ABOARD CCGS SIR WILFRID LAURIER—On an icebreaker in the Arctic, getting her home is the hardest part.
Canada’s northern seas are starting to freeze up again. The Coast Guard’s icebreaking fleet is hurrying to take care of business before making a turn for the south.
Autumn gales are starting to blow. Things may soon get very rough.
One of the worst storms the Laurier’s crew can remember hit her in 1996. She was steaming west toward the Pacific Ocean, and her home port of Victoria, B.C., but got stopped by a massive ice floe some 80 kilometres long.
The Louis S. St-Laurent, a heavy icebreaker, came to her lighter sister’s rescue.
For at least two days, the Louis smashed open a path for the Laurier, steaming around half a kilometre in front, or running circles around the Laurier when the ice shut her in again.
They made it into the Beaufort Sea, northeast of Tuktoyaktuk, but had to surrender to the ice.
Winds out of the northwest were jamming pans tightly together and the pressure was too much to risk for the Laurier’s hull. The Louis was low on fuel.
There was no way the Laurier would reach Victoria that fall, so she turned and followed the Louis to the east coast.
“The Arctic kicked out us and beat us up as we left,” said Captain Bill Noon, who was the Laurier’s chief officer at the time.
It was a breeze getting through the eastern end of the Northwest Passage, and then south through Iceberg Alley, where majestic bergs calved in Greenland pass like floating castles.
When the Laurier reached the Straits of Belle Isle on October 11, the storm struck.
It hammered the Laurier with 60 knot winds, tossing her up and down so hard, for hours on end, that shipmates still talk of the floor dropping out from under their feet if they dared to stand.
Some of the crew could hunker down in the engine room, where they didn’t get tossed around as much.
Not Chief cook Bertrand Boisseau. No matter how bad the ship is rocking and rolling, people have to eat.
Boisseau has ways to cope. There are handles around the galley to hold onto. He stows knives and other sharp objects away lest one come flying in his direction. Wet towels on the counter help keep mixing bowls and other kitchenware from sliding off.
He has tricks to anchor cooking food, like packing bread pans upside down around a roast, and jamming more stuff around the roasting pan, to keep everything from going airborne.
But this time, Boisseau had to take extreme measures. The ship was rolling so badly the walls were practically the floor.
Noon and then Bosun Norman Robilliard had to wrangle a six tonne barge that the winds tore loose from the deck.
In the galley, sticking to the menu was just too dangerous. So the cook served only sandwiches and half-cups of soup until the storm passed.
“Not too many people were eating,” he deadpanned.
A bit battered, the crew handed over to a fresh one, which took the Laurier the long way home: down the east coast of the U.S., through the Panama Canal, and then up the west coast to Victoria.
Leading seaman Keith Graham has felt Arctic seas reach over the icebreaker’s bow and punch.
In 2009, when the Laurier was steaming south through the Chukchi Sea, an enormous wave hammered Graham and two shipmates. He threw his arms out as the icy waterfall drove him across the deck.
Graham slammed into a mooring winch, suffering a deep muscle bruise down one arm that took three months to heal.
In a rare High Arctic rendezvous, four of Canada’s fleet of 18 icebreakers met Sunday in the approaches to Cambridge Bay.
The Louis and the Terry Fox, fresh from their trip to the North Pole, were there, along with the Henry Larsen.
The Fox picked up the Canadian Hydrographic Service’s launches, Kinglett and Gannet, whose 3D multibeam sonar was crucial to narrowing the search area in the successful hunt for one of Sir John Franklin’s lost ship’s earlier this month.
The shipwreck has been sitting on the seabed for more than 160 years, but it’s still in such good condition that Parks Canada underwater archeologists say they expect to be exploring it for years to come.
They plan to reveal some details soon, including photographs of their two-day dive on the wreck.
When the Fox delivers the survey launches to St. John’s, Newfoundland, they’ll be loaded onto a truck and shipped to Burlington, Ontario. That will complete a circuit which began in mid-June, when the boats made a road trip west to catch a ride north on the Laurier.
The sonar has also given underwater archeologists a high resolution image to study over the winter as they learn from two days of diving on the wreck, plan their return next summer.
The 8-member dive team, and the hydrographers, left the Laurier Sunday afternoon to fly south.
And soon, the ice will reclaim the Franklin wreck for another year.