16 March 2005

A real seaman crosses the bar

Halifax Daily News 2005 --March 13, 2005
Icebreaker's captain always kept his cool
Capt. Paul Moise Fournier O.C. Born Saint Moise, Que. May 11, 1913 Died Musquodoboit Harbour, Feb. 6, 2005 "And there are those with long memories, like me, who won't forget 1967, our centennial year, when the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, the John A. Macdonald - so fittingly named - sailed a westward Arctic passage to assist an American vessel stranded in the ice. In continuing to sail westward, she became the first Coast Guard ship to circumnavigate North America. "Or in a less-than disguised challenge to our sovereignty in the Arctic. When the American supertanker, Manhattan, was escorted in 1969 though the Northwest Passage by the same John A. Macdonald to provide a Canadian presence throughout that voyage. Our point was made." - Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, July 2, 2002, St. John's, Nfld., 40th anniversary of the Coast Guard.
Capt. Paul Fournier and the icebreaker John A. Macdonald have become legendary in the annals of Canadian Arctic navigation. Supplying native communities in the icebound bays and inlets of the high Arctic in the summer and escorting through ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the winter months, Capt. Fournier earned a reputation as a cool "icebreaking skipper." In 1969, he was awarded the Order of Canada and earned the gratitude of the U.S. Coast Guard for his masterful 1967 rescue of the American coast guard cutter Northwind when she lost a propeller blade while working in heavy ice about 800 kilometers north of Point Barrow, a headland of the western Arctic on the shores of the Beaufort Sea. The Northwind was in grave danger of becoming fast in the ice for the winter. The John A. Macdonald faced insurmountable ice until a shift in the wind opened a crack in the ice allowing rescuers to reach the stricken Northwind. The Canadian icebreaker was met by jubilant crowds in British Columbia ports and grateful families of the Northwind crew in Seattle as she made her way down the Pacific coast toward the Panama Canal and then to her home port of Halifax. "The operation required the utmost in ice seamanship, skilful manoeuvring of the vessel and outstanding teamwork from the entire crew of the Macdonald," read the U.S. Coast Guard citation. Capt. Fournier said that his ship was merely returning favours done many times by the U.S. coast guard, and "we're paid to do this job. We try to do our best."
A Montreal Gazette editorial said: "The Arctic has truly been conquered when a ship's master can say the Northwest Passage is all in a summer's work. "The ghosts of a thousand mariners who tried to find the passage without success must have watched the John A. Macdonald smash her way through." But a more momentous task lay ahead. In 1969, with Capt. Fournier again in command, the John A. Macdonald escorted the U.S. tanker Manhattan through the Northwest passage to test the feasibility of transporting oil by ships through the Northwest Passage. Oil had been discovered in Prudhoe bay on the North Slope of Alaska the previous year.
As a young reporter with The Canadian Press, I was on a sovereignty surveillance flight with the Canadian Forces over the Canadian Arctic that August when we flew low over Pond Inlet and spotted the John A. Macdonald cutting a path through the ice for the Manhattan. Crew aboard the Argus were jubilant at the fact that it was Canada's "queen of the ice" as the John A. Macdonald was known, making the historic journey. We flew over the ships several times, taking pictures. At one point during the voyage, when the Manhattan became stuck in the ice, the Macdonald was called to assist. William Smith of The New York Times, who accompanied the Manhattan and later wrote a book about the voyage, said Canadian reporters aboard the Macdonald were elated that the mighty U.S. tanker was calling for help. "The stocky Canadian ship charged through the ice like a horse bucking through deep snow," wrote Smith. "She cut a path across the Manhattan's stern and up the port side. Then she backed off and did the same on the starboard side. The prescription was perfect. The tanker was able to back up far enough to gather momentum. The ice broke in front of her, and the expedition was on the way again."
The Johnny Mac, as the Canadian icebreaker came to be known by the Americans, was called to free the Manhattan on more than a dozen occasions during the three- month journey. Shipmates remember Capt. Fournier as a master in manoeuvring through ice who always had his little black dog, Midnight, with him on the bridge after his wife died. "He was a good icebreaking skipper," remembers Capt. Earl Jennex of Dartmouth, chief officer on the John A. Macdonald for two years. "Very cool. It was like a cup of tea for him."
Capt. Fournier was popular in the Inuit communities which he supplied and he often took tuberculosis victims to hospital in Montreal. Capt. Jennex remembers when they rescued several Canadian scientists off the ice in a howling snowstorm when the men called for help while drifting toward the open ocean and certain death. He retired in 1976, but continued to work as a consultant for oil companies working in the North Sea.

His ashes will be buried in his beloved Port Daniel, Que., in May. The only memorial in his home port is the damaged starboard propeller of the John A. Macdonald, which is on display on the Dartmouth waterfront. The caption reads that on her return from escorting the Manhattan, it was discovered in dry-dock that the ice had broken off two propeller blades.

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