© Neil Bennett Photography 2022.

Person of Interest

One hears, from time to time, of surveyors assisting at crime scenes – measuring skid marks, that sort of thing – but much less commonly, I believe, are surveyors suspects at crime scenes. I can attest to having been, if not a suspect in a crime, then at least a “person of interest”.

Prior to the advent of GPS, offshore surveys were conducted using range/range systems. Navigation stations would be established on shore control monuments with known UTM coordinates and these navigation stations would broadcast signals that a navigation unit on a vessel would receive and decode, allowing the mobile unit to calculate a position for the vessel.

I was involved in an offshore survey in Nova Scotia in the 1980’s using such a system to position a vessel conducting a gravity survey. The vessel would lower a gravity meter to the ocean floor at discreet locations and those locations were measured by the range/range navigation system. There was a vague theory floating around that the funding for this survey came from the US military and the data gathered would be used in calculating cruise missile trajectories, but if that was the case it was well above my pay grade.

Our base station packages consisted of a 10-foot piece of triangular tower, whip antennae and cabling, the navigation box and two 12 volt batteries. In order to keep the batteries charged we jury-rigged a 5 gallon can of gas to a Honda generator which powered a battery charger. Batteries and generators, left unattended as they were, were certainly a target for thievery but luckily on this project we didn’t lose any equipment.

The system worked well. As the ship was working 24 hours per day, we on the shore crews were kept moving to ensure that the base stations were set up where and when needed. Two shore crews were required as there always had to be two shore stations operating at any time; once the vessel had moved out of range of any station, it had to leapfrog ahead as the ship moved through the project area. Station moves happened at all times of the day and night and there was almost always a high panic level to the moves to ensure that the vessel never lost navigation. Shore crews sleep patterns were always of less value (and cost) to the project than a ship full of scientists.

One particular night the other shore crew had established a base station and it was my shore crew’s job to put the generator and battery charger on the site. As we drove up to the deserted gravel spit there was a beat up panel truck parked there and a couple of scruffily dressed guys by the truck. As we neared the truck, I said to my partner “Those guys look like narcs”. They asked who we were and what we were doing there. We told them we had a boat in the offshore, that we were aiding in the navigation of that boat, and we had to put more gear on the base station out on the spit, “we have to get going, have a nice day”, etc. Seemed innocent enough, and best of all it was true.

This particular station was a couple of hours southeast of Halifax. As the boat moved northerly and we had to move base stations we moved from town to town. It always seemed like we were being followed. There would commonly be a police car close by especially when we checked into a different motel; very odd.

A few days later we were in a motel not far north of Halifax and as we had a bit of down time I was tidying up the back of the truck and charging batteries. I looked towards the driveway to the motel as there was a screech of rubber. I saw a police car zooming away from the driveway; now that was odd for sure. A few moments later a gentlemen walked up to me and introduced himself as an RCMP Inspector (I don’t recall his name but it was not Clouseau) and very nicely inquired of us who we were, what was the nature of our offshore work, what was the vessel, etc. It turned out that his interest in us was indeed related to a ship in the offshore but not ours. The morning we met the “narcs” had been the morning after a big drug bust in which the RCMP had apprehended a number of small boats offloading drugs from a mother ship but they had not apprehended the mother ship. The fact that we were supplying navigation to a ship in the offshore was of great interest to the RCMP. It turns out we had been followed and after having lost us in Halifax they had picked up the trail again north of Halifax. We weren’t being paranoid after all.

After explaining ourselves, and disabusing the RCMP inspector of the notion that we were persons of interest in this matter, the inspector was quiet for a moment or two. Showing the very best of down east hospitality he then asked if we really knew how to eat a lobster. It was lobster season and the restaurant attached to the motel had a lobster special on. The inspector, by his accent, was clearly from down east and I clearly was not so he decided to make the best of things by showing my teammate and me how to properly eat a lobster. It was a meal and a police encounter to remember.

- Neil Bennett

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