If there was ever a good time to run a cruise ship into a rock in the Arctic, the MV Clipper Adventure found it.
On Aug. 27, 2010 it was a calm and sunny in Coronation Gulf between Nunavut and Victoria Island.
Most importantly, the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Amudsen was only 500 kilometres away.
The Clipper Adventure had taken its 128 passengers and 69 crew into some of the 90 per cent of Canadian Arctic waters that are uncharted. They were in 68 fathoms of water and then they were on a rock, with no warning.
Well, there should have been some warning – On Feb. 9 of this year federal Justice Sean Harrington ruled the boat’s owners were liable for the Amundsen’s environmental response because they did not update their charts with a notice to mariners issued by the coast guard warning of the rock shelf.
“As it was, this nonchalant attitude put the lives of close to 200 souls at risk,” scolded Harrington while handing down a $445,361-fine to the boat’s Bahamas-based owners.
Everyone got lucky – the CCGS Amudsen steamed to the rescue of the passengers and crew. The boat was later pulled free by tugs and taken for repair.
“But it was a warning to everyone,” said Adam Lajeunesse, the Irving Shipbuilding chair in Arctic marine security who is based at St. Francis Xavier University.
“In Ottawa they do tabletop exercises of this type of incident and the results are usually not happy.”
In 2010 there were 26 planned cruises in the Arctic.
That number has been going up steadily since.
During the ice-free shipping season last year (Aug. 1 to Oct. 17) 56 freighters carried 4.1 million tonnes of ore from Baffinland Iron Mines operation at Mary River in the high Arctic.
A company called MMG, which is 75 per cent owned by the Chinese government, is proposing to spend $6.5 billion building a zinc mine in Nunavut that would include a 320-km ice road to a port it would build on Coronation Gulf to ship its product to the world.
So the Arctic is heating up.
And Canada has an overworked fleet of icebreakers built nearly 40 years ago.
Steel hasn’t been cut yet on the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker, a heavy icebreaker that was originally supposed to be in service by last year.
“There is no timeline on the polar icebreaker (CCGS John. G Diefenbaker) at this time,” said Neil O’Rourke, senior director of safe shipping and economic intelligence for the coast guard.
And no money’s been budgeted to replace the seven medium icebreakers.
On Jan. 18 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal government was starting negotiations with Quebec’s Davie Shipyard to lease icebreakers until Canada can build new ones. Dubbed “Project Resolute” by the shipyard, Davie is offering to convert the MV Aiviq, a heavy icebreaker built in 2012 for use on Shell’s Alaska drilling campaign, and three Norwegian built medium icebreakers to serve the Coast Guard on an interim basis.
“When government can’t or won’t put money in to replace equipment, you end up in a situation like this,” said Ken Hansen, a retired Canadian navy commander.
“This is crisis planning when government resorts to things like special contracts to Davie. Unusual purchases and repairs are a sign of illness in the system.”
But Canada’s not completely idle on the capacity front.
In a four-football-fields-long building on Halifax’s waterfront, 1,200 Atlantic Canadians are building the world’s newest Arctic warships.
“Unusual purchases and repairs are a sign of illness in the system.”
Ken Hansen, a retired Canadian navy commander
At one end of the Irving Shipbuilding warehouse, steel cut and bent on a 500-tonne press enters and gets laid on the assembly line.
Each smaller barcoded piece of steel is machine-welded into a “block” that travels down the line toward a plasma cutter. At the end of the line the 64 blocks are assembled into three megablocks which, once welded together, finally start to look like Canada’s tentative answer to the issue of northern capacity — the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship.
“Where else can you go to work each day and see tradespeople take raw steel in one door and out the other comes a modern warship that will go to sea in all weather for the next 30 years and do the nation’s business?” said Kevin McCoy, president of Irving Ship Building.
McCoy doesn’t know yet whether the shipyard will get to build five or six of the new AOPSs before they start on Canada’s new frigates. If the government knows, it isn’t saying.
The AOPS isn’t an icebreaker. With slightly less ice capability than the Coast Guard’s medium icebreakers, the AOPS is designed to work in ice up to a metre thick during the summer season but not clear it for other ships.
Though it has a 25-mm cannon on the bow, it is also not built for seaborne combat like a traditional warship.
Its job is to be a federal presence in the hard north.
The 103-metre ship carries a helicopter, a 20-tonne crane, up to six sea containers, four smaller boats, all-terrain vehicles, has a six-bed hospital and a mess with 20 extra beds for scientists, RCMP officers, customs officers or medical staff.
Unlike Denmark, Iceland and Norway, neither Canada’s Coast Guard nor its navy has a domestic policing role. So the idea behind the AOPS is that it can carry the federal authorities to the Arctic and be their platform of operations — whether it’s checking on the paperwork of boats transiting the northwest passage or doing humanitarian work in northern hamlets.
The AOPSs are only capable of operating in the Arctic during the brief summer season. While there, they will have access to the wharves and refueling station at Nanisivik. The federal government has spent $130 million refurbishing the wharves left over from a now-shuttered led/zinc mine, adding an office, unheated storage building and two 3.75-million litre fuel tanks so the site can be a base for the AOPS and Coast Guard icebreakers.
The HMCS Harry DeWolfe gets launched this summer but it will be 2029 until the first of the Arctic patrol ships heads north.
For the navy the AOPS is an education — in ship design, working in the ice, and in working with other government agencies providing services. Cmdr. Corey Gleason, the man they have chosen to captain the first AOPS, the HMCS Harry DeWolfe, is a commander with a fascination for the North who was commissioned from the ranks before former prime minister Stephen Harper announced the federal government’s renewed commitment to the Arctic.
Gleason has spent the past eight years going north with the Coast Guard and learning how to work in the ice, writing manuals on ship design and operation in that austere environment.
“The Canadian Arctic is really unique, in particular because of the Beaufort sea,” said Gleason.
“You get these big pieces of ice that break off and mix with first and second year ice, then snow falls on it. During the navigable season it becomes this really complex combination of ice that certainly isn’t flat and requires an understanding of what you’re looking at.”
It also requires an understanding of what a new vessel can handle that can only be gleaned from doing, as opposed to looking at computer-generated models.
“There are many people who go to the Arctic once and call themselves subject matter experts,” said Gleason.
“The only subject matter experts I really believe exist for the Arctic are the Inuit.”
Gleason might be excited for the Arctic, but not everyone in the navy is.
A 2016 auditor general’s report found staffing shortages of 10 per cent in certain naval trades.
When Hansen served as a commander through the 80s and 90s, the Royal Canadian Navy viewed a three per cent shortage as “serious” and five per cent as an “emergency.”
“Two years after that report and the shortage has doubled to 20 per cent,” said Hansen.
“Right now I know they are suffering major unforecast attritions. That’s when someone says ‘I’ve had it, I quit.’ The shortages are anything to do with the fleet — tech trades, weapons trades, info trades. Add to that the AOPS needing to be crewed, and something has to give.”
What he expects to give is the regular fleet — the frigates and submarines.
Despite this, Hansen says he believes the AOPS is a good ship for the navy.
“What we’re talking about here is just sovereignty, law enforcement and surveillance,” said Hansen.
“You really do need to have people on scene and the AOPSs are an excellent start.”
The next time a ship runs aground in the Arctic it may be the HMCS Harry DeWolfe steaming over the horizon to the rescue.
Or it might be a leased icebreaker crewed by the Canadian Coast Guard.
But everyone expects it to happen eventually and the odds are it won’t be on a calm, clear day with an icebreaker just a few hours away.