07/16/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 09/14/2014 05:59 EDT

HMCS Whitehorse: Navy misconduct report may target booze

Some of the signs still hang above Bermuda saloons, according to Canadian naval lore: "No dogs or Canadian sailors allowed."

The discourtesy was long attributed to rampant rowdy behaviour by boozed-up Royal Canadian Navy officers who did everything from "steal a city bus and ride it around in the middle of the night" to "drive rented scooters off jetties and right into the harbour," says Ken Hansen, a 32-year navy veteran and editor of the Canadian Naval Review.

But a recent rash of alleged misconduct on and off a Canadian coastal defence vessel has prompted military brass to do some soul-searching and examine whether shenanigans by Canada’s modern-day maritime force are getting out of hand, and whether alcohol privileges are partly to blame.

In an international embarrassment this week for the naval force, HMCS Whitehorse withdrew from a military exercise in the Pacific and returned to B.C. from a San Diego port, following three incidents of misconduct by crew members.

The directive to turn the ship around came from commander of the navy Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, who "decided that enough is enough," said navy spokesman Cmdr. Hubert Genest, calling the latest transgressions a "tipping point" for the entire fleet.

'Beer in pop machines'

CBC News has learned the breaches of conduct included a "sexual incident," delinquency involving a seaman who was arrested for shoplifting in San Diego, and a senior officer who spent the night in a drunk tank while AWOL. Alcohol fuelled all three incidents, according to sources.

Although Genest told CBC News the offences are far from the worst the navy has ever seen, he said they triggered action from the commander, who felt it was time to bring personnel back in line, lest they continue to undermine the navy's reputation.

"[Cmdr. Norman] had sufficient information in his mind to recall the ship, which on its own is a message to the rest of the navy, a message that he’s not happy with the type of incidents that have occurred," Genest told CBC News. "So we’re calling a review of our procedures to ensure we’re not facing a systemic issue."

More than likely, Genest added, "this is only…a small minority that isn't acting to the high standard we want."

Hansen, a former commander before retiring from the navy in 2009, suspects that review will target the Royal Canadian Navy’s drinking culture.

"It could be a watershed moment in the navy’s booze policy," he said, referring to on-board libation that is currently readily available to sailors.

No booze for U.S. Navy

Unlike the U.S. Navy, which is 100 years dry at sea, Canadian sailors can enjoy free-flowing liquor and beer on and off the ship, so long as they aren't expected on duty.

"There's beer in [the ship’s] pop machines, there’s a bar in each of the messes, and it’s all at duty-free prices so it's very cheap," Hansen said. "When the ship is in port, they just unlock these things. And when the ship is sailing, you can't drink unless you're going to be off watch for more than six hours."

The trouble is "about 95 per cent" of all the navy’s discipline problems and charges that get laid stem from alcohol abuse, he said, citing sources within the navy's legal and public affairs offices.

But what might sound like a catalyst for debauched crew behaviour isn't necessarily so, said Bill Paull, a former warship commander and past president of the Naval Officers' Association of B.C.

Before he retired in 1992, Paull said his 37 years serving in the navy and the naval reserves were met with an "exemplary" class of sailors who rarely overstepped strict regulations governing alcohol privileges. He believes the current generation of sailors are even better behaved than in his day.

Paull served as an officer of the guard in Hawaii and said a more common sight was watching U.S. sailors get carted off to their ships due to misconduct.

'A tradition in our forces'

"With the Canadian soldiers, we just had to show the Crown slip-on badges on our sleeves and the sailors did exactly as we told them," he said.

As is the case with the British, Australian and New Zealand navies, drinking on vessels "has been a tradition in our forces," Paull said.

"The seamen have usually beer machines and that sort of thing. The officers have an open bar that's under strict regulation, and when we're entertaining, we have comped cocktail parties that serve liquor and so on," he said.

During his years as a ship commander, Hansen ordered the expulsions of six personnel for alcohol abuse and poor job performance.

The adjunct professor of political science at Dalhousie University also witnessed his share of hijinks, including an incident in the 1970s in Manzanillo, Mexico, when three sailors were arrested for public intoxication.

"They threw them all in the slammer, and two of them pulled the bars off the door and came home and left their drunk buddy passed out in the bunk in the holding cell," Hansen said. "When they got back to the ship, they played dumb. We chewed them out for leaving their buddy behind."

Less serious misdemeanour-type crimes would be tried under a military justice system, in which the captain has summary trial power, meaning he or she determines guilt or innocence and possesses limited punitive powers, explained Ken Lait, director of the Naval Association of Canada.

Brace for backlash

"It happens. People get picked up by local police, but usually if they've done something wrong, they're put back on the ship, unless they're required for a court appearance," Lait said.

From there, the captain has a range of options. He can levy a fine, confine a person on board for several days, or assess extra work, for example. If the incident is more serious, it may be elevated to a higher authority and could be dealt with upon return to a Canadian port.

As for one measure navy experts advise against?

"Removing the booze privileges from the ship," Hansen warned. "If they do that, there will be a major backlash and morale will be significantly affected in a very negative way, at least for a while."

If the navy believes banning drinking will erase the underlying cause of moral degradation among personnel, he argued, "that's merely removing the mask from what's really the problem."

"More often than not, it's a failure in the ship's divisional system, it's the command leadership or supervisory roles not doing their job," Hansen said. "First, you fix discipline on the part of the guys who need to understand that putting on the uniform and service comes first. Duty and service come first before fun and a couple of drinks."

The Royal Canadian Navy says it expects its report on sailor misconduct to be due in the fall.