Photo: national Archives of Canada–PA206274
When the icebreaker Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Labrador steamed out of Halifax on July 23, 1954, nobody was predicting it was the start of one of the most momentous voyages in Canadian maritime history. Yet that is exactly what would come to pass four months later when Labrador became the first ship to complete a continuous circumnavigation of North America.
The search for a sea route around the north of the Canadian mainland was an elusive goal not realized for more than 400 years, consuming and frustrating generations of explorers and leading to the death of many of them. A Northwest Passage was seen as a direct route from the trading centres of Europe to the fabled wealth of the Far East.
The search had begun in 1497, when John Cabot sailed westward on the Matthew. His voyage was the first recorded landfall on North America since the Norse voyages some 500 years earlier. Cabot disappeared on his second expedition in 1498, the first of many to die in what became a graveyard for European ships and sailors. Yet the hunt for a sea route to the Orient continued to capture the imagination of explorers.
For most, it was a story of frustration and failure, and for some, one of disaster and death. It was not until 1903-06 that the first sea crossing took place, when Norwegian Roald Amundsen sailed it from east to west. Thirty-six years later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner St. Roch under Sergeant Henry Larsen made history by becoming the first ship to navigate the Passage from west to east (1940-42), followed by the first single-season east to west passage (1944). These voyages were important for Canada’s claims over the Arctic islands and the vast stretches of water between them.
The idea of a giant naval icebreaker was conceived in the late 1940s as a way of asserting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, as well as conducting scientific and hydrographic surveys. The result was HMCS Labrador, built in the MIL Shipyard at Sorel, Que.
The short, squat ship, based on the American Wind class icebreakers and officially designated an Arctic Patrol Research Vessel, was commissioned July 8, 1954. Displacing 6,490 tons and 82 metres in length, she was, in her captain’s words, “The biggest and most complex naval ship” built in Canada up to then, as well as the navy’s first diesel-electric vessel and first and only icebreaker.
By the time she left Halifax—on what was viewed as an Eastern Arctic expedition—she was modified from a simple patrol vessel to a floating laboratory, hospital, transport ship, rescue vessel, school and explorer costing $20 million. On board were 23 scientists and a crew of 246.
At the helm was Captain Owen Connor Struan Robertson, better known as Long Robbie because of his two-metre height. Robertson, a descendant of generations of seamen, was a sailor’s sailor with a record of service—on both merchant vessels and warships—dating back to 1915.
He joined the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve in 1931 while serving on cargo-passenger liners sailing between the Maritimes and the West Indies. During World War II, Robertson was both commander of His Majesty’s Canadian Dockyard and King’s Harbour Master in Halifax, where he twice prevented a repeat of the devastating Halifax Explosion of 1917.
On the first occasion, in November 1943, an American freighter laden with ammunition, highly combustible magnesium, depth charges and dynamite, was on fire in Bedford Basin, abandoned by her crew and with her officers drunk. Robertson led a firefighting party on board and had the ship towed out of the harbour and grounded on McNab’s Island, where he quelled the blaze by opening the seacocks. His bravery and leadership earned him the George Medal, one of 76 Canadians to attain this honour.
The second time was in July 1945, when fire broke out on a jetty at the naval magazine across the harbour in Bedford. With the end of the war in Europe, masses of ammunition were stacked there from returning warships. Political pressure was applied to unload the ships as rapidly as possible to get their reserve crews home, and many safety regulations were ignored in the name of expediency. The fire set off a number of explosions and threatened to blow up the rest of the ammunition, with the potential for taking most of the city with it.
While 125,000 residents of Dartmouth and Halifax were evacuated, Robertson was put in charge of the firefighting efforts. As teams fought the tenacious fire, exploding shells and bullets frequently drove them to the ground. After two nerve-racking days, Robertson again led his men to success.
