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SCHNEIDEREIT: Liberals can't duck splash zone in Bluenose blame game

The news Thursday, that an independent report on the steering system of the troubled Bluenose II has advised the Liberal provincial government the steel rudder (and hydraulics needed to turn it) have to go, should surprise no one.
All three parties have put their stamp on the Bluenose II refit fiasco, writes Paul Schneidereit.

Who could have seen this coming?

Get in line.

The news Thursday, that an independent report on the steering system of the troubled Bluenose II has advised the Liberal provincial government the steel rudder (and hydraulics needed to turn it) have to go, should surprise no one.

As long predicted by countless Nova Scotians familiar with wooden sailing vessels, particularly along the South Shore, and others, the report by Langan Design Partners warned the excessive weight of the current steering system will shorten the vessel’s service life.

Of course, government officials needed an independent report to tell them what so many plainly saw as painfully obvious — putting a massive (3,000 kg) steel rudder on a wooden schooner, then adding hydraulics to move the rudder because its weight had made it impossible for mere mortals to steer, made no sense and was destined for trouble.

So now the replica of the iconic schooner will have to get a new, lighter rudder — made from either composite material or traditional wood — bringing the total cost for the vessel’s “refit” (in truth, it’s a new vessel with some reused stuff from the previous version) to the $25-million range.

The good news is that common sense is finally prevailing.

Fiddling with history

But it was amusing to see Liberal Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan claiming on Thursday there had been no way for government to avoid the situation.

That’s not quite accurate.

It’s true, as MacLellan said, that the decision to install the solid steel rudder had been made under the previous NDP government.

But when the vessel went out for sea trials in the spring of 2014 and the problem of the rudder’s weight making manual steering impossible first cropped up, the Liberals (having been elected the previous fall) were in power.

And it was under the current Liberal government that the flawed solution — installing a hydraulics system to turn the overweight rudder — was approved and installed by the province.

There were no shortage of critics at the time who pointed out — correctly — the hydraulics wouldn’t erase the problem that the rudder was too heavy to begin with and would prematurely warp the vessel’s lines.

They were also right that relying on hydraulics to steer the vessel was unreliable and could even be unsafe if that system failed at sea.

It was under the Liberals that those warnings were ignored. So, yes, this government could have avoided the situation it's now in, if it had listened to the critics in 2014 and chosen not to go the hydraulics route.

Path of least resistance

There’s no question the alternative — ditching the steel rudder and redesigning using wood or composite — would have been more expensive and taken longer.

That’s why I suspect Arygle-Barrington Tory MLA Chris d'Entremont, who said Thursday he thinks government felt compelled to rush the ship back into service after inheriting the mess left by the NDP, is right.

In any case, the latest news just continues the pattern of ineptitude that’s marred a worthy project — relaunching a swift schooner with the Bluenose moniker in Nova Scotian waters —from the start.

The Tories were in office when they assigned that job to what was then called Communities, Culture and Heritage, a department with little experience in managing major construction projects. 

After the NDP took over in June, 2009, they were in charge during the bureaucracy’s stunningly amateurish oversight of the refit, the details painfully recounted later in an auditor general‘s report. 

On right track

When the Liberals took over, they made some good moves, including calling for the auditor general to investigate and handing the project to more experienced hands at Transportation, but — as outlined above — they wrongheadedly refused to alter course on the wrong solution to the problems caused by the massive steel rudder.

To be fair, the Liberals also commissioned the independent report that seems to have also finally steered the schooner’s refit in the right direction.

By not unnecessarily shortening the vessel’s service life, the province avoids prematurely facing the expensive questions its next reincarnation will bring.

Paul Schneidereit is a columnist with Local Xpress




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