The problem plagued tow of the HMCS Athabaskan took a major turn for the worse today when the tow line parted and the ship had to be rescued, in all places, off Scatarie Island. That island, at the eastern most edge of Cape Breton Island is of course where the laker Miner ran aground - and remains there - despite a year of efforts by the Province of Nova Scotia to have it removed.
HMCS Athabaskan however is far from a worn out bulker on its way to the breakers. It is as sophisticated a warship as the Canadian navy owns, and one of only two destroyers on the east coast. Any damage, let alone a loss of the ship, would result in catastrophic costs, loss of strategic asset for a lengthy period of time, and some very serious loss of prestige for the RCN.
The saga really started with Athabaskan going to Seaway Industrial and Marine in St. Catharines, ON for a refit in the spring of 2012. The work was to be completed before the winter closing of the St.Lawrence Seaway, so that the ship could be back in Halifax for workups. The wisdom of sending warships to the Lakes for refit has always been the subject of some controversy in case the do have to winter over. However, it was considered by many to be a wise move to allow the newly rejuvenated yard to get some navy work
Nevertheless, as it turned out, the work could not be completed before Seaway closing time [it closed today] and the Navy decided to have the ship towed to Halifax to avoid having it "trapped" for the winter.
The Quebec City Groupe Océan was awarded the bid for the tow and two of its tugs arrived at the shipyard in mid-December. Groupe Océan is the largest tug company in eastern Canada, has a good reputation, and has one of the few deep sea tugs in the region.
Things got off to a bad, and perhaps ominous, start. As I hear it, the lead tug Océan Delta was having mechanical problems and the tow out was delayed until it had made repairs. The tow out started on December 18 - about a week late and encountered poor weather on the way. They had to stop over in Montreal for more repairs to Océan Delta and at Trois-Rivières. It appears that they may also have gone into Baie-Comeau on December 24, are perhaps sheltered there for the night.
By this time the Canso Canal was closed for the season and the tow was forced to take the more exposed route via Cape North. They took shelter in Sydney harbour due to a passing storm December 27, but apparently set out today for Halifax.
At some point late this morning the tow line parted off Scatarie
I do not know how long the ship was adrift, but the last report I received early this afternoon was that the Coast Guard was towing the ship into Sydney. But this was incorrect As we know from previous incidents, it would have to be a pretty dire condition before the Coast Guard would tow anything.
With another major winter storm arriving in Nova Scotia overnight, Sydney is the best place for the ship until a suitable weather window arrives.
I have long advocated for a dedicated rescue tug or tugs on the east coast of Canada, and this is the seond time in tow years where such a tug could have stepped in. Unfortunately for the aforementioned Miner no such tug was available, and the ship piled up on the island and will be major headache to remove. I am sure there will be much to say about the Athabaskan story in the future when more details emerge, but in my opinion a rescue tug should have been available.
above: Athabaskan as built, with distinctive canted funnels.
Amendment: The original post has been revised based on subsequent information.
For a bit deeper background on the tugs see Tugfax.