By Brian Dunn

On July 9, NEAS Group President and CEO Suzanne Paquin was asked if the company’s M/V Qamutik, the season’s first supply ship, would arrive at Pangnirtung (Pang) on Baffin Island on July 19 as scheduled, although later than during most shipping seasons.

“I can’t tell today, because there is still ice in Pang and Iqaluit” (the next community of call). “We are evaluating the situation day-by-day and all changes are possible in the schedule, including changing the vessel servicing Pangnirtung,” she said. “Unfortunately, it is a difficult year and we are doing the best that we can in providing service to the communities, which is our priority.” That in a nutshell is the annual challenge facing a company involved in Arctic shipping.

The delay is not surprising since Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) and other northern communities experienced several days of minus 40 C in January, with winds ranging anywhere from 15 to 40 km/h, resulting in wind chill values of -50 C to -60 C. Even in late July, the temperature in Iqaluit was hovering around 6 degrees C during the day, and nudging the freezing mark at night. In addition, the communities of Kuujjuaq and Iqaluit that were also being supplied by another NEAS vessel, M/V Avataq, had its cargo transferred onto Qamutik at Salluit in Northern Quebec. The logistics of these changes are daunting.

Finally, on July 25, Qamutik departed Kuujjuaq for Iqaluit, expecting to arrive on July 27. It arrived, but unloading was limited to a few hours as ice started to creep back into the bay. The vessel anchored about a kilometre offshore waiting for the icebreaker Pierre Radisson to clear a path into Iqaluit. But Pierre Radisson was called away on a search and rescue mission following the helicopter ditching by a Russian pilot in Davis Strait between Iqaluit and Greenland. Fortunately, the pilot on a solo around the world mission was found unharmed. Qamutik eventually was able to unload all its cargo destined for Iqaluit on August 11 before departing the next day under icebreaker escort. “At this time, there are two icebreakers in the Arctic and there should be four. We are challenged trying to understand CCG (Canadian Coast Guard) priorities,” lamented Ms. Paquin.

Delays getting the shipping season started were also due to long periods of southeasterly winds for over a month that kept the ice locked in Frobisher Bay, according to the Coast Guard. It has been like that for two of the past three years. “It’s completely atypical. Usually by this date (in mid July) the first ships are already in Iqaluit for a few days,” says Louis Robert, the marine communications and traffic services officer for the Coast Guard. Mr. Robert says he has not seen delays like this in more than a decade. But the heavy ice conditions this past winter forced NEAS to juggle its schedule, with Qamutik stopping in Iqaluit before Pang and adding a few more stops not on the original schedule

“There are 25-foot tides in Pang, some of the highest in the world,” said Ms. Paquin. “Ice plays a major role in our sailing schedule and to a lesser extent wind. But Pang is windy, which often causes us to switch our sailing schedule.”

This past summer was the worst for delays that Capt. Georges Tousignant, NEAS Vice-President Operations can remember. He was in Iqaluit at the end of July checking out a new information system called Tassuk (network in Inuit) that tracks a ship’s cargo for clients, and he didn’t like what he saw from the NEAS office – a bay full of ice that prevented any offloading of cargo onto barges that NEAS vessels have to carry onboard due to a lack of port infrastructure.

“We’ve been in Iqaluit as early as July 1st, compared to August this year, the latest ever.” The situation was so dire that NEAS, at one point considered offloading at another beach that was ice free, adding additional costs, which can run between $40,000 and $50,000 a day, according to Mr. Tousignant. “We may get one bad year every five, so the losses would be amortized over that period.”

And delays in the first sailing will impact the departure of the second sailing and the third if there is a third sailing. The second sailing was delayed by two weeks this year. “We’ve never had to cancel the third sailing (usually in late September or early October), but if there are only 30 days left in the season, we won’t take commitments. If a client calls in September, it will depend on the time we have left and the space. Despite the late start to the season, we will get in a third sailing.”

Mr. Tousignant pointed out the different concept of north and south, depending on where you live. “Up here in the north, people consider the south as the place where decisions are made that affect their lives, while people in places like Ottawa and Toronto consider the south as a place for vacations in winter.”

Last year, NEAS completed 13 return navigations with five vessels making over 100 stops in remote communities and mine sites, including 10 stops in Iqaluit and three in Kuujjuaq. Important projects include Iqaluit International Airport which is getting a new terminal and a new combined services building that will house fire-fighting vehicles/support equipment and heavy equipment that maintain the runways and aprons. Other projects are the Canadian High Arctic Research Station in Cambridge Bay and the Glencore Raglan Mine Wind Turbine Energy Project in Nunavik which are contributing to NEAS’ shipments.

This year, the numbers will be down with one less vessel in the rotation and only eleven sailing due to a decline in business, mostly from Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. where the construction phase is completed and production hasn’t fully ramped up. “We started delivering project cargo to the mine site in 2007, but nothing this year. Our sealift operations there will depend how quickly they expand the mine where we’ll deliver things like fuel and spare parts,” said Mr. Tousignant. Despite low ore prices, Baffinland is planning to ship iron ore from its Mary River mine site ten months of the year using icebreakers, instead of shipping without icebreakers about three months of the year. The longer season would see shipments of up to 12 million tonnes per year, compared to 4.2 million tonnes under the original plan.

In addition to the mining sector, major clients of NEAS are retail stores including Northern stores, the original store banner of The North West Company which consists of 122 food and general merchandise stores, seven larger-size North Mart stores, general contractors and the federal government which is heavily involved in new housing projects. “If there are ten communities waiting for government housing, eventually they will all be built,” noted Mr. Tousignant.

As for Quebec’s much vaulted Plan Nord to develop the northern regions of the province, he would welcome any opportunity to become involved. “We’re in the service business and if they need us, we’ll be there. We can’t create new business, because we are not an exploration company.”

With a population of about 7,000, Iqaluit is the largest city and territorial capital of Nunavut and an important stop for NEAS vessels. Qamutik discharged 7,000 cubic metres of cargo in Iqaluit, or about 40 per cent of its total, said Mr. Tousignant. “If we can’t reach Pang due to ice conditions, we’ll drop the cargo in Iqaluit for another NEAS ship to pick it up when conditions improve.”

The company’s vessels will often call only once a season at some communities and others up to six times a year. Each day at 9:30 a.m. during the shipping season, Mr. Tousignant is on the phone with the Coast Guard to get the latest ice conditions and the conversations this past summer were never very encouraging.

But there was some good news that came out of Iqaluit while Mr. Tousignant was in town. Leona Aglukkaq, then Minister of the Environment, Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Member of Parliament for Nunavut, announced federal funding of up to $63.7 million for the Iqaluit Marine Infrastructure Project. According to the announcement, the project, with a total cost of $85.5 million, will improve the quality of life and security of goods and fuel for the territory, include a small craft harbour in Iqaluit, provide a potential base of operations for military and search and rescue operations, and continue to improve economic development across the North.

In addition, the new marine port and sea lift facility will reduce the time it takes to offload cargo while enhancing worker safety. According to the minister’s release, the facility will reduce the offloading time of dry cargo from 60 working days to 20, reduce fuel offloading times from fifteen working days to five, while reducing environmental risks.

While applauding this initiative which has been in the works for years but which may or may not go through under the new Liberal government, Mr. Tousignant noted the facility will only be able to accommodate one supply ship at a time. And if it was up to him, he would like to see a similar announcement for Kuujjuak. “In the long term, the new infrastructure would reduce our costs because of greater efficiency, which would also reduce the price we charge to our customers.”

No matter what happens with the project, operating in the Arctic will always be a challenge for shipping, with or without icebreaking support.