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Rebuilding delays take wind out of Bluenose II's sails

The rebuilding of the Bluenose II is over budget and two years behind schedule, with no prospect of sailing any time soon.


The rebuilding of Nova Scotia's sailing ambassador, the Bluenose II, is a mess. Two years behind schedule, more than $2.5-million over budget – and climbing – and the new steel rudder on the boat is so heavy it is nearly impossible to steer, taking two men to turn the wheel.

The once proud and sleek wooden racing schooner – the original Bluenose was featured on Canada's dime – is now tied to a dock in the Lunenburg harbour, with no prospect of sailing any time soon.

Not sorted out either are the costs. The provincial politician in charge, Communities, Culture and Heritage Minister Tony Ince, has no idea how much taxpayers will be billed. So far, the price tag is $16.7-million, but he told The Globe and Mail that "there are going to be more costs." Some observers predict the figure could go as high as $20-million.

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Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil, who inherited the project from an NDP government that inherited it from a Progressive Conservative government, called it a "boondoggle" and has asked the Auditor General to investigate.

Mahone Bay shipbuilder, Captain Lou Boudreau, said it's a "lemon." And a former senior provincial cabinet minister, who was involved in the process but wants to remain anonymous, said: "Building wooden ships is not by any stretch of the imagination part of what governments do. What did we think we were doing?"

Part of what steered the project into stormy seas was the lure of federal stimulus dollars in 2009. At the time, Ottawa was looking for so-called shovel-ready projects. The Bluenose II, built in 1963 as a replica of the original 1921 schooner, was "hogging," meaning its stern and bow were drooping. It was ripe for a fix – and stimulus money.

Nova Scotia agreed to contribute $7.2-million, with matching funds from the federal government as long as the work was finished by March, 2011. The deadline was missed – and Ottawa's share ended up at $4.9-million.

A management company, MHPM Project Management, is overseeing the project; Lengkeek Vessel Engineering is designing the boat, and the Lunenburg Shipyard Alliance is building it. They are not commenting.

There were problems from the beginning. Various ministers, charged with the project, routinely asked Treasury Board for an extra $1-million here and $1.5-million there, according to the senior political source. The costs started to creep up.

As deadlines were missed, Nova Scotians became curious. Kevin Lacey, the Atlantic director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, says he received e-mails and queries about what was going on. Under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, he obtained contracts related to the Bluenose II. What he saw concerned him. For example, the shipbuilder charged a 43-per-cent markup on any materials added to the boat beyond the final contract.

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"So it had some kooky scenarios," said Mr. Lacey, explaining the builder charged a $2,321.98 markup on two washing machines and two dryers for the boat. The appliances cost $5,399.96.

Mr. Ince's spokesman Glenn Friel said markups are standard practice. He added, however, that "the review by the Auditor-General will include looking at the contacts to see if they secured the best product at the best price for Nova Scotia taxpayers."

Last December, the shipbuilders and the province asked Dawson "Dusty" Miller, a shipbuilding expert, to investigate the delays and cost overruns. In his report, Mr. Miller cast blame on all companies involved in the contract – which had been blaming each other – for the "various decisions they made, which have culminated in the present result of the over budget and over schedule situation of the project."

Mr. Miller dismissed complaints that the American Bureau of Shipping was also to blame. It is a certification agency and was brought on after the contract was signed. It required certain changes to the boat, which caused some delays and extra cost. But Mr. Miller said "the submitted costs far exceed what I would have expected."

He also noted that the installation of the steel rudder is "potentially an embarrassment to the project" and "no party acknowledges their portion of the responsibility."

Mr. Ince, who said "a lot of this stuff happened way before me," wants to move on from the blame game and get the Bluenose II sailing again. First, it must be taken on a "test drive" around the Lunenburg harbour to check out the steering problems. He's not sure when that will happen.

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For shipbuilder Mr. Boudreau, the process was flawed from the start. "You can't have three captains on the same ship," he said. "Basically, they've made a hash of it."

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