Crew of foundering dredge plucked by helicopter from Bay of Fundy

Apr 6, 2009 12:00 AM

The 140-foot dredge Shovelmaster was being towed from Saint John, New Brunswick, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, when it encountered a gale. The vessel subsequently capsized and sank.
Three crewmembers were rescued just before their harbor dredge capsized during a gale in the Bay of Fundy.

The owners of the 140-foot Shovelmaster blamed unexpected bad weather for the Nov. 19, 2008, capsizing and subsequent sinking of the dredge 25 nautical miles northwest of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

The 592-gross-ton Shovelmaster had ceased work for the season on a harbor-dredging project at Saint John, New Brunswick. The vessel was being towed to Halifax for winter layup. Operating in 13-foot seas and winds estimated at 35 knots, the tugboat Atlantic Larch lost control of the tow, the Canadian Coast Guard said. The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre at Halifax sent a Cormorant helicopter, which rescued Shovelmaster's crew 10 minutes before the dredge capsized and Atlantic Larch severed all lines.

As Shovelmaster wobbled in the waves, the three crewmembers donned survival suits and were ordered to jump into the water, said Maj. Denis McGuire, officer in charge of the rescue center. A rescue swimmer helped the crew in the water as they were hoisted to safety by the chopper.

"The way the barge was designed, with the high corner posts, the helicopter couldn't hover in close enough to do a safe hoist" from the deck, McGuire said. "If they hadn't gotten those persons off, it would have been much more difficult, because the vessel capsized."

The tug and dredge crews were surprised to encounter such bad weather, said Geoff Britt, a spokesman for Atlantic Towing Ltd., which owns the vessels involved in the incident.

"They were lucky, because the seas were pretty rough," Britt said. "The conditions were much more severe than expected, in terms of the winds and the seas."

The tug and dredge left Saint John at an undisclosed time Nov. 18. Britt said Atlantic Larch never would have sailed if the crews had realized the danger.

"Obviously not, if they had known the severity of the conditions," he said. "Everyone was caught unawares."

The 4,000-hp Atlantic Larch, a z-drive tractor tug, is operated by Atlantic Towing, based in Saint John. Shovelmaster is operated by Atlantic Towing's Harbor Development division, based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Britt refused to comment on exactly which weather forecast the crews monitored before departing Saint John on Nov. 18. He also wouldn't specify the actual weather conditions the vessels encountered. The tug and dredge ran into trouble around 1415 on Nov. 19.

Environment Canada's extended outlook on Nov. 16 — two days before the voyage began — called for gale- to storm-force winds in the Bay of Fundy on Nov. 19, said Bob Robichaud, an Environment Canada warning preparedness meteorologist at Dartmouth. Wave-height forecasts in the days leading up to Nov. 19 varied from a low range of 2 to 3 meters, or 6.5 to 10 feet, to a high range of 3 to 4 meters, or 10 to 13 feet.

"We were forecasting some pretty nasty weather conditions over the period of a couple of days," Robichaud said. "It wasn't really a surprise from our standpoint."

At 0300 on Nov. 18, Environment Canada issued a gale warning, which forecast winds of 34 to 47 knots.

According to weather buoys in the area where Shovelmaster capsized, the maximum gust was 37 knots, within the forecast range, Robichaud said. The maximum wave height of 4.2 meters, or 13.4 feet, did slightly exceed forecasts.

Atlantic Towing sent three tugs to retrieve the capsized Shovelmaster. The company said it planned to move the dredge farther offshore before attempting to right it. At 1710 on Nov. 23, Shovelmaster sank while under tow by the 5,000-hp Atlantic Oak, 45 nautical miles south southwest of Yarmouth.

Shovelmaster went down in 475 feet of water with 18,500 gallons of diesel fuel aboard, plus 500 gallons of hydraulic oil and slops. The Canadian Coast Guard reported a sheen about 500 feet wide and a mile long, representing only a few gallons of fuel.

An environmental and salvage plan was still being formulated in January, Britt said.

Dom Yanchunas

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