Davie clinches the deal

As the Canadian Navy languishes without a re-supply capability, there’s hope on the horizon with the announcement that Davie Shipyards of Quebec will be providing a refitted commercial vessel within 24 months

HMCS Protecteur transfers a pallet loaded with food to HMCS Iroquois during a Replenishment At Sea (RAS) in the Arabian Sea, September 2008. Since 2014, the Royal Canadian Navy has been without a resupply capability after Protecteur caught fire at sea and HMCS Preserver - the RCN's other supply ship - was taken offline due to cracks in the hull. (DND)

HMCS Protecteur transfers a pallet loaded with food to HMCS Iroquois during a Replenishment At Sea (RAS) in the Arabian Sea, September 2008. Since 2014, the Royal Canadian Navy has been without a resupply capability after Protecteur caught fire at sea and HMCS Preserver - the RCN's other supply ship - was taken offline due to cracks in the hull. (DND)

By Evelyn Brotherston

The recent history of Canada’s Joint Support Ships (JSS) hasn’t been pretty. Until 2014, Canada had two such ships, HMCS Protecteur and Preserver, which since 1969 had been faithfully supplying the Canadian fleet with fuel, ammunition, spare parts, food and water during extended deployments. Not surprisingly, by 2004 they were nearing the end of their days and the Canadian government announced its intention to retire them. More than ten years on, the process to build replacements has been met with a series of setbacks; officially, the replacement ships are not due for delivery until 2021, but many worry that deadline is overly-optimistic. To add insult to injury, in February 2014 Protecteur caught fire off the coast of Hawaii and later that year it was discovered that Preserver’s hull was severely compromised by corrosion. Both were taken offline prematurely last year.

Since then, Canada has been relying on the generosity of allies to resupply at sea. Such an arrangement couldn’t go on indefinitely, so in December the government called for proposals to provide an interim solution. This August it was announced that Davie Shipyards would be contracted to provide a refitted commercial vessel for the job.

We spoke with Davie Chairman Alex Vicefield to get the details.

After it's converted, the Asterix will be able to accomodate a crew of 200 and land helicopters on its deck. The commercial container space will be converted into fuel tanks so the ship can resupply the fuel needs of Canadian ships on deployment. It will also deliver food and water, spare parts and any other supplies needed. (Davie)

After it's converted, the Asterix will be able to accomodate a crew of 200 and land helicopters on its deck. The commercial container space will be converted into fuel tanks so the ship can resupply the fuel needs of Canadian ships on deployment. It will also deliver food and water, spare parts and any other supplies needed. (Davie)

“As soon as we saw that Protecteur had caught fire we realized that the other ship would be decommissioned,” he explains. “A navy without supply ships is not a full, blue water navy, but a naval force primarily limited to a coastal defence role. So of course we were quick to respond. I think we created a solution before they realized they had a problem.” Davie and its parent company, Inocea, have lots of experience in conversions, says Vicefield, “And we thought, ‘OK, there has to be an opportunity here to use that expertise.’ So we actually started working immediately on some concept designs.”

As a result, by the time the Canadian Government did call for an industry-wide consultation in January, Davie was able to offer a well-developed, detailed plan to refit a commercial container ship. In fact, they’d already pitched the idea to the Canadian Government months before under an unsolicited proposal. With a more developed plan and a much bigger ship yard, they beat out their prime competitors for the deal.

Currently, the Government is only committed to converting one container ship, the Asterix, but there’s a possibility a second will be requested. Given that Canada has both Atlantic and Pacific fleets, a second is certainly needed.

Asterix is German-built and can transport up to 1,700 containers. Where it currently has cargo holds for transporting containers, Davie will instead be installing fuel tanks. The ship’s accommodations will also be replaced with new ones, which will house up to 200 people. “If it's ever used for humanitarian relief operations it also has quite a large dormitory area so that you can do large scale evacuations and medical care,” says Vicefield.

The Asterix, a commercial container ship seen here in dry docks, will become the new interim supply-ship for the Royal Canadian Navy after conversions are made by Davie Shipyards of Lévis, Quebec. (Davie)

The Asterix, a commercial container ship seen here in dry docks, will become the new interim supply-ship for the Royal Canadian Navy after conversions are made by Davie Shipyards of Lévis, Quebec. (Davie)

Davie will be providing the vessel to the Canadian government for a set number of years which has yet to be made public. The agreement also contains the option for renewal with each subsequent year. Seaspan Shipyards of Vancouver, who were selected to negotiate contracts for the build of up to seven ships for the Navy and Coast Guard — including the two new Joint Support Ships — is currently working towards a delivery date of 2021. For a shipyard that’s never built on this scale before, the worry in some quarters is that delivery will get pushed back. For JSS that’s bad news, since Seaspan has committed to building four coast guard vessels before it even starts to cut steel on the JSS.

Thanks to the new deal with Davie, however, the Navy won’t have to beggar itself much longer. In fact, with an interim solution now established, there’s the possibility Seaspan could begin construction of the polar icebreaker ship before the Joint Support Ships. A new polar icebreaker is urgently needed to replace the aging CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, which was built in 1966.

The understanding with Davie, as Vicefield explains, shouldn’t be thought of solely as a short-term solution. “If you look at other countries that have performed container ship conversions pretty much exactly like this — such as the Royal Navy and the US Navy — those ships have lasted decades. So as much as it's an interim solution, it can easily provide a longer-term capability if required.”

HMCS Protecteur transfers fuel to the USS Fitzgerald in 2009. Since the loss of Canada's resupply ships, the RCN has had to rely on allies to resupply at sea. (U.S. Navy)

HMCS Protecteur transfers fuel to the USS Fitzgerald in 2009. Since the loss of Canada's resupply ships, the RCN has had to rely on allies to resupply at sea. (U.S. Navy)

“This is actually a full services agreement,” he explains. “We'll actually be running the ship, so it'll be our captain and our crew onboard; we'll be doing the hotel operations, including the catering and so on.” This arrangement isn’t unusual; the British and U.S. navies use a similar system for their resupply needs. “There are certain elements of this program where we are leveraging best practices from the commercial shipping industry, which I am sure will provide food for thought on some of the upcoming In Service Support requirements,” Vicefield suggests.

“Anything to do with the marine operations of the ship —driving the ship, fixing the ship, and maintaining the ship — is our responsibility. Any of the onboard projects and functions, in terms of how they operate the ship, will be up to the Navy.”

The Navy may not appreciate having their jobs replaced by civilians, but for the time being the solution will at least allow them to do their job: deploy anywhere in the world without having to worry about running out of food and fuel.