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Sea changes: life aboard a corvette compared to today's coastal defence vessels.

Red lead, fresh bread and a dry hammock were luxuries aboard a wartime corvette, a ship that old-timers say would roll on the grass in a heavy dew. Too short to straddle the waves of the North Atlantic, it climbed its way over or smashed its way through, rising and falling 30 to 50 feet across each crest and trough.

Water swept over the fo'c'sle and cascaded into the well deck like a waterfall. It surged over the low gunwales on the maindeck and through washports along the sides sending sheets of spray over the bridge. It seeped into the ship through passageways, ventilators and hatches. At action stations it was necessary to rig a block-and-tackle down hatches running through the forward mess decks to the magazine which allowed water to pour directly into the crew's accommodation. Dampness, cold weather and the heat of huddled bodies produced condensation on the deckheads and fittings. Once wet, sailors stayed wet, crammed into messdecks no larger than a fair-sized living room awash with sea-water, smashed crockery, tins and bits of gear.

Even grizzled fishermen and merchant seamen who had sailed the oceans of the world in all types and sizes of ships found the contortions of the corvette overwhelming. They too, like land-lubbers from Ontario and Saskatchewan, succumbed to seasickness. Wet, cold and sick, knee and hip joints aching from the constant struggle to keep their balance and unwilling to face the reek of the messdecks in their off-duty time, they huddled topside behind the funnel or the short fo'c'sle break nursing their rum ration.


Frank Curry, an ASDIC operator aboard HMCS Kamsack, recalls: "I soon began to dread leaving port and facing another watch: two hours on, four off, day and night deathly tired and deathly ill, retching into a bucket wedged against the set. In the grim night watches, fully clothed and wrapped in my high-slung hammock, I was often unable to sleep. And then it began again. I slid out of the hammock to the steel deck, with sea water (and worse) sloshing around. Still bone-tired, half-sick, clutching at the stanchions as the ship plunged and rolled, I glanced at the weary sailors wedged fully clothed as I had been onto the lockers or in their hammocks. I finally ventured outside, to climb the narrow steps to the bridge, holding on for clear life as the seas crashed over the bow and pounded against the ship. After an hour or so, a fellow seaman might press a cup of scalding hot kye into my hand, growling, `Try this on for size.' The brew would make me feel better for a few moments. If the watch went well, a thump on my back told me two hours were up."

In the early years of the war, the crews lacked proper winter clothing and foul-weather gear. It was not uncommon to see men strip off ice-coated, threadbare duffel coats and turn them over to those going on watch. Much later, they were issued with well-designed "zoot suits" which were warmly lined, waterproof and zipped up from head to toe.

Precious barrels of over-proof rum for the daily ration were secured in the rum locker and potatoes and onions, bread, fresh meat (mostly the detested red lead), links of sausage of dubious origin -- milk and eggs were stowed in the galley lockers. Within a few days everything was coated with mould and the crew subsisted on hard-tack, bully beef and kye - Royal Navy slab cocoa with its frothy coating of fat.

Not surprisingly, most corvette sailors remember their time at sea as one of numbing fatigue and constant misery.


HMCS Moncton was one of the first Flower-class corvettes commissioned in Canada. Built by the Saint John Dry Dock & Shipbuilding Company, she was launched on 11 August 1941 and had her fo'c'sle extended at Vancouver in 1944. Armed with depth charges, pompoms, machine-guns and a four-inch gun, she weighed 950 tons and was capable of sixteen knots. She carried a crew of seven officers and ninety other ranks and served with distinction escorting convoys across the North Atlantic. In the postwar years, she was transformed into the Dutch whaler "Willem Vinke" and was broken up at Santander, Spain in 1966. Like all corvettes, she was a marvel of seaworthiness and of personal discomfort.

"In our day, we had 18 men sharing a messdeck. We had a hammock and a locker and that's it," says Jack McCurry of Beamsville, Ontario, who served aboard the Moncton as a gunner's mate. His shipmate, Martin Franchetto of Burlington adds: "We had open decks on our Moncton. In rough seas your timing had to be very precise to run from your messdeck to the galley to get your dinner. You ran between waves hitting the ship or you would be washed overboard. We had no inside corridors like they do today. And there was no forced air ventilation in those days. We used air vents which had to be closed when you're at sea and you couldn't change your clothes. After a couple of weeks wearing the same clothes it got pretty rank below decks."

They were reminiscing last summer at the commissioning of a new HMCS Moncton at Shediac, New Brunswick, the nearest deepwater port to the city of Moncton. Built in the Halifax shipyard, the Navy's ninth Maritime Coastal Defence Vessel weighs in at 940 metric tonnes and carries a crew of forty including fifteen women, mostly naval reservists. Equipped with the latest in survey and surveillance gear, .50-calibre machine-guns and a 40mm Bofors, she is designed for minesweeping duties as well as search and rescue, coastal and fisheries patrol.


Lieutenant Tim O'Leary, the Moncton's 26-year-old navigation officer, knows all about hardships at sea although he never experienced them. He heard them ad nauseam from his father, Tim O'Leary Sr., a retired history teacher who served aboard a minesweeper from 1959 to 1962. "My father's students heard his stories about sea duty on the North Atlantic during the year they took his classes, but I've been hearing them all my life," he says. He'll be spared those hardships as the Navy has finally accepted commercial accommodation standards for its new ships.

"A warship is built so it can suffer battle damage and keep on functioning," O'Leary points out. "That's why there are separate compartments for each engine. The storage of ammunition gets serious consideration as well as the weapons control room and electronic warfare functions. After those things are designed into the ship they start looking at where to fit the crew in." No longer. Aboard the Moncton he will share a cabin with one other officer and ratings will have private cabins with no more than three bunks. Air-conditioned, she boasts a well-appointed mess with television and a VCR, a galley that would do a fine restaurant proud and is supplied with washers and dryers.

After touring the Moncton with McCurry, Franchetto, and Les Gowman of Hamilton, another veteran of her namesake, the senior O'Leary was amazed at how comfortable life at sea has become for Canadian sailors. "These new warships are like cruise liners," he said.

He and the old-timers were almost tempted to re-enlist. Almost.
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Author:Twatio, Bill
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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