rolling endlessly to the horizon, and the grey , sullen sky above them. But the men of "St. Stephen" would not trade jobs with anyone else in the navy. They are proud of their ship and of the service they are providing.
The satisfaction derived from work well done and an esprit de corps that is unsurpassed, more than Compensate the discomfort and monotony to which their job exposes them. A description of a typical tour of duty by the frigate is given below by a former member of her company). The day of sailing is a busy one. Wires and fenders are stored below and lashed down, life-lines are rigged, the sea lashings are put on the boats, and in general the ship is readied for any weather. Tiddley uniforms and greatcoats are put away and out come the old sweaters, seaboots, parkas and the weird assortment of knitted headgear that the ship's company wears on station. The Captain sports a red woolen scarf which he winds round himself like a cocoon; the "Buffer" blossoms out with a huge leather sheath that carries his dirk and marline spike, and which the seamen swear he takes to bed; and the Chief Stoker puts away his shore-going pipe for the black bit of brierwood which doubles as the heating bogey.
Once at sea, the first job is to get rid of grime accumulated while in harbour. By noon of the second day at sea, the ship is her old self and the "Jimmy" and “Buffer" can be spoken to. From now on, the usual amount of attention of attention in the morning will keep the ship clean and the afternoon can be devoted to training, painting, or just plain make-and-mend. By this time the ship is proceeding at 12 knots, around the tip of Newfoundland, up the coast and so north into Davis Strait, where she will take up position on Station Baker, a 210-mile square centered on Latitude 56 .30 N and Longitude 51 00 W.
In the late summer and fall, the route lies close to Newfoundland and the trip can be made in four days, but in winter and spring the accumulation of pack ice and icebergs along the coast often drives the "St. Stephen" well out into the Gulf Stream and close to Greenland before the turn north can be made. These trips take seven days or longer. It is during the “run to” and from station that there is the best possibility of seeing another ship or of getting a crack of some rescue, so all hands are keener than usual. When a ship is met identities are exchanged and each wishes the other "Good Luck". This always brings a growl from the lookout - "We’ll need it". Once north of Newfoundland, however, the possibilities of meeting another ship are slim and any echoes on the radar are usually icebergs, all of which are reported by wireless to shore.
Usually on the second day at sea, the ship exercises "Man Overboard" and "Emergency Stations". The latter is carried out to accustom each man to his duties in case of collision or fire. "Stand by boats and floats" is the next evolution. These goings-on take up most of the afternoon and are not particularly popular, since most of the ship's company have had visions of hammocks swaying gently in the messdecks, with themselves in them. By the time, however, that the last seaman is drawn dripping from the Atlantic, and the last stoker is disentangled from the fire hose, all hands are agreeing that they needed the work-out. After two or three repetitions everything goes smoothly and the normal routine goes on uninterrupted.
On reaching station the ship heaves to, endeavouring to stay in a ten-mile square in the dead centre of the larger station area. This small square is known as Oboe Sugar, and it is here that "St. Stephen" spends her 21 days. It is as uninteresting a stretch of ,water as one could find anywhere. In the winter months the sun is rarely seen, since it is only above the horizon three four or hours each day, and then the heavy overcast effectively hides it. In the winter, too, the area is lashed by gales ,which build up heavy seas and make it a constant struggle both to go where you want to and to stay put when you get there. The constant motion of the ship makes all hands quite tired, so that lots of them are happy to get into their hammocks when not on watch or working. The ship ices up heavily, too, and from time to time the ice must be chipped off. All those not actually on duty turn to chipping ice and the din of chipping hammers is punctuated only by someone trying to melt the ice with a few well-chosen bits of profanity. This last has not proven very efficient, though an ugly rumour has it that the Coxswain's breath after "Up Spirits" cleared a patch 15 feet square in 15 seconds.
In the late spring and summer , life is much more pleasant. The days grow longer until finally there is no real darkness; the northern lights crackle in the sky and in the daytime the sun can often be seen through the snow squalls. Dishes stay on the table, men can walk without holding on to something and real training and work can be carried on.
