Toronto Star

Deck the halls (and the decks) — a Christmas at sea

How Canadian warship’s crew kept the spirit of the season alive, a long way from home


While patrolling the Mediterran­ean Sea to protect eastern Europe this month, HMCS Toronto was dressed up like a Christmas tree.

Fairy lights and snowflakes hung from ceilings, makeshift aluminum wire Christmas trees were built, artificial fireplaces were created and carols were blasted over the internal sound system.

It was a Christmas to remember for 257 soldiers, sailors and Air Force men and women, Commanding Officer Jason Armstrong told the Star over a patchy phone interview from the Canadian warship on Saturday.

“This is the best Christmas at sea I have ever had. I will remember this for the rest of my life,” he said.

Those on board are like family, said Armstrong, and they celebrated like one, exchanging secret Santa gifts and enjoying an authentic turkey dinner as they sailed the Mediterran­ean.

“If you can’t be at home with your loved ones, this was the next best thing. It made Christmas, in my view, very special this year,” said Armstrong, a 44-year-old father of two. Canadian warship HMCS Toronto has been leading a patrol in waters around eastern Europe as part of “Operation Reassuranc­e,” a NATO mission to boost maritime security in the area amid pro-Russia separatist aggression in Ukraine.

Though troops remained at the ready, the ship took an “operationa­l pause” for festive events from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day morning. On Christmas Eve, the ship screened Christmas movies Elf and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It was a warm, clear night, the stars were out and the seas were calm as the sailors and soldiers lay on the flight deck and watched the movies that were screened against the hanger face, Armstrong said.

A midnight mass included a special performanc­e from the ship’s Christmas choir, made up of a dozen sailors.

Dec. 25 was, as per Navy tradition, a backwards day, Armstrong said. The usual 7 a.m. alarm was switched off and the youngest sailor, who recently turned 20, swapped ranks with Armstrong, who became an ordinary seaman for the day.

Senior ranking officers served juniors a breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes and Christmas candy before presents were unwrapped.

The ship received “tons and tons” of gifts and letters from voluntary organizati­ons and schoolchil­dren, Armstrong said. The parcels includ- ed Tim Hortons coffee, baseball caps, toques, cookies, candy, magazines and T-shirts.

For the ship’s secret Santa exchange, the sailors picked up their presents, valued anywhere between $30 and $50, at different ports they stopped at before Christmas, including Rome and Athens.

Some received sculptures of Hercules, aprons bearing six pack abs from Rome, Greek wine, scarves or fedoras.

One officer received a taxidermie­d puffer fish and another, who had accidental­ly fallen into the sea while painting the side of the ship, received water wings.

HMCS Toronto is the first Canadian ship to have Skype, but with only one portal on board, the troops were each assigned 20-minute time slots to speak to their families. The youngest sailors were given first dibs, Armstrong said.

“There were some challenges being separated from families and loved ones, but the crew understand­s the mission we are on and how important this is for ongoing peace and security in Europe,” he said.

When the ship departed in July, the crew was informed it was likely they could be deployed through the holiday season. So Christmas decoration­s were loaded on board and some likely Santa Claus candidates were approached, just in case, Armstrong said.

Once it was confirmed they would remain at sea for the holiday, a special Christmas Committee was establishe­d.

Every morning since Dec. 1, Christmas carols have brightened up the halls of the ship and a soldier has read out three or four “humorous and heartfelt” Christmas cards from schoolchil­dren over the ship’s sound system.

A Christmas decorating competitio­n between the six different department­s resulted in the ship “looking like a big Christmas tree on the inside,” Armstrong said.

The HMCS Toronto will likely return home early in the New Year, he said, adding plans were underway for a New Year’s Eve celebratio­n aboard the ship.

The Canadian soldiers, sailors and Air Force men and women will ring in the New Year with a special dinner, karaoke, a countdown to midnight and a fireworks display in the middle of the Mediterran­ean Sea.

 ?? PETER REED ?? Commanding Officer Jason Armstrong, far left, with his crew aboard HMCS Toronto in the Mediterran­ean, as a sailor calls home on Christmas Eve.
PETER REED Commanding Officer Jason Armstrong, far left, with his crew aboard HMCS Toronto in the Mediterran­ean, as a sailor calls home on Christmas Eve.

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