Wednesday, January 2, 2013

HMCS Athabaskan - synopsis and update.

I have written so much on this, but perhaps it is time for a synopsis and some questions.

What we know:
HMCS Athabaskan was in refit at Seaway Marine and Industrial in St.Catharines, ON  when the government called tenders to have her towed back to Halifax before the closing of the St.Lawrence Seaway.

What we don't know is Why?
A spokesperson for the government told me - perhaps with tongue firmly in cheek, that towing was only Plan B in case the ship might not be ready in time to sail on its own.
We now know now that sailing on its own was NEVER a possibility. The ship had never been away from the dock at the shipyard, had done no trials of any kind, was totally immobile, had no crew assigned and did not have enough functioning systems to sail on its own.
This information must have been well known to the RCN many weeks before the towing tender was called.

Why wasn't the ship ready as originally planned?
There are two reasons: - the RCN piled on extra work due either to the ship's sorry condition, which they should have known about in advance, or because they grossly underestimated the time required to do the work. In any case it should have come as no surprise when December rolled around and the work was not completed.

Why was the decision made to tow the ship out instead of leaving it there for the winter?
The St.Lawrence Seaway is closed from late December to late March every year. It cannot be extended by any more than a few days, even in the best of weather conditions.This year was not the best.
By the end of March there can still be ice on Lake Ontario, but certainly trials could have taken place in April.
At the time I guess the optics would have been bad for the RCN or the government. It would not look good to have the ship frozen in over the winter. Some damage might have been incurred due to freezing in, but that issue could have been overcome with planning.
Also the shipyard has other work to do over the winter, and it might have been disrupted by having Athabaskan in the way, but again plans could have been made.

What planning was done for the tow itself? Was there any due diligence done by the Government?
Winter towing can be tricky stuff. We currently have three ships stuck in ports and two deficient tugs also stuck in port, waiting to tow ships out, not to mention one wreck on Scatarie Island that has not yet been removed. Coincidentally there is a huge oil rig grounded in Alaska after its brand new tug had a power failure.
1. The US tug Charlene Hunt is in St.John's NL to tow the abandoned cruise ship Lyubov Orlova to the Dominican Republic for scrap. The tug, in my opinion is unfit for the job, and was very nearly lost just getting to St.John's. The ship is in poor shape, and will not have a riding crew on board for the tow out. If it goes adrift it may well sink or go aground somewhere. Visualizing it coated with freezing spray in mid-winter, I can see no happy outcome of that tow if it is allowed to happen.
2. The Bolivian flag tug Craig Trans is in Halifax, detained for safety reasons, having missed its opportunity to get an old ship out of the Seaway before closing. That ship, also bound for scrap, would also be a candidate for going adrift in any season of the year and piling up somewhere.
3. The Miner wreck on Scatarie Island should have been an object lesson to anyone attempting a late season tow out of the Gulf.
4. The oil rig grounding in Alaska is only related because of the similarity of circumstances - a wild storm (common in the season) and well found tug (not expected to break down) BUT only one tug , and apparently also, no back-up plan or rescue tug nearby.
5. Calling for tenders a few weeks before needing the tow shows a woeful lack on knowledge about Canada's towing industry. There are not a lot of ocean going tugs lying around waiting for work! Most tugs are contracted for work well in advance, often a year or more ahead of time. Since most towing takes place in summer, they go into scheduled maintenance when the shipping season is over. I understand, for instance, that Ocean Delta was laid up in Quebec City with repairs planned for the winter.
The only other ocean going tug on this coast, Ryan Leet, is on long term contract for standby duties for Sable gas. (See Halifax Shipping News for photos of what that work looks like at this time of year.)
There are several coastal tugs around, anyone of which could make the tow in ideal conditions, but they would have no extra accommodation space for navy personnel, and would not be the "ideal" tug.
5. Regrettably one has to ask if the selected tug was really up to the job. Was a survey done by a third party?  Certainly with any merchant ship or ship with insurance, there would be a survey, and anything involved with the oil industry would have a survey before a winter tow. All the towing gear and proposed connecting points, bits, etc., should also have been surveyed and inspected. Its all part of due diligence.

Was there a back-up plan for the tow?
When things started to go awry with the tow, there did not seem to be any intention other than to go through with it. Wasn't somebody authorized to put the brakes on or find an alternative, or back-up tug? Apparently not. It must be said however, that once the tow left the shipyard, the next ICE FREE port was Halifax. There is no place to stop en route, where the ship did not risk icing in within weeks. Even Sydney is at risk of icing up, but not right away.. So perhaps they just had to make the best of it.

Why do bad things happen to nice people?
Perhaps this is just an example of  a combination of unforeseen circumstances, but I do not think so. I detect a basic problem somewhere in the equation that forced someone to say "Get that ship out of Port Weller, no matter what." Do I sense a political motivation here? Was there an attempt to avoid embarrassment to the military, and more specifically, the minster? 
Perhaps a degree of embarrassment is necessary once in a while to clean up a systemic problem.

Tugs from Atlantic Towing Ltd have arrived in Sydney, presumablyy to prepare for the resumption of the tow.

1 comment:

  1. All of the above points are excellent, great reporting. As well, it will be interesting to see how SMI responds. I think the Navy is going to be very reluctant to award them business (if it wasn't already). Not so much because of workmanship issues, but the distance and logistical complexity of getting ships in and out.
    My other concern is the repair bill for HMCS Athabaskan. They have already put one of her sisters on the bottom. In this age of austerity how much money do you want to put into a 40 year old destroyer, if the damage is serious?