POLITICS

Grounded Arctic cruise ship victim of too much speed, poor charts, says report

04/27/2012 01:44 EDT | Updated 06/27/2012 05:12 EDT
An Arctic cruise ship that ran aground in the Northwest Passage and forced the evacuation of passengers and crew was sailing too fast in poorly charted waters, says the Transportation Safety Board.

The board adds the Clipper Adventurer was also handicapped by an inoperable forward sonar, which would have given the ship some warning about the shoal it was about to strike while cruising in Coronation Gulf between the Nunavut communities of Cambridge Bay and Kugluktuk.

"Without the valuable information available from a functional forward-looking sonar and given the hazards inherent in navigating inadequately surveyed areas, the vessel's speed of 13.9 knots was probably not prudent," says a report, released Friday.

But the board says the accident also reveals how poorly mapped most of Canada's Arctic waters are, pointing out only 10 per cent of those seas have been charted to international standards. It recommends that the government do more to ensure ships in the Northwest Passage have the most recent information on potential hazards, even if that information isn't complete.

"The board is concerned that if up-to-date information about hazards to safe navigation does not reach vessels, passengers, crew and the environment are at increased risk."

The Clipper Adventurer was sailing from Port Epworth on the central Arctic coast on Aug. 27, 2010, when it ran aground on a submerged shoal near the Home Islands, a small archipelago in shallow water east of Kugluktuk.

Passengers described a loud shriek, followed by a lurching halt. The vessel listed to the left and became solidly grounded on a shoal of solid rock.

After several failed attempts to free the ship, all 197 passengers and crew were evacuated onto a Coast Guard icebreaker, which happened to be in the area. There were no injuries, but it took four tugboats to haul the Clipper Adventurer off the rocks.

The area it was travelling in had not yet been fully mapped. The Clipper followed a single line of depth soundings, with uncharted waters on either side.

The shoal that grounded the Clipper had been discovered three years before, but its location hadn't been determined precisely enough to be included on the chart. A warning about the potential danger was issued, but ships registering to navigate the passage have to ask for those warnings and don't automatically receive them.

With its forward sonar out of commission, the bridge crew had no warning. The Clipper hit the shoal at full speed.

The report points out that two years before, another cruise ship had followed the same sounding line and passed by the shoal unknowingly. It adds that over the last seven years, there have been 105 cruise voyages into the Northwest Passage, averaging 1,600 passengers a year. In 2011 alone, the Canadian Arctic saw 15 tanker ships travel its waters.

It's time to get serious about mapping Arctic waters, said University of British Columbia international law professor and Arctic expert Michael Byers.

"At some point, we're going to get an accident in conditions that will lead to loss of life," he said.

"The wonderful thing about the Clipper Adventurer was that conditions were so conducive to a slow and safe rescue.

"You can imagine what hurricane-force winds might have done to the (ship) as it was grounded on the shelf. The chances of doing a search and rescue under those conditions are extremely remote."

The Canadian Hydrographic Service mounts regular mapping expeditions into the Arctic and the region that grounded the Clipper has since been charted. But Byers points out that experts estimate that at the current rate of work it will take 300 years for the entire Arctic to be mapped to international standards.

Meanwhile, the board report notes the federal government has promised ships venturing into the passage will receive the latest data about potential hazards, whether or not they ask for it and even if the hazard hasn't been precisely delineated.