05/14/2015 21:45 EDT | Updated 05/14/2016 01:12 EDT

Farewell ceremony for fire-ravaged HMCS Protecteur after 46 years at sea

ESQUIMALT, B.C. - Sailors gave three loud cheers and a brass band belted out Auld Lang Syne to honour a Canadian navy supply ship during a farewell ceremony Thursday.The event marked almost 46 years of military service for HMCS Protecteur, including the Cold War, Gulf War and hurricane relief.Officers and sailors spoke candidly and emotionally about an engine-room fire off the Hawaiian Islands last February that crippled the ship and prompted its premature retirement.Protecteur was alone in the middle of the ocean, without power, while the crew fought back a blaze that sent thick smoke billowing from the ship's stacks.The Commander of Canada's Pacific Naval Fleet, Commodore Bob Auchterlonie said the current ship's company has endured a trying 18 months, but demonstrated the skills and success that has become a trademark of all Protecteur sailors. More than 10,000 Canadians served on board the Protecteur as it covered 800,000 nautical miles during its many voyages."In the finest traditions of the Royal Canadian Navy, the crew of Protecteur, alone in the high seas, in the dark of night, with no power battled a major main-space fire with inspirational leadership, unfailing courage and solid training," said Auchterlonie."The ship and her ship's companies have shown the same spirit, the same can-do attitude and mission focus, throughout her tremendous service in the Royal Canadian Navy for more than 45 years," he said.Leading Seaman Adam Flegel said the fire experience was surreal, with the crew fighting to save themselves and their ship, only to realize later how close they had come to disaster."There was a lot of smoke," he said. "We were on the port side up top and all the smoke was coming out of the stacks. Any time any light was shone up there it was black, dark, dark smoke coming out of the stacks."More than 100 former Protecteur crew members and the current crew participated in a traditional paying-off naval ceremony that marks the end of a ship's commission. The ship's ensign and the captain's pennant are hauled down, the crew departs for the final time and the ship is no longer referred to as Her Majesty's Canadian Ship.Former commanding officer Douglas McClean said the ceremony was bittersweet, stirring his emotions and bringing back memories when he was at Protecteur's helm when it sailed for the Gulf War. He said many on board, including himself, were wondering whether they would make it back home alive."I took this ship to war in 1990 from Halifax and I went to the Gulf War and then we did hurricane relief operations in Florida and the Bahamas, deployments all over the world and the last thing I did as her captain was to bring her here from the East Coast and turned her into a West Coast ship," said McClean. "So, a little bit of my soul is in there today."He said Protecteur's loss means Canadian naval ships must rely on other countries for fuel and supplies or return to port more often.HMCS Protecteur was commissioned on August 30, 1969, and constructed in Saint John, N.B. It initially sailed with the Atlantic Fleet before transferring to the Pacific Fleet.The military said it hasn't yet decided what it will do with the retired vessel.