Connecting a future ship to the past

Commander Michele Tessier

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By Sub-Lieutenant M.X. Déry

Commander Michele Tessier has been undergoing training to prepare her for the unique challenges of working in the Arctic as Commanding Officer of HMCS Margaret Brooke, the second Harry DeWolf-class Arctic and Offshore Patrol Vessel.

The ship was named in honour of Lieutenant-Commander Margaret M. Brooke, who survived the sinking of the ferry SS Caribou after it was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Newfoundland in October 1942. She and a colleague, Sub-Lieutenant Agnes Wilkie, clung to ropes on an overturned lifeboat until hypothermia caused SLt Wilkie to lose consciousness. LCdr Brooke held onto the lifeboat with one hand and her unconscious friend with the other until daybreak when, despite her best efforts, a wave pulled SLt Wilkie away. For her selfless act, LCdr Brooke was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

“We want to make sure that LCdr Brooke’s story continues on and lives with the ship and that we are able to pay homage to her, not just in the naming of the ship, but as we go places in Canada we can talk about what kind of person she was and why the ship has her name,” said Cdr Tessier.

Recently she spent a few days in and around Saskatoon visiting places of importance in LCdr Brooke’s life.

Cdr Tessier spoke to the crew of Saskatoon’s Naval Reserve Division HMCS Unicorn, the unit LCdr Brooke joined in 1942, about her experiences in the Arctic and opportunities for the future.

“I told them what my impressions of the Arctic were, the beauty of it, the danger of it, the fragility of it, and what kind of impact we can have there,” she said.

She also met the Mayor of Saskatoon, gave a presentation to the Canadian International Council, and met the Dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan.

The latter was in recognition of the Alumni of Influence Award that was posthumously awarded to LCdr Brooke, who earned three degrees at the university for her landmark papers on the geology of Saskatchewan and Alberta, and her exploits during the Second World War.

At the award ceremony, Cdr Tessier met for the first time the nieces of LCdr Brooke, Margaret and Allyson Brooke, the former being the ship’s sponsor. “I think it’s important that we make a connection between the ship and Saskatoon, because of the Brooke family being from that area and Margaret’s connection with the city.”

After her tour in Saskatchewan, Cdr Tessier returned to Victoria firm in the knowledge there is a lot more travelling ahead, including a move to Halifax this summer.

“I’ll be doing a course at the Marine Institute in St. John’s, which is an ice navigation course,” said Cdr Tessier.

With two journeys through the Arctic already completed, she looks forward to future training voyages aboard the icebreaker Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Louis S. St-Laurent.

“I’m getting exposure to the Western Arctic, Eastern Arctic, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River,” she said.

Icebreaking training can be unnerving to even the most seasoned mariners who spend years learning how to avoid collisions with objects at sea.

“I keep saying to people, I spent 20 years of my career learning how not to hit stuff and now I’m being told to take this ship and go hit stuff,” joked Cdr Tessier.

Aboard CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, she has received firsthand experience conducting icebreaking. “I physically had the throttles and rode the ship right up onto the ice, felt the shudder and then the crackdown through [the ice], and then the ship listed three degrees to starboard.”

However, there is more to commanding a vessel in the Arctic than the knowledge of how to break ice. She asked the commanding officer of Louis S. St-Laurent, Captain Wayne Duffett, what his greatest concern was outside of poor weather, the stability of the vessel or hitting ice.

“He told me that being up there with inexperienced watch officers, because you can have someone who doesn’t recognize when things are getting a little more tenuous, a little more dangerous; someone who is overly confident could have things go sideways really quickly,” said Cdr Tessier.

The dangers of the Arctic are not lost on her, nor is her role as a steward of the North.

“The Arctic is a pristine environment that we’re trying not to pollute, and so we have to protect the Arctic region while we’re protecting the Arctic waters.”

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