Dead in the Water, But Not Down
The diesel submarine HMCS Chicoutimi was on her way from the British submarine facility in Faslane, Scotland, to her new home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, this week when tragedy struck.
The Canadians had purchased the 15-year-old Chicoutimi from the Brits, refitted it in Britain ’s famous submarine shipyards at Faslane. Chicoutimi and crew of 53 were on their first at-sea journey following refit and sea trials.
Formerly the HMS Upholder, Chicoutimi is a long-range Victoria Class diesel submarine, about 200 feet long, displacing about 2,400 tons submerged. The Brits sold her to Canada as part of their commitment to an all-nuclear submarine fleet.
On Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 5, 2004, 120 miles off the coast of Ireland, something went wrong in the sub’s main electrical panel. Fire broke out, filing the small submarine with smoke and shutting down the propulsion plant.
Under normal circumstances this would be a serious problem, but at the time Chicoutimi was experiencing 30- to 35-foot seas and 35-knot winds. Without power, she was wallowing helplessly, unable to position herself safely in the mountainous waves. To make matters worse, nine crew members were down with injuries. The Captain sent out a distress signal.
The Irish ship LE Roisin was the first on scene, but she suffered damage in the heavy seas and had to head back to port. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s Wave Knight, as well as Royal Navy vessels HMS Montrose, from Faslane, and HMS Marlborough, from Devonport in Plymouth, have been dispatched and on the scene. They are being joined by two tugs, a Royal Air Force Nimrod from Kinloss and Sea King helicopter from HMS Gannet in Ayrshire. An RAF search and rescue helicopter is on standby at Ballykelly in County Londonderry, and a Royal Navy helicopter in County Donegal, in the Irish Republic is also standing by.
But the ocean still rules, and thirty-foot seas are making immediate rescue almost impossible. Chicoutimi is not in immediate danger of sinking, but its crew is being battered inside the sub by the heavy seas and her inability to face the oncoming waves.
The Montrose is assessing the situation and will probably arrange to tow the Chicoutimi back to port. There are no plans to evacuate the crew, even if it were feasible in the high seas. The injured crew are being treated on board, and – so far as can be determined – the rest of the crew are in relatively high spirits as they battle to save their new sub.
By this morning, the submarine had already suffered one fatality, Lieut. Chris Saunders, who died after being medically evacuated from the stricken submarine. Another crewman was in serious condition in an Irish hospital.
Chicoutimi is the fourth Victoria Class long-range patrol submarine purchased by the Canadians from the British. All four have had technical problems, and Canadian parliament members are calling for an investigation.
In the meantime, Chicoutimi ’s stalwart crew members just want to get back to port with terra firma underfoot and a good Scottish ale in hand.
The prayers of all sailors from all navies are with the crew of the Chicoutimi.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor