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Canada’s overworked icebreaker fleet

The arctic patrol ship, HMCS Harry DeWolf, is seen under construction at Irving Shipyard in Halifax.
The arctic patrol ship, HMCS Harry DeWolf, is seen under construction at Irving Shipyard in Halifax. TIM KROCHAK • THE CHRONICLE HERALD - The Chronicle Herald

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 day 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 the owners didn’t update their charts with a notice issued by the coast guard to mariners 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 the Baffinland Iron Mines operation at Mary River in the high Arctic.

A company called MMG that’s 75-per-cent owned by the Chinese government is proposing to spend $6.5 billion building a zinc mine in Nunavut. It would include a 320-kilometre 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 that the federal government was starting negotiations with Quebec’s DavieShipbuilding 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 situations 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.

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 Shipbuilding.

McCoy doesn’t know yet whether the shipyard will get to build five or six of the new AOPS 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 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.

An AOPS is only capable of operating in the Arctic during the brief summer season. While there, they will have access to the military wharves and refueling station at Nanisivik. The federal government has spent $130 million refurbishing the wharves remaining from a now-shuttered lead/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.

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 chosen to captain the first AOPS, HMCS Harry DeWolf, is a commander with a fascination for the North, 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 firstand 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 will give is the regular fleet, the frigates and submarines. Despite that, 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 AOPS (is) an excellent start.”

The next time a ship runs aground in the Arctic it may be 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.

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