A Quebec shipyard hopeful of getting more federal work has condemned a storied Coast Guard ship as beyond repair, declining to bid on a lucrative contract to overhaul the 56-year-old CCGS Hudson on the grounds that it “presents a serious and real threat to the safety of life at sea.”
In a letter delivered Tuesday to officials with Public Services and Procurement Canada, Davie CEO Jared Newcombe said his company, based in Lévis, Que., would not bid on the contract to upgrade the Hudson as Davie believes the vessel to be beyond repair. A copy of that letter was provided to Global News.
The federal government was trying to squeeze another few years of service out of the Hudson which, having been commissioned in 1963, is the oldest ship in the Coast Guard’s fleet. Bidding on the life-extension contract, expected to be worth about $20 million, ended this week.
It is the latest headache to bedevil a federal shipbuilding process that has been rife with delays. Davie’s remarkable letter — procurement experts cannot recall a bidder ever recommending scrapping a major vessel when offered a chance to upgrade it — underscores the difficulties successive federal governments have had in updating an aging Coast Guard and Royal Canadian Navy fleet.
“The Coast Guard ships are in serious need of replacement now,” said David Perry, a defence procurement expert and senior analyst at the Ottawa-based think tank, the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. The average service of a Coast Guard ship is about 36 years. Canada’s Maritime peers typically replace their Coast Guard vessels within 30 years of service.
The Harper government announced in 2007 that the Hudson was to be replaced by 2012 and the contract to replace her was awarded to Vancouver’s Seaspan shipyard. But that project is mired in delays and it is not clear when there will be a replacement. There is not yet a confirmed date for construction to start while the projected budget of $331 million to build the Hudson’s replacement is under review.
The Hudson did have a $4-million refit in Hamilton, Ont., in 2016, and has had more work done on it since it returned to its East Coast port in Dartmouth, N.S., in 2017.
But Davie told the government that, in its view, the Hudson has now reached the end of the line.
“The level of degradation to the hull, fuel tanks, onboard systems and other structural elements presents a serious and real threat to the safety of life at sea as well as the environment,” Newcombe wrote. Newcombe said his company had to consider its own liability should it have won the current life extension contract, “as well as ethical, repetitional and environmental considerations.”
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Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), the federal government department handling the work, disagrees with Davie’s assessment.
“The claim that the CCGS Hudson is “irreparable” is inaccurate,” PSPC spokesperson Carole Saindon said in an e-mail statement late Thursday night. “The CCGS Hudson is a reliable ship, thanks to the regular maintenance of the Coast Guard. The vessel remains in good condition, and meets all Transport Canada regulatory requirement and is fully certified.”
The CBC reported last fall, citing documents it obtained under the federal Access to Information Act, that after reviewing the work done on the Hudson in 2016, an unnamed official with Lloyd’s Register, the maritime classification society based in the U.K., wrote, “There is no reason why the vessel should not continue to operate for another 5-10 years.”
The Hudson has a distinguished place in Canada’s Maritime history as a science and exploration vessel. Built in Saint John and launched in 1963, it became the first ship to ever circumnavigate North and South America, a voyage it completed from 1969 to 1970. It has also assisted in search-and-rescue operations in its long career.
Most recently, between Aug. 17 and Sept. 10 last year, it charted marine geohazards and natural seeps off southeastern Baffin Island, Nunavut.
But the scientific report published by Natural Resources Canada about that journey noted that there were problems with the ship. On its second day out of port, as it was travelling up the west coast of Newfoundland, for example, two of its engines developed problems. The problem with one engine was resolved but the other was out of action for the rest of the cruise.
The Coast Guard’s fleet problem could turn into an election issue. Davie and its supporters believe one solution to Canada’s aging fleets is to get more shipyards into action building new ships. Most of the work to build new navy and Coast Guard ships was awarded to Irving, based in Halifax, and to Seaspan, based in Vancouver.
Davie is located in a riding held by Conservative Steven Blaney, a former Harper-era cabinet minister, while the other shipyards are in Liberal territory. Politics has never been far from Canada’s shipbuilding policy with shipyards and their backers routinely conscripting political parties to push their agenda.
Indeed, one of the issues bubbling beneath the surface of the ongoing trial of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman are ties between the Irving family, owner of the Halifax shipyard and senior Liberal cabinet ministers Scott Brison and Dominic Leblanc.
A group of suppliers to the Davie Shipyard recently released a 10-minute video sharply critical not only of Canada’s shipbuilding strategy but also of Davie’s rivals, Irving and Seaspan.
The Hudson is one of five Coast Guard ships built in the 1960s, the most notable of which may be the heavy icebreaker CCGS Louis St. Laurent built in 1969.
The Hudson is one of two offshore oceanographic science vessels the Coast Guard operates. The other is CCGS John P. Tully, commissioned in 1984 and based out of Victoria.
The Hudson is the only one of her kind on the Atlantic coast. Her home port is in Dartmouth, N.S., at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography.