The deaths of four sealers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence last year have prompted Canadian maritime agencies to urge stricter policies for towing disabled vessels through ice.
In the future, most mariners should be removed from the distressed vessel if it is safe to do so, according to an investigative report issued for Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The report urged the Coast Guard to review its ice operations to determine whether it uses the safest practices and most advanced equipment.
A separate Transportation Safety Board (TSB) report recommended that Canada’s fishing and sealing industry and regulators should take steps to ensure that vessels operating in ice are properly designed for the conditions.
Four of the six sealers aboard L’Acadien II were killed March 29, 2008, when a huge ice cake flipped the 41-foot vessel while it was being towed by CCGS Sir William Alexander.
To help prevent damage, icebreakers often have allowed the crews of distressed vessels to remain on board while under tow. On L’Acadien II, four men were asleep below deck when the boat capsized.
Responders from a different Coast Guard vessel initially boarded L’Acadien II, which had damaged its rudder. Alexander‘s captain never knew that members of the crew were resting below deck, according to the independent Fisheries report, prepared by retired Rear Adm. Roger Girouard.
“The decision aboard L’Acadien II to allow four of the crew to be asleep in the accommodation below does suggest that the potential for a sudden incident was not well recognized," Girouard wrote. “A more complete conversation about the tow and the risk to consider may well have delivered a different scenario altogether."
Standard practice “should now be to require minimum or zero manning in the stricken vessel, assuming conditions allow transfer of the remaining crew, and that those aboard should be alert and prepared to evacuate should the situation require," he said.
The Coast Guard crew used a 1.5-inch double-braided synthetic nylon hawser with a bridle intended to keep L’Acadien II within the center line. The towline was 89 feet long. Ice covered about 80 percent of the sea surface during the 2.5-hour tow.
The vessels slowed to about 2.8 knots from 4 knots upon noticing dangerous ice. L’Acadien II sheered suddenly to Alexander‘s port quarter — 60° off the center line — and into the path of a 100-foot raft-like ice chunk.
Two seamen monitored the tow from Alexander‘s afterdeck. Girouard’s report said one lookout issued a radio warning concerning the ice cake and tried to cut the line with an ax — but was too late.
“With strain coming on the tow-line and bridle, reflex concern over the line parting determined that he would warn the bridge of how the L’Acadien II was being dragged sideways so that speed would be taken off prior to the situation worsening," the report said. “Turning back after the radio call, seconds later, and seeing that the sealing vessel was falling off the ice and rolling over, he grabbed the axe and cut the line with a single stroke. Looking back again, he saw that L’Acadien II had capsized."
The TSB report said L’Acadien II‘s damaged rudder provided a range of 5° port to 45° port and could not turn to starboard. L’Acadien II continued to run its propulsion system during the tow. After conducting sea trials, Girouard’s team theorized that clutch slippage or an inadvertent shift to idle on L’Acadien II may have prompted the sheer.
L’Acadien II was built in 1988 with an aluminum, hard-chine hull. In 2004, the shell was reinforced with a doubling plate for ice navigation. Transport Canada certified it for near coastal voyages.
The report urges Transport Canada to strengthen its regulations to require more robust designs for sealers: “L’Acadien II was not designed, constructed or adequately modified to navigate in ice."
The Fisheries report proposes better Coast Guard preparation for towing distressed vessels through ice.
“A clear, firm and concise towing policy is required. This should be augmented by a detailed and consistent guide to operators," Girouard stated,