The search for a sailor missing from a Canadian navy ship has been called off, and the vessel and crew are headed back to Esquimalt.
Master Sailor Duane Earle, 47, from Winnipeg, is believed to have fallen overboard Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship 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.
Upon realizing that Earle was missing, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) vessel turned around and began a search with assistance from a Cyclone helicopter, rescue centres in California and assets from the United States Coast Guard. The Royal Canadian Air Force also assisted and in total, the search spanned roughly 2,000 nautical miles from both air and sea.
But around 5:30 p.m. Tuesday the search was concluded, with CAF reporting that Earle had not been found. CAF says his next of kin has been notified and is being offered support.
Commodore Angus Topshee, commander of Canadian Fleet Pacific, spoke about Earle’s disappearance during a media briefing at CFB Esquimalt on Wednesday (Dec. 16).
“The ship is surrounded by guardrails and the upper decks are kept out of bounds at night,” Topshee said, noting that the only way off the ship would be off the upper deck. “The honest truth is, we can’t explain how he came to be in the water, and we are continuing to search for any evidence to support any conclusion.”
At the time the search began, he added, high winds were creating waves of four to five metres. “In a sea like that, even someone very close to the ship can be difficult to see.”
Despite receiving assistance on the sea and in the air, including calculations of drift done by the U.S. Coast Guard, Topshee said, the search was incredibly difficult. “We were as thorough as we could be, but it is harder than finding a needle in a haystack.”
HMCS Winnipeg, which has about 230 trained officers aboard, was returning to Esquimalt from a two-month deployment to the Asia-Pacific region for Operation PROJECTION and NEON, training and international engagement deployments.
Earle joined CAF in 1990 as a member of the naval reserve at HMCS Chippawa. He served various deployments in the years since and spent nearly 2,000 days at sea.
The ship’s commanding officer, Commander Mike Stefanson said it has been an extremely difficult couple of days for the ship’s company.
“We have completed a challenging deployment, in very uncertain times both at home and overseas, and we will continue to stand together through this incredibly sad time,” he said in a statement. “I would like to offer my sympathies to the family and friends of Master Sailor Earle. He will be sorely missed.”
CAF says it will conduct an investigation into the circumstances around Earle’s disappearance and more details will be released in the coming weeks.
– with files from Don Descoteau