Where was the damn chopper?

19 October 2015

The sinking last month of the Newfoundland Fishing Vessel Atlantic Charger, a new state-of-the-art dragger at the entrance of Hudson Strait in Canada’s Arctic waters, raises questions about Canada’s Arctic search and rescue capability. Brad Watkins, the vessel owner and member of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, told reporters the crew had asked him “where was the damn chopper”.

All the crew survived. The rescue exemplified the cooperation when the public and private sector and vessels of opportunity respond when a MayDay is declared in Canada’s search and rescue zones. However, both the owner and the master of the vessel have raised serious questions about Canada’s Arctic and offshore search and rescue capability. The Canadian flag vessel MV Arctic (owned and operated by Fednav of Montréal on a laden voyage from the  Raglan Mine loadport at Deception Bay, Nunavik), and Greenland trawler F/V Pamiut were able to rescue the crew members out of the life raft. It was a close call, and was a hair-raising rescue given the sea state conditions at the time – 50 foot seas. At this time of the year, and without the ability of "vessels of opportunity" to respond, the outcome could of been much different, with tragic consequences.

With fishing vessels able to venture further north, the number of vessels in Canadian Arctic waters is going to increase, and so is the demand for SAR services from a variety of different vessel types. The F/V Atlantic Charger carried nine crew, which is the rescue capacity of an RCAF Cormorant helicopter. Many other vessels are engaged in Arctic fisheries, including large freezing trawlers that carry upwards of 30 crew. This presents a challenge for any SAR response.

In this case, there was an awesome and successful response, coordinated through the Halifax Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC), and in no way is this a criticism of the members of the SAR community. They work day in and day out and are the best in the world, but they need more and better resources.

The captain  of the F/V Atlantic Charger has earned the right to ask some pretty hard questions. We need to look critically at the lessons learned from this incident. While Arctic search and rescue is led by the Government of Canada, there is a great deal of private contribution in terms of vessels of opportunity, members of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, unpaid professionals, and the commercial sector in respect to SAR response. They are entitled to a full and frank discussion of these issues.

Information Blackout?

At issue is what is Canada’s capability really is, given the fact that helicopters were hours away, if in fact they were available. It now appears that a "Cone of Silence" has been placed on answers as to whether or not a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter was available from the Royal Canadian Air Force's 103 SAR Squadron in Gander, Newfoundland.

There shouldn’t be a news blackout or the need for an Access to Information Request to obtain this basic information. This is readily available in the flight logs and duty roster, and should be made available to the public as a matter of course. Cormorant helicopter availability should be a matter of public record. During the M/V EL  Faro search, the US Coast Guard had journalists embedded on board the SAR flights and had full disclosure of all is happening throughout the week-long search for the missing vessel believed to be sunk off Crooked Island in the Bahamas.

Why does Canada feel justified in withholding information that does not risk national security? This has become a creeping problem within government and must be turned around – a return to transparency. These issues are simply too important.

Is a 14-hour Response Time Acceptable?

As fishing increases in our Arctic waters, there could be up to 3000 people transiting our waterways. At any one time, 30,000 plus people are in the air on a daily basis in commercial airliners overflying the Arctic region, with very little SAR assets close by. Is a 14-hour response time in the 21st century acceptable? That is a policy question.

Luckily, in the Atlantic Charger case, two commercial vessels (vessels of opportunity) were close by. Also, an RCAF CP- 140 Aurora aircraft from Greenwood, Nova Scotia was airborne not far from where the laden vessel was sinking at the north end of Cape Chidley, Labrador. It had been homeward bound after a successful fishing trip.

Needed: an Advocate for Search and Rescue

Canada’s Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSS), which is now under the purview of the Department of Public Safety, was established after the sinking of the oil rig Ocean Ranger in 1982. Its role is to help develop and bring together stakeholders for search and rescue, and yet the organization has been strangely silent.

I think it is incumbent upon the next government to look critically at the provision of SAR services in the Arctic and how we can deliver a cost-effective timely manner. We need to get all of the facts out so that we can have a proper discussion.

The time has come to have readily available SAR capability in the Arctic, and not rely so much upon responders from military bases in southern Canada, sometimes involving up to 10 to 15 hours of deployment and transit time before getting on scene.

We owe it to SAR Technicians like the late RCAF Sgt Janick Gilbert of 424 Squadron to continue this discussion. Sgt Gilbert parachuted into frigid Arctic waters in October 2011 to save two near-hypothermic Inuit walrus hunters, They were in a small disabled vessel, drifting near Igloolik, Nunavut. The 3-man SAR Tech team aboard a C-130 had no other options to save the Inuit hunters but to parachute into darkness, freezing water and slush. There were no dedicated search and rescue helicopters in the area so the only option was to deploy from the C-130 to assist the individuals in distress. Jumping into frigid Arctic waters at dusk is a high risk activity for which our SAR Tech are trained for and was their only option so others may live. Had a dedicated SAR helicopter been available with winching capability, a SAR Tech could have been lowered to the nonresponsive hunters in their disabled vessel. As it turned out, it took 13 hours for a Cormorant helicopter to come from Gander, Newfoundland, with multiple refuellings. The resulting SAR response, using C-130 Hercules, stretched Canada's capabilities to the limit. Sgt. Gilbert died before the rescue helicopter could arrive. All were airlifted by helicopter "Rescue 915" later that night. All three SAR Techs were awarded the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Bavery at Sea award. For their incredible flying efforts that night, the RCAF helo crew received the 2012 Cormorant Trophy and other honours for their efforts... flying regulations were pushed to the limit that fateful night in 2011.   

In the summer of 2016, the cruise ship M/V Crystal Serenity, a non-ice strengthened vessel, is going to transit the Northwest Passage. The cruise has sold out and there will likely be many more such large cruises in future. The vessel will carry in excess of 1000 passengers and 800 crew. Is Canada prepared for a "Costa Concordia moment"? The time has come to look critically at search and rescue response times, and capability and capacity through the busy summer Arctic shipping season. FrontLine will ask the hard questions. All mariners should be involved in this discussion.

Canada led the way for the signing of the International Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement, now we have to put flesh on the bones of that agreement and get our domestic discussion processes in order. We can no longer just maintain business as usual. In the case of the Atlantic Charger rescue, we dodged a bullet once again. It may well be that the F/V Atlantic Charger is just the charge needed to develop a more robust Arctic SAR capability to support the world-class professionalism of our SAR professionals. Simply 'getting by' is not good enough. Operators don’t set SAR policy. We need a mechanism for government officials and stakeholders and all interested parties to contribute. That exists with the National Search and Rescue Secretariat, which needs to step up to the plate.

Newfoundland fishermen in Arctic waters are stakeholders in Arctic  SAR. They have a voice, and it needs to be heard. We should champion Brad Watkins for relaying the hard questions asked by his crewmembers  “where was the damn chopper”? The question needs to be clearly and fully answered.