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The Real Colette

an-carolineAt this point, my obsessive relationship with HMCS Sackville is reasonably well documented. It began when I based a Defense Command corvette on her, then escalated in 2013, when I spent Battle of the Atlantic week with her in Halifax.

After that, Sackville turned up in Champions, swimming through Newfoundland’s coastal waters with Alex in Outports, and now she’s taken an even more prominent place in the series, being one of two vessels featured in Fray.

I’m loyal to Sackville, but I have to admit, we do have a slightly open relationship.

The Champions novellas for 1944 begin aboard a different ship: much larger and decades older, the British C-Class cruiser HMS Colette captures Lord Thomas Kyle and Gavin Heth in the mid-Atlantic. In Fray, Elspeth goes aboard Colette to lend a hand with the prisoners, while Sackville hurries from Bermuda to render assistance.

So is Colette as real as Sackville?

Strictly speaking: no.

The C-class of cruisers really existed, and much as described in Fray, were designed to serve as scouts for battle fleets of the Dreadnought Era (before practical naval aviation and long before radar). However, none of the ships of that class were called Colette, which is precisely why I went with the name. Setting the grim business in Fray aboard a real ship would have seemed untoward.

However, even though Colette doesn’t exist, you can still visit her real sister. Just last year, the National Museum of the Royal Navy opened the last C-class cruiser –– and last survivor of the Battle of Jutland –– to the public in Belfast.

HMS Caroline fought alongside Jellicoe’s fleet during the First World War, and was later turned into a floating headquarters for the Royal Navy in Northern Ireland. While Sackville was sailing with convoys during the Second World War, Caroline was helping organize their protection.

Now she’s been restored as a museum ship, and I’d hoped to get to Belfast to see her before writing Fray. I ended up in Montreal instead, so I had to do as much research as I could from afar. Fortunately, tours are not hard to come by on YouTube. Here’s just one, and many more have been posted since she opened to the public:

Of course, being a landlubber I probably still got plenty of Colette’s details wrong (even after spending many hours on Sackville, I’m sure I’ve made errors with my favorite ship). Nevertheless, I hope I did justice to the spirit of ships like Caroline, and their crews, who often had thankless jobs at sea, but performed them most gallantly.

I’m always telling people to visit Sackville and to join the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust (even if they’re not Canadian). Now, I’ll step out on my favorite lady in Halifax with another appeal: when Caroline opens to visitors again in April, go visit her –– see what a real Royal Navy cruiser looked and felt like. Make a donation in support of her upkeep… then go home and still join the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust.

Seriously, just do it. I won’t stop telling you.

And how about this: if you’re aboard either Caroline or Sackville, and you Tweet or Instagram me a picture of yourself in a location featured in Fray, I’ll include a character with a name suspiciously similar to yours in Champions. I suppose I shouldn’t leave that open-ended –– if too many people do this, then I’ll have an impossible time including them all… but that’d be a good problem for the two ships, so I’ll stick with it for now.

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Warships like Sackville and Caroline survived some of humanity’s most daunting conflicts, and as a result can teach us a great deal about our past, present, and future. It’s a joy to be able to abduct them into an alternate timeline full of alien dragons and Champions, but my greatest hope continues to be that people learn about their true deeds, and about the thousands of lives they’ve touched over their careers.

So stand aboard a warship, learn something, and have fun.

Then join the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust.

Come on, you know you want to.

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