East York boy captains Canada’s presence up North

As with 19th century explorers, Canada’s future in the North rests with skilled mapmakers.

The Canadian Coast Guard ship Louis  St-Laurent has been taking part in a seabed-mapping mission in Arctic waters with four other countries, the United States, Denmark, Russia and Norway. This scientific research may give Canada the opportunity to extend its jurisdiction beyond the 200 nautical mile limit. Captain Andrew C. McNeill, originally from Toronto’s east end, is the skipper of the St-Laurent.

“The ability to carry this mission in ice-infested waters is a significant but a rewarding challenge,” Capt. McNeill said in an Internet interview.

Jacob Verhoef, of the Geological Survey of Canada, has led the Arctic research. He explained that this mapping would help locate and determine resources beyond the 200 nautical mile limit for each country.

“We are jointly collecting scientific information so that we can get the best idea of where the boundaries are,” Verheof said.

He added that this mission may lead to sovereignty issues with the other countries, such as the United States.

“If it turns out that the those boundaries that Canada defines and that the United States defines overlap, then it is up to the politicians and diplomats to sort out,” Verhoef said.

The data collected gets sent back to the Geological Survey of Canada where Christopher Harrison analyzes it to create a computer visual of the Arctic.

The Geological Survey of Canada expects a complete geological map of the Arctic by early 2010.

“We are essentially creating a roadmap,” Harrison said. “The map can be used to narrow the search for undiscovered mineral and energy resources, and can aid in project planning and infrastructure development throughout the North.”

Capt. McNeill and his icebreaker crew worked together for the second time with the United States Coast Guard icebreaker Healy to break the ice and collect data in a much faster and more productive way.

“Relations between the crews of both vessels has been exemplary … thus the amount and quality of the collected data has exceed the expectations of the original mission planners,” McNeill said.

Growing up in East York, Capt. McNeill played the bass in a band with his friends and other local musicians. He dreamed of playing in clubs and at concerts. When his mother handed him an advertisement in the paper about joining the Canadian Coast Guard, McNeill found a new dream. He thought it couldn’t hurt to have a guaranteed job after graduation. So he put down his bass in favour of the helm of the Louis S. St-Laurent and found that being skipper of a powerful vessel can also be quite satisfying.

“The best part about being captain is the ship-handling,” he said. “There is a lot of ship-handling when icebreaking, hence captain of Canada’s most powerful Icebreaker is very gratifying,” McNeill said.

Becoming Captain is no easy task in the CCG. Promotions are competitive. Capt. McNeill applied for promotions as they became available. In 1990 the Coast Guard appointed him captain aboard a medium sized icebreaker. It took another 14 years for another competitive process for the heavy icebreakers to be advertised.

“I was fortunate to place first and be offered command of the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent in 2004,” McNeill said.

Although his career has taken him far from his East York roots, Capt. McNeill still misses his time playing the bass with his friends. Being away at sea makes it hard to reconnect with his old band mates. He still finds time for his earlier hobby.

“The Arctic season gives me an opportunity to practice the bass guitar and because I am the captain no one can tell me to turn it down.”

Captain McNeill is currently on another science expedition in the Arctic. Updates can be found at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.