Sackville as an Oceanographic Ship

for the Atlantic Oceanographic Group, St-Andrews, NB and Halifax, NS By Neil Campbell

CFNA SACKVILLE, configured as a research vessel, sailing in the Atlantic, circa 1976.

Canadian Naval Auxiliary Vessel (CNAV) SACKVILLE was used as an oceanographic research vessel by the Atlantic Oceanographic Group (AOG) in the early 1950s and for many years after when the AOG moved to Halifax. In the late fifties, she worked principally on the Scotian Shelf, Georges Bank, and Gulf of St. Lawrence conducting seasonal cruises.

In 1957, the SACKVILLE underwent a major refit in Montreal and, on her return to the east coast, she was readied to take part in the 1958 International Geophysical Year (IGY) which involved her in running a series of deep-sea oceanographic stations from Bermuda to Baffin Bay. These deep-ocean stations were a first for the ship and took as long as 5-6 hours to complete using two winches. The cruise took almost four weeks to complete. Her deep-sea cruises were far from over as the next major undertaking found her serving the International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries (ICNAF) in a multinational oceanographic survey of the North Atlantic. SACKVILLE was one of three Canadian vessels involved. She surveyed the Grand Banks eastwards and off the Scotian Shelf. After the ICNAF surveys, SACKVILLE worked with the VEMA, a Columbia University research vessel, for two summers. The two ships conducted seismic surveys in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the east coast. Both ships had to visit Argentia, NL, site of a US naval base, to take additional explosives aboard. SACKVILLE, an RCN naval auxiliary vessel was welcomed, but the VEMA, under Panamanian flag, was shunned and cordoned off as out of bounds.

In the early 1960s the ship underwent a major scientific refit. New wet and dry laboratories were built aft on the upper deck. The wet laboratory housed a winch, bottles, and other over-the-side gear. The dry lab was set up with a new deep-sea echo sounder. When it was time to fit the echo sounders to the ship, she sailed to Lunenburg, NS, to have them installed. Shortly after the crew and scientists had turned in for the night, the cable or chain used to haul the ship up on the slip broke and SACKVILLE came sliding down off the slip and ended up in shallow water with a 30-degree list to port, firmly stuck in the mud. Fortunately, no one was hurt but all were badly shaken up. When I arrived on scene, it looked like the end for SACKVILLE, and there was talk of cutting her up. Two naval tugs were dispatched from Halifax and she was pulled out of the mud and righted herself. She was towed to the Dartmouth Shipyards and put up on blocks for inspection. Miraculously, only one stern bottom plate was dented – no breaks or fractures to the hull. A new plate was simply welded over the dented plate and the echo sounders were installed.

The new echo sounder was put to good use by Dr. Douglas Loring on bottom surveys of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The surveys found that several echo-sounder returns reflected the morphology and the general composition of the sea floor. Bottom sampling and coring were used to sample and identify the sediments, and Doug was able to map the sediments and morphology of the Gulf. He identified a large deposit of optical quality sands and sediments that were home to shrimp and snow crab. This latter association was a very important find for this fishery. A mining company from Montreal made an application to the Quebec government for rights to extract the optical sands, but it was turned down for fear of the sands being non-renewable and impacting on the Magdalen’s lobster fishery.

One of the well-planned cruises to the Gulf of St. Lawrence went awry through no fault of its Chief Scientist, Dr. Ronald Trites. The purpose of the cruise was to measure the flow of water through the Strait of Belle Isle. Ron prepared lighted drift floats, colour coded for depth of water of the attached vane and, when released the direction and speed of drift. In addition to using this technique, he purchased enough electrical cable to stretch across the Strait, thus establishing a geoelectromagnetic kinetograph. It measured the flow of water across the cable using the principle of a conductor (sea water) moving through a magnetic field (earth). The challenge for the ship’s crew was to lay the cable across the Strait without breaking it. The cable was successfully laid. The float project was undertaken in the evening under calm conditions. Spotters were assigned to the starboard and port sides of the bridge and reported on the location of the floats at regular intervals. However, when things got underway, Ron noticed that the pattern of drift of the floats was incoherent, in fact quite erratic. He puzzled over this situation and finally came up on deck to see for himself what was going on. He discovered that the red floats were often called green and green floats called red. He questioned the one observer and, much to their mutual surprise, discovered that the observer was colour blind and did not know it himself! So much for one night’s work. They all got quite a laugh out of it.

Most of the crew on SACKVILLE were Newfoundlanders and at their request we always dedicated one station as the fishing station. It was always well-located for jigging cod. Scientists and crew alike would spend most of the day jigging for cod which were immediately salted down. During the day, we were well-treated and rewarded with freshly fried cod cheeks. The food was delicious to say the least.

Editor’s Note: Dr Neil Campbell was Director of the Atlantic Oceanographic Group based in Halifax then in 1962 relocated to the new Bedford Institute of Oceanography. He was a physical oceanographer and took part in a number of SACKVILLE cruises. Later in 1960’s the Atlantic Oceanographic Group was disbanded in a government’s reorganization with the staff absorbed in units of the BIO. Dr Campbell lives in BC.



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AGM for Canadian Naval Memorial Trust June 28th 2017