ABOARD CCGS SIR WILFRID LAURIER - In the epic hunt for the Franklin Expedition wrecks , the research vessel Martin Bergmann is the little ship that could.
The 62-foot former fishing trawler was first to start searching in this year’s Victoria Strait expedition on Aug. 10. Her tenacious crew is determined to stick it out to the end despite being tossed about in rough seas for days.
Nobody alive is likely to have a better gut feeing of what it must have been like aboard Franklin’s HMS Erebus and HMS Terror than the crew of 12 aboard the Bergmann.
Riding out High Arctic gales and rolling, three- to four-metre swells, their guts have been spinning and churning for longer than they care to recall.
Holding down food is a fight. Sleeping is more like breaking in a wild horse. When the bow punches through heavy waves, anyone lying in bed levitates a metre or more, only to slam back again. Up and down, endlessly, through the night.
“That’s when you want to turn around and go home,” said co-captain David McIsaac.
Yet they stay at sea because, through all that upheaval, the crew of the Bergmann stick together like family. With a hull of fibreglass over wood, their ship moans and creaks so much that sometimes they wonder if she’s going to crack under the High Arctic pressure.
“It’s like workin’ in an office space (where) the floor is movin’ 25 and 30 degrees,” said Gerry Chidley, whose family used to own the ship. He is now co-captain on the Bergmann.
The research vessel has the same relentless drive as her namesake: Martin Bergmann was a federal civil servant, whose official job was director of the Polar Continental Shelf Program, a lifeline for scientists and other Arctic experts.
But Marty, as he’s better known up here, won hearts for his deep Arctic passion. He never stopped trying to trying to share the love with politicians, journalists and the young bureaucrats and researchers that he mentored.
Bergmann died three years ago in a plane crash at Resolute Bay, Nunavut. He was 55 years old.
One of the many people he inspired was Jim Balsillie, co-founder of Research in Motion, maker of the Blackberry smart phone. Balsillie set up the non-profit Arctic Research Foundation, which owns the Bergmann, in 2010.
Built in Nova Scotia in 1979, the ship used to trawl for ground fish, crab and shrimp on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland as Ocean Alliance.
She is roughly a quarter the length of the Laurier, the main vessel in this year’s successful search. The effort made history this month by discovering one of the Franklin’s two lost ships 166 years after they were abandoned in the ice that imprisoned them.
Being small is a big advantage among the maze of islands in this part of the Arctic archipelago. So is a local address.
The Bergmann is based in the Nunavut hamlet of Cambridge Bay, which gives it a head start against other vessels in the hunt when ice clears late each summer, opening a brief search window.
When the research foundation offered to help Parks Canada’s underwater archeology team find the shipwrecks in 2010, time on the water was in short supply.
The Laurier was available for two weeks, at best, said Marc-André Bernier, who heads Parks Canada’s underwater archeology unit.
“The Bergmann gave us up to six weeks of ship time in a season, in addition to what we can get from the Laurier — when possible,” he added.
Surveying uncharted waters with sonar equipment has been an essential part of looking for the Franklin wrecks since the current effort began in 2008. Spinoff benefits include expanded navigation corridors and a demonstration of Canadian sovereignty.
In 2013, the most productive year, 486 square kilometres was surveyed. The Bergmann and its crew did 384 square kilometres — or just under 80 per cent — of that work, Bernier said.
Adrian Schimnowski, the foundation’s operations director, estimates the Bergmann did 90 per cent of the surveying this season and last.
“The Bergmann has been eating up the bottom,” says Jonathan Moore, a senior underwater archeologist with Parks Canada, who started out this year’s hunt aboard the vessel.
She didn’t find the Franklin wreck. But she got tantalizingly close.
“We danced around it,” Schimnowski said.
The ship’s relentless chugging up and down marine search lanes has also helped narrow down the possibilities if, as expected, the hunt for the second wreck resumes next year.
By covering so much ground, “it gave us the momentum to keep going, and to increase our capacity with other partners,” Bernier said. “I think it was crucial.”