05/01/2014 09:17 EDT | Updated 07/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Bluenose II could sit out another summer as budget soars: minister

HALIFAX - The Bluenose II could be sidelined for yet another summer while the cost of restoring the famed schooner balloons to nearly $18 million, a Nova Scotia cabinet minister said Thursday.

Tony Ince, minister of communities, culture and heritage, said he's optimistic the vessel will be seaworthy for at least a portion of the tourist season, but he admitted there's no guarantee.

"There is, I'd like to say, an idea that it's possible that it could be done in enough time and still have part of the sailing season," Ince said outside the legislature.

The government said continued problems with the vessel's steering system mean it will need to undergo a test drive in Lunenburg harbour ahead of sea trials.

But there's always a chance the harbour voyage will reveal more issues with the problem-plagued vessel, which is considered Nova Scotia's sailing ambassador.

"There is a possibility if the tests determine that the functionality is not optimal, then we may have to take it out of the water and do some modifications," said Ince.

Ince said he hopes the test drive takes place soon, but no date has been set.

The iconic schooner was supposed to return to regular sailing in the summer of 2012 after an extensive two-year rebuild at a cost of $15.9 million, with $4.9 million from Ottawa. Since then, Nova Scotians have seen proposed dates for sea trials and official launches come and go.

When asked if the ongoing restoration was approaching the $18-million mark, Ince said he didn't want to speculate on numbers. He then conceded: "I wouldn't put it past being close to $18 million, yes."

The Bluenose II, launched in 1963, is a replica of the original Bluenose, a Grand Banks fishing schooner that won worldwide acclaim for its graceful lines and speed.

The restoration is being carried out by the Lunenburg Shipyard Alliance, which has blamed most of the delays on stringent safety requirements imposed by the American Bureau of Shipping.

In January, Premier Stephen McNeil asked the province's auditor general to review the restoration that began under the previous NDP government, calling the project a "boondoggle."

NDP member Lenore Zann said Thursday it's no surprise the vessel would be held to the highest standards of safety and she doesn't believe the former government mishandled the file.

"I'm hoping that in the end we find out that all the steps were taken that needed to be taken with the knowledge that we had at the time," she said.

Karla MacFarlane, tourism critic for the Opposition Progressive Conservatives, criticized Ince for being vague about the vessel's launch date and budget, saying the ongoing saga is a disappointment to the public.

"It's the minister's probably biggest file," she said. "He should be on top of it and he should have answers."

Despite the holdups, Ince said he doesn't believe the Bluenose's reputation has been tarnished and chalked up any setbacks to the project's complexity.

"Once you see that vessel and see the work that they've done, it's beautiful work," he said. "The vessel looks really nice."