The HMCS Chicoutimi is one of the four Victoria Class Submarines in the Canadian Navy, purchased from the British Royal Navy. After taking possession of the submarine, it was on its first trans-Atlantic voyage, a fire broke out aboard, causing the sub to lose power. As well, smoke inhalation killed one sailor, and required the hospitalization of two others. Fortunately, the sub was travelling on the surface at the time, otherwise this tragedy could have been much worse.


The Upholder Class Submarines, all diesel powered, were built by the Royal Navy to supplement their submarine fleet as they replaced it with an all nuclear fleet. The HMS Upholder, which later became the HMCS Chicoutimi, was the first of these submarines launched. It launched on the 2nd of December, 1987, and was finally commissioned on June 9th, 1990. However, pretty soon after that, the Soviet Union fell. With the end of the Cold War, the need for anti-submarine measures dropped significantly, and subsequently, the Royal Navy's budget was cut. Given the choice between mothballing the entire four ship Upholder class, or losing two of their Vanguard Class class nuclear submarines, they chose to lose the Upholders. The HMS Upholder herself was decommissioned in April of 1994, and the rest of the class followed soon thereafter.

Despite being a diesel submarine, the design closely resembled the nuclear submarines at the time, with the updated streamlined shapes, and the special noise reducing tiles used on nuclear submarines. The advantage that nuclear submarines have versus the Upholder class is that of increased endurance, being able to stay out longer without the need for fuel. The Upholders did however have the advantage of being quieter and more maneuverable than their nuclear cousins, a good trait when one is patrolling for enemy submarines. For more details about the ships themselves, read Victoria Class.

Needless to say, the British government wanted to try and sell the submarines which they spent millions of pounds upon, but for the time being, they sat in dock. Eventually, in 1998, a deal was reached between them and the Canadian government, in which the four Upholder class submarines would be traded to Canada, in exchange for use of Canada's army and air force training facilities as well as a payment of $750 million CND. The ships were to be refitted by the British, and the Canadian crews to be trained by them.


And this is when the problems started. The Upholder (Technically, decommissioned by this point, so I'll call it the Chicoutimi from now on.) was the last of the subs to be refitted, and this is where it went wrong. It seems that the guys doing the refitting of the other ships would, when they needed a part, sometimes rip said part out of the Chicoutimi. While they did replace these parts when needed in the refit of the Chicoutimi itself, it also left a number of holes in the interior of the ship. This is not a good thing.

In addition, they were not following some of the upgraded specifications that had been put out since the ships were decommissioned. Specifically, the regulations regarding waterproof insulation on wires was amended to triple the amount of insulation needed. This, however, was not added.

As part of the refit, sections of the hull that had corroded needed replacing, exhaust valves were damaged, and air pumps were broken. This is in addition to the parts missing that had been used on the other submarines.

But, eventually they "finished" the refit, and the Chicoutimi was declared seaworthy. They left, and soon discovered that there was a nut that had fallen off of the air vent in the Chicoutimi's tower. This particular flaw meant that the hatch on the tower could not be closed up, which of course kind of defeats the purpose of having a submarine.

The faulty insulation on the wiring and the lost nut were a bad combination. Without the nut missing, the insulation problem probably would have gone undiscovered for years. Without the insulation problem, the nut would have been replaced long before they got to Halifax.

The Canadian Navy took over the ship on October 2nd. Three days later, they were approximately 230 km northwest of Ireland. At 10:00, while sailors were fixing the hatch problem, a wave washed over the ship, water flowing down the shaft. It flowed through some sections of the ship, and ran over some wires under the Commanding Officer's quarters.

This shorted out the electrical system in the ship, and sparked up a fire. On the 2nd deck in the middle of the ship, the short shot out sparks and flames several feet, which ignited other materials on the ship. The fire very quickly generated a great deal of smoke, and several of the crew members suffered smoke inhalation before they were able to put on breathing gear. The fire was extinguished in about half an hour, and it was another three hours before the smoke cleared out of the sub.

The submarine was left without power or propulsion. The Royal Navy sends out some rescue ships, but the first ship, the HMS Montrose, doesn't arrive until 08:30 the next morning. At that point, the injured sailors were transfered to the Montrose. At around 10:00 they had another flare up, this time in an oxygen generator. This one, however, was quickly contained.

The three most seriously injured sailors are put aboard a helicopter and flown to the nearest hospital, in Sligo, Ireland. En route to the hospital, the ship's Combat Systems Engineer, Lieutenant Chris Saunders dies of smoke inhalation. The others eventually recover. The rest of the crew is then transfered to the Montrose, and a skeleton crew of British sailors takes over the Chicoutimi.

The next day, the 7th of October, a tug arrives on the scene to tow the Submarine back to Scotland, and partial electrical power, propulsion, and steering is restored to the Chicoutimi. The Chicoutimi gets towed back to Farslane, Scotland by October the 10th.


In the aftermath of this accident, the other three Victoria class submarines were docked, to fix up known problems, and investigate the existence of any other problems which have been undetected. As well, a full inquiry into the cause of the accident, and what to do about it, was launched by the Canadian Navy. It was a closed proceeding, so we don't really know what happened, but apparently after 10 weeks, and heading testimony from about 50 people, and examining over a hundred pieces of evidence, they're done. I expect that the report of their findings will be released within the next couple of months.

The moral of the story, of course, is that it's unlucky to rename ships.


spiregrain says re HMCS Chicoutimi: I've heard it suggested that the US pressed Canada to buy these subs because otherwise all US allies would have nuclear fleets, and only potential enemies had diesel. therefore they'd have none to train with. that may be a groundless conspiracy theory, but an interesting one

Palpz: It could be, but up until we announced that we were purchasing the Victoria Class Subs, we still had the Oberon Class subs in operation. And also, when it comes to training purposes, the Victoria Class isn't all that good of a "diesel" sub to train against, since in form and function it is basically a quieter nuclear sub. Its drawback of shorter endurance wouldn't come into effect in training exercises.

Ok, looks like the Americans did want to train against us, and it was a factor, but not the main factor in the purchase. At least, according to the Defence Minister, Bill Graham. I'm not about to call him a liar, because in 8 days he'll be my boss, but I will remind you that he's a politician.


Update: July 2008: So, there's been rumours going around fleet that the CHICOUTIMI will be transferred to the west coast, to be based out of Esquimalt, British Columbia. I've even heard that it might happen as soon as the end of 2008. I find that timeline rather unlikely, and there's certainly been no official announcements of this to date. Time will tell.

Sources:
CBC News. "Canada's Submarines," CBC News Indepth. October 13, 2004. <www.cbc.ca/news/background/cdnsubs/chicoutimitimeline.html> (January 6, 2005).

Bell Globemedia Inc. "Inquiry hears HMCS Chicoutimi was full of holes," CTV.ca December 7, 2004. <www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/1102426675780_26?s_name=&no_ads=> (January 6, 2005).

Canadian Centre for Cyber Citizenship. "Fire on the HMSC Chicoutimi," Spotlight: Top Stories. 2004.<www.mapleleafweb.com/education/spotlight/issue_58/> (January 6, 2005).

Jeremy Olver, "Upholder Class Overseas Patrol Submarines," Royal Navy Submarines. October 21, 2000. <www.btinternet.com/~warship/Postwar/Submarines/upholder.htm> (January 6, 2005).

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