Icebreaker N. B. Mclean/CGSN IMO:5244912

An Unexpected Surprise

When I got home in mid-October 1970 from the “Rio Manamo”, my goal was to study for the first class Canadian radio telecommunications certificate. No college or university taught it, not even the Marine Institute where I studied for my second class certificate in 1964-1966. PMG The only solution was to study at home. I gathered up all the Marconi technical manuals including Radio Fundamentals used by the Navy.

I had transcribed the daily emissions of Morse code broadcast in Spanish by the Russian news agency Tass at 30 words per minute in plain language for the last few years. That was one problem solved. However, five letter groups and numerous groups of accented letters was a completely different story. I never had the opportunity to copy or practice them, except when I was at the marine institute. Equipment diagrams, radio regulations and other requirements should not be so complicated. However, I could not study the radio theory all winter, and I was in luck. Another even more interesting activity was waiting for me.


Maybe you’ve read a few words that I wrote about earlier when I was on board the “Rio Orinico” in 1970. Each time I arrived at a seaport in America, I have always had a big woolen sock full of quarters so I could call my girlfriend in Canada. Well, she lived just 10 miles from my house, and in addition, was a technician that worked at the regional telephone exchange. In addition, she was interested in radio and had attended amateur radio classes given by my professor at the Institute. One day we were working in the cold, dark, cramped and dusty attic of the family farm house. We were installing a long wire antenna for her shortwave radio so she could practice for the amateur radio exams. Probably few people propose marriage in such an exotic place! When I asked her, I was even more surprised with her answer; “And why not?”

On July 5, 1971, I received a telegram with instructions to join the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker “N. B. Mclean” in the Vickers shipyard in Montreal for the annual Arctic trip. Luckily, I was able to take the exams in Quebec a week before on my way to Montreal. I had passed all the exams with the exception of coded groups and accentuated letters in Morse code. When I left home to Quebec and Montreal, I expected the worst and had brought along a Morse code key and tape recorder and was able to practice every day when I was off duty.


Heavy Seas, Failing Rivets and Leaking Portholes.

The “N. B. Mclean” was built in 1930 at the Halifax Shipyards in Nova Scotia for the Canadian Minister of Marine and Fisheries. As an eighty metre long icebreaker of 3,254 tons with two triple expansion engines and four oil-fired Babcock & Wilcox boilers, it produced 6,500 horsepower. At that time, she was described as a “heavy” icebreaker. Currently, the latest Russian nuclear powered icebreaker, the “Sibir”, is under construction at the Baltic Shipyards in Saint Petersburg, expected to be ready for 2019. It will displace some 33,500 tons, produce 147,000 horsepower and will break ice up to 4.5m thick. I still wonder how the “N. B. McLean” ever succeeded in going anywhere in ice with just 6,500 horsepower! Probably if I had known that, maybe I wouldn’t have been so excited on going icebreaking into the Arctic!

Unfortunately, I honestly don’t recall much about that ship. A few days ago, I was searching for some technical diagrams when I came across part of my diary while aboard the “N. B. McLean” in 1971. So let’s go icebreaking!


N. B. McLean bridge.

We left the Vickers shipyard in Montreal, July 13th, 1971, just after 10:00 A.M. under sunny skies, with more than a hundred women on the pier to see their loved ones off. In the evening, we met the “Empress of Canada” inbound for Montreal. Maybe the food wasn’t quite as good as when I was on the icebreaker “Montcalm” in 1967, but the choice seemed more varied.

Next morning, the direction finder had to be calibrated off Biquette Island, consisting of sailing the ship around a complete 360 degrees circle. When the technician left, we headed for Button Island, some 2,000km at the extreme northern tip of the Province of Québec.

