COVID-19 couldn't sink HMCS Ojibwa, but will vintage sub still appeal to visitors?

Anyone who's ever watched a Second World War submarine movie knows just how cramped and confined conditions aboard the undersea vessels could be.

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By: Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Anyone who’s ever watched a Second World War submarine movie knows just how cramped and confined conditions aboard the undersea vessels could be.

Imagine, then, touring a vintage sub during a COVID-19 climate that’s kept many indoor places off-limits and made social distancing a new public health virtue.

And yet, the operators of a decommissioned Cold War-era sub in Port Burwell, along Lake Erie, began tours on the weekend of the HMCS Ojibwa, a  football-field-long vessel fresh from a new paint job and, organizers say, ready again for visitors.

“The interest is there,”  Ian Raven, executive director of the Elgin Military Museum, which operates the sub, said prior to the reopening. “We have been turning people away for the last two weeks solid.”

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The sub’s operators are following museum and heritage site reopening guidelines laid out in Ontario’s third-phase economy reopening plans from the COVID-19 pandemic.  They also planmed to consult the area public health office on best practices.

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Visitors have to wear masks and gloves when going aboard the museum piece submarine, and groups are limited to single families or social bubbles. Tour bookings need to be made online in advance.

The reopening is good timing for the HMCS Ojibwa, coming just a week after more than 130 volunteer ex-submariners and members of the Submariners Association of Canada (SAOC) banded together to repaint the colossal vessel.

“The submariners all stepped forward and said they would be willing to come down and help with the painting,” Raven said. “It’s their boat; they have a very close attachment to it.”

The HMCS Ojibwa, which was in service between 1965 and 1998, helped to track Soviet ballistic missile submarines in the Atlantic during the 1970s.

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A paint job was well overdue for the former Canadian naval vessel. It had begun to chip, flake and rust, and had been incorrectly painted with a gloss finish – submarines are matte – before it was brought to Port Burwell from Halifax, floated on a barge through the St. Lawrence Seaway,  in 2013.

“If you’re a submariner, when you see things like that, it sort of hits you right in the heart,” said Peter Heppleston, past president of the SOAC’s Central Branch, who helped to coordinate the volunteers.

The SAOC also launched a fundraising campaign to cover the cost of incidentals, like paintbrushes and boom rentals. Hundreds of volunteers from across the province came out to help, and those from the West and East coasts even expressed interest.

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But it wasn’t easy to paint the 90-metre, five-story-high vessel. If the hull got too hot, paint couldn’t be applied, meaning work took place in the early hours or late at night.

“That’s the level of commitment that ex-submariners had in bringing this boat back to its former glory,” Heppleston said.

More than 120 gallons of Benjamin Moore paint was donated by My Paint and Décor in Tillsonburg to complete the task, with a Genie boom lift contributed by Battlefield Equipment Rentals in London.

Amid the repainting, a crew from National Geographic and the Discovery Channel came by, using the interior of HMCS Ojibwa to portray a Russian submarine for an upcoming film.

The museum also had been running exterior tours of the vessel, with many items brought outside for patrons to see.

Raven hopes the new mixed tour, which incorporates indoor and outdoor elements and shows off the new paint job, will be a hit with tourists and locals alike.

“I think for the balance of this season, we’ll have to play it by ear and see how the reaction is to the pandemic,” Raven said. “I think as things settle out, next season certainly looks very bright.”

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Tillsonburg News is part of the Local Journalism Initiative and reporters are funded by the Government of Canada to produce civic journalism for underserved communities. Learn more about the initiative

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