This summer, Ontario’s quirkiest roadside tourist attraction seems to prove it’s not a sinking ship

From the outside, at almost 90 meters long and eight meters wide, HMCS Ojibwa is huge. Inside, however, it becomes very clear that there is simply no social distancing on a submarine.

“The size of the compartments basically shut us down for most of COVID,” said Ian Raven, director of the Elgin Military Museum and HMCS Ojibwa.

“When we were open we were operating at 50% capacity, and even that was difficult with the size of the compartments inside the submarine.

“It was a quick walk through the boat and then a chat outside.”

The pandemic is just the latest in a series of misfortunes for the tourist attraction that has become a Cold War relic in Port Burwell, Ontario. The landlocked submarine was supposed to attract tens of thousands of visitors a year when it was moved in 2012 from Halifax to the tiny village of 600 people on the north shore of Lake Erie.

However, these visitors did not materialize in sufficient numbers for the Elgin Military Museum to pay the $6 million it cost to transport the ship nearly 2,000 kilometers. The museum defaulted on its debt and, several lawsuits later, the Municipality of Bayham was stuck with the bill.

Almost full towers last year

By 2025, the municipality will have repaid around a third of this, according to a March 2019 staff report. He also said “it is highly unlikely that the municipality of Bayham will ever be able to recover the monies owed to it” .

Ian Raven, director of the Elgin Military Museum and HMCS Ojibwa, stands between the ship’s two engines. Now that pandemic-related health restrictions have eased, he hopes business will pick up for a tourist attraction that boils down to tight quarters. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Then the pandemic happened. Raven said the regular closures put the Elgin Military Museum further behind in its debt to the municipality.

Still, things are looking up for the museum. Raven won’t make any predictions for this summer. But if last summer (June to September) was any indication, there’s a lot of public interest in booking seats for a tour.

“We sold all but eight,” he said of the free places to tour the boat. “Most of them were single spots on different tours where they wanted to put two people in one place and we just couldn’t do it.

“We were turning people away every day last summer.”

Submarine powers local businesses

For tourism purposes, the boat can carry a half capacity of 2,200 people per season, and 2,192 seats were sold last year.

They hail from as far away as London, Windsor, Kitchener-Waterloo and the Greater Toronto Area, and before leaving they usually spend time and money in the shops and restaurants of Robinson Street, the main street of Port Burwell.

Izzy’s Schooners Patio and Lookout offers the best view in Port Burwell village to see the province’s only submarine-turned-history museum. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

“It draws people in. We get groups of 30 or 40 people who come just to go in the submarine,” said Isabelle Ingles, owner of Izzy’s Schooners Patio and Lookout, whose spacious back patio offers tourists the best view in town. Vessel 90 meters long.

“They sit here and they watch it, and they eat and then they leave. It brings me business, for sure.”

Like many restaurants, Ingles expanded its back patio during the height of the pandemic to maximize its outdoor space. Even though the ship behind his restaurant was closed, people were just coming to see from afar.

“The second I was opened, they came,” she said. “I’m the only one with such a view, so I’m lucky.”

Ingles said the sub’s popularity was growing, as were the number of businesses and customers on Robinson Street. In fact, she says, except for the pandemic years, she’s seen her business double every year since she bought her restaurant in 2016. That’s why she thinks the sub is worth the cost of $6 million.

“I think so. Where else can you get into a submarine? There’s a price attached to it, but everything has a price. People come from all over.”

Back at HMCS Ojibwa, Raven is still planning for the summer. As the ever-cautious COVID-19 could break out again, it is keeping capacity on board the sub at 50% of pre-pandemic levels and urging people to mask up.

“We still strongly recommend that people wear masks on board, we still firmly maintain the 50% capacity. We don’t want to run any risks that we can avoid.”