Was the Clipper Adventurer cruising towards the land of liability?

A "known hazard." Here's a three-dimensional illustration of the spot where the MV Clipper Adventurer ran aground. (COURTESY OF THE UNB OCEAN MAPPING GROUP)

Many of you will have read about the luxury Arctic cruise vessel Clipper Adventurer and its recent misadventure in the Northwest Passage, when, on Aug. 27, it ran aground about 100 kilometres off Kugluktuk, putting 128 passengers and crew at grave risk.

Adventure Canada, the Mississauga-based company that chartered the vessel, claimed immediately that the Clipper Adventurer had sailed into “an uncharted rock.”

An uncharted rock — that means the ship’s master had no way of knowing the rock was there. After the story broke late last month, phrases like “uncharted rock” and “uncharted hazard” found their way into scores of uncritical news reports about the incident.

The owners of Adventures Canada may honestly believe this explanation to be true.

But recent press releases issued by the University of New Brunswick on behalf of the university’s Ocean Mapping Group cast serious doubt on the company’s credibility.

Contrary to what was reported in the media and by shipping company officials over the weekend, the location and depth of the shoal was already known. The Canadian Coast Guard issued a notice to shipping in 2007 for the grounding location, which states:

A102/07 - WESTERN ARCTIC - CORONATION GULF - SEPTEMBER 16, 2007
WESTERN ARCTIC
A SHOAL WAS DISCOVERED BETWEEN THE LAWSON
ISLANDS AND THE HOME ISLANDS IN THE SOUTHERN
CORONATION GULF IN POSITION 67 58.25'N 112
40.39'W. CHARTED DEPTH IN AREA 29 METERS.
LEAST DEPTH FOUND 3.3 METERS. ISOLATED ROCK.
REFER TO NAD83 DATUM.

John Hughes Clarke, the head of the UNB’s Ocean Mapping Group said “contrary to earlier media reports, the rock that the cruise ship ran aground on was a known hazard.”

Furthermore, Clarke pointed out that the Coast Guard reported this information to the shipping industry in 2007, quoting the aforementioned warning.

Adventures Canada charged its wide-eyed punters between $5,795 and $14,395 a head for berths on its “Into the Northwest Passage” cruise, which offered two weeks of immersion within the kind of neo-Romantic Arctic fantasy that certain elements of English Canada’s nationalist intelligentsia have nurtured for decades. Unfortunately, that fantasy never really migrated much further than a few blocks north of the Annex district.

But Adventure Canada’s apparent success reveals this vision still appeals to the moneyed leisure classes. The company’s promotional materials are festooned with logos from “partners” such as Toronto Life, the Royal Ontario Museum, Quill and Quire, The Walrus Foundation, and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. And the company also sells access to a variety of celebrities, real and pseudo, such as Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Ken McCoogan, Ian Tamblyn, Sheila Rogers, Nathan Rogers and many others brought aboard to entertain their customers.

But I digress. Now that I’ve expunged the ad hominem sarcasm from my system, let’s ask the biggest question.

Why did the master of the Clipper Adventurer not know about this “known hazard?” A company with such a tony pedigree ought to understand the meaning of phrases like “due diligence,” “duty of care” and “liability.”

The 128 people whose lives were put at risk should consider themselves lucky. At that latitude, storms and rough seas are common in early fall. Had they been caught in a gale, the ship could have foundered or broken up. They’re also lucky the CGS Amundsen happened to be doing research work in the area.

You may peruse the company’s offerings in this brochure (PDF, 6.6 MB.) Their current price list is located near the end of the document.

To profit from tourism, you have to be very good at the art of deploying visual materials like these to create an experience within the imaginations of your customers — and then sell it back to them. (FROM ADVENTURES CANADA BROCHURE, 2010)

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