Maritime authorities in Canada have restricted their Coast Guard from towing certain vessels through ice after four sealers were killed while an icebreaker was pulling their fishing boat in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The fatalities happened on March 29, when the Coast Guard vessel Sir William Alexander was towing the disabled Lâ€™Acadien II north of Nova Scotiaâ€™s Cape Breton. Witnesses said a large cake of ice flipped the 41-foot fishing boat.
Witnesses reported that the Coast Guard vessel had swerved to avoid the large ice sheet at about 0115. In doing so, the seal-hunting boat was dragged into the path of the ice chunk. The boat swerved onto the ice, then capsized and sank. Alexander had accelerated to 4 knots from 2.5 knots in Lâ€™Acadien IIâ€™s final moments.
Two of Lâ€™Acadien IIâ€™s occupants were rescued by a trailing sealing vessel. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which runs the Coast Guard, is investigating the incident. Transport Canada said it was investigating why the six sealers were allowed to stay on board their vessel during the towing operation. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada and Canadian Mounted Police announced their own probes.
About 10 days after the casualty, Fisheries and Oceans announced that the Coast Guard will not be permitted to tow such vessels through ice with the crew on board. Spokesman Phil Jenkins said the new rule is considered temporary, for now.
â€œThe Coast Guard will no longer tow vessels 33 meters or less in length, in ice, with the crew aboard the towed vessel, pending the outcome of an internal safety review,â€ Jenkins said in a statement. Thirty-three meters is 108 feet.
Killed were Lâ€™Acadien II Captain Bruno Bourque and crewmen Carl Aucoin, Marc-Andre Deraspe and Gilles Leblanc. Aucoinâ€™s body was never found. Hundreds of people attended a memorial service on Iles de la Madeleine, a remote Quebec archipelago north of Prince Edward Island.
The accident happened northeast of Neilâ€™s Harbour, Nova Scotia, according to a statement from Fisheries and Oceans. The two men who were rescued had been on deck; the three bodies were found below deck.
Lâ€™Acadien II, built in 1988, was an aluminum Carvel/Flush-type boat. It was a diesel-powered, single-screw vessel. Jenkins told Professional Mariner that the boat became disabled because it lost its rudder during the seal hunt. He said the vessel was not salvaged.
The registered owner was Les Pecheries Bruno Bourque Inc. of Quebec, according to Transport Canadaâ€™s vessel registration directory. Lâ€™Acadien IIâ€™s homeport was Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
The two survivors and witnesses aboard the trailing vessel reported that no one was standing watch on the Coast Guard icebreaker during the voyage to monitor the tow and ensure that Lâ€™Acadien II remained out of harmâ€™s way.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, however, issued a statement that said two of Sir William Alexanderâ€™s crew were standing watch on the icebreakerâ€™s stern. The TSB declined further comment.
Crews of disabled vessels often prefer to remain aboard during a tow to help prevent damage to their vessel, and the Coast Guard towing policy allows this.
â€œFor disabled vessels in distress or potential distress situations, towing or other technical assistance may be provided where the timely provision of this assistance is judged by the commanding officer of the assisting vessel to be the most effective way of contributing to the saving of life, provided it can be done within the capabilities of the assisting vessel and without imperiling the assisting vessel, or tow, or persons on-board either the assisting vessel or tow,â€ the Coast Guard manual states. â€œThe crew of the stricken vessel should be evacuated only when staying aboard could compromise the safety and well being of the crew.â€
The Coast Guard vesselâ€™s commanding officer and the master of the disabled vessel â€œmust agree to the towing arrangements and conditions before the towing operation commences,â€ the manual says.
Jenkins said the government investigations may be completed by fall.