Image: DonLand/Shutterstock

How to Rescue a Cruise Ship in the Northwest Passage

There is not much of a script for such a mass evacuation.

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Oct 24 2017, 2:00pm

Image: DonLand/Shutterstock

This story is part of OUTER LIMITS, a Motherboard series about people, technology, and going outside. Let us be your guide.


On October 26, 2011, David Aqqiaruq and his teenage son left the small Inuit village of Igloolik, in Nunavut, to hunt walrus. They were experienced sailors, and it was a fine day as they motored their small aluminum boat out into the Foxe Basin, part of the complex of passages that separate Baffin Island from mainland Canada.

But then the wind came on, the temperature dropped, the seas swelled in height, and slushy floes formed all about them. By evening the father and son were trapped on the raging, ice-clogged waves, so cold and seasick as to be prone and helpless. Aqqiaruq activated his SPOT rescue beacon in desperation.

Help was thousands of miles and many, many hours away.

The Canadian Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Trenton—a small town along Lake Ontario, on the far southern rim of Canada, two hours east of Toronto—got the ping and call from SPOT and immediately dispatched a C-130 cargo plane from Winnipeg, Manitoba. It arrived six-and-a-half hours later, at 4 AM, and unable to do more than drop a radio and some food to the distressed walrus hunters, the JRCC called for a Cormorant helicopter to be dispatched from Newfoundland. That rescue helo would not arrive until late in the evening of October 27, after multiple refuelings. So, 12 hours after the elder Aqqiaruq called for help, another C-130 was dispatched, this one with three Search and Rescue (SAR) technicians on board.

SAR techs are expert swimmers, survival specialists, and carry rifles to fend off polar bears. But by the time they reached the scene, their plane was low on fuel. The victims on the boat had stopped responding to the radio. The waves grew to ten feet tall. Helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and Coast Guard cutters were dispatched from around the country, yet all were still hours, or days, away. Without other options, the three SAR techs decided to parachute out of the C-130 and into the churning, frigid water.

One SAR tech hit the water and swam to the victims, reaching their boat. A second was overcome by the water and cold, and pulled his own emergency personal life raft, becoming, in effect, an additional person in need of rescue. The third, Sergeant Janick Gilbert, was pulled under as his drysuit filled with water. He froze and drowned and his body was only recovered when the Inuit hunters and other SAR techs were finally pulled to safety by the Cormorant from Newfoundland.

According to the official Canadian Forces flight safety investigation report published in the wake of the incident, by the end of the mission, almost a dozen aircraft—a large portion of Canada's total rescue assets—were tied up on this single call. All to aid two experienced hunters in the Northwest Passage.

Those very waters, it turns out, have been plied, the last two summers, by a luxury cruiseliner, the Crystal Serenity, carrying 1,700 souls. The mind can't help but wonder: how, in the unfortunate scenario, would such a ship possibly be rescued?

The answer is that it must rescue itself.

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Thanks to climate change, the famed Northwest Passage, an all-water route around the Arctic rim of North America, is thawed and consistently open in summer; today, almost ten times as many ships are transiting the route compared to 20 years ago. And what better way to celebrate this milestone—seizing an elusive grail that had both beckoned and killed explorers for hundreds of years—than by touring the straits on a luxurious cruise?

The website of Crystal Cruises, Crystal Serenity's operator, stresses the "expedition" nature of the trip: The two galas, at the beginning and end of the voyage, are only "black tie optional." Low-end cabins cost $44,000, about as much as a new Tesla III, and couples can pay up to a quarter-of-a-million dollars for top-end suites. At 820 feet long, Serenity is the largest passenger ship to ever navigate the Northwest Passage, and it's now succeeded on two occasions, both 32-day excursions from Anchorage to New York City.

Sea ice floating in the waters of the Northwest Passages in 2014. Image: Brent Rostad/Flickr

But the Serenity is a vacation destination, not a polar shipping vessel, and so does not have a reinforced hull. The cruiseliner's ice class rating, 1D, is the lowest possible. In a perhaps unspoken acknowledgement of the challenge of sending so many passengers into such an Arctic zone in such a ship, Crystal Cruises has recently announced it is acquiring new a "Polar Code-compliant megayacht." The Serenity itself is not scheduled to return next year, but other tourist vessels will be, and the task of rescuing any of those ships is daunting.


