Media was invited for the first time this past Friday to climb inside Ojibwa, tour the massive submarine from bow to stern, and take photos to share with the public. Photos, however, were permitted only in the first two sections of the sub – the Ojibwa Project team has learned that this is a big story and they plan to reveal it in playfully titillating bits.
Those on hand for the tour were enthusiastic and full of questions. The answers to those questions, other details supplied by the team, and most importantly the star herself, Ojibwa, revealed that this project encompasses the drama, intrigue and excitement of a plot within a plot within a plot. It’s a show that’s sure to be a blockbuster hit for Port Burwell and region.
Ojibwa is an impressive sight from the outside. An inside tour reveals that this star has substance, secrets and personality. Ojibwa has the kind of appeal that is likely to seduce both tourists and students into wondering and learning about her make-up and history. Friday’s tour highlighted the Forward Torpedo and Accommodation Rooms.
Past the first section with sixteen torpedoes, six launch tubes and an escape hatch, it was up a narrow ladder through the first of four watertight hatches (a funny feeling when that hatch is swung closed), on to the Forward Accommodation Room with narrow ledges for eighteen to sleep and tiny lockers to hold everything needed by a submariner for a trip lasting up to three months, all located above one of the two compartments which each housed 400 tons of battery.
The tour continued with the remaining compartments – a succession of functional areas (control Room, sonar room, radar room, radio room, engine room, motor room) jammed with, pipes, tubes, equipment, levers, valves, knobs, hatches, and 70 or so “bunks”.
Every inch of the submarine’s 295 feet is packed with curiosity-inducing nooks, crannies and equipment. The science of taking 1,250 tons of boat hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean and detecting other vessels while remaining undetected encompasses a myriad of scientific achievements and principles. For students delving into any number of topics, the sub will serve as a hands-on classroom extraordinaire.
Since its inception, Project Ojibwa has emphasized the importance of the submariner’s role in the Ojibwa story. Information about the men who worked and lived on Canada’s Oberon Class submarines was incorporated into Friday’s tour. It is imagining the life of the submariner that is likely to elicit the most curiosity from visitors.
Everything on Ojibwa is incredibly cramped and compact. Controls and valves are all over the submarine, many of them accessible only by climbing. Submariners were trained to move blindfolded from one end of the ship to the other, locate a specific valve and open or close it.
During ultra-quiet submersion they were not allowed to talk or listen to music. Bunks were 6’ long, a challenge for those over 6’ in height. One space in particular is located in such a cramped space, that one can only imagine the contortionist’s skill required to get into it. Ian noted one common expression, “How you sleep is up to you, where you sleep is up to the navy.”
Water use was limited – often a 25 gallon per day capacity allowed only the cooks to shower.
The engine room was extremely noisy, making hand signals the only way to communicate.
Asked about cabin fever, Dean commented, “Most of the time you were too busy to think about cabin fever. It was incredibly busy. One time when one of the sonar operators was sick I spent 36 hours in the control room.”
Work on the Oberon subs required teamwork and complete confidence in all of its members. Dean noted that the 80s was a unique time for submarines, a turning point when crews shifted from being put together entirely from volunteer personnel to being assigned in order to fill requirements for various trades. It was a change which he thought introduced dangers and prompted his retirement from the service.
Little-known information about Canada’s role in the Cold War will add another layer of drama to Ojibwa’s story. Operation of Canada’s Oberon-Class submarines wasn’t just a test of the submariner’s ability to work under difficult conditions in case a threat arose. During the Cold War years it was believed that the threat was real and present and Canada’s submarines actively tracked Russian ballistic missile boats, ready to take action if required. The Oberon Class submarines and her crews were respected for their ability to listen without being detected, to map the unique sound signature of ships, and to keep track of them.
It was a war carried out in secret. Sometimes unidentified riders were boarded for drop-off at an unknown location. Sometimes the “Driver” received data to be loaded into a navigation device – it would chart a course for a destination unknown to everyone on board.
Some pieces of equipment are missing from the sub because they are classified. The same is true of some of its capabilities. Asked how deep the submarine would go, Ian noted that “The usual reply to that question was ‘all the way to the bottom’ – the distance is still classified”. However, he does indicate that the Oberon Class subs went deeper than they were originally designed to go, and never lost a boat.
Recreating classified equipment and other missing pieces of the Ojibwa’s insides will be part of a restoration process which will likely take two years. To date, most of the work inside the submarine, much of it by volunteers, has dealt with tidying, putting in place bits and pieces made available from two other decommissioned subs and removing deteriorated lineoleum from front to back.
Ian joked that volunteers and Ojibwa staff learn one thing quickly – that’s where to duck. At this point, there’s already enough of the sub’s insides intact to provide visitors a fairly complete picture of how the sub looked. Ian noted that there has been lots of interest in donating some of the needed supplies, like a ladder and new lineoleum.
The periscope is the first thing that many visitors will hope to see – the plan is to install a recreated periscope rather than the actual one. Ian said that the periscope on the Onondaga sub in Rimouski quickly became inoperable with heavy use by the public. For Ojibwa, the plan is to install a multi-position digital station where several people can spy on the outside world at once.
The sonar system, presently only a little tangled jumble of wires, will be recreated along with the radar room equipment.
The radio room where cold war messages were encoded has a sign on the door with a warning, “Knock & Wait” – it will likely be set up to be a more welcoming ham radio station.
Work has been on-going since the sub's arrival to determine best practices for every step of the renovation. Experts in the museum field have been helpful, with many taking an interest in this unique project. For instance, Ian noted that the Getty Institute in California has offered suggestions about suitable energy efficient lighting.
An Area Attraction
The Elgin Military Museum plans to present this exciting show in an attractive venue to be built alongside Ojibwa – the Elgin Military Museum of Naval History. The interpretive centre which will house an extensive collection representing the history of the Canadian Navy with an emphasis on the Cold War.
It would be stereotyping to call this a “manly” sort of attraction, as there are plenty of women who love the submarine. However, having an attraction with the faint smell of motor lubricants and the strength of steel to add to the gentler attractions of the region is an addition to the mix that can only benefit everyone.
The first Job Fair to be hosted by the Project Ojibwa team on March 23rd heralds another benefit of Project Ojibwa, local employment opportunities. (Details are below).
Outside the gate tours will begin as soon as the weather becomes agreeable. The official opening and inside the sub tours will start in July.
HMCS Ojibwa is located at 3 Pitt Street in Port Burwell. A Job Fair on March 23rd will take place at Gospel Lighthouse Church, 59 Victoria Street, Port Burwell from 10am – 3pm. The Project Ojibwa Team is looking for a team of 45 people including management, site support, retail store, guest services and tour guides. Full and part-time seasonal contract positions will run from mid-May to mid-November 2013, with possible extension. Summer student jobs end Labour Day Weekend. Many shift options are available. Those interested are to bring resume and cover letter which will be forwarded to Employment Services Elgin staff. Job descriptions will be available at www.projectojibwa.ca before March 23rd and at the Job Fair. Resumes should be left at the Job Fair, emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or dropped at Employment Services Elgin by April 4th, 2013.