Coast Guard makes rescue in the high Arctic

CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier
With CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier in the foreground, three arctic tugs get ready to make an attempt to pull the cruise ship off the ridge. It would take a fourth tug MV Pisurayak Kootook to finally shift the ship. Photo credit: Canadian Coast Guard, Pacific Region

For the 128 passengers of the cruise ship MV Clipper Adventure, the trip of a lifetime turned into more of an adventure than they bargained for when the ship ran aground on a shoal in the Coronation Gulf inside the Arctic Circle. Fortunately for the passengers and crew, the double bottom hull of the vessel held, the engines were undamaged, and there was no imminent danger of sinking, but the ship was stuck fast.

Soon after the grounding, Quebec based Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen was dispatched from the Beaufort Sea. The science team aboard the Amundsen had a motor launch equipped with multi-beam sounding equipment, and the launch travelled ahead of the ship, using sonar data to pick out a safe route for the Amundsen. Two days after the MV Clipper Adventure grounded, stranded passengers and non-essential crew members were safely transferred to the Amundsen and transported to Kugluktuk, Nunavut for a flight back to Edmonton.

With the passengers safe, CCGS Amundsen returned to its science program. Pacific based Canadian Coast Guard Ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier arrived, having used the hydrographic data acquired by the Amundsen’s science team. As on-scene commander, the Sir Wilfrid Laurier supported CCG Environmental Response, Transport Canada, and the Transportation Safety Board. Transportation Safety Board inspectors investigated, and Transport Canada officially detained the ship while it reviewed the owners’ salvage and transit plans.

Coast Guard efforts turned to recovery. With nearly 300 tonnes of fuel in the Clipper Adventure’s tanks, the potential release of fuel into the fragile Arctic environment was a significant concern.

The first few days of the recovery effort were calm and sunny, but as the days stretched on, increasing winds complicated the work. As the Clipper Adventure sat on the shoal, even minor wind and wave action made the ship rock significantly, adding to the damage to the ship’s hull that had been caused by the force of the initial impact, and a total of 19 tanks on the ship were compromised.

To reduce the risk of a major spill, and to reduce the overall displacement of the vessel, the decision was made to remove the fuel from the ship. By fortunate coincidence, the NCTL tug MV Nunakput arrived with a fuel barge to supply the Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Once the ship was refuelled, the empty barge was used to remove the Clipper Adventure’s 280 tonnes of fuel. In addition, everything of significant weight on the ship was removed, including engine parts, food and all but one of the ship’s lifeboats.

The salvage plan included the use of heavy Arctic tugs to pull the ship off the shoal. Initial attempts by the Northern Transportation Company Limited’s (NCTL) Alex Gordon made it evident that a greater force would be required.

With the arrival of the tugs MV Nunakput and Crowley Marine Service’s Point Barrow, the three tugboats made a second attempt to pull the ship off, but were unsuccessful. It was obvious a different approach would be needed.

Remaining non-essential crew from the ship were transferred to the Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and large inflatable bags known as roller bags or salvage bags were brought in and placed under the ship.

The bags, similar to those used to move barges and ships that were swept ashore in hurricane Katrina, were flown in by contractors and put in place by the use of specialized divers in an effort to help the teams recover the MV Clipper Adventure.

With the arrival of a fourth tugboat, the NTCL MV Pisurayak Kootook, a final attempt was made to pull the ship off the shoal. If the tugs were unable to shift the ship, it was possible it would remain there through the Arctic winter.

With some Newfoundland ingenuity from an Alex Gordon crew member, the ship was able to be moved sideways, and with the tug pulling and the Clipper Adventure under power, the ship was pulled off the shoal. A puff of black smoke rose into the air as the remaining crewmembers onboard put the ship full astern as it was pulled off.

The entire operation to remove the Clipper Adventure from the shoal took a total of 18 days. With the hard work and cooperation of contractors, Coast Guard crews, the ship’s owner/operator, Transport Canada and Transportation Safety Board inspectors, and the hydrographic survey teams aboard the Amundsen and the Sir Wilfrid Laurier a serious environmental incident was avoided and the pristine Arctic landscape remained undisturbed.

Underwater ridge
Data compiled from the Hydrographic Survey Teams shows the
underwater ridge which the Clipper Adventure ran up on.
Photo credit: Canadian Hydrographic Services

CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier
An overhead view from a Coast Guard helicopter from the
Sir Wilfrid Laurier shows just how little water was under the keel of
the ship before it grounded on the ridge.
Photo credit: Canadian Coast Guard, Pacific Region