July 15th. The heavy rolling movements of an icebreaker in a strong wind from the northeast and a voracious appetite for breakfast usually don’t mix  well. Icebreakers are designed with a rounded bottom profile so they do not get stuck on top of a thick layer of ice. As a result, in ice-free waters with seas of 4 or 5 metres, they roll quite wildly. My cabin was located below the main deck and just above the water line. With all the rolling, my port hole leaked, with water on the floor swishing from side to side. I went for lunch but had to leave abruptly, as both the ship and my stomach were still rolling. On the bridge, the second mate mentioned that one boiler had been shut down due to popping of some rivets, reducing our speed somewhat. The other boilers, being 41 years old, were expect to start popping more rivets whenever we got into close pack ice under moderate pressure. At least, by the evening, the winds abated late in the evening.

Sailing through the Labrador Sea

Friday, July 16th, 1971. After being sick most of the previous day, I woke up with an appetite the size of a bear, maybe two. Sailing northeast between Quebec and Newfoundland, foggy weather reduced the visibility to about half a mile, but with no wind. I ate enough bacon and eggs plus lots of toast to compensate for what I hadn’t eaten the day before. Lunch was a really good meat pie that tasted just like my mother used to make, with a considerable assortment of dessert. Some icebergs (4.3.7) were visible on the radar but couldn’t be seen visually due to the fog. When we passed through Belle Isle Strait that evening, we started to experience heavy swells from the Atlantic. The swells were perhaps half a kilometre apart, resulting in that the ship rolled only a few degrees to either side. Consequently, nobody was seasick.

Leaving Belle Isle Strait in clear weather, we turned northward along the Labrador coast, where many growlers (4.3.12) and bergy bits (4.3.11) were visible with a few medium-size icebergs. Since fresh fruit and vegetables continued to be plentiful on board, we weren’t worrying about getting scurvy any time soon. As the day advanced, the number of visible growlers and bergy bits increased. Since my cabin was near the starboard bow, the first contact with one woke me up with an explosive bang and vibration that rattled some of the ship’s steel plates around me, including shaking my bed. This is where I learned the first rule of entering ice fields or passing near icebergs; “There is only one way to enter any ice field and that is very, very slowly”.

Sunday, July 18th. I woke up frozen, or at least it felt like that. The previous days, I hadn’t turned on the heating system. With outside temperature was around minus one degrees, my cabin had literally turned into an ice house. However, when I got back from a calorie-rich breakfast, it had warmed up a little. The next day we arrived off the Button Islands late in the afternoon in heavy fog. Since the Bell-206 helicopter wasn’t able to fly under these conditions, we had to wait until the weather improved. During rising and falling tides (and that’s every 6 hours), the currents in the eastern entrance of the Hudson Strait ran from 5 to 7 knots. The occasional growler or small bergy bit, coming down from the west coast of Greenland, would hit against the side of the ship near my cabin, literally jolting me out of the chair, not to mention the nerve-wracking effects as it rattled and bumped past only a few centimetres away. If you think the Arctic is silent, think again!

( Extract from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Sea Ice Nomenclatures.)

4.3.7. Iceberg: Cf. 10.4.2 – A massive piece of ice of greatly varying shape, protruding more than 5 m above sea level, which has broken away from a glacier, and which may be   afloat or aground. Icebergs may be described as tabular, dome-shaped, sloping, pinnacled, weathered or glacier bergs.

4.3.11. Bergy bit: Cf. 10.4.4 – A large piece of floating glacier ice, generally showing less than 5 m above sea-level but more than 1 m and normally about 100-300 m² in area.

4.3.12. Growler: Cf. 10.4.5 – Piece of ice smaller than a bergy bit and floating less than 1 m above the sea surface, a growler generally appears white but sometimes transparent or blue-green in colour. Extending less than 1 m above the sea surface and normally occupying an area of about 20 m², growlers are difficult to distinguish when surrounded by sea ice or in high sea state.

button island 4

One very Frustrated Sparks, at least for a while.

