CBC Investigates

The pioneering Acadia survived wars and the Halifax Explosion. Will she survive neglect?

Among the many issues facing CSS Acadia, there are small holes in the hull. Documents obtained through freedom-of-information laws paint an alarming picture of the state of the ship, a National Historic Site of Canada.

'I'm very concerned that a rivet's going to go and she's going to sink at her mooring'

CSS Acadia is shown by the Halifax waterfront on Aug. 30, 2018. (Cassie Williams/CBC)

Daylight filtered through two small holes in the side of CSS Acadia's hull about a metre and half above the waterline as the ship sat stagnating by the Halifax waterfront.

When they were first spotted by a caretaker this spring, he tapped the edges with his boot and more rusted steel crumbled away.

Built in 1913, the Acadia has mapped coastal waters not explored since the time of James Cook, survived the Halifax Explosion and served in two world wars. But in the end, some worry, it may be time and lack of money that finally sink the ship.

"Next thing is going to be a hole five foot below the water line, which is not good," said Charles Maginley, a retired member of the navy and the Canadian Coast Guard who has authored two books that feature the Acadia.

Emails and documents obtained through freedom-of-information laws paint an alarming picture of the state of the Acadia, which since 1976 has been recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada.

Whatever fixes are needed could cost millions of dollars. The rust and marine growth that cling to her hull only hint at the issues that may lurk and won't fully be known until she's hauled out of the water, something that's not happened in eight years.

Daylight streams through holes in CSS Acadia's hull during a spring 2018 inspection. (Department of Transportation)

Nova Scotia's Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, which is responsible for the Acadia, will not say when she will be put in drydock.

But documents show the discovery of the holes in the hull prompted "increased urgency" with the province's latest request for funding from the federal government, submitted this spring. The amount has been redacted from the records. It was funding the province was denied in 2017.

The last assessment of the Acadia for the Department of Transportation, in 2013, estimated the cost to fix up the vessel was at least $1.4 million. However, that only took into account the visible degradation, not any potential damage below the water line or in other hidden nooks and crannies.

Heritage Minister Leo Glavine said Thursday there's not yet a timeline for getting the Acadia into drydock, and it's not yet known how much repairs will cost to ensure its "long-term sustainability."

The province will have to make "a substantial investment," he said, but given the Acadia has been recognized as of national significance it's the "right approach" to ask the federal government to come on board.

"This is a vessel very important to Nova Scotians," he said.

For Maginley, spending taxpayers' money on the Acadia is worth it. "I mean if you can save the Sackville you can save that ship," he said in an interview.

He gestured to a neighbouring berth where HMCS Sackville usually bobs in the water. In a sense, the Halifax waterfront is a tale of two historic ships.

Charles Maginley has written three books on the Canadian Coast Guard, two of which feature CSS Acadia. (CBC)

The Sackville is the last of 123 Flower-class Corvettes built for Canada in the Second World War. It is currently in drydock for the first time in 10 years after the federal government committed up to $3.5 million to repair the ship.

A crew is working against the clock to fix holes in it before Oct. 1 when the Royal Canadian Navy's submarine repair shed is needed for work on another naval vessel.

Wendall Brown, a retired naval commander and chair of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust, which cares for the Sackville, said those repairs should ensure it is water tight for another eight to 10 years.

Brown said this work will buy his group time to find the funds to permanently replace the Sackville's steel skin, work that would secure its future for another 50 years. 

Brown's group has submitted a proposal to the three levels of government for a $195-million to $225-million project called Battle of the Atlantic Place, which would see the Sackville completely restored inside a giant glass enclosure on the Halifax waterfront. Brown said, however, those plans are on hold for now.

These days, the Acadia is a floating museum at the Halifax waterfront. Visitors can tour the main deck, but lower decks are now off limits due to mould. (Cassie Williams/CBC)

The Acadia, which was built in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, was originally designed to survey Canada's Arctic waters. She did so in Hudson's Bay, but would also be used to chart the coast of Newfoundland and for surveying off Nova Scotia. She was called the "workhorse of the Canadian Hydrographic Service."

During the First World War the Acadia guarded Halifax's Bedford Basin. She only suffered minor damage during the huge explosion that rocked the city in 1917, and is the only vessel that survived the catastrophe and is still afloat.

Both the Sackville and Acadia were part of the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest campaign of the Second World War.

Sackville currently sits in drydock at the navy's submarine repair shed. Maroon anti-rust paint coating covers her usual gleaming white and powder blue hull. (Cassie Williams/CBC)

The Sackville is maintained through the non-profit Canadian Naval Memorial Trust, while the province looks after the Acadia.

Maintaining the historic ships is expensive. Brown said there have been "exploratory" discussions about preserving the two vessels together, honouring Canada's maritime heritage.

Such a plan would involve all three levels of government, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which oversees CSS Acadia, HMCS Sackville and the Waterfront Development Corporation, which controls the real estate along the Halifax waterfront.

"We're all trying to work together to make an affordable solution so that we achieve as good a heritage, maritime heritage environment as we can," said Brown.

In terms of a timeline of when a plan like this could come together, Brown said it's too soon to say. 

"We're not there yet," he said.

Wendall Brown is a retired naval commander who chairs the board of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust. (CBC)

But given the shape Acadia's in, years could be too long. 

The 2013 assessment by the Department of Transportation noted the $1.4-million cost estimate to fix the Acadia was hardly a firm one. It would "likely increase based on the condition of the steel deck when the wood decking is removed." 

That assessment was five years ago. Ask any mariner, a lot can happen to a vessel over the course of five years.

Smoke swirls around a welder working on securing a steel plate to the hull of HMCS Sackville while in drydock at the navy's submarine shed. (Robert Short/CBC)

At the beginning of this year, a powerful nor'easter snapped two of the lines holding the Acadia and caused damage in the range of $10,000 to $18,000, documents reveal.

The powerful Jan. 4 storm brought heavy snow, ice pellets, rain and strong winds up to 120 km/h to Nova Scotia — not an unusual storm for Atlantic Canada but a potentially devastating prospect for a 105-year-old ship with holes in her side.

"I'm very concerned that a rivet's going to go and she's going to sink at her mooring," said Maginley.

Both Maginely and Brown say without a doubt the two ships are worth preserving.

In the eight years since it was last taken in dry dock, Acadia has accumulated rust and marine growth along the hull. (Cassie Williams/CBC)

In 2017, about 25,000 people visited the Sackville and more than 32,000 visited the Acadia. Those who go on the Acadia must remain above deck due to mould, flaking lead paint and asbestos down below.

By comparison, about 100,000 visited the famous Bluenose II, although it has the advantage of being able to sail to new ports.

Standing alongside Acadia on a recent hot summer day, Maginley remembers the first time he saw CSS Acadia docked in Newfoundland nearly 70 years ago. 

"She looked like she did now except a bit, perhaps, a bit smarter," he said.

Along the Halifax waterfront, Katie Gould and Morad Al pause at the Acadia. Both used to live in Halifax but have since moved away. They say something more should be done to maintain the ship, but there's a limit on what they believe should be spent.

"They're doing all of the construction to spruce up the harbour walk. I mean this is part of our heritage so, yeah, it would be just to maintain it a little bit at least," Gould said.

"I don't think millions of dollars should be spent repairing it but some maintenance would be nice because it's part of the heritage," Al said. "So I think we should keep it and maintain it."