If a ship flounders in the far north, government assistance is a long time coming. Both American and Canadian coast guards deploy their limited rescue resources to the places where they can assist the most people: warmer southern waters. The vast majority of Canadian forces are near the Great Lakes, Atlantic Maritimes, and British Columbia. So, too, is the US Coast Guard in Alaska, based almost exclusively between Ketchikan and Anchorage, along the state's southeast coast.

This past summer, the US Coast Guard pushed five cutters farther north in an operation known as ARCTIC SHIELD, in order to provide security and rescue assistance in waters that in previous years had remained frozen in summer. The Canadians similarly redeployed a few ships, but not for any specific company's activities. "We confirm that the Canadian Government does not particularly position icebreakers for our voyage," said Molly Morgan, a spokesperson for Crystal Cruises, in an email. American officials were quick to note the same. And so the Serenity planned to be self-sufficient for some time.

Reinforced hulls or not, the primary catastrophic threat to ships in this region is neither a storm like the one that battered the hunters in Igloolik, nor icebergs in the passage itself, as they tend to cluster in the traditional shipping lanes to the south. After all, the Titanic sunk at roughly the same latitude as New York City.

The primary threat facing the Serenity, rather, is the poorly-mapped seabed, and grounding on an unexpected shoal. Only 10 percent of Canada's Arctic Ocean floor, and 32 percent of the shipping lanes, have been properly surveyed. Last year, a sailboat from Hong Kong grounded in just two meters of water off Gjoa Haven, and in 2010 a small cruise ship hit an uncharted rock in Coronation Gulf, both near the Serenity's route. No one was seriously injured in either incident, though it took days for rescuers to arrive.

A response window on that order is likely not a problem if the ship remains seaworthy. But if there is catastrophic damage to the hull it could be disastrous, as was the case in the Costa Concordia wreck in the Mediterranean Sea in 2012. In that incident, a submerged rock tore a hole that flooded compartments and drastically listed the ship to starboard, where it rested half-submerged. In those warmer waters—60 degrees off Rome in January, rather than 33 degrees at Gjoa Haven in August—32 passengers and crew still died.

There is not much of a script for such a mass migration.

To avoid calamity in the first place, the Serenity has been outfitted with a Wesmar forward-looking sonar, thermal imaging, and old-fashioned spotlights on deck to spot ice and errant rocks. But Crystal Cruises, in conjunction with the relevant federal agencies, also held an administrative planning exercise each year to work through contingencies. In the exercise scenario, an unspecified object strikes the ship, injuring a few crew members, disabling the power, and listing the boat such that it must be abandoned before it sinks. This is called a mass evacuation, a chaotic event for which no agency is adequately prepared. A briefing from that exercise succinctly lays out the challenge: "No-one can justify maintaining enough dedicated SAR resources to be able to handle them 'routinely.'"

In case of such an emergency, the Serenity would ideally call for assistance from a large icebreaker outfitted with helicopters and smaller power boats. But instead of waiting for one to arrive, Crystal Cruises pre-emptively hired such a ship to accompany the Serenity on the entire voyage. The RRS Ernest Shackleton is a 262-foot British workhorse that resupplies Antarctic research stations every year. For the past two summers, outfitted with food, shelters, Zodiac inflatable boats, and two Eurocopter AS350 Squirrels, the Shackleton has trailed the black-tie optional Serenity, breaking ice as needed.

If the Serenity were crippled, the Shackleton could respond immediately. Some combination of liferafts, lifeboats, and helicopters would ferry passengers. There is not much of a script for such a mass migration. As a practical matter, swimmers in the water will be in need of recovery, not rescue, after only a few minutes.

Crystal Serenity in 2010. Image: Alexander Baxevanis/Flickr

There was not sufficient room on the Shackleton for all 1,700 passengers and crew, however. Very quickly the freighter would be packed liked an Indonesian ferry. Which is why Morgan, the Crystal Cruise representative, said the company's goal is "to get people ashore and south as quickly as possible."

According to the US and Canadian government's after action report, "the greatest risk to any large passenger vessel transit of the [Northwest Passage] is a Mass Rescue Operation involving the immediate displacement of large numbers of people from a vessel to small lifeboats/rafts and then transit toward landfall."

