By K. Joseph Spears

2015 was a busy season for Canadian Search and Rescue (SAR) professionals in the Canadian Arctic. Canada’s new government will need to consider how we can deliver effective SAR services in a cost-effective manner. This is an opportunity to strengthen Canadian SAR which has been referred to as a major issue by the international shipping community. Incidents in 2015 highlight gaps in Canada’s SAR regime and also show where capability can be expanded.

Canada SAR obligations are international

Canada’s SAR obligations cannot be considered solely from a domestic viewpoint. Canada has international obligations for maritime and aviation SAR under international agreements, as well as under the recently signed Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic (“the SAR Agreement”), which is an international treaty concluded among the member states of the Arctic Council on May12, 2011 in Nuuk, Greenland. In addition, as a coastal nation, Canada has obligations to provide search and rescue capability under the Law of the Sea Convention. As part of the SAR Agreement, Canada extended its search and rescue region to the North Pole. The combination of these agreements requires Canada to have a credible SAR capability which takes sustained funding, commitment, as well as technical development and international cooperation.

Arctic risks are viewed by insurers as very real

Here is what the World Maritime News reported at a 2014 conference: As more and more ships venture into the Arctic, resources to cope with SAR operations, along with potential environmental cleanups, are lacking.

Speaking at a conference in Hong Kong, Stein Are Hansen, Head of Department, Loss Prevention and Emergency Response, Norwegian Hull Club, said: “Humans make mistakes. Have we really thought about the risks in the Arctic? From the Clipper Adventurer to the Titanic, there have been huge accidents in the Arctic. You can prepare yourself to death, but are we prepared for waking up to seeing oil on a polar bear on the front page of the New York Times? There are few search and rescue capabilities in the Arctic. We will soon be responsible for rescuing people up to the North Pole. We need more training and sophisticated equipment to help deal with the potential disasters. For example, fuel stations for helicopters.”

Last year there were 71 transit voyages in the region, a significant increase over previous years. There were also over 11,000 flights over the Arctic in 2012. Government leadership is required to provide the necessary infrastructure for the safety of life at Sea. It remains a high priority focus of the Arctic Council and the International Maritime organization (IMO). Canada no longer has the luxury of just talking about these issues, it needs action on SAR.

Canada’s SAR Pillars

SAR response cuts across a variety of government departments (Transport Canada, Canadian Coast Guard and Department of National Defence), and the private sector comes into play when there is a failure of any one of a number of systems either through human error, mechanical defect, act of God or some combination of all of them.

Next summer, we are going to see the cruise ship MV Crystal Serenity transiting the Northwest Passage with 1000 passengers on board and 800 crewmembers. This raises important questions about SAR rescue planning at the preventative stage and how potential issues can be dealt with.

We have seen some of the challenges when cruise ship Carnival Triumph lost propulsion in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of an engine room fire, and was towed to Mobile, Alabama from Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, with the U.S. Coast Guard standing by as the passengers remained on board. That incident gave rise to a U.S. government claim of $700,000 for services provided. An earlier incident involving Carnival Splendor gave rise to a claim involving $3.4 million for costs incurred by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard. These marine incidents were in relatively calm and warm waters. In the Arctic, these costs would be many times greater. Cruise ships potentially can give rise to major incidents as was seen with the mega cruise ship Costa Concordia grounding off the Italian coast.

Russian adventurer crashed

The SAR season commenced with a successful SAR rescue. A Russian adventurer, Sergey Ananov, used a single engine helicopter to transit around the Arctic Circle. The Robinson R22 helicopter left Iqaluit, Nunavut on July 27, 2015 enroute to Nuuk, Greenland and ran into engine problems over Davis Strait. While the pilot was able to land on an ice flow in Davis Strait, the ice flow was also home to a number of polar bears. For 30 hours he fended off the bears while a search was mounted within the Halifax SAR Region making use of all available resources. CCG Pierre Radisson, a medium-duty icebreaker commissioned in 1978 was in the area with an onboard helicopter. When it heard the mayday it steamed towards the last known position and managed to locate and airlift Sergey who was down to his last three flares.

Staying afloat and staying alive

On September 21, 2015, the Newfoundland Fishing Vessel Atlantic Charger, a state-of-the-art dragger sank at the entrance of Hudson Strait in Canada’s Arctic waters. The waters at the entrance of Hudson Strait are notorious for a large tidal flow and treacherous waters. What caused the vessel to sink is presently unknown.

Crewmembers abandoned ship in a liferaft and were able to activate an emergency beacon which aided searchers in locating the vessel position. In response, an RCAF SAR C-130 was able to drop a radio to the crew.

MV Arctic (owned and operated by Fednav of Montreal) and Greenland trawler Pamiut responded to the distress call and able to rescue the crewmembers. Arctic was the first to arrive on the scene, but was forced to abort its rescue efforts as a result of heavy seas, but not before launching a dry liferaft to provide temporary relief to the crewmembers. Finally, Pamiut arrived on the scene, and rescued the men by picking them up from a Zodiac craft it had managed to launch in dangerously high swells. The men were subsequently transferred to the Newfoundland bound fishing vessel Katsheshuk which made it home to Harbour Grace days later.

It was an “awesome rescue” and highlights the key role that vessels of opportunity play in Arctic SAR. But it was also a very close call, and a hair-raising rescue for the crew given the sea state conditions at the time – 50-foot seas. At this time of the year, and without the ability of “vessels of opportunity” to respond, the outcome could of been much different, with tragic consequences.

All the crew survived. However, both the owner and the master of the vessel have raised serious questions about Canada’s Arctic and offshore SAR capability. It remains unknown whether or not there was a SAR Cormorant helicopter based in Gander available.

Moving Forward Lessons Learned

The above incidents illustrate “everyday” Arctic search and rescue activities, which will be increasing in frequency. As can be seen by the roles played by the Greenland fishing vessel and the commercial vessel operated by Fednav, a highly experienced Arctic operator which plies these waters on a regular basis, the age-old tradition of mariners helping mariners in distress provided a solid foundation and successful SAR outcome.

There is no doubt that this time-honoured tradition will continue. However, it is not enough, and it is Canada’s legal and moral responsibility to provide more numerous and more capable resources to enhance the effectiveness of its SAR activities over waters and territories bordering its land mass, and in remote Arctic areas.

For example, it shouldn’t take over ten years for new fixed-wing SAR aircraft to be procured. The aircraft overflying Atlantic Charger were likely in excess of 30 years old. Icebreaker CCG Pierre Radisson is 37 years old. Canada’s new government needs to look hard at these issues and consider solutions such as those proposed by the Shipping Federation of Canada with respect to alternative procurement of icebreaking services. We need to give our SAR professionals the best tools in the world for them to execute their jobs with the highest probability of successful outcomes. It is a question of leadership. Is Canada’s new government up to the challenge?

K. Joseph Spears, principal of Horseshoe Bay Marine Group, has been involved in SAR from an operational and policy perspective for many years. In 1980 he was involved in a successful multiagency rescue involving CCG Pierre Radisson in Hudson Strait and the Canadian Forces. Joe can be reached at