It was a sombre return for the crew of HMCS Winnipeg as they arrived back in Esquimalt on Friday afternoon.
The presumed death of missing 47-year-old Master Sailor Duane Earle hung over what was otherwise a successful four-and-a-half-month deployment. And because of COVID-19, there was no gathering, no mix zone where sailors could reunite with loved ones.
“It was never going to be an easy tour,” said Mike Stefanson, commander of the Winnipeg, who took questions but offered little new information into Earle’s disappearance.
Earle is believed to have fallen overboard on the Winnipeg in the early hours of Dec. 14, when the ship was 500 nautical miles west of San Francisco and en route to CFB Esquimalt. Stefanson thanked the search party efforts, which were aided by U.S. services. HMCS Winnipeg has about 230 crew members aboard.
“It is rare that I am at a loss for words,” said Earle’s wife, Tracy Hull. “Right now, I can’t think of the [words] that are worthy enough of Duane.
“Duane is the love I never thought I would find after much heartache. He’s my best friend and my adventure buddy, even if he has to be the adventure for both of us.”
Hull and Earle were building their blended family and the couple had big plans to sail the world and travel to Europe.
“He loved me, he loved our children and families, he loved the sea and being a sailor, and he will always be our everything and ‘Squid,’ he is deeply and painfully missed.”
HMCS Winnipeg left on Aug. 1 and participated in exercises off the coast of Hawaii. It then executed two mission mandates under Operations Projection and Neon in the Asia-Pacific.
An investigation is underway to interview any members of the crew who interacted with Earle in the hours and days leading up to his death and to review surveillance cameras on the ship.
“We want to know just as much as anybody what happened to him,” Stefanson said.
Speculation remains that Earle went overboard on the top deck which is closed after hours but for a small area where crew members can smoke, though no one saw him go over. Crew members keep track of all members going to that area after hours.
Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan was in Victoria and met with the family on Friday to thank them for Earle’s service.
“It’s not just in combat that Canadian Forces members put themselves at risk – it’s at operations like this that HMCS Winnipeg was on, it’s the training that they do, and they do this always,” Sajjan said. “My heartfelt thanks to the family members who lost a loved one.”
Vice-Admiral Art McDonald, commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, also spoke upon the return of HMCS Winnipeg.
“What a tragedy it is to lose a shipmate in routine operations at sea; it speaks to the inherent danger … the kind of work that Canadian forces do around the planet and here at home. But it hurts when it happens.”
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