||January/February 2007 issue||
Policing the passage
Coast Guard icebreakers are arguably the most practical means of asserting Canadas presence
in the Northwest Passage, an increasingly travelled and commercialized waterway. Last summer,
writer James Raffan and photographer Benoit Aquin boarded the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent and,
for two weeks, witnessed the icebreakers multi-faceted mission as it carved one warm line
through the Arctic Archipelago.
Excerpt of story by James Raffan with photography
by Benoit Aquin
Day 1. Thursday, July 20. OFF TO SEA!
With the confidence of a sentry in red serge, the
Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent
turns away from her dock on the Dartmouth side of
Halifax Harbour and sets a course for the Northwest
Passage. It is 17:30 hours, and following a bustle of
last-minute loading, we’re under way. The Louis
won’t be back to this port until mid-November.
The largest of five icebreakers dedicated to Arctic
service each summer, the Louis’ mission is to aid
shipping, perform search and rescue as required,
support scientific research and resupply Northern
communities and government sites. Perhaps most
important, though, is her mission to fly the Maple
Leaf and be a Canadian presence in the passage at a
time when changing ice conditions have people
thinking it won’t be long before Canada’s claim to this
fabled gateway from Atlantic to Pacific will be actively
challenged — by those nations whose commercial
ships are eager to take the 7,000-kilometre shortcut
from Europe to East Asia, or by those wishing to
make territorial claims through the United Nations
Convention on the Law of the Sea (unclos) or those
wishing to make jurisdictional challenges through the
International Court of Justice. Canadian lawyers
will be busy for years to come defending our claims.
||Click map to enlarge|
The ship is a little longer than a football field and
less than half as wide, with six decks, not including
the engine room. Within a few minutes of boarding,
I manage to get lost until one of the logistics officers
comes to the rescue, gives me a quick tour and shows
me to my spartan cabin.
I try to head to the mess for a bite to eat but get
all turned around and again have to ask directions.
The ship’s corridors all look the same to me. My
cabin is on the upper deck, which means I can walk
to the bow of the ship and look down at the main
and lower decks and engine room and above at the
ship’s superstructure, starting with the flight deck
and ending with the bridge deck, with a couple of levels in between.
The Louis has a stellar 37-year record. Soon after
her launch from the Canadian Vickers shipyard in
Montréal in 1969, the ship was tasked, along with
the CCGS John A. Macdonald, with escorting the
supertanker SS Manhattan on a trial run through the
Northwest Passage to assess the feasibility of transporting
oil from Alaska’s North Slope. This was the
incident in which the United States famously and
very publicly challenged our sovereignty by
announcing, without so much as a by-your-leave to
Canada, that the 136,000-tonne behemoth, owned
by the Humble Oil and Refining Company, would
transit the passage.
Another career highlight occurred on Aug. 22, 1994,
when the Louis became the first Canadian surface
vessel to reach the North Pole. But not mentioned
in the glossy Coast Guard brochures is the fact that
when she arrived at the pole, the Russians had already
been there in their nuclear-powered ice-breaking
brute Yamal, with dozens of rosy-cheeked kidniks
dancing on the ice, making a film for Russian television
about what fun it is to go to the North Pole.
Nor does it mention on the plaques outside the
forward lounge honouring the Louis’ volunteered
service to the Manhattan that the United States had
conspicuously refused to ask permission (and still
does) to enter Canadian territory.
Online exclusive: Travels with Louis - Through Raffan’s daily
on-board log, photo gallery and additional facts and links, you can trace their nautical journey and discover the sea-bound community that patrols our Arctic waters.