Sombre return to Esquimalt for HMCS Winnipeg

The HMCS Winnipeg ship passing the Fisgard Lighthouse and coming into CFB Esquimalt on Friday, Dec. 18, after 4.5 months at sea. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)The HMCS Winnipeg ship passing the Fisgard Lighthouse and coming into CFB Esquimalt on Friday, Dec. 18, after 4.5 months at sea. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)
The HMCS Winnipeg ship passing the Fisgard Lighthouse and coming into CFB Esquimalt on Friday, Dec. 18, after 4.5 months at sea. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)The HMCS Winnipeg ship passing the Fisgard Lighthouse and coming into CFB Esquimalt on Friday, Dec. 18, after 4.5 months at sea. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)
Federal Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan addresses media at Duntze Head in CFB Esquimalt. Sajjan attended the return of HMCS Winnipeg after 4.5 months at sea on Dec. 18. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)Federal Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan addresses media at Duntze Head in CFB Esquimalt. Sajjan attended the return of HMCS Winnipeg after 4.5 months at sea on Dec. 18. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)
The HMCS Winnipeg ship passing the Fisgard Lighthouse and coming into CFB Esquimalt on Friday, Dec. 18, after 4.5 months at sea. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)The HMCS Winnipeg ship passing the Fisgard Lighthouse and coming into CFB Esquimalt on Friday, Dec. 18, after 4.5 months at sea. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)
Commander Mark Stefanson of the HMCS Winnipeg speaks to media at CFB Esquimalt’s Wardroom on Friday, Dec. 18, regarding the loss of Master Sailor Duane Earle just days before returning home. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)Commander Mark Stefanson of the HMCS Winnipeg speaks to media at CFB Esquimalt’s Wardroom on Friday, Dec. 18, regarding the loss of Master Sailor Duane Earle just days before returning home. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)
HMCS Winnipeg’s Ship’s Company gathers in formation during a memorial ceremony for Master Sailor Duane Earle while alongside Canadian Forces Ammunition Depot on Dec. 18, 2020. Master Sailor Earle, a boatswain, went missing on Dec. 14 (Photo: Sailor 1st Class Valerie LeClair/MARPAC Imaging Services)HMCS Winnipeg’s Ship’s Company gathers in formation during a memorial ceremony for Master Sailor Duane Earle while alongside Canadian Forces Ammunition Depot on Dec. 18, 2020. Master Sailor Earle, a boatswain, went missing on Dec. 14 (Photo: Sailor 1st Class Valerie LeClair/MARPAC Imaging Services)
Commander Mike Stefanson, Commanding Officer of HMCS Winnipeg, gifts a Canadian flag to Tracy Hull, wife of Master Sailor Duane Earle, during a memorial ceremony while alongside Canadian Forces Ammunition Depot on Dec. 18. Earle went missing on Dec. 14. (Photo by Sailor 1st Class Valerie LeClair/MARPAC Imaging Services)Commander Mike Stefanson, Commanding Officer of HMCS Winnipeg, gifts a Canadian flag to Tracy Hull, wife of Master Sailor Duane Earle, during a memorial ceremony while alongside Canadian Forces Ammunition Depot on Dec. 18. Earle went missing on Dec. 14. (Photo by Sailor 1st Class Valerie LeClair/MARPAC Imaging Services)
Master Sailor Amver Cinco salutes the memorial of Master Sailor Duane Earle during HMCS Winnipeg ceremony on Friday, Dec. 14. (Photo by Sailor 1st Class Valerie LeClair/MARPAC Imaging Services)Master Sailor Amver Cinco salutes the memorial of Master Sailor Duane Earle during HMCS Winnipeg ceremony on Friday, Dec. 14. (Photo by Sailor 1st Class Valerie LeClair/MARPAC Imaging Services)

It was a sombre return for the crew of HMCS Winnipeg as they arrived back in Esquimalt on Friday afternoon.

The presumed death of missing 47-year-old Master Sailor Duane Earle hung over what was otherwise a successful four-and-a-half-month deployment. And because of COVID-19, there was no gathering, no mix zone where sailors could reunite with loved ones.

“It was never going to be an easy tour,” said Mike Stefanson, commander of the Winnipeg, who took questions but offered little new information into Earle’s disappearance.

Earle is believed to have fallen overboard on the Winnipeg in the early hours of Dec. 14, when the ship was 500 nautical miles west of San Francisco and en route to CFB Esquimalt. Stefanson thanked the search party efforts, which were aided by U.S. services. HMCS Winnipeg has about 230 crew members aboard.

READ ALSO: Search called off for sailor missing from HMCS Winnipeg

“It is rare that I am at a loss for words,” said Earle’s wife, Tracy Hull. “Right now, I can’t think of the [words] that are worthy enough of Duane.

“Duane is the love I never thought I would find after much heartache. He’s my best friend and my adventure buddy, even if he has to be the adventure for both of us.”

Hull and Earle were building their blended family and the couple had big plans to sail the world and travel to Europe.

“He loved me, he loved our children and families, he loved the sea and being a sailor, and he will always be our everything and ‘Squid,’ he is deeply and painfully missed.”

READ MORE: Sailor may have gone overboard from Canadian navy vessel returning to Esquimalt

HMCS Winnipeg left on Aug. 1 and participated in exercises off the coast of Hawaii. It then executed two mission mandates under Operations Projection and Neon in the Asia-Pacific.

An investigation is underway to interview any members of the crew who interacted with Earle in the hours and days leading up to his death and to review surveillance cameras on the ship.

“We want to know just as much as anybody what happened to him,” Stefanson said.

Speculation remains that Earle went overboard on the top deck which is closed after hours but for a small area where crew members can smoke, though no one saw him go over. Crew members keep track of all members going to that area after hours.

Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan was in Victoria and met with the family on Friday to thank them for Earle’s service.

“It’s not just in combat that Canadian Forces members put themselves at risk – it’s at operations like this that HMCS Winnipeg was on, it’s the training that they do, and they do this always,” Sajjan said. “My heartfelt thanks to the family members who lost a loved one.”

Vice-Admiral Art McDonald, commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, also spoke upon the return of HMCS Winnipeg.

“What a tragedy it is to lose a shipmate in routine operations at sea; it speaks to the inherent danger … the kind of work that Canadian forces do around the planet and here at home. But it hurts when it happens.”

reporter@oakbaynews.com


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