As a radio enthusiast and dedicated communications officer, solar cycles and solar flares were not only interesting to me, but critically important to the shipping community and everyone aboard the icebreaker “N. B. McLean”. We were leaving Button Islands at the eastern entrance to the Hudson Strait with no way to transmit or receive radio signals due to very low solar activity level. Being among the lowest levels since 1964, the ionosphere wasn’t reflecting my signals back to other parts of the earth as expected, but instead, leaving them pass through, only to disappear into space. Since cell phones were only invented in 1973 and the International maritime Satellite Organization (Inmarsat) in 1979, the only way to communicate from the ship was via short wave radio on Morse code. With several messages waiting to be sent and probably even more to be received, it was so frustrating not to be able to do anything.

With a reduced kitchen staff, evening snacks weren’t as good as when I was aboard the icebreaker “Montcalm” in 1967. However, I did discovered, when nobody was in the kitchen, all the left-over deserts, cheeses and other delicacies just waiting to be eaten in a smaller fridge. That might not be all that good either, especially for my waist. We probably ate about 3,000 calories a day with practically no exercise. I would have to be careful or I wouldn’t be able to wear my trousers soon. On my way back to the office, I met my supervisor who was just leaving the living room after watching a movie and told him about the seriously deteriorated radio signal conditions. “You probably pushed your chair back against the panel just behind you and accidently turned off the antenna signal amplifier!” Maybe the solar cycle wasn’t quite a bad as I had thought, or at least, not for a while.

While the weather remained foggy, the helicopter transferred several loads of material to the Button Islands radio beacon. The beacon was installed on the extreme northeastern point of a plateau at an elevation of around 200m. By late afternoon, the helicopter couldn’t land when the fog thickened and the ceiling dropped to about 25m, leaving the technician and four others stranded on the island for the night. Just after 2:30 the next morning, just before sunrise, fog had lifted enough so the helicopter could land on the Island and bring everybody back on board, safe and sound, albeit a little frozen.


A hungry Polar Bear on the Thick First Year Ice

We were crunching through 4/10 medium first year sea ice (2.5.2) in the eastern entrance of the Hudson Strait with a grain carrier following us bound for Churchill, on the west coast of Hudson Bay. Ahead of us was 20 kilometres of thick first year ice (2.5.3) between 5/10 to 9/10 concentration. My job was to communicate the captain’s orders given to me in French to the officers aboard the foreign flag ship, but in English. After hearing what was ahead, the captain of the grain carrier refused to follow us any further fearing that his ship might get damaged. If he remained there for long, chances were that the heavier ice would slowly move down and jam him against an ice ridge (, possibly causing serious structural damage. However, that decision was his to make. He probably thought that icebreakers waited around for the ice to melt. Unable to convince him of the importance of proceeding under escort through the heavier ice, decisions had to be made. With several additional aids to navigation yet to be reactivated in the area, we departed, wishing him the best.

Deception Bay, some 800km further west, was our next destination after all the radio beacons had been reactivated and verified. On arrival, several Eskimos came on board, selling fresh fish, including Arctic char, a delicacy of some of the sub-arctic cold-water species of the Salmonidae family. We were able to sent our mail from there, but would have to wait for our incoming mail until we arrived in Frobisher Bay in a few days.

August 1st, 1971. About 6 in the morning, we entered a vast field of thick first year ice at slow speeds. Sometimes, for a second or so, it felt as if we had ran into a mountainside, followed by ever increasing vibrations that rattled everything aboard the ship. The bow had ran up on the heavy ice for several metres, but the ship’s weight had broken through, and the icebreaker settled back into the water slowly, but now barely moving. Sometimes it was difficult to remain standing up from the unexpected shocks, vibrations and rolling. That evening the ship’s whistle blew. Going to the bridge, I noticed everyone was looking toward the starboard aft. I couldn’t see anything, but with my binoculars, I could see a really big polar bear that was about 250m away, most likely hunting for his evening meal. Looking at us, he probably wondered if we might be of some edible value, since we had not seen any seals during the day.