While Labrador was being built and in preparation for her Arctic deployment, Robertson spent two years attached to the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, learning all he could about the Arctic and icebreaker operations. With minimal work-up time and only three of her officers trained in northern operations, Labrador crossed the Arctic Circle four and a half days after leaving Halifax. Her first meeting with ice occurred off Greenland, where floes were encountered, along with numerous icebergs, detected only by radar through the thick fog. When the fog lifted, Robertson announced, “If you want to see a sight come on deck.” When they did, the crew surveyed icebergs as far as the eye could see; icebergs of all shapes and sizes—new ones, massive and chunky; older ones, weathered and eroded.
With the weather clear, Labrador’s two helicopters were dispatched ahead on ice reconnaissance as the ship’s six powerful diesel generators came on line, their combined 12,000 horsepower propelling her forward. At the entrance to Lancaster Sound, Labrador had the first test of her builders’ abilities when the fog rolled in again. “Ice dead ahead!” came the cry from the port lookout, followed by 6,500 tons of steel smashing through hard, blue, pack ice. As the ship cut through the ice, the crew breathed a sigh of relief. Their ship was a tough lady.
After entering Lancaster Sound, the ship broke out of the ice and headed for the RCAF detachment at Resolute on Cornwallis Island, where 405 Squadron, equipped with Lancaster bombers, was engaged in ice reconnaissance work.
On Aug. 1, she dropped anchor off Resolute, nine days and 3,200 kilometres after leaving Halifax. It wasn’t the fastest of voyages, but a good one for a new crew on a new ship operating in a new environment. Hydrographers and other scientists, supported by five naval personnel, disembarked to re-chart Resolute Bay and its approaches. They stayed for three weeks, while Labrador headed north to Ellesmere Island.
On the way, magnetic and beacon parties were landed, soundings and surveys conducted and various trials undertaken. Many of the tasks were strange and unfamiliar for a “normal” navy warship, and all hands quickly became adept at reacting to the many changes in orders.
Labrador’s first port of call was the Inuit settlement and RCMP post at Craig Harbour on Ellesmere Island, where Inuit RCMP Special Constable Ariak, his wife, four children, their worldly goods and 17 half-wild huskies came on board, all headed for a drop-off further north at Alexandra Fiord.
In Smith Sound the icebreaker encountered the heaviest ice to date, measuring three metres thick. Progress was measured in metres as the ship was jarred and squeezed, ramming her way through by charging the ice at high speed, running up on top of it and smashing down with her great weight.
At Alexandra Fiord, Ariak, his family and dogs disembarked, much to the relief of the chief bosun’s mate. He was particularly happy to see them go, at least as far as the huskies were concerned. In an unguarded moment one of the dogs ate his leather gloves, entailing “an investigation into the loss of naval equipment belonging to Her Majesty.”
The waters of Alexandra Fiord, the RCMP’s most northerly outpost at less than 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole, were uncharted. Pogo, the icebreaker’s charting and survey launch, was lowered into the water and sounded ahead of Labrador as the icebreaker followed cautiously behind, dropping anchor when Pogo’s echo-sounder indicated the bottom was rapidly becoming shallow.
The Labrador had just sailed the farthest north of any RCN ship in history, and when her tasks at Alexandra Fiord were complete, she returned to Resolute and picked up the survey party. A short run east through a loose ice pack brought her to Beechey Island, the site of the last winter quarters for the lost Franklin Expedition of 1845-46. The austere grave markers and scattered wreckage were grim reminders of the fate of Franklin and more than 100 of his officers and men who perished with him. The failure of Franklin’s quest for the Northwest Passage, when crews of wooden ships were sometimes reduced to making a passage through the ice by blasting with gunpowder and laboriously cutting with ice saws, struck a chord with Labrador’s crew and brought home the hazards of their own mission.
When Labrador returned to Resolute, her assigned tasks in the Arctic were over. Rumors were rife among the crew as to what would happen next; would the captain sail westwards or return to Halifax? A last-minute order before leaving Halifax for all hands to bring their summer white uniforms had increased the shipboard speculation. What was the captain’s plan?
A very cunning one, as it turned out. On a Friday night Robertson sent a routine message to naval headquarters, just after everyone went home for the weekend. It read: “Primary role completed. Returning to Halifax via Esquimalt.”