But even if they all reached shore, the rescue would not be done, because, in effect, every passenger would need to be rescued twice.

First from the ship, and then from the wilderness in which they'd find themselves.

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In August 2016, rescue units from Canada and the US gathered in Kotzebue, Alaska, a small village along the Chukchi Sea, for an exercise called ARCTIC CHINOOK. In that drill, a cruise ship one-tenth the size of the Serenity, carrying 200 passengers and crew, required mass evacuation, and various helicopter crews and US Air Force pararescue units practiced accessing, stabilizing, feeding and sheltering, and transporting victims off the tundra.

Just as governments don't preposition coast guard cutters for the Serenity, rescue officials are quick to note that they were not specifically preparing for the cruiseliner's transit of the Northwest Passage. But in the case of ARCTIC CHINOOK, this rings especially true. While all military units have a habit of practicing scenarios they'll succeed at, in this case the reduced scale is telling.

If the Serenity gets in trouble anywhere near Alaska, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Scot Milani gets a call. Milani, a former helicopter and C-130 pilot accustomed to being in charge, is the director of the Rescue Coordination Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. But when a plane crashes or boat calls mayday, he can only ask other emergency responders—Army and National Guard helicopters near Anchorage and Fairbanks, or the municipal North Slope Borough Search and Rescue, paid for by the tiny town of Barrow and nearby tribes—to help.

Read more: Arctic Cruises for the Wealthy Could Fuel a Climate Change 'Feedback Loop'

Earlier this year, I visited the Alaskan RCC, a command space admirably stocked with wide-screens tracking weather and news. Milani told me that the rescue ethos up north, when asking for help, is "of course it's yes, now let's figure out how." Although, technically, Milani can't issue orders. In military parlance, he has plenty of responsibility but no authority. The voluntary organizational chart looks like a constellation.

In Milani's words, if a mass evacuation happens, "a maritime event becomes an inland rescue event." Such a response is a race to maintain the victims in their environment long enough to be retrieved. Crystal Cruises, Morgan told me, contracted out this portion of the response to Aviem International, a business-continuity company led by former airline executives, which will provide "call center support, Go Teams, humanitarian assistance, media & crisis communication, incident management and disaster recovery services." The plan is to use "gymnasiums as temporary facilities to house large numbers of guests and crew."

This would work if the accident takes place near a settlement. These hamlets have worked hard to prepare for such an event, but they are scattered across the Arctic like satellites in space, and only a few have an airfield or any facility as large as a gymnasium.

In the likely event that an emergency takes place far away from ports, roads, and landing strips, the governments of Canada and the US will be responding with helicopters and air-inserted forces parachuting from fixed-wing aircraft, such as the SAR techs who jumped in after David Aqqiaruq and his son from the Canadian C-130s near Igloolik that day in October 2011.

As an example of its capability, the Air Force proudly points to the example of the July 2006 rescue of the Cougar Ace, a Singaporean-flagged freighter that ran into trouble in the Aleutian Islands. Floating in the open ocean, the car-carrier suddenly shifted 75 degrees, nearly on its side, tossing Mazdas about its inner compartments. A combined force of helicopters, C-130s, and pararescuemen lifted 23 crew off that ship, the helos spending over 14 hours hovering over the listing funhouse of a freighter. It was a remarkable, high-tech achievement, but one that stretched rescue crews to the limit and is not scalable in any way to a ship like the Serenity. Using that ratio, 30 minutes per person, the Air Force would spend 800 hours—over a month—moving passengers to safety in the event the luxury cruiseliner were to run into trouble.

More plausibly, rescue units will air drop a series of depots and caches in a process called lilly-padding. The Air Force pararescue squadron in Anchorage—on its own initiative, and without official outside funding—has fielded a new gear set called the Arctic Sustainment Package. It consists of utilitarian pre-loaded pallets of equipment, and the pararescuemen to use it, to simply keep victims warm enough, long enough, to be ferried south. Each load of personnel and food and survival suits keeps 28 patients alive for six-and-a-half days.

But the Air Force does not have 60 packages ready to drop, every week, near a grounded Serenity. Nor even 10, for the new Polar-Code megayachts.

No one does.

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