Coast Guard rescue boat breaks down on way home after refit

A Canadian Coast Guard rescue lifeboat broke down twice this month en route to its Nova Scotia home port after a refit, CBC News has learned.

13-metre lifeboat was returning to Cape Sable Island from refit in Cape Breton when both engines failed

A 13-metre rescue lifeboat (not pictured) was returning to Cape Sable Island from a refit in Cape Breton when both engines failed off Halifax in the early-morning hours of Nov. 10. (David Horemans/CBC)

A Canadian Coast Guard rescue lifeboat broke down twice this month en route to its Nova Scotia home port after a refit, CBC News has learned.

The CCGS Clarks Harbour is still undergoing repairs at the West Head wharf on Cape Sable Island, but the Coast Guard said it will be available for the winter lobster season in southwest Nova Scotia, which is just days away.

"The fact it's not in service is that we are conducting ongoing maintenance and ensuring it's ready to go for the opening," said Wade Spurrell, acting Deputy Commissioner of the Canadian Coast Guard.

An unsettling voyage

The 13-metre rescue lifeboat was returning to Cape Sable Island from a refit in Cape Breton when both engines failed off Halifax in the early morning hours of Nov. 10.

Spurrell said he did not know if the Clarks Harbour issued a distress call.

He did say the rescue boat was towed one nautical mile into Sambro, where it stayed for two days as the crew worked on the fuel system.

Breaks down again

CCGS Clarks Harbour resumed its journey only to detour into Lunenburg after experiencing similar problems.

The crew was forced to shut down one engine to work on the fuel filtration system and call for an escort.

The vessel spent three more days in Lunenburg, where the crew was joined by field service representatives from the manufacturer.

It underwent sea trials and more troubleshooting before finally making its way to Cape Sable Island, where it arrived at the West Head wharf on Nov. 16.

Mystery fuel system problem

Spurrell said something is wrong with the fuel system. It was not part of the recent refit, although the fuel tank was opened up, inspected and some work was done.

"The cause of the problem with the fuel, whether it was with the tank or the fuel supply, we are still trying to determine the root cause of the fuel problem, but at this point we've narrowed it down to a problem with the fuel system itself," Spurrell said.

More questions about busy rescue station

It's not the first time questions have been raised about the condition of lifeboats at the rescue station at the West Head wharf in Clark's Harbour.

It is one of the busiest in Canada, responding to about 120 rescue calls per year.

Last month Eric Nickerson, a 28-year veteran of the station — and decorated hero — told CBC News there is a "desperate need" for a new vessel.

"There's no doubt, it's no secret they are getting used up. The condition over 20 years is definitely taking its toll," Nickerson said.

Nickerson said the CCGS Courtenay Bay that was replacing CCGS Clarks Harbour while it was in Cape Breton is due for its own refit.

Spare lifeboat refit running late

Meanwhile, another rescue lifeboat that serves as a backup at Cape Sable Island station, CCGS Spray, is coming out of an extended refit that started in April.

"It was a longer refit. A lot of work was undertaken. It is running a little late, but it is my understanding that sea trials should take place this weekend and then after that, when required, it will be put into service," said Spurrell.

'It's scary'

None of this surprises local fisherman Kevin Ross, who is frustrated by the condition of the rescue vessels.

"It's scary," he said in a windswept wharfside interview in whiteout conditions.

"We're not going out to dump our pots in this, but we will be hauling in this kind of weather. And God forbid anything happens — something usually does — and if we don't have a boat to get out there to rescue people, we're in trouble."

Request for new vessel rejected

Ross has been lobbying the Coast Guard to "loan" the rescue station one of the new Bay-class rescue boats for the first month of the lobster season.

The larger and faster vessels are now coming into service.

The Cape Sable Island rescue station is scheduled to get one in 2020.

"I'd say we are in the worst shape we've been since the Coast Guard came to Clark's Harbour and West Head as far as safety goes," he said.

The request for a Bay-class lifeboat has been rejected by the Coast Guard, which said it has adequate resources in place for the season.

"We've sent additional resources to all the stations. During the busy periods, we send double crews down. We are very confident we have a good plan in place," Spurrell said.