Dive! Dive! A short tour of duty aboard the HMCS Onondaga

24 Dec

“Battlestations!” calls the captain and we scramble for our assigned positions. I quickly race down the hall and through the waterproof door of bulkhead 49. The corridors are narrow, barely wide enough for a single person and every surface has been utilized. There are thousands of manually operated valves and switches and hundreds of gauges throughout the ship, but these are not in my sector. I rush through the deep red light of the command center past the sonar, navigation, attack command boards, and the dive plane operator’s station while dodging both the attack and search periscope that have been raised. I quickly move through another circular bulkhead door and down the narrow catwalk between the two 4,000 horsepower V-16 diesel engines. They’re quiet now. This submarine was propelled by two 3,000 horsepower electric motors. The diesel engines were used only to generate electricity and charge the two 110-ton batteries, but they never propelled the ship. My station is in the stern watertight compartment, behind bulkhead 77. I’m in charge of counter-measures, which means I operate a very ordinary looking bronze, lever-actuated device and will, upon the captain’s command, load and release flares or other elements to confuse enemy radar—at least I would have during those Cold War years when this submarine had enemies.

I park the Street Glide beneath the conning tower on the port side of the HMCS Onondaga. HMCS stands for Her Majesty’s Canadian Submarine and the big Harley trike looks pretty diminutive next to this stealthy veteran of the Cold War. This is the last surviving Oberon-class submarine and the pride of Site Historique Maritime de la Pointe-au-Père in Rimouski, Quebec. By day the Onondaga is a museum complete with self-guided audio tours in both French and English. At night it will become Gîte Onondaga, a unique opportunity to experience a tour of duty aboard a military submarine. I’d pulled a few strings to get a berth for the night and had to rearrange a rather complex travel schedule, but here I am, the first journalist to experience one of the most unique B&B inns in North America.Image

In operation from 1967 to 2000, the HMCS Onondaga was decommissioned and destined for scrap when a group organized to save it. The story of hauling this 295-foot, 2,400-ton vessel into its present dry dock has been shown as a television documentary for the British series “Monster Moves” and, of course, on YouTube. It opened to the public in June 2009 and over 100,000 people visited the Onondaga during this first year.

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The day crowds have vanished. Dockside in the thickening blue-gray light amid rain-soaked gusts of wind I wait for the captain who arrives with four landlubbers in tow. Boarding the Onondaga we stow our gear and begin an in-depth inspection tour of the submarine. There’s plenty of room, the normal compliment was 69 sailors and we’re only six, but the captain explains that those assigned to aft watertight compartments would almost never meet those stationed in forward compartments even during months at sea. Clipboards in hand we have to locate various gauges, valves, and controls located throughout the vessel and record their present settings. Sonar and command electronics are 1980s state of the art, but the rest of the ship is filled with hundreds of round, glass-faced pressure dials and thousands of manual switches, rheostats, fuses, and levers—strictly old school. Various exercises provide a more comprehensive experience of what a tour of duty was like for a submariner and we engage in timed drills for donning survival suits and loading the torpedo tubes. Hours later comes the attack drill where we scramble to command our assigned battle stations. Just before midnight we rolled into our assigned bunks for a well-deserved night’s sleep.

This is not the Ritz-Carleton and the Onondaga will never be awarded four-star status: this is a real submarine where every bit of space is precious. The toilets are very cramped and fresh water is in short supply (the shower ration is 20 seconds!). There’s no padding on walls made of steel where sharp-edged protrusions are the norm. There’s no television, no cell phone reception, and forget about Wi-Fi. Lights go out when the captain gives three warning toots on the horn and there’s little privacy (men and women generally bunk separately in different sections). Don’t expect room service and you even have to bring your own sleeping bag and pillow. The continental breakfast is Spartan, but there’s plenty of coffee. It’s the closest thing to a tour of duty you can get without joining the Navy.

The Onondaga is not the only attraction at this site. Rising high above the submarine is the Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse. When constructed in 1909 concrete was a brand-new building material. It’s the last surviving lighthouse that incorporates a flying buttress design and the spiraling 128 steps to the lantern allow visitors to inspect the second-order Fresnel lens while obtaining a magnificent panoramic view of the St. Lawrence River and Rimouski region.

The tragic sinking of the Empress of Ireland on May 29, 1914 occurred just after this ocean liner departed Pointe-au-Père bound for England. Struck by a coal tender the pride of the Canadian Pacific line sunk in an astounding 14 minutes and, despite the immediate response of numerous ships in the vicinity, claimed 1,012 lives. The Treasures of the Empress of Ireland pavilion displays artifacts recovered from the wreck and oral presentations from the journals and testimonies of survivors. The media presentation (English and French) is highly recommended.

Open from May to October the Pointe-au-Père sites are just off Quebec Route 132 east of Rimouski and en route to the Gaspé. The lighthouse is visible for many kilometers so you can’t miss it. For 2011 information about the Onondaga log onto www.shmp.qc.ca or call 418-724-6214. Book well in advance for a stay above the submarine. Space is limited and I expect it will quickly become the hottest overnight destination in eastern Canada.

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