Canada looks to charter research vessel as it awaits $1B replacement ship

The research vessel CCGS Hudson was decommissioned after suffering a major mechanical failure. (CBC - image credit)
The research vessel CCGS Hudson was decommissioned after suffering a major mechanical failure. (CBC - image credit)

The Canadian Coast Guard is looking to charter a research ship for up to five years while it waits for a new $1-billion offshore oceanographic science vessel to be built under the national shipbuilding program.

The coast guard says it's being prudent.

"Having a backup plan in case another pandemic hits or something else I think is always good sound management. So that's why we've put that insurance policy into place," assistant commissioner Gary Ivany said in an interview after an event in Sambro, N.S.

Ottawa has issued a request for information to industry to charter an "interim science vessel" on the East Coast for 2023 to 2026, with an option for two more years.

The coast guard intended to keep the offshore science ship CCGS Hudson in service until its replacement was ready. But a catastrophic motor failure last fall forced it to abandon that plan. The 59-year-old Hudson was officially retired earlier this year.

Construction of a new offshore oceanographic science vessel for the east coast has started at the Seaspan shipyard in Vancouver. It is currently estimated to cost $995 million.

2025 delivery date

Delivery is now expected in 2025.

"Steel-cutting is underway. Work is progressing well. Long lead items have been purchased. So we're very confident and in the timelines as they stand today," Ivany said.

Seaspan declined to provide an estimated delivery date for the offshore oceanographic science ship.

Spokesperson Adam D'Agostino says the company has been impacted by COVID-19, but has been able to keep its shipyard open and operational.

"We are continuing working closely with the coast guard and the navy to mitigate the impact of COVID on our programs and vessel delivery schedules," D'Agostino said.

Caution is justified, says Timothy Choi, a shipbuilding expert at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

COVID-19 impact

Choi says shipbuilding around the world has been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and delayed supply chains.

"Even the Chinese with their incredibly massive amounts of human resources, they're delaying their naval shipbuilding, which is unprecedented in terms of their construction rates. So nobody's immune to this. And the fact that the coast guard is putting out this interim proposal at this point tells us that they are well aware of that," Choi said.

The next issue is availability. Last year, the coast guard bought an Irving-owned light icebreaker working in Turkmenistan in the Caspian Sea.

"Asking for an interim replacement that's actually somewhere around the world that's very important. Now, whether that vessel actually exists is a different question," Choi said.

"That's the whole point of this request for information. They want to see what the industry knows about availability."

Even if the new ship from Seaspan meets this latest delivery date, it will take time to get the ship into service.

Moving target timeline

"Having that one additional platform to help us carry out that important science work will be very important — 2025, 2026 is our plan for the transition year," he said.

The timeline to replace CCGS Hudson has been a moving target since it was included in the National Shipbuilding Strategy announced by the Harper government 15 years ago.

It was originally expected to cost $109 million with delivery in 2017. Since then the price has risen nearly tenfold and delivery has been moved to 2021, 2023, 2024 and 2025.

With the Hudson now permanently tied up at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is looking elsewhere for platforms to conduct science on the East Coast this year.

This spring, it paid $5.1 million to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts to use its research vessel,  Atlantia, to carry out ocean climate monitoring surveys off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Another charter is expected to be awarded soon to carry out planned surveys in the fall.

In recent years, DFO and the coast guard have been forced to increasingly rely on charters as the Hudson required more refits, repairs and maintenance to stay afloat.

The coast guard says it intends to use some of its other vessels for DFO science work.