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A tapioca-and-oatmeal lifestyle

Ex-Yellowknifer serves, and dines, in the Canadian naval reserves

Nathan VanderKlippe
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 21/01) - At 23, James Robertson drives a big boat. A 55-metre Kingston-class warship, to be precise, one that displaces 934 tonnes of water and can go some 10,000 kilometres on a tank of diesel.

He also holds the lives of 36 men in his hands.

Robertson, who spent 13 years of his life in Yellowknife, is a sub-lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve.

Though his junior officer status entitles him to only 85 per cent of a full salary, he still gets to command one of Canada's new coastal defence vessels, HMCS Nanaimo.

Robertson got the job after studying political science and history at the University of Calgary. While there, he took a number of military studies courses, and "at one time one of my friends goes, 'James, why don't you join up?' and I haven't regretted it. I love the job," he says.

He joined the navy in March 2000. Today, his primary duty is known in military talk as BWK: bridge watch-keeper. "Basically I'm in charge of the navigation and safety of the ship while we're sailing. It's kind of like a Star Trek thing," he says.

"As a junior officer one of your first goals is to attain the trust of the captain, so the captain can leave the bridge and put his trust in you that you will safely drive the ship."

The Nanaimo is one of 12 ships launched between 1995 and 1998. Although it is sometimes called on for search and rescue, or even immigrant-recovery, missions, it's primary task is route surveying.

"It's part of a type of mine-sweeping operations," says Robertson. "There are key routes that are set out, and we survey the bottom so in time of crisis, maritime trade (can safely) transit across these routes."

The idea is that pre-war sonar images of a given route can be compared with images taken during a conflict to detect the presence of mine-like objects.

The sonar image is so precise that operators can even identify anchor scrapes and the occasional wreck.

Robertson has sailed to Alaska, on HMCS Yellowknife, and is scheduled to sail to Mexico and Hawaii next year.

A rough ride

But while the adventure and food are great, he says, the job has its downsides. A former football player, Robertson is too big for the ships' bunks, and has to sleep on the floor.

In addition, the Nanaimo's shallow draft means they bounce around on heavy seas.

"You're on the bridge and you're supposed to carry on with your job," he says. "You're rocking really bad, waves are crashing over you, and you can't stop. You go out on the bridge wing, you throw up and you go back to work. These things are hell."

One of the better words of advice he has received: eat tapioca pudding and oatmeal, they come back up a little easier.

As a reservist, Robertson will not be posted to the Persian Gulf. But he is applying for the regular forces and hopes to be an officer, piloting a boat with a crew of 250, by the new year.

Robertson is looking at a longtime career in the navy, years of travel, responsibility -- and family.

"At sea there's not much room for privacy, so you really learn about each other: if someone is sick or having family problems," he says. "Everyone learns to go through their problems together. You become a family."