She grew up in land-locked central Alberta, but Nicole Robichaud found her sea legs early in life by learning to sail on Sylvan Lake.
Three decades later, Robichaud is currently one of only four female commanders of ships in the Royal Canadian Navy.
She became Commanding Officer of the HMCS Moncton in 2016, then was Executive Officer on the HMCS Fredericton from 2018 to 2020.
When HMCS Margaret Brooke rolls out of the shipyard this summer, the 46-year-old will be in charge of this brand-new Arctic off-shore icebreaker, built for sovereignty-related missions to the north.
The Lindsay Thurber alum said she’s thrilled and eager to take on this next challenge — one of many in her colourful 18-year naval career.
Robichaud has tangled with pirates in the Gulf of Aden, helped train Liberian Coast Guard members off the coast of Monrovia, and been on a previous ice-breaking run through the Northwest Passage, where she saw beluga whales and polar bears.
She admitted she couldn’t have imagined any of it when she obtained her forestry degree, after starting her post-secondary studies at Red Deer College.
“If you’d have asked me 20 years ago if I would be here, I would have said ‘No!” said Robichaud, with a chuckle.
She was born in Germany, where her father served in the Canadian army. After moving to central Alberta with her family as a teenager, she joined the Red Deer Sea Cadets at age 13.
Robichaud’s summers — as well as her springs and falls — were spent sailing on Sylvan Lake — or travelling to a sea cadet camp in Comox Valley, B.C. where she learned her way around larger ships.
“I liked the structure and discipline of it,” she recalled. “It got me to love the water and the ocean and going out on boats.”
When she grew up and her dreams of becoming a forest ranger didn’t pan out, Robichaud thought about her passion for the ocean and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy in 2002.
The career move seemed right from the start: “I find there’s something very calming about seeing sunrises and sunsets over clear water,” reflected Robichaud. “It pushes that refresh button and takes me to my happy spot.”
On her global travels, Robichaud has never undertaken a combat role. But she has survived massive storms that have made her appreciate the monumental power of Mother Nature. She was seasick only once — when she had an ear infection.
Robichaud has explored many ports and spotted countless sea creatures, including dolphins, whales, turtles — as well as sharks. But human dangers were also lurking.
“Maybe I was naive, but I never thought pirates still existed” when she first joined the navy, admitted Robichaud. “I thought it was something from the past that didn’t exist in the modern world…”
But in 2008 she was the navigator of the HMCS Winnipeg, which was sent to the Gulf of Aden, off Africa’s east coast, to keep shipping lanes free of brigands.
“It was kind of surreal,”she recalled, to see several warning shots fired into the air, above a pirate vessel, which was later boarded by the Canadians.
Robichaud was secretly tickled to see one of the pirates sporting a gold tooth. Her niece, who was in Grade 1 in Calgary, had just sent her a letter warning: ‘Beware of pirates with gold teeth,’ Robichaud recalled, with a laugh.
The Halifax-based commander has since been through more difficult times, such as when a helicopter that took off from her ship crashed in the ocean a year ago, killing six crew members. The investigation is still ongoing.
She admitted she often misses her Alberta family, and must find willing dog-sitters for her pet pooch whenever she goes on long deployments.
But Robichaud still loves her job — which will soon expand in scope and adventure when she begins commanding the HMCS Margaret Brooke on ice-breaking missions next fall and winter. These are designed to reinforce Canada’s Arctic sovereignty and make connections with people in northern communities.
Robichaud credits her many mentors and teachers over the years for helping her prepare for this role.
She believes the navy is making inroads in promoting more women into leadership roles, so Robichaud would advise any little girl who’s interested in the ships and oceans to consider a naval career.
“I would say, ‘Do it! Try it out. You never know unless you try…’”
Robichaud added that she appreciates all the opportunities she’s had “to learn and grow and never be stagnant.”