Clubbing the Canadian Coast Guard

Image conscious Canadian Coast Guard is under quite a few spotlights these days. Theres is bound to be some discomfort at HQ after several incidents in the Maritimes (Eastern Canada) which has drawn media scrutiny, and even became the second topic discussed today in the house of commons’ Question Period. The Prime Minister stated that the accident would be investigated publicly, by no less that the Coast Guard, Dept of Fisheries, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Transportation Safety Board.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, March 29th, the Canadian Coast Guard ship, Sir William Alexander, was towing a 32 meter boat, L’Acadien II from Iles-de-la-Madeleine in the gulf of the St. Lawrence, with 6 seal hunters on board, when the boat “rode up” on ice and tipped over. The two crewmen, not sleeping, survived and were rescued by a near by fishing boat. Three bodies were recovered by Navy Divers, and one man is still missing, but the search was called off as he is presume drowned. On the right is a graphic of the accident by the Globe and Mail, notice the vessel involved not accurately represented (perhaps neither is the data – such is the media) but pretty good insight nonetheless. Here is the press release by the DFO about the incident, issued on the following day, on the 30th.

The minister responsible for Coast Guard, a part of the DFO, the Honourable Loyola Hearn, did finally issue a statement on this matter expressing sorrow and announcing the investigations by the various organization – after some political pressure, I am sure – three days after the incident.

There was another brief mention of the L’Acadien II accident in a another press release. In that press release, Fisheries and Oceans’ minister, the Honourable Loyola Hearn was commenting on the latest incident in the seal hunt this year, where the RV Farley Mowat was involved in a collision with the Coast Guard Ship DesGroseilliers. You can read the Sea Sheperd’s version of events, with pictures here.

Farley Mowat is a ship from the Sea Shepard Society – environmentalist group protesting the seal hunt practices – that according to the minister put itself in a position to be struck by the Coast Guard Ship to raise awareness, funds, attention against the seal hunt – supported by the Government of Canada.

– Martin

Here’s is a story about the Sir William Alexander accident from the Globe and Mail.

Ship captain called in vain to stop icebreaker
JONATHAN MONTPETIT, The Canadian Press, March 31, 2008 at 4:26 PM EDT

Iles-de-la-Madeleine, Que. — The captain of a sealing vessel says he shouted in vain on his radio for the coast guard to stop an icebreaker after another vessel it was towing capsized on the weekend.

Wayne Dickson was trailing closely behind his friend’s sealing vessel and could see the small boat zig and zag on Saturday morning as it pitched between large chunks of ice far from shore in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

His mate’s boat, L’Acadien II, was under tow from the coast guard icebreaker Sir William Alexander and was not having an easy time in the darkness as ice spewed up behind the cutter.

Mr. Dickson saw the icebreaker haul L’Acadien up sideways onto an ice floe the size of a truck, and keep moving forward as the boat began sinking into the frigid water.

Mr. Dickson says he started screaming into his boat’s radio to tell the Alexander to stop before it dragged the boat into the inky black waters, imperilling the six crew members on board.

Mr. Dickson and the six others on his sealing boat scrambled to help two men who made it out of L’Acadien.

Meanwhile, Quebec’s seal hunters limped back to port Monday from a disastrous start to their annual hunting season. As the sleepless hunters set foot on land, their tales of what happened to the ill-fated L’Acadien II raised questions about how the Canadian Coast Guard handled the operation.

Three men died and one remained lost at sea after L’Acadien II flipped over while it was under tow early Saturday from a coast guard icebreaker.

“When you’re being towed by the coast guard it’s supposed to be safe,” said Charles Poirier, captain of the Emy Serge. “What happened? Was there negligence? Was it an accident.”

Hunters consider such towing operations routine. Many of those returning home Monday were grim-faced and tight-lipped about the weekend’s events, when a boat in their fleet stalled and called the coast guard for a tow.

But some indicated there were several irregularities about Saturday’s rescue.

Jocelyn Chiasson, a crew member of the Emy Serge, said it’s unusual for large icebreakers to pull a boat as small as the 12-metre L’Acadien II.

“The icebreaker is around three times its size,” he said, squeezing his 11-year-old daughter tightly under one arm. “Smaller boats usually tow fishing boats, but they (L’Acadien II’s crew) didn’t want to disrupt the hunt.”