(2.5.2) Medium first-year ice 70 to 120 cm thick.
(2.5.3) Thick first-year ice over 120 cm thick.
( Ice piled haphazardly one piece over another in the form of ridges or walls. Usually found in first year ice (cf. ridging).


Harp Seals, Caribou and Beluga Whales.

In icebreaker operations, its destination depends on ever-changing priorities. We thought we would be going to Frobisher Bay, now called Igaluit, but instead our next destination was Digges Island to activate another radiobeacon. As a result, our incoming mail would be forwarded to Coral Harbour, another island 500km further west, assuming that it was, in fact, our next destination. At least, the temperature was warm for subarctic weather, around 13C. While I saw lots of whales where I live along the St. Lawrence River, I saw my first beluga whale quite close to the ship, probably on its way to the Hudson Bay to give birth to a single calve. Then the bad news arrived, well not that bad, as I had expected it. My mother sent a telegram saying that I had failed my Morse code test of accentuated letter groups a few weeks earlier in Quebec City. That was all the more reason to continue daily practice to be ready for my next test when we got back to Quebec.

beluga whale

The next day we were off Coates Island. I saw my first caribou, surprisingly, not on the land, but on the kitchen counter being butchered by the cook, probably for this evening’s meal. Finally, we arrived in Coral Harbour roadstead, and could see about 50 buildings of various sizes, a dirt runway maybe 250m long, several large petroleum tanks and a Hudson Bay store. Located a thousand km north of the tree line, not a tree was in sight. The barren land had only rocks and a few lakes as far as the eye could see. However, the Eskimos used several wooden decked boats about 10 metres long, probably for fishing and local commerce. Some things that I remember about Coral Harbour, though, were eating my first caribou steak that evening, which was absolutely delectable. Even better than that was receiving my very first letter from my girlfriend and soon to be wife.


August 8th, we left Coral Harbour bound for Big Island and Lake Harbour, navigating through 4/10 medium first year ice at slow speed. I saw a very young harp seal in the water that didn’t dive until we were about 30m from us. A few days later, we received orders to assist a Greek ship stuck in heavy ice not far off Wakeham Bay. However, we had to stop in the heavy ice about 10 miles from the ship as it was getting too dark to see what was ahead. To make things worse, our captain couldn’t understand the exasperated Greek captain’s “shouted” English. Neither could I or anyone else on board. Long live Morse code! It never had language problems!

Coral Harbour

You can’t Trust the Ice.

We had been at sea 5 weeks by the 15th of August, 1971, and already I was getting tired of the food. Apart from eating a rotten egg one morning for breakfast and getting sick, the food quality was reasonably good. Unfortunately, the chief cook didn’t seem to have much imagination; food variety or different cooking methods didn’t were not among his assets. That was sad, since what you eat and how it is prepared on board ships often makes the difference between high moral and boredom.

We finally arrived on the Frobisher Bay anchorage the next day. We were expecting to be there for ten days, maybe 2 weeks waiting for a ship that was still loading in Montreal. It would take the ship 7 or 8 days to arrive in the eastern entrance of the Hudson Strait, where we would escort it through the ice to Churchill on the southwest part of Hudson Bay, a distance of about 1500km. However, next morning I woke up to learn we had already left the anchorage on a search and rescue mission. Our general destination was one or more islands about 85km to the southeast along the Inuit hunterHall Peninsula. An young inexperienced Eskimo hunter had left his home walking on the ice on his way to another island, but we didn’t know which one. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had checked all the small camps on the several islands without any success. Our mission was to search the waters between the islands. Several seamen were stationed on the monkey island, a few on either side of the bridge, two men near the bow and one at the stern. Even though they scanned the horizon in every direction from dawn to dusk, the young hunter was never found. Neither did the helicopter find him after flying around the several island and further off shore during more during several hours. Possibly the hunter had fallen through the ice since it was much thinner than when I was there in 1967.


