HMCS Charlottetown left Halifax on Wednesday for the Libyan coast to play a role in a humanitarian mission that still has not been not fully defined.
The Canadian navy frigate, which is carrying a crew of 240 and a Sea King helicopter, is expected to join an international flotilla assembling in the Mediterranean off the North African coast.
Cmdr. Craig Skjerpen said it could take up to 12 days to reach their destination, depending on sea conditions in the North Atlantic.
“Right now the mission is about humanitarian assistance and to extract Canadians or others as required,” he said as his ship was readied in sunny sub-zero temperatures. “It could be bringing people out or bringing in medical supplies and goods to the area. It all depends on what is required.”
The frigate faces the possibility of being used as part of an international blockade of Libya, for humanitarian relief operations or in possible NATO actions.
Skjerpen said that they will train for all eventualities as they make their way to Libya.
“We have made plans to pick up supplies in theatre because we may end up bringing the wrong stuff,” said Skjerpen. “Right now we’re getting evaluations on what do we need to bring. That’s being worked out in Ottawa so that the right stuff is on the ground when we arrive.”
Rear Admiral Dave Gardam boarded the frigate before it left to wish the crew safe voyage.
He said the Charlottetown was capable of performing many tasks and well equipped to do anything the government assigned.
Even though space is at a premium on board the Charlottetown, Gardam said they could make room for any of the 200 or so Canadians still caught in the turmoil in Libya.
“Certainly 200 Canadians would fit on board this ship. I can guarantee it,” he said. “It would be crowded, but they’d be happy.”
The crew was not given a lot of notice about the impending mission.Many only found out Sunday night that they were headed out for what could be a six-month deployment.
Hugs and kisses were shared and tears shed as family members gathered on the frigate’s helicopter deck to send the sailors and air crew off.
Despite the possibility of a protracted separation from his wife and two children, Sub.-Lt. Jim Whorley said he was excited about the mission.
“At this point we’re going over to provide support or whatever is needed, ” he said as he held his one-year-old son Max. “If we needed to help the common citizens who are stuck abroad, then that’s what we’re prepared to do.”
Defence Minister Peter MacKay has said the situation remains volatile in Libya and there is a lot of contingency planning underway as the humanitarian crisis grows.
More than 140,000 refugees have already poured into Tunisia and Egypt from Libya and thousands more are arriving by the day.
Britain, Spain, France and others launched emergency airlifts along Libya’s borders Wednesday, trying to prevent attacks on fleeing foreign workers.