One hunter said he heard shortwave radio reports that L’Acadien II began to sway as it was being towed. It was apparently at a 30 degree angle to the icebreaker when it capsized.

“There should have been somebody watching L’Acadien II,” said the hunter, who asked not to be identified.

Witnesses aboard the boat following L’Acadien II have said the icebreaker appeared to be going too fast.

“We’re all emotional over the drama because we always say when we’re with the coast guard we’re supposed to be safe,” Ms. Chiasson said. “It was an accident, we don’t want to blame anyone.”

Many captains have described the ice in the North Atlantic as the worst they’ve seen in years. Pressure caused by the ice floes is being blamed for the loss of another Madeliot seal hunting boat over the weekend.

The seven crew members of the Annie Marie managed to jump to a nearby ice floe when their vessel began to take in water. They were later rescued by helicopter.

The crews of six of the boats that set off with L’Acadien II last week for the annual seal hunt were welcomed by relieved friends and family at the docks in the Iles-de-la-Madeleine.

As the boats emerged from the ice floes, the boats cut their engines in unison for a moment of silence before embarking on the final leg of the trip.

The half-dozen that arrived Monday formed a cortege of sorts as they arrived in the harbour, a sign of solidarity for those who went down with L’Acadien II.

The captain of the overturned trawler, Bruno Bourque, and sealers Gilles Leblanc and Marc-Andre Deraspe died in the accident.

The remaining half-dozen boats that were hunting with L’Acadien II were having trouble negotiating thick ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and were scheduled to pull into the harbour by Tuesday.

Among them was the War Lord, whose crew is being credited for picking up the only survivors from L’Acadien II’s six-man crew.

The mayor of the small island community continued on Monday to call for a thorough investigation into the deaths.

Joel Arseneau indicated the matter would be discussed by ministers in the federal government.

Mr. Arseneau also called on the coast guard to resume its search for the missing sailor, 31-year-old Carl Aucoin.

“Political pressure is now being applied on the coast guard, the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans, and Transport Canada to push for the continuation of the search,” he told reporters.

“We were told the conditions are very difficult.”

Mr. Aucoin’s family acknowledges there is little hope of finding him alive, but want to have the body to help with their mourning.

Autopsies have been completed in Halifax on the bodies of the three hunters. The bodies were expected to be taken to the island Monday or Tuesday.

Mr. Arseneau said he is consulting with the families about holding a civic funeral.

The hunters will be keeping a close eye on the weather conditions, anxious as they are to resume as soon as the ice begins to soften.

But with the deaths aboard L’Acadien II still fresh, weather might not be the only factor that prevents them from returning to the unforgiving icy waters of the North Atlantic. “We’ll have to check with the women first,” said Ms. Chiasson.

This article has 3 Comments

  1. This winter has seen the worse ice coverage in the Gulf of St Lawrence in well over a decade.
    With the forced takeover by DFO and subsequent sell off of all of the smaller icebreakers CG operated, the remaining fleet is stretched to maintain traffic moving.

    CG is being vilified in the articles and are conspicious by their lack of comment. We can only assume it is due to the TSB, RCMP and their own internal investigations.
    However saying that, a 83 m vessel is not a speedboat that can stop on a dime, and with a tow on cannot go astern without fear of backing into the towed vessel. It is only common sense.
    The fellow in the following boat should shut up, he is really making a fool of himself, though he can be forgiven because of the horror of the whole situation.
    My sympathies to the families of the lost men and the crew of the CG ship.
    Hopefully CG will lift the gag order soon and issue an explanations. My feeling is there is plenty of blame to go around to different Gov’t agencies over this one.

  2. This instinctive reaction, that Coast Guard or other Government organizations like the RCMP, to clam up and not issue a simple acknowledgment of events, really smells of a “ass protection measures” rather than a open, accountable and proactive organization helping people which they, in my opinion should be, or at least should be seen to be.

    I believe BC Ferries has learned this lesson over the last 5 years. If you don’t say something, someone will do it for you.

  3. I believe with TSB involved and an active investigations, there is not much anyone can say in CG. After all not everyone has the polished PR machine of BCFC.

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