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Greater Victoria Photos: Feb. 13-19, 2012

Feb 20 2012
Gen. Walt Natynczyk, chief of the defence staff, arrives at CFB Esquimalt on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012. 

Gen. Walt Natynczyk, chief of the defence staff, arrives at CFB Esquimalt on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012.

Photograph by: Adrian Lam , timescolonist.com

A large hole in the front of a Victoria-class submarine that ran aground in Nootka Sound last year isn’t as bad as it looks, says Canada’s top military official.

Gen. Walt Natynczyk, chief of the defence staff, confirmed in an interview with the Times Colonist Sunday that the HMCS Corner Brook submarine will be repaired and back in service once it completes its scheduled maintenance in 2016.

“It looks more serious than it truly is, from what I’ve been told by the navy,” Natynczyk said. “We’ll have that submarine back up ... to full operational capability in the fullness of time.”

Questions about the future of Canada’s submarines were raised last week after the CBC obtained a photo showing the extent of the damage on the Corner Brook. The navy had never released photos of the gouge in the submarine.

“I have great confidence in our navy and especially in our submariners — in my mind, about the best in the world,” Natynczyk said. “And those submarines are at the end of a long beginning, but they are going to give Canada a very capable force.”

The Corner Brook submarine suffered a huge gash on June 4, 2011, after it slammed into the ocean’s rocky floor while conducting submerged manoeuvres during advanced officer training on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

The photograph, taken at 4 a.m. when the sub was being moved from Esquimalt Harbour to drydock for repair by Victoria Shipyards, displayed a three-by-3.7-metre gash.

The hole is in the outer fibreglass shell, and does not affect the structural integrity of the submarine’s crucial pressure hull, according to the navy.

But since the release of the photograph, allegations have been swirling around Ottawa and raised in the House of Commons that the navy, sensitive to the negative attention received by the problem-plagued submarines, perhaps underplayed the extent of the damage.

The federal government bought the four submarines from Britain in 1998 for $750 million. The vessels were renamed Victoria-class subs and christened in honour of four Canadian municipalities: Chicoutimi, Windsor, Corner Brook and Victoria. The cost of retrofitting them has ballooned to more than $1 billion.

Since then, the embattled submarines have frequently appeared in the news. After being upgraded at a Scottish shipyard, HMCS Chicoutimi was travelling to Canada in October 2004 when it caught fire, one day into its voyage. Nine crewmen were affected by smoke inhalation, one of whom died.

HMCS Victoria, meanwhile, had dents in its hull and was restricted from deep diving. A repair bill for HMCS Windsor in 2010 was $45 million.

A navy board of inquiry found the Corner Brook’s crash was avoidable and that an inexperienced commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Paul Sutherland, had the sub more than 450 metres from its intended position.

The navy reported the Corner Brook “incurred damage to her bow and experienced minor leakage in a forward ballast tank.”

The photo of the crash damage to the Corner Brook compounded speculation that the government might get rid of one of the submarines as a cost-saving measure.

But Defence Minister Peter MacKay reaffirmed Tuesday that the Harper government stands firmly behind the Victoria-class submarines.

Natynczyk, who accompanied the captain and crew of HMCS Vancouver into Esquimalt Harbour Sunday as the frigate returned from seven months of active NATO operations, was optimistic about the Corner Brook’s repair.

“There’s a fibreglass bra, if you will, to that sub,” Natynczyk said. “It covers a lot of the acoustics in the front of it. ... I’m told we have some spare parts, actually, that kind of fit that area.”

Rear Admiral Mark Norman, deputy commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, has said the ugly hole in the submarine is akin to damage to a car involved in a “fender bender.” The difference in this case is that it involves a very expensive piece of equipment.

Capt. Luc Cassivi, director of the Canadian Submarine Force, reviewed the results of the board of inquiry into the grounding of HMCS Corner Brook. Cassivi has compared the gash to a cut on an individual’s forehead, which may gush blood even if it is a superficial wound.

In an added show of support, Natynczyk will sail off Vancouver Island Monday with the commander of the Royal Canadian Navy, Admiral Paul Maddison, while HMCS Victoria conducts sea trials.

“And from what I’m told, we’re going to get in deep water,” Natynczyk said.

Despite rumours, MacKay will not participate in the exercise, according to the navy.

A dent in the hull of the Victoria was repaired during her extended docking work period in Esquimalt and there are no longer any diving restrictions on the submarine.

HMCS Victoria, with its crew certified, will be declared fully operational this year, according to the Department of National Defence.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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