London

This summer, Ontario's most unusual roadside tourist attraction looks to prove it's no sinking ship

The cramped confines of a decommissioned Cold War submarine was not the ideal place to be at the height of the pandemic. But with health restrictions easing, the unusual roadside attraction, which was moved from Halifax to Port Burwell, Ont., in 2012, is looking to regain its stride.

HMCS Ojibwa, moved from Halifax to Port Burwell, aims to prove critics wrong with COVID-19 easing

HMCS Ojibwa was an Oberon class submarine that served Canada during the Cold War from 1965 to 1997. In 2012, it was dismantled and brought 2,000 kilometres from Halifax to Port Burwell, Ont., where it's now used as a museum. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

From the outside, at nearly 90 metres long and eight metres wide, HMCS Ojibwa is huge. Inside, however, it becomes abundantly clear there is simply no such thing as social distancing on a submarine. 

"Compartment sizes basically closed us during most of COVID," said Ian Raven, director of the Elgin Military Museum and HMCS Ojibwa. 

"When we were open, we were running at 50 per cent capacity, and even that was challenging with the size of the compartments inside the submarine.

"It was a quick walk through the boat and then a discussion outside."

The pandemic is just the latest snafu in a string of bad luck for the Cold War relic-turned-tourist attraction in Port Burwell, Ont. The landlocked submarine was supposed to attract tens of thousands of visitors a year when it was moved in 2012 from Halifax to the tiny village of 600 on the north shore of Lake Erie. 

However, those visitors failed to materialize in numbers large enough for the Elgin Military Museum to pay off the $6- million cost of lugging the ship nearly 2,000 kilometres. The museum defaulted on its debt and, several lawsuits later, the Municipality of Bayham ended up getting stuck with the bill.

Tours nearly sold out last year

By 2025, the municipality will have paid off about a third of it, according to a March 2019 staff report. It also said "it is highly unlikely the Municipality of Bayham will ever be able to recover the monies owed to it." 

Ian Raven, director of the Elgin Military Museum and HMCS Ojibwa, stands between the ship's twin engines. Now that pandemic health restrictions have eased, he hopes business will pick up for a tourist attraction that's all about tight quarters. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Then the pandemic happened. Raven said the regular shutdowns put the Elgin Military Museum even further behind in its debt to the municipality.

Still, things are looking up for the museum. Raven won't make any predictions for this summer. But if last summer (June to September) was any indication, there is plenty of public interest in booking spots on a tour. 

"We sold all but eight," he said of the open spots to tour the boat. "Most of those were single spots on different tours where they wanted to fit two people into one spot and we just couldn't do it.

"We were turning people away every day last summer."

Submarine feeds local businesses 

For tourism purposes, the boat can carry half-capacity of 2,200 people a season, and 2,192 spots were sold last year.

They come from as far as London, Windsor, Kitchener-Waterloo and the Greater Toronto Area, and before they leave, they usually spend some time and money in the shops and restaurants on Robinson Street, Port Burwell's main strip. 

Izzy's Schooners Patio and Lookout's back deck offers the best view in the village of Port Burwell to see the province's only submarine-turned-history museum. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"It attracts people. We get groups of 30 or 40 people who are coming just to go in the sub," said Isabelle Ingles, the owner of Izzy's Schooners Patio and Lookout, whose spacious back deck gives tourists the best view in town of the 90-metre-long vessel. 

"They sit here and they look at it, and they eat and then they go. It brings business for me for sure." 

Like many restaurants, Ingles extended her back deck during the height of the pandemic to maximize her outdoor space. Even though the vessel behind her restaurant was closed, people came just to get a look from a distance. 

"The second I was open, they came," she said. "I am the only one with a view like that, so I'm lucky."

Ingles said as the popularity of the sub grows, so too do the number of businesses and customers on Robinson Street. In fact, she said, with the exception of the pandemic years, she's seen her business double every year since she bought her restaurant in 2016. It's why she believes the sub is worth the $6-million cost. 

 "I think it is. Where else can you go into a sub? There's a price tag attached to it, but everything has a price tag. People come from everywhere." 

Back at HMCS Ojibwa, Raven is still organizing for the summer. As ever-cautious COVID-19 could flare up again, he's keeping capacity aboard the submarine at 50 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels and urging people to mask up. 

"We're still strongly recommending people wear masks onboard, we're still strongly maintaining the 50 per cent capacity. We don't want to run into any risks we can avoid." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

now