On the job

Real world people working on the water

Authored by: Margaret Boyes

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Lieutenant Commander Angus Topshee, Executive Officer, HMCS Toronto

As the executive officer aboard HMCS Toronto, Lieutenant Commander Angus Topshee wears many hats — his job includes acting as a hotel manager, taking care of administrative duties, and being a training officer and a diplomat. When the Toronto circumnavigated Africa in 2007 as part of a NATO flotilla, Topshee took part in a mission to rescue Yemeni soldiers when their volcanic island erupted in August, a story highlighted on CBC’s The National. Topshee loves being in the navy with the opportunities it gives him to meet other seafarers and see different parts of the world.

On The Job: Tell us about your position. How long have you been doing it, what does it involve and what are the challenges?

Angus Topshee: I’ve been the executive officer of HMCS Toronto for almost a year and before that I spent a year as executive officer of HMCS Saint John’s. An executive officer is second in command of a warship. Basically my job is to implement the captain’s directions and make sure the ship does everything he wishes and that we fulfill the missions that he and the higher command set us. He’s a commander and I’m a lieutenant commander and typically on a frigate, like Toronto, I’m the only commander on board. But there may be one of two other heads of departments.

There’s also a naval captain which is a four stripe position and a rank higher than the ship’s commander. A lieutenant commander has two and half stripes. A commander three has stripes. Some command ships but typically they’re in more senior positions. My challenges include the fun hotel management side of the ship. I make sure everyone on board has a bunk. On Toronto we have a crew of 235. Mess decks range in size from six to 21 and because we mix males and females on board it gets complicated. We can accommodate 12 women so if we have 13 we have to rejuggle the mess decks to make sure everyone fits.

I also do the ship’s administration and make sure paperwork is processed quickly and reports get done. The best part of my job is being the training officer. I make sure everyone on board with a role to develop works towards the right qualification level. I also train the ships’ company so they’re ready for any type of mission, I do a bit of everything. Typically I’m sent on many tasks off the ship. If a foreign warship approaches, the captain may send me to talk to them so they understand what we’re doing in their area of the world. I try to resolve any differences or challenges that might arise. I also coordinate many port visits, set up diplomatic functions and make sure everything runs smoothly.

OTJ: Why did you choose this job? What route have you taken in terms of education and experience?

AT: I joined the military in 1990. I went through the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, and got a Bachelors degree then a Masters before starting naval training. Then I spent a year at the Naval Officer Training Centre in Victoria. After that I did different jobs and qualification courses including being a navigating officer for three years and an operations officer for two years. Then I went to staff college for a year at the US Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island and was selected for the position I have now. My first choice was to be a pilot but after I proved to everyone’s satisfaction that I can’t land a plane to save my life, I wound up in the navy. I’m very happy about it because I absolutely love what I do now and my goal is to one day command one of our ships.

OTJ: What does is take to succeed in your job?

AT: A certain amount of leadership; the ability to process many different inputs at the same time; and being able to respond quickly and decisively under pressure and in tense situations, with a lot of uncertainty. The chief of defence staff, General Hillier, talks about needing officers who are comfortable with ambiguity so when a situation is uncertain they can be decisive and rally a team around that will lead them to their objective. That’s the leadership style I’m trying to adopt. It means setting a clear goal, ensuring everyone’s happy with it and ensuring everyone works toward it. Hillier met Toronto when we returned from our deployment and presented the ship with a chief of the defence staff Canadian Armed Forces Unit Commendation which is a rare award for a ship. He’s extremely popular. The crew adored him and would follow him anywhere.

OTJ: If there was anything you could change about your job what would it be?

AT: Well, I’d love to be a captain [laughs] ... but about my job? Nothing really. I love what I do! The travel’s amazing — I’ve been all around the world. I’ve been at sea almost continuously in the 21 months I’ve been an executive officer. I love working with people on board the ship so there really isn’t much I’d change about my job except getting rid of some paperwork.

OTJ: What are your aspirations for growth in your job?

AT: I’d like to finish the job I’m in now, having set a standard that’s easier for someone to follow and emulate. I’d like to go on to command. So I’m off to National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) in Ottawa this summer to work in a staff position. Hopefully in a couple of years the navy may see fit to appoint me to command a ship.

OTJ: What was your most memorable moment on this job?

AT: That’s a tough one. The two-and-a-half month deployment on the trip around Africa in 2007 was fantastic. Perhaps the most memorable moment personally was going on board a Nigerian warship and talking face-to-face with their captain after their ship had harassed and threatened us and demanded we leave their waters. I convinced him we weren’t there to challenge their sovereignty or security in any way. The most rewarding moment professionally was saving a soldier’s life after a volcano erupted in the Red Sea on a Yemeni island. Twenty-one of 29 soldiers based on the island were rescued by the Coast Guard. Eight were missing but we saved one of those and recovered two bodies that we returned to the Yemeni navy. On the non-military side, the port visit to Cape Town was amazing. My father spent a lot of time in South Africa when he was young. He died when I was on a deployment in 2000. When we were in South Africa I climbed Table Mountain and got a sense of where he’d grown up and understood more about him. He wasn’t in the navy, he was a teacher his entire life. Sadly he died soon after retiring, so you could say he did his service by saving the government a lot of money in pensions.