As Labrador steamed westwards, a return message came in from Ottawa. Robertson announced the news over the intercom: “We have permission to proceed to the west and make contact with the American expedition in the Western Arctic, and on completion of our scientific work Labrador proceeds to Esquimalt.” The crew was ecstatic.
The rendezvous with the Burton Island of the United States Navy Beaufort Sea Expedition occurred Aug. 25 off the coast of Melville Island. During the trip, Labrador ran into the heaviest going of her trip so far, sometimes covering less than 25 kilometres in a four-hour watch as she battled ice more than six metres thick.
The crew’s greatest fear was that one of the ship’s two propellers would be cracked or broken off by a chunk of polar ice. With only one propeller, Labrador would be trapped in the ice for the winter or, worse, be forced to accept a tow from an American icebreaker, a fate Robertson viewed as “bloody disastrous.”
Only six weeks earlier, Labrador’s crew had assembled at Sorel, untried and untested in the ways of the Arctic, ice, ice-breaking and diesel-electric propulsion, without even the normal three weeks’ work-up period to sort out any snags before they sailed. As Robertson told them, “When we leave Halifax, we take the first turning on the left and head north.” Now they had accomplished something in which they all could take pride.
Next day, the two naval icebreakers sailed south to rendezvous with another icebreaker, the U.S. Coast Guard Ship Northwind. The ships carried out scientific research as they sailed down Prince of Wales Strait between Banks and Victoria islands. Ice made use of the landing craft impossible, so the helicopters more pressed into service for triangulation and hydrographic survey parties.
At the end of August, 405 Sqdn. made a final drop of mail and supplies, including spare parts for the ship’s radar, not working for several days. As luck would have it, one parachute failed and the much-needed radar spares were smashed beyond recognition, while a birthday cake landed with every decoration in place.
Labrador cleared Prince of Wales Strait by Sept. 5 and sailed for DeSalis Bay, located on the southeast side of Banks Island, to conduct research ashore. The next two weeks were spent in oceanographic and hydrographic studies in the Beaufort Sea. On Sept. 20, Labrador turned west, finally free of pack ice and out in open seas. As she passed Point Barrow, Alaska, Robertson sent another message: “Northwest Passage completed. Am proceeding to Esquimalt.”
Labrador’s voyage showed the need for charting virgin territory and correcting existing charts of the North. At one stage during her transit, a badly outdated chart said the ship was sailing over a 1,200-metre mountain. When the icebreaker arrived at Esquimalt on Sept. 27, her paintwork weather-beaten and rust-streaked, she received a heroine’s welcome and was greeted by the public and the press. In the words of her captain, Labrador “accomplished every objective that had been set for it.”
A few days later, Labrador rendezvoused with St. Roch and together the ships entered Vancouver Harbour, where St. Roch was turned over to Vancouver’s Maritime Museum.
Labrador then set sail south on Oct. 15. Following ports of call, including ones at San Francisco, Panama and Grenada, she headed for Halifax. On Nov. 23, after a voyage of 122 days, her journey ended and she became the first ship to complete a continuous circumnavigation of North America.
Labrador was a familiar sight in the Arctic during further deployments from 1955 to 1957. As well as establishing many more “firsts,” she accomplished additional survey and charting tasks and scientific achievements. She played a key role in the sea lift of construction materials for the Distant Early Warning Line and subsequent resupply of the finished outposts. Her exploits proved large, deep-draft ships could navigate the Northwest Passage. Her noteworthy scientific accomplishments marked the real beginning of organized Arctic exploration by Canadians. Unfortunately, Labrador remained a RCN ship for only a short while longer. In 1957, she was turned over to the Department of Transport, and then to the Canadian Coast Guard when it was created in 1962.
Labrador did yeoman service in coast guard colours for another 25 years before being paid off in 1987 and sold for scrap. Robertson, then a retired commodore, was among those gathered to say farewell to her. “Of all my ships,” he said, “she was the happiest I ever sailed in. In every ship in which you sail, you leave a little bit of your heart behind. For those of us who sailed in Lab, we left the best part of our hearts there.”