By Mark Cardwell
The Chairman of the Europe-based company that owns the Davie shipyard continues to publicly push and prod Ottawa to accept his company’s proposal to supply Canada with four leased icebreakers that are currently sitting idle in Florida.
“Winter is coming,” Alex Vicefield told Canadian Sailings from his home in Monaco in late October. “Canada is facing an acute icebreaker shortage that is putting at risk the wintertime business at ports on the St. Lawrence River. “We have provided Ottawa with a quick and affordable solution to the problem. We could have at least one of these vessels on station within two weeks, with the others to follow soon after. But we’re not hearing anything.”
Davie formally pitched the idea, which it dubbed Project Resolute, in April following an official solicitation from the federal government for ideas on how to best deal with Canada’s looming shortage of icebreakers. It is a similar to an unsolicited offer Davie made a year earlier, which was publicly rejected by the then-new Liberal government.
However, the government has since changed its attitude on the issue, as Canada’s aging icebreaker fleet is facing increasing threats of frequent mechanical breakdowns. One of Canada’s two heavy icebreakers – Louis St. Laurent, which received life-extending work in the Davie yard this summer – was built in 1969 and is now eight years beyond its 40-year expected operational life.
Canada’s four medium-duty 1,200-type icebreakers have also lived 75-98 per cent of their notional life spans, as have most of the country’s high- and medium endurance multi-tasked vessels. Most of Canada’s dozen or so offshore patrol, oceanographic and fisheries science vessels are also well past their best-before dates.
That has led many members of Canada’s maritime shipping community to publicly express fears about the viability of icebreaking operations and port access on the St. Lawrence and other Eastern Canadian waterways. The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) itself says it urgently needs five or more new icebreakers as the current fleet goes through repairs and upgrades, and before a new polar icebreaker is built.
Federal officials are also currently reviewing the budgets and construction schedules of CCG’s new $1.3-billion polar icebreaker and two new resupply vessels at Seaspan Shipyards in Vancouver, as well as for several new offshore fisheries science ships for CCG. In addition to its rising cost, the delivery date for the new icebreaker has been pushed back to 2028.
“In the medium to long-term, Coast Guard realizes its ships need to be replaced and is working on solutions to ensure the continuity of its critical icebreaking program in the north and south,” CCG spokesperson Carole Saindon wrote in an email in mid-October.
“The Coast Guard is also looking at putting in place innovative solutions to fill in short terms service gaps so that the shipping industry can continue to rely on (our) services to support Canada’s economy. This means we may face potential gaps in icebreaking services over the next five years.”
According to Vicefield, Davie has been promoting a turnkey solution since 2016 that would enable Ottawa to meet its needs for Arctic-capable icebreakers in short order, and at a fraction of the cost of building new vessels. The plan revolves around four polar-class icebreakers owned by Royal Dutch Shell that were earmarked for a now-iced offshore drilling project in the U.S. Arctic. Davie is proposing to lease the vessels and perform limited reconfiguration work to meet the needs of CCG for both inland and Arctic icebreaking. “Our idea is to lease these vessels to the Canadian Coast Guard under the same contract structure as Asterix,” says Vicefield. “I can’t say right now how much our proposal would cost. But what I can say is that it will be substantially less that would you would pay to build one, and that all four are ready to go right now.” Asterix is the container ship that Davie bought and converted at its shipyard in Lévis, Que. into a new supply vessel for the Royal Canadian Navy.
Christened in July, Asterix, the first Resolve-Class vessel, was launched out of drydock in mid-October to test its engine and systems. The ship will now undergo sea trials leading up to its expected delivery before year’s end. Under the terms of that novel leasing agreement, which Davie sold to the former federal Conservative government, Ottawa is leasing the ship, together with a trained civilian crew, for five years at a cost of $668 million, with an option for an additional five years. According to Vicefield, there is both talk and growing support among federal officials for the government to buy the ship and order a second one.
In addition to freeing up the largest drydock in Canada for the first time since 2005 – enabling Davie to now go after commercial ship repair work through its worldwide agency network – Vicefield said the Asterix’s launch reconfirmed his shipyard’s ability to deliver high-quality ships on time and at rock-bottom prices.
He also said that officials with Davie and various federal departments, including CCG, Public Works and Transport Canada, made two trips to Florida this summer to visit and inspect Aiviq, a Class-3 ship and the largest of the four icebreakers that Davie proposes to lease on behalf of CCG. “CCG absolutely loves this ship,” Vicefield said. “It is the only large-scale polar icebreaker available in the world today.” He added that the ship “could be on station here within two weeks” if and when Ottawa gives Davie the green light on its proposal.
For her part, CCG spokesperson Saindon acknowledged the Florida trip, saying it was part of the follow-up that Ottawa is doing in regards to the approximately fifteen submissions it received addressing interim icebreaking solutions, following its Request for Information (RFI) earlier this year. “Coast Guard sent a team of technical experts (ship operator, marine engineer, marine surveyor, naval architect) to Florida to visit Aiviq at the request of Federal Fleet,” Saindon wrote to Canadian Sailings. CCG, she added, “is currently reviewing the Aiviq material along with all of the submitted information gathered from industry on existing options to fill potential gaps in its capacity to deliver its icebreaking program.”