… a brief tale of a road trip to a submarine situated on the shores of Lake Erie …
It seems like it almost started as a dare. The story has it that the members of the Elgin Military Museum in St. Thomas Ontario contacted the Department of National Defence inquiring about getting a surplus tank to put on display honouring the local regiment’s history in the Armoured Corps during WW II. They were disappointed to hear that there were no tanks to be had, but they were asked if they would like a submarine instead. After some deliberation, they agreed – in spite of the obvious financial and logistical challenges associated with hauling a 90-metre-long, salt water submarine 1,500 kilometers to the sunny freshwater shores of Lake Erie.
After years of volunteers wading through bureaucratic and financial hurdles, engineering challenges and the whims of mother nature, the HMCS Ojibwa can now be found in the tiny town of Port Burwell, about an hour south and east of London. This Oberon class submarine comprised an essential part of Canada’s “Cold War” armament, permitting our navy to engage in intelligence gathering and surveillance patrols between 1964 and 1998. Though comparatively small by navy standards, when it is seen on land the ‘boat’ (as it is called) is as long as a football field and as high as a five-story building and is as imposing as it is incongruous, dominating the harbour of this tiny freshwater port.
Visitors can pay to get an information packed, one-hour tour from a very knowledgeable guide. Though a bit pricey, the tour is worth the investment as it affords a very rare opportunity to experience the inner workings of a truly weird world – that of the submariner. The outside of the sub is black (and a bit rusty). It’s a sleek, streamlined monstrosity that speaks to its hydrodynamic design and stealthy intent. The inside is a jumble of instruments, contraptions and “quarters” that are both claustrophobic in size and distracting in detail.
There is no glamour in being a submariner. You get a rough sense of how crammed, noisy and smelly life would be like in this metallic tube – there is no privacy, no soft surfaces or a single space that isn’t jammed with instruments, valves, pipes and even torpedoes for the guys who get to “bunk” up front at the business end of the boat. The only person with their own “quarters” is the captain – a space smaller than most walk-in closets and with a bed only the shortest of people could ever call comfortable. One captain was six feet seven inches tall – he couldn’t even sleep standing up! Seventy men crammed into this machine for up to three months at a time, engaging in missions that were frequently rather boring and mundane, and occasionally really quite terrifying.
Security concerns limit the extent of what the guide can repeat about the nature of the ‘missions’ the sub participated in, as well as where you can take photos on the inside of the boat. Anecdotes about what life was like on the sub and what the different parts of the vessel were dedicated to provides the guide with plenty of information as you make your way from the bow to the stern of the Ojibwa. All in all, one gets a hasty taste of what life was like for the sailors on this decommissioned boat, and what life must be like for the sailors who are currently operating our newer Victoria-class submarines.
The dedicated group of volunteers who willingly took on this huge project are doing their best to preserve this small, but fascinating part of our maritime heritage. Their efforts have met with more than a few challenges, but they seem determined to keep this project afloat. The sub has brought some welcome visitors to the charming little town of Port Burwell and affords any visitor to southwestern Ontario a chance to partake in a surprising and interesting detour from their travels. Like many of the ports along Lake Erie there are restaurants offering perch on the menu – a local delicacy in this part of Ontario. For those who are heading to eastern Canada, the HMCS Onondaga, sister ship to the Ojibwa, can be toured at its moorings in Rimouski, Quebec.
For information about the Ojibwa, or to inquire about tours go to: www.hmcsojibwa.ca