HMCS Calgary sitting in dock at her home port of CFB Esquimalt.

HMCS Calgary celebrates 20 years with tour at sea

One of Canada's most prolific and advanced naval ships takes the public for a historic ride.

What do we automatically think when we see a navy ship? One ship, one entity — but when we take a closer look at the men and women who keep these floating fortresses chugging along…  they become much more than that.

Media and guests certainly noticed that rather quickly last week, just as everyone gathered on the deck of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Calgary to celebrate the frigate’s 20th anniversary along with her crew.

And it wasn’t just a meet-and-greet and go home kind of thing, no,no — Calgary’s crew had a whole roster of fun stuff lined up for the day — from a demonstration of what she can do out at sea, to a delicious lunch in the ship’s eating quarters/bar/lounge, to a full-on demonstration by a Royal Canadian Navy CH-124 Sea King helicopter. Among the guests was city of Calgary Mayor Naheed Kurban Nenshi, along with several fellow Albertans.

After gaining full speed towards the Juan the Fuca Strait, an announcement came in that the ship would begin its first set of handling demonstrations; the first of which involved turning around at high speed in the event of a man overboard situation — a feat which seems impossible at first, considering the Halifax-class frigate’s modest 4,000-plus tonnage. Some would even say she handles better than some cars do. But ever so gracefully, the Calgary tilted to its side, turned around and came to the rescue of the “man overboard” doll in distress.

More impressively, the whole operation took a total of four minutes – from the moment the supposed person fell in the water, to the point of which they were plucked out of it.

It’s not magic, or science-fiction, or some special act; it’s the result of pure, day-to-day training, according to Sub-Lieutenant Greg Menzies, media spokesperson for CF.

“There’s a lot of hard training that goes into anything we do here; for us every day, and every thing is a drill; we don’t even refer to a ‘fire rescue crew’ on board, because everyone here becomes a firefighter in an emergency event,” Menzies said, adding that the preparation time needed for a single mission extends into thousands of sweat-filled hours for many of the men and women who serve.

And no doubt, there’s a lot of pride that goes into being aboard such a ship — though Calgary dates back to 1995, her onboard hardware and software is all new, thanks to a recent refit in October 2014. Upgrades include a new Combat Management System, a new electronic warfare system, upgraded missiles, as well as a new Integrated Platform Management System.

Gary Paulson was Calgary’s first commanding officer and commissioning captain 20 years ago — and even though the last time he set foot on board was 18 years ago, he feels very proud to be back and see all those brave young faces again.

“One of the nicest things is to see the sailors, the men and women of the Calgary and the young Canadians who serve the ship and the country,” he said. “I have a lot of pride in seeing that today – they seem the same as they were 20 years ago when I was at sea with them.”

When it launched, Calgary was one of the most modern and capable warship in the Royal Canadian Navy at the time. Paulson said it was exciting for all the Canadian sailors to get on a capable ship with modern technology and weapon systems. He also added that what made it really special was the city of Calgary and the support of its residents – the same support which continues to this day.

For others in the Royal Canadian Navy though, Calgary is a dream come true; and a way of life never before imagined.

Meet Sub-Lieutenant Ellie Aminaie – formerly a graphic designer in Toronto for 10 years, she proudly serves as Calgary’s bridge watch keeper — a job she didn’t exactly plan for, but absolutely loves.

“I got tired of a 9 to 5 desk job, wanted something with a lot more adventure,” Slt. Aminaie said, who’s been with the Canadian Forces for five years — she’s been on HMCS Calgary for two years now.

“It’s pretty cool. When you first get recruited and you’re told you’re going to drive a ship, it all feels kinda surreal, like really? I’m going to drive a war ship around?’,” chuckled Aminaie. She added that it feels pretty good to be a woman in a high-ranking position.

“We don’t have enough women in command positions, but we’re starting to have more and more women getting involved driving ships, which is great,” she said.

To date, Aminaie has been as far south as Manzanillo, Mexico, and as far west as Hawaii – she has also sailed nearly 20,000 miles and accumulated a total of 450 days spent at sea. She noted that for every 5,000 miles you get a tattoo of a swallow – and if you sail for 365 days, you earn a sea service insignia –  top (gold) is 1,000 days.

With the demonstrations over and nearly every nook and cranny explored by curious guests and media, Calgary set off back to her home port in CFB Esquimalt, with the same speed and grace she had nearly six hours prior — albeit this time, with a bittersweet reminder of the men and women who serve this country for the greater good.