Access to fuel essential for Royal Canadian Navy’s Arctic work
Nanisivik fuel depot set to open next summer, 12 years after project announced
Commander Nathan Decicco peers over the port-side bridge wing of HMCS Charlottetown.
He squints, calculating the distance between his ship and the shore.
Below, crew members are throwing lines towards a jetty, as the 134-metre Royal Canadian Navy frigate inches towards a dock at the Greenland capital on Aug. 30.
In a briefing the night before, the warship commander told his heads of staff to watch out for winds that could make coming into the berth today more challenging.
Even so, the act of bringing HMCS Charlottetown alongside at the Nuuk Port and Harbour takes about half an hour.
The ship had come in to the same berth a week before, in one of two visits the navy made to Nuuk while deployed domestically on the Canadian Armed Forces’ annual Arctic sovereignty mission, Operation Nanook.
For the crew aboard the Charlottetown, that operation ran from Aug. 12 to Aug. 28. But this pit stop was a must before sailing back home to the east coast.
That’s because, except for privately-owned mine sites, there’s no place in Canada’s North for a naval ship to gas up.
In past years, naval ships involved with Operation Nanook would refuel from ships at sea, like a Canadian Coast Guard vessel. But this wasn’t the plan this year, Decicco said, adding that bringing two large ships alongside each other at sea can be dangerous.
“It’s a weather risk, it’s a seamanship challenge, and it also presents an environmental risk,” he said, while sitting in an armchair in his captain’s cabin one deck below the ship’s bridge.
Next year, fuel planning for the Navy should get a lot simpler in the Arctic.
That’s after the Canadian government opens its long-awaited Nanisivik naval facility, a marine refuelling depot located at the site of a defunct lead-zinc mine near Arctic Bay.
The opening of that seasonal depot will see a “drastic” change in maritime operations in Arctic waters, Decicco said.
“It will enable us to operate up here, both the coast guard and the navy, with a lot more latitude.”
The deep-water port site has two new fuel barrels that will be filled annually with marine distillate, for use by the Canadian Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Navy for its five to six new ice-capable Arctic offshore patrol vessels—the first of which will go in the water this fall.
Right now, equipment for the depot is built and tests are underway to make sure the site can open next year.
The $130-million project dates back to 2007 when it was announced as a year-round northern naval centre by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Almiq Construction Ltd. of Iqaluit was awarded the project’s $60 million construction contract in 2014.
“It’s directly south of the Northwest Passage. It is in a convenient location for use,” said Rodney Watson, who has served as project manager for the Nanisivik project for the past 10 years.
In August, Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan visited Nanisivik, where he met with the mayor of Arctic Bay and a community elder. That day, the Canadian and Nunavut flags were raised at the site.
“We put a lot of value on having a close relationship with Arctic Bay,” said Watson, who also said the fuel depot is on track to open and is running under budget.
But Nanisivik was supposed to open this summer, when it could have been used by HMCS Charlottetown.
Canada has 12 vessels like the Charlottetown, all Halifax-class frigates built in the 1990s. The ships each carry 665,000 litres of fuel.
“These ships were conceived to hunt submarines in the North Atlantic primarily,” Decicco said.
Each of the frigates have since gone through a mid-life refit and are now used for humanitarian missions and for NATO’s counter-narcotics operations.
The vessels can run from North America to Europe quickly on one fuel tank, but that speedy passage comes at the cost of fuel efficiency.
“Because of the heavy fuel consumption at high power, they burn a lot of gas,” he said.
Bearing this in mind, Canada’s up-and-coming ice-strengthened Harry DeWolf-class ships are designed for endurance and fuel economy.
“That’s at the cost of slower top speeds,” Decicco said. “They’re not designed or intended to sprint from one place to the other … some ships are more suited to longer distances at slower speeds.”
That’s why main engines for those Arctic patrol ships will be akin to the Charlottetown’s diesel cruise engine—one of three engines on the frigate.
At a mid-to-low speed of 13 nautical miles per hour, the frigate would burn about 1,000 litres of fuel each hour on the diesel engine, whereas the gas turbine engines would burn triple that, using about 3,000 litres an hour at the same speed.
But when a gearbox failed midway through the northern deployment, the Charlottetown’s engineers were forced to switch from running on its fuel-efficient diesel engine to its two high-running gas turbine engines.
This break prevented the ship from quickly sailing to offer support to a distressed research and cruise vessel, Akademik Ioffe, that grounded near Kugaaruk on Aug. 25.
“If you’re going to save lives, then obviously you’re going to go quickly and consume a lot of fuel,” Decicco said.
To help, the ship would have had to gas up in Nuuk first, or take fuel from the coast guard so it could sail home. In the meantime, the incident was contained by the CCGS Pierre Radisson and CCGS Amundsen. Besides ice breaking, search and rescue is a primary mandate of the Canadian Coast Guard.
“In the Arctic it’s very difficult to have a quick and efficient response, because of the distances,” Decicco said, adding that paired with the new fuel depot, upcoming ice-capable navy vessels will change that.
“What the Arctic offshore patrol ships will give you is far more range.”