HALIFAX -- The Royal Canadian Navy's last steam-powered warship -- HMCS Preserver -- was officially retired Friday during an elaborate, rain-drenched ceremony along the Halifax waterfront, marking the end of a storied, 46-year career at the front lines of history.

The big support ship's motto was, "Heart of the Fleet."

Commissioned in July 1970, the venerable tanker was a floating grocery store, gas station, repair shop, hospital and helicopter hangar.

Rear Admiral John Newton said Preserver and its now-retired sister, Protecteur, helped Canada punch above its weight on the world stage.

"They allowed our navy to act big," he told a crowd huddled under a large, wind-whipped tent.

Aside from food, fuel and other basic supplies, Preserver also carried ammunition, two landing craft, a dentist, doctor, specialized repair teams and a small hospital with four beds and two operating rooms. It was even equipped to process garbage from other ships.

"Canadian ships don't dump at sea," said retired commander Colin Darlington, who served as the ship's second-in-command between 2001 and 2003.

Some sailors nicknamed the 21,000-tonne, Halifax-based vessel "Atlantic Superstore," after a regional grocery chain.

During the ceremony Friday, the ship's company was lined up on Preserver's deck, facing a crowd of former and current sailors, their families and other supporters. At one point, the frigate HMCS Ville de Quebec sailed past the jetty and fired its guns as the crew on deck shouted three cheers.

"These ships gave the fleet global reach, sustainability, fast deployment when called to action ... and a great utility in coalitions, where food, stores and fuel are always in short supply," said Newton.

Even though the ship usually played a supporting role, it was often near the front lines of key global events.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States came a month after Darlington joined the ships' company. A month after that, in October 2011, Preserver was dispatched to the Arabian Sea for six months as part of the U.S.-led war on terror.

On Dec. 17, 2001, the ship replenished fuel for seven ships from five countries. Working non-stop from sunrise to sundown, the crew also slung 134 pallets loaded with supplies to ships cruising alongside at 12 knots, usually accomplishing the task in less than two minutes.

"I called it the dance on the deck," the former executive officer said, referring to the precise co-ordination of sailors and heavy machinery on a rolling deck.

Earlier in its career, Preserver acted as a supply ship for Canadian peacekeepers in Cyprus in 1974, and took part in several UN missions, including the enforcement of sanctions against Haiti in 1993 and the former Yugoslavia in 1994. The ship also helped with recovery efforts after the Swissair jetliner crash off Nova Scotia in 1998, a gruesome task that saw the vessel used as a floating morgue.

Preserver -- built in New Brunswick by the Saint John Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. -- is the last of the navy's three oilers constructed in the late 1960s as the Cold War prompted the Canadian navy to hone anti-submarine skills acquired during the Second World War.

The federal government's joint support ship replacement program with Vancouver's Seaspan shipyard is expect to deliver the first of two ships by 2020 at the earliest. Meanwhile, Canada is leasing oilers from Spain and Chile, while a German container ship is being converted into a modern oiler at the Davie shipyard in Levis, Que.

Newton said he expected the converted ship, Asterix, to be delivered by next October.

"We're out there building relations internationally for a task group to be on the move as soon as we get that ship in our hands," he said, adding that he expected the Asterix to work with the other two support ships once they are delivered. "I've been told to move ahead with confidence."

As for Preserver, Darlington said he expects the ship to be broken up now that it has been "paid off," a term that dates from the days when sailors were paid wages owing only when the work was done and they went ashore.