I had been busy answering my girlfriend’s many letters but I would have liked to phone her instead. That was a distant dream. While the icebreaker had been built in 1930 and was showing her age, most of the radio communications equipment aboard was fairly recent. However, since nearly all our communications was carried out using Morse code, the radiotelephone equipment wasn’t so modern. Unfortunately, even when it did work, the equipment in Frobisher Bay often didn’t work since it wasn’t the newest either. Finally one day, all the electronic gods were in good humour and I was able to chat with her for a good while. Listening to her gentle voice seemed to sweep away all the boredom and other shipboard irritants. Even the cook’s unimaginative food preparations seemed a little better.

Everything comes to an end

During the last two weeks of August and early September 1971, we were anchored on the anchorage of Frobisher. Our mission was to help cargo ships and tankers experiencing difficulty navigating through the ice in the Hudson Strait. As I mentioned in a previous text, the ice conditions were much less severe than when I was there in 1967. We would receive a request for assistance for an icebreaker, but when we had left the anchorage and sailed through Frobisher Bay, we would receive orders to cancel the request. Ice conditions were less severe than what the master of the foreign flag ship had thought. Although we had less work to do, anchored in a harbor for several weeks was particularly boring, since permission to go ashore depended on whether the barge would be available to return to the ship, and that did not happen very often.

IMG_0075a Barge

In general, Canadian icebreaker spent the summer and autumn operating in the eastern Arctic. I mentioned before, that being a steamship, the boilers were not in very good condition. Its reliability had degraded after 40 years of working in severe ice conditions in the St. Lawrence River in winter, and spending the summer and autumn in the Arctic. As a result, I heard all kinds of rumors about when we expected to return to Quebec City. I had accumulated enough hours to be eligible for unemployment insurance. On the other hand, if the ship remained in the Arctic for one or two additional months, my benefits would be more generous. However, the authorities decided that the 1971 trip aboard the icebreaker N. B. McLean would end on September 21st.

When we entered the port of Quebec, I was able to schedule my new test of accentuated letter groups in Morse code for the next day. I thought that after practicing almost every day for over two months that I would pass the text without any difficulty. However, it was not so easy. Luckily, the radio inspectors were very considerate, and I was allowed to take the test several times. Maybe they just got tired of my persistence. In any case, one of them finally said, “Okay, you’ve passed!” Although I received my first class certificate in radio communications, I never had the chance to use it. I’ll tell you about that in another text. However, important things in my life were yet to come.

And, he Pronounced us Husband and Wife.

For most seamen, faith related to religion and churches, are distant concepts rarely brought to mind. But now, on my way home by bus, I had several hours to mull over the idea of getting married. There was no problem with my parents, as most protestant religions rarely objected to marriages outside the faith. My mother, a non-practicing Catholic, had married dad, a protestant that went to church when it suited him. However, my girlfriend’s family practiced strict catholic traditions. Having a protestant in the family was never discussed, at least, not in my presence. However, the animosity was evident, but that weren’t the only obstacle.

Our venerable but antiquated priest, who practiced the old-fashioned regional Québec customs in her village, wanted me to convert to traditional Catholicism. Furthermore, he stressed that our children had to be baptized in the catholic faith. Sad to say, our august priest lost on both counts. My intention was to marry my future wife, but not her religion nor her family. She advised him in her eloquent French that any children would be baptized in the faith of the country we would be living in, maybe in Africa or the Middle East, but didn’t tell him we had no intention of having children. She also told him that if he had any objections or problems conducting the ceremony, we’d get married in the offices of the Justice of the Peace. The worst part was when I had to repeat the marriage vows. At that time, my French wasn’t very good. Repeating long phrases were beyond me. After the priest said the first sentence, his eyes turned upwards toward heaven for a moment as he listened to my mumbled rendition. He seemed to say something in his beard, and then continued on to the second sentence. After I had muttered all the required phrases, and after a long, deep, audible sigh, in his trembling voice, he pronounced us “husband and wife”. God bless him soul! He must have made a good job, as we are still married all those 45 years later.


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