Piper Steve On the High Seas with the Canadian Navy

Maintaining helicopters, playing the bagpipes, that’s Sgt Steven Drinkwalter of HMCS Calgary. British Columbia’s Sergeant Drinkwalter is deployed on the Canadian warship and has just finished taking part in Operation Artemis, a successful counter-terrorism and maritime security mission in the Middle East. He’s the ship’s unofficial piper.

Steve is pictured above playing during a Battle of the Atlantic commemoration ceremony in May whilst in the Arabian Sea when the ship was part of the operation’s combined task force. (Picture credit: Corporal Lynette Ai Dang)

Sgt Drinkwalter grew up in Esquimalt, BC. He went to Esquimalt High school and his mum got him into piping when he was 12.

By Captain Jeffrey Klassen

‘We were watching the Victoria Day parade and the pipe band walked by and she said ‘you’re doing that’,’ said Sgt Drinkwalter. 

He had already been in Sea Cadets and Air Cadets and so he joined the 2136 Canadian Scottish Cadet Corps and that’s where he learned the pipes. ‘I loved it right away,’ he said.

In 1994, aged 17, Steve transitioned to an Infantry Reservist in the Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s) out of the Bay Street Armouries in Victoria, B.C.

With them he toured the world as part of their Regimental Band and fondly recalls experiences touring the United States (sometimes being given a lift by the United States Air Force just for a performance) and going to Europe.

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His most memorable trip was to Scotland for Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the largest military show of its kind in the world.

In 2004, Sgt Drinkwalter moved from the Reserve Force to the Regular Force. He joined a maritime helicopter squadron as an aviation systems technician and was soon deployed on different warships as part of their embarked air detachments. 

On every trip he takes his pipes and delights the ship’s company. He ends up being the ships’ unofficial piper at dinners, cocktail parties, birthdays, celebrations, memorials, and all other variety of functions and occasions.

How does he maintain his pipes at sea? Steve:  ‘I play McCallum AB4 deluxe bagpipes. Maintenance is relatively simple. I periodically wipe down the wood inside and out with mineral oil.

‘I use a synthetic/hide bag and canister system so very little maintenance other than keeping the zipper lubricated. I have a small stockpile of reeds just in case.

Sgt Drinkwalter and HMS Calgary. (Picture credit Corporal Lynette Ai Dang)

How often does he get to practice and where does he do it? ‘I practice at least 3-4 times a week in my office. About one hour on the practice chanter. I also use an electronic chanter with earbuds in order to keep the noise down.

‘With the schedule the navy personnel work there’s always someone sleeping and the walls are thin so I don’t want to make any enemies by practicing while they are sleeping.

‘I will practice my bagpipe at least once a week, depending on operations of course. Sometimes we’re a little too busy and I just won’t have the time. I will take my pipes out onto the flight deck and play to the ocean for 30-45 minutes.

‘Is there a particular naval repertoire he uses? The only navy tune I play regularly is Heart of Oak plus traditional laments if I am playing for remembrance ceremonies, ie Flowers of the Forest.

‘Other than that I play whatever comes to mind to suite the occasion. As I am a member of the RCAF, “Top Gun” is a popular one with the air force guys!’

Sgt Drinkwalter is currently deployed at sea with HMCS Calgary and will return to his BC base in September.

Recently his skills were used at celebration of the RACF’s 97th birthday, at a mess dinner, and at a Battle of Atlantic ceremony and during a memorial ceremony for the one-year anniversary of the crash of the helicopter Stalker 22.

Operation Artemis is a counter smuggling and counter-terrorism mission in the Arabian Sea and ensuring the servicability of the helicopter was crucial to the success HMCS Calgary had on this mission. 

Sgt Drinkwalter still resides in Esquimalt where he lives with his wife Whitney and their four children Bailey, Austin, Madison, and Kenzie.

HMCS Calgary recently posted a video of Sgt Drinkwalter practicing his bagpipes on the flight deck. You can see it here.

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