Saturday, 25 February 2017


The Royal Canadian Navy has announced in the last month or so that HMCS ATHABASKAN will be paid off from service on March 10. Commissioned on September 30, 1972, this will give her just shy of 45 years of service. The four IROQUOIS class destroyers were a great leap forward when they were introduced in the early 1970's and received mid-life refits to provide Area Air Warfare (AAW) capability in the early 1990s. HURON was paid off in 2005 (and later sunk for target practice during an exercise) after being laid up for a few years, and ALGONQUIN was paid off in 2015 after making contact in 2013 with HMCS PROTECTEUR during a towing exercise which resulted in her port hangar getting shredded. IROQUOIS was also paid off in 2015 after worrying cracks and rust were discovered in critical locations. IROQUOIS and ALGONQUIN are both currently in Liverpool, NS, for breaking up.

ATHABASKAN is now the last of the four ships in service.

ATHABASKAN in her original configuration as an anti-submarine destroyer. Photo courtesy of Corvus Publishing Group / Canada's Navy.
After the previous RCN classes of anti-submarine destroyers (other navies classified similar ships as frigates), the IROQUOIS class introduced a number of new concepts to the RCN (indeed, some were new to the navies of the world) including all gas turbine propulsion (in a COGOG arrangement), air defence missiles, and a hangar for two large anti-submarine helicopters. They were proper destroyers. I will borrow some text from my summary on the Hazegray and Underway website:

"These four ships were the first warships in the world to depend entirely on gas turbine propulsion (COGOG). Economical cruising power was provided by two efficient cruise gas turbines, while high speeds of up to 29 knots or greater could be reached with two boost turbines. When commissioned, they were excellent ASW platforms, and were the first Canadian destroyers to carry two helicopters. Based upon the hull design of the cancelled 1960s era General Purpose frigates, they were instantly recognizable due to their infamous 'playboy bunny' funnels. Command facilities were included in the ships. This class of ship influenced the design of the USN's SPRUANCE class destroyers. 

As built, they were armed with a quick-firing OTO Melara 5"/54 forward, which provided them with good anti-surface and naval gunfire support capability, as well as close-ranged anti-aircraft defence. Point anti-aircraft defence was provided by NATO Sea Sparrow missiles, launched via a one-of-a-kind twin quad launcher situated just forward of the bridge. No other ships, in any navy, used this system. The missiles would be trained outboard of the launcher (in the deckhouse forward of the bridge) on launcher arms port and starboard, with four missiles to an arm. The arms would be brought back inboard for reloading. Anti-submarine capability was provided by two Mk.32 triple torpedo launchers, port and starboard, in addition to helicopter launched torpedoes. As well, a single Mk.NC 10 Limbo ASW mortar was provided in a well in the quarterdeck, aft of the helicopter deck.

At the time, much was made of the fact that these ships tied together, in a viable package, an Italian gun, American missiles and torpedoes, Canadian sonar, and a Dutch radar and fire control system.

During the Gulf War of 1990/91, ATHABASKAN was sent to the Persian Gulf along with two other ships. She was quickly upgraded with a new mine-avoidance sonar, along with a Phalanx 20mm CIWS (mounted over the Limbo mortar well) and shoulder launched Blowpipe and Javelin missiles. When USS PRINCETON was disabled after hitting a mine in the northern Gulf, ATHABASKAN escorted a tug to her rescue and escorted both ships back out through the minefield.

In the late 1980s / early 1990s, these ships were modified under the TRUMP program. This refit program saw the installation of new anti-aircraft missiles, main gun, radars, fire control system, and the addition of a CIWS gun system."

Looking out over ATHABASKAN's modernized foc'st'le, with the new 76mm gun and a 32-cell Mk.32 vertical launch system taking the place of the original 127mm gun.
The TRUMP refit changed the appearance of these ships, but if you look at them the right way their impressive lines are still apparent.
ATHABASKAN was on display, and open for tours, during the RCN's centennial in 2010.
Although too late to photograph any of these ships in their original configuration, I have captured a large number of images of ATHABASKAN since the mid-1990s. I will show some of my favourites here.

A scan from film, this is one of my earliest images of ATHABASKAN. She had not yet been fitted with the SATCOM domes either side of the funnel at this point. This was probably taken in the 1990s.

Another, later, scan from film, this time from the early 2000s.The starboard SATCOM dome is now present.

ATHABASKAN was the review ship for the Tall Ships Parade of Sail in 2004. She is shown here saluting Pride of Baltimore II.
Part of the TRUMP refit was the addition of modern Command and Control facilities, and the IROQUOIS class were prized for their ability to lead a task group. Although this ability has been retrofitted to the HALIFAX class frigates during their FELEX mid-life refits, the latter's reduced accommodation space makes the ships rather cramped when fulfilling this role compared to the older destroyers. For ATHABASKAN, this led to leading roles in disaster relief missions to the US after Hurricane Katrina (Operation Unison) and Haiti after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake (Operation Hestia). 

ATHABASKAN was one of four ships sent south to help with Hurricane Katrina recovery in 2006 (Operation Unison). 

A Sea King escorts ATHABASKAN out of the harbour for Op Unison.

ATHABASKAN leading out the Operation Unison task group.
ATHABASKAN leading out a separate task group in 2009.
A Sea King hovers over the deck of ATHABASKAN.
After ATHABASKAN's last refit in St. Catharines, ON, she was towed to Halifax and broke her tow, sustaining some hull punctures during her recovery. Possibly due to the additional repairs required, her reduced remaining lifespan, or a combination of the two, ATHABASKAN was not fully reassembled after this refit. When she returned to service in 2013 for sea trials, she was missing her long range air search radar and fire control directors (and with them her ability to fire her long range air defence missiles) and torpedo tubes, in my opinion removing most of the capability that made her a destroyer. The variable depth sonar (VDS) had been removed prior to the last refit. She still retained her command and control facilities, however, and was still useful to lead task groups including the RCN contingent during the 2016 Cutlass Fury exercise.

Departing for Cutlass Fury.

At sunrise.

Rising sun reflecting on the hull and superstructure.
Against the rising sun.

The missing VDS is apparent in this photo.

Although all four ships had their cruise engines replaced in the 1990s, ATHABASKAN has tended in recent years to produce lots of smoke while the engines are fired up (although I have seen a photo from the 1970s recently where she was doing the same thing - so maybe she just has bad habits).

For the last photo, we will pretend this is an appropriate sunset (it's actually a misty sunrise).
ATHABASKAN is the only one of her sisters that gets to pay off on a high note (knock on wood) and go straight to being paid off from active service - her sisterships all paid off after an inactive period alongside. ATHABASKAN is still at sea as I write this, mere weeks before her retirement.

The impressive appearance of these ships will be missed by this photographer.

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