Selling History

Canada is selling its last inshore coastal surveyor ship, the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Matthew, in an auction that closes on Friday with a minimum bid of $1 million.

If it sells, a lot of history will go with it.

Its loss also “decimates” a crucial maritime capability, to map the sea floor off Canada’s coastline, according to people who sailed on the CCGS Matthew over its quarter century of service.

“It’s absolutely appalling,” said Michael Lamplugh, a retired hydrographer with Canadian Hydrographic Service, who led the team on the Matthew for ten years until 2012. Just the sonar on board is worth more than Canada is asking, he said. And with no replacement, Canada risks not only domestic maritime safety, such as for cruise ships in the Northwest Passage, but also its geopolitical credibility in disputes over sovereignty in the Arctic Ocean.

When Swissair flight 111 from New York to Geneva crashed nose first into the ocean off Peggy’s Cove, N.S., in 1998, the Matthew sailed immediately out of Halifax, reaching the scene just after the local fishing boats.

But she had no hydrographic crew to run her surveying equipment. Lamplugh, who lives near the crash site in St. Margaret’s Bay, was on board by dinner time the first day, as the hydrographer in charge. John Hughes Clarke, then a professor of engineering at the University of New Brunswick, flew in to Halifax and the Navy got him on board too.

“We were mowing the lawn, if you like,” said Hughes Clarke, who is now with the University of New Hampshire. They were using sonar to systematically criss-cross a sea floor that was already naturally strewn with car-sized boulders, looking for a plane. “We mapped fields of boulders and we looked for clusters,” he said.

In the end, the largest piece recovered was an engine block. “Nothing on that spot looked like a plane,” Lamplugh said. The only man-made thing they could recognize was a mostly forgotten scuttled submarine from the Second World War.

Sailing the eastern coasts of Canada, Matthew received a fair share of distress calls.

In August 2011, it took part in the rescue of two lost kayakers from Montreal, a man and a woman, off the coast of southern Labrador. Another time off Yarmouth, N.S., the crew saw a fire on the horizon, investigated, and two crew members discovered a fisherman who had been blown off his boat by an explosion. They performed CPR until they got him to shore, but he died.

Mainly, though, Matthew was used for mapping the coastal sea floor, showing routes into harbours, and enabling smaller vessels to hug the coast on their journeys, rather than travel far offshore with the big ships.

It surveyed all around Newfoundland and the Bay of Fundy, sometimes updating charts for the first time since the days of the British Admiralty and Capt. James Cook. It also investigated sinkholes in Bras d’Or Lake of Cape Breton, an inlet from the sea despite its name.

Lamplugh said the most interesting work was on the shipping corridors up the coast of Labrador, jagged with “pinnacle shoals, underwater mountains.” His last work on Matthew was a new chart for Gros Morne National Park.

“That I think is the capability we don’t have any more,” said Hughes Clarke. Losing it just to save money is a sorry shame, he said. “Canada still needs more surveys of her coast.”

The east and west coasts, right up against the U.S. border, are pretty well surveyed now, Hughes Clarke said. But as you head north it gets slimmer until the Arctic, where cruise ships with state of the art global positioning equipment are navigating according to outdated, insufficient maritime charts.

They know exactly where they are, but not what is underneath them.

“Canada led the world in sea floor mapping for probably a solid decade,” from about the early 1990s until 2005, said Dick Pickrill, retired manager of marine geoscience at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, in Dartmouth, N.S., where the Matthew is today, awaiting its new owner. Since it came out of service last year, Canada has nothing with the same capability as Matthew on the east coast, and the only similar research vessel, the ancient and decrepit CCGS Hudson, is currently in Burlington, Ont., with its repair contract cancelled.

It’s part of a broader “rust-out” of Canadian maritime science, Pickrill said. “It seems bizarre.”

Named for the explorer John Cabot’s boat, the Matthew is 50 metres long, with two survey launches and a helicopter deck that was never used, as it made her top-heavy.

Walter Foerger, a retired logistics officer who sailed on most other Coast Guard ships, but not the Matthew, spots it in Halifax Harbour every time he crosses a nearby bridge across the harbour.

“It’s not an eyesore, but it is depressing to see a ship tied up and not being used,” he said.

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