OTJ: If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?

AT: I can’t imagine doing anything else but if I retired I think I might become a doctor. That’s been a life-long dream but it’s just not compatible with commanding ships in the navy. We have great doctors in the navy. I’ve seen so much poverty around the world I’d love to work for an organization like doctors without borders.

OTJ: What are your thoughts about the future of your profession?

AT: I think the navy has a very bright future. The government is funding some important projects for us, for example the Joint Support Ship procurement project, the modernization of the Halifax class frigates, and the Arctic offshore patrol ship project. We celebrate our 100th anniversary in 2010. Career paths for officers who do my job — what we call MARS officers, or maritime surface and subsurface officers — are bright. In 20 or 30 years we should have several new classes of ship. We soon need replacements for destroyers we have now, and are working on a destroyer replacement project with the government. We’ll have youth regulated joint support ships and fully-capable submarines. We’ll have a Canadian weapons system on board. That’s the last thing we’re missing right now. And hopefully a new class of ship will replace frigates integrated with aircraft. It will be a fully-capable modern navy. The navy has a clear vision of where we’ll be in 20 years. My goal is ensure we hand it over in good shape to the next generation.

OTJ: Tell me about some people in your line of work that you admire.

AT: The commanding officer we had for the trip around Africa, Commander Steve Virgin, comes to mind quickly. He was a submariner and because of this brought a different perspective to surface operations and a very operational focus. He pushed the crew to achieve more than most people thought they could do. He knew how to work hard and also how to have fun. Another mentor I’ve had is Admiral MacLean who retired two years ago as head of the navy. He’s the excellent sort of officer we should have in the navy. He was a very clear leader with a clear vision of what he wanted to be. His official title was chief of maritime staff which is basically one step below General Hillier. I worked for him when he was a commodore in Ottawa and admired his intellect. He knew how to get the most out of people. That’s an important part of my job, too. As second in command I have to make sure everyone on board supports the mission and the commanding officer. So I work closely with the coxswain in support of the captain (the coxswain is the senior enlisted person on board, a chief petty officer first class). We call it the command triad of the ship and it’s an effective structure for leading the ship and making sure it has a good morale, strong operational spirit and effectiveness.

OTJ: Do you have any advice for people who’d like to do your job?

AT: The most important thing is stay in school — you need a high school diploma — and it may sound corny but don’t do drugs. Other than that, to become a MARS officer the simplest thing is to excel in school. There are many different entry programs to go through to join. You can earn your degree at the Royal Military College or get a degree and join later. We’ve had all kinds of people joining. One of the junior officers under my command was a grandfather of 49. We take people up to age 50 because they have to finish their contract by 55. Anyone interested should get involved, demonstrate leadership in different ways and go down to their local recruiting center and fill in the paperwork. I love being in the navy — it’s a fabulous job! I have opportunities to get to know other seafarers. I went on board a BC Ferry for navigation training and to see how they run things. It’s amazing how we all use the same principles driving ships. In the military we add complications with weapons and things like that on different missions but the common fellowship of the sea is wonderful. When we responded to the volcano near Yemen all sort of merchant ships slowed down and assisted in the search as they passed through as best they could without jeopardizing the fact that they had to deliver their cargo. So even though I’m in the navy I really appreciate what other mariners do on the water.

Figure 1 - The A501 is a Nigerian Navy vessel that LCdr Topshee visited in the spirit of international relations to discuss SNMG1’s mission. LCdr Topshee can be seen dressed in white, midships just above the RHIB.
Figure 2 - HMCS Toronto in front of Table Mountain prior to going alongside in Cape Town, South Africa.
Figure 3 - LCdr Topshee in a relaxed moment onboard HMCS Toronto. “The travel’s amazing,” says Topshee. “I’ve been all around the world.”
Figure 4 - The Jazirat At Ta’ir Island volcano erupts near Yemen, as seen from HMCS Toronto.
Figure 5 - LCdr Topshee works with other ship’s personnel giving first aid to a Yemeni soldier recovered from the Red Sea after the volcanic eruption.
All pictures by LCdr Topshee

Margaret Boyes is a Victoria, BC based copywriter. She writes sales letters, direct marketing packages, e-mails, landing pages, web pages, brochures, sell sheets, case studies, newsletters and other communications that get leads and make sales. Visit her website for more information. This article was first published in Mariner Life Magazine, a Vancouver based publication, in June 2008.
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