Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Bluenose II steering problems apparent to provincial consultant early on

Construction manager turned provincial consultant warned the hydraulic system on Bluenose II would put “crew and passengers at risk” — a system he now says will work.

Wilson Fitt says backup system on schooner mitigates earlier concerns

The Bluenose II sails into Lunenburg harbour in July. (CBC)

CBC News has learned a government consultant defending the troubled steering system on Bluenose II was once a big critic of using hydraulics to navigate the boat.

"Oh, it'll work. It'll work," Wilson Fitt told CBC News when asked last month whether the system was doomed because of the controversial heavy steel rudder.

"The boat's brand new. The system is brand new. This is within the realm of ordinary commissioning sort of challenges," he said after the crew noticed a problem with the steering on Aug. 25.

When the wheel was turned, the rudder was slow to respond. As a precaution the ship was docked and public sails were cancelled.

Fitt's comments a few years earlier — when he was construction manager for the consortium of companies building the ship in Lunenburg — showed he was strongly opposed to the system.

 'Colossally overbuilt' and 'expensive'

In a June 2011 e-mail obtained by CBC News, Fitt wrote to one of the ship's designers, saying the rudder as proposed would be "colossally overbuilt," "expensive," and "not...either necessary or a good idea."

"We do not think it is either necessary or a good idea," he wrote, adding the builders preferred a lighter, wooden rudder similar to the one on the original Bluenose II.

Wilson Fitt once worked for the shipyard alliance building the Bluenose II. He is now paid by province to fix the schooner's steering problems. (CBC)

 Fitt also pointed out the risks of installing a hydraulic system.

"An electric/hydraulic system is guaranteed to break down at some point in the lifetime of the vessel and put the crew and passengers at risk."   

A year later, Fitt sent a letter to the project manager MHPM. Despite numerous design changes to the rudder, he wrote "fundamental problems remain."

Concerns alleviated

When asked last week by CBC about the apparent contradictions, Fitt said the e-mail and letter were written before he saw any hydraulic models for the boat.

He says his concerns were alleviated by the installation of a back-up steering system that relies on a helm pump on the boat.

"You have to turn the wheel quite a few times to get the same amount of movement out of the rudder but it works without any powered backup and that redundancy was accepted by [the American Bureau of Shipping] as sufficient for passenger safety," said Fitt, who is being paid $1,200 for each day he works on the project.

Fitt says it's still unclear what caused last month's steering problem nor has it happened again. But several main valves have been replaced as a precaution. A failed bearing was blamed on the steering issue that occurred on July 30 which also forced the cancellation of tours.

Minister hoping no more 'short-term glitches'

This month Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan said while he's hoping there are no more  "short-term glitches," he wants to speak with the captain of the boat and others to see if there's a bigger problem with the design.

Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan says he's hoping there are no more "short-term glitches" with the steering system on Bluenose II.

"There's a number of different perspectives and opinions on what the rudder should be so I would like to hear the full range of what those opinions are and again this would be a very sensitive decision that we would make on the future of the Bluenose," he said.

"We'll make the best possible decision but I really can't say whether it be a metal or a steel or an aluminum or a composite or wooden rudder at this point."

Captain Lou Boudreau of Chester, who has spent 35 years building and sailing schooners, says the metal rudder has to go.

"They need to put an old fashioned schooner rudder back on either with a wooden post or bronze tube with wooden spade," he said.

"This rudder must be seated in a shoe on the bottom of the keel. Then it will be standing, instead of hanging by its neck. That will mitigate totally 100 percent all of this binding and hydraulics and everything. There will be no need for that."

'Pushing back... a fruitless task'

Fitt said he was also in favour of a traditional wooden rudder and worm steerer but came to realize that "pushing back on that point against ABS was going to be a fruitless task."

The province hired Fitt as lead advisor and project manager last year. At the time, the government was asked if that was a conflict of interest.

 David Darrow, then deputy minister to the Premier, dismissed that notion when he appeared before the public accounts committee in September 2014. He praised Fitt as an experienced sailor with a long career in project management.

Darrow said installing a much heavier steel rudder was neither Fitt nor the Lunenburg Shipyard Alliance's idea, so Fitt can't be held responsible for the current steering issues.

"Are there alternatives that should be explored? Possibly," Fit said. "I need to take my lead from my client, the province, in terms of how far to go down the road in terms of exploring alternatives."

He maintains the current system is safe and reliable.

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