Training consists mostly of exercises in picking up survivors. A volunteer from the crew is put in an immersion suit, strapped in a life-jacket, and callously dropped into the ocean amidst the cheers and ribald advice of his hard-hearted shipmates. The ship then steams away in a wide circle, on completion of which, the whaler is lowered and the "survivor" is picked up. A possible refinement suggested was to lash a radar reflector on the man's head and an Asdic target to his feet, and home on him (a) by radar and (b) by asdic. A quick glance at the already small nominal list discouraged this and the project was abandoned much to the disgust of the plot crews. All the while, the real work of the ship goes on.
Aircraft flying across the Atlantic to and from Goose Bay check in with the ship and get weather information, radar fixes or other navigational aids. The civilian meteorologists, five of whom are carried, take weather observations every three hours and pass them to Halifax, from where they go to the vast network which controls the weather information and aircraft services of the countries bordering the Atlantic. The pilots and radio men of the westbound aircraft take a fiendish delight in saying to the men on the "St. Stephen" far below, "Goodbye and thank you. We'll have a beer and say hello to the girls in Montreal for you tonight." It is a good thing the return remarks do not get on the air.
As may be expected, boredom is one of the principal things with which the crew has to contend and in the time off watch there are many diversions to relieve the monotony. Bridge and cribbage tournaments in which everyone takes part, beard growing contests which produce some weird and wonderful variations, and movies in the messdecks all help pass the time. The movies are especially popular. After three weeks of seeing nothing but hairy-faced shipmates, anything feminine on the screen is greeted with wild enthusiasm and much swinging from the hammock bars. It is very rarely that a movie ashore receives such a whole-hearted approval. Every effort is made by the men to keep themselves busy and the making of "rabbits" is a thriving industry. Jewel boxes, antique cannon ditty boxes, and so on, are turned out and the messdecks get their share of fancy work on the stanchions and shelves.
In spite of all efforts to pass the time it is inevitable that after three weeks at sea everyone is ready to start for home, and as the time when the ship is to leave station approaches, all hands begin to get restless. The time and date of leaving are known throughout the ship and at zero hour no one is asleep. At long last, as the second hand of the chronometer reaches the top of the dial, the welcome orders come down from the bridge: "Steer 183 degrees - 120 revs." After being hove to or steaming at three knots for so long, the 12 knots 120 revolutions give the ship seem to make her fly through the water. It is strange, also, that although 120 revolutions give only 12 knots on the way to the station, yet on the return journey 13 knots is the average speed. Some say the Labrador current makes the difference while others say the prevailing winds; and since at this time the engine-room chronometers always go unserviceable, no other explanation can be offered. To accuse the engine-room personnel of adding a few revs would be the vilest slander.
On the way home last minute touches are put on the ship and she is readied for entry into the harbour. No. 1 uniforms are brought out and pressed, boots are polished, and there is much unhappiness among those of the ship's company ,who are unfortunate enough to be duty watch first night in port. The officers are pestered with, "When is our E.T.A. sir ?", and if there is any change making the time of arrival earlier, there is great jubilation in the messdecks. Finally, the long blue line of the Nova Scotia coast appears low on the western horizon. Everyone is dressed and ready long before 'Hands to Station for entering harbour" is piped. As the ship slides up harbour everyone wears a broad grin. The heaving lines go ashore, the wires are turned up, the engines are rung off, the gangway is run out, and another trip is finished.
Mail comes aboard followed shortly afterwards by pay. Immediately after payment, leave is piped. The men fall in on the quarterdeck and the loneliness, the cold and the bad weather disappear into the past. "St. Stephen's" men feel that their work is necessary, and they cheerfully go back time and again to Station Baker, knowing that their being there makes the passage of the North Atlantic safer for ships and aircraft.
The ship's motto is "Ready for Anything". So far it has never been proven wrong. -H.S.
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