by Mark Cardwell

Group Ocean is relying on Mother Nature to get two of its barges back on the Gaspé Penisula. The two vessels were under tow to the company’s shipyard near Quebec City when they broke away in a violent winter storm on Dec. 16. They ended up on the rocks close to shore near the coastal village of l’Anse Pleureuse, a 3-hour drive east of Rimouski and directly opposite Sept-Îles on the North Shore. Both of the 35-metre-long barges have since become hopelessly locked in ice.

“We have no choice now but to leave them there until spring,” said Philippe Filion, Business Development Director of Quebec City-based Group Ocean. “All we can do is hope that damage will be minimal.” According to Filion, the two self-propelled barges had been doing dredging work near the peninsula-end town of Gaspé.

Dredging is a major activity of Group Ocean, which has a fleet of approximately 400 barges. The company notably began a seven-year, $30-million maintenance contract in 2012 to dredge two major sections of the St. Lawrence Seaway – the Traverse du Nord near Quebec City, and Bécancour.

Filion said the weather was good when the two barges and a company tugboat started their mid-December voyage to Group Ocean’s shipyard on Isle aux Coudres for winter maintenance work. “Things changed in a hurry,” Filion said. He added that the tug’s experienced captain and crew could not prevent the tugs breaking free. Filion said both barges ended up on the rocks close to shore, one of them with its decks underwater. “We first sent a specialized team to analyze the situation (and) empty all the fuel tanks,” he added. Filion noted that while vessel is capable of holding up to 1,500 litres of diesel, they were about half full at the time of the incident. He said the team was able to remove most of the fuel from the more exposed barge over Christmas.

They abandoned their efforts in early January, however, when the ice and cold made fuel recovery from the exposed barge increasingly difficult – nearly impossible for the submerged barge. Filion said the company’s efforts have since switched to monitoring the barges and restricting access to the area. “It’s very rare and rather sad for something this like this to happen,” he added. “This equipment is very important for the dredging side of our business.”