Complaints to Ferries making waves

  • Dec. 2, 2009 6:00 a.m.

By Alex Rinfret–Islanders are continuing to express outrage this week over BC Ferries’ decision to sail the Northern Adventure into hurricane-force winds, a sailing which eventually returned to Prince Rupert after 14 hours in extremely rough conditions. The Nov. 22-23 incident has resulted in investigations now underway by both BC Ferries and the Transportation Safety Board. Port Clements mayor Cory Delves, who was on board the Northern Adventure, said BC Ferries and the captain owe passengers an apology for what happened. He wrote directly to BC Ferries president David Hahn this week about his experience, making several serious complaints. “The captain of the Northern Adventure on the evening of Nov. 22 showed no respect for his ship, his crew and least of all his passengers,” Mr. Delves wrote. An experienced boater, Mr. Delves said he was surprised the ship left as scheduled because he had seen the severe weather forecast and because staff at the ticket booth had said the sailing would likely be delayed. As winds picked up and the vessel headed further into Hecate Strait, he said, it rolled continuously, with several waves tossing it between 25 and 30 degrees. “At no time did we hear any announcements advising passengers of the situation,” he said. “Believe me, we would have heard an announcement, as we certainly were not sleeping. Just staying in the bunk was a challenge, let alone sleeping. With thoughts of the Queen of the North, we took note where the life jackets were and prayed we would not need them.” Mr. Delves said the ship eventually returned to Prince Rupert, with the captain simply telling passengers to go to the terminal to rebook their trips. Terminal staff did not seem to be prepared to deal with the passengers, he said. Some were offered flights and accommodation, but not all. Mr. Delves and his wife rebooked for the sailing that evening, only to find out from their daughter in Port a few hours later that that sailing had been cancelled. That left the Delves stuck in Prince Rupert until the Thursday sailing. “Faced with three nights of food and lodging (not to mention the loss of income for work missed), we were sent on our way. At no time were there offers to assist with these expenses,” Mr. Delves wrote. “Beyond telling customers that claim information could be found on the BC Ferries website, there was not any assistance or claim forms offered by the terminal staff… This lack of customer service is deplorable.” Mr. Delves ended his letter with compliments to the kitchen and cafeteria staff on the Northern Adventure “who served up breakfast with a smile and a friendly greeting to the wave-beaten passengers. Perhaps they should be consulted regarding customer service.” Meanwhile, the federal Transportation Safety Board has staff members looking into the situation and will decide, probably sometime this week, whether to proceed with an investigation, said media relations officer John Cottreau. Queen Charlotte mayor Carol Kulesha, who sits on the northern advisory board for BC Ferries, said she has heard a flood of concerns from islanders about the incident. “It’s a traumatic incident, and that’s our lifeline,” she said, adding that she will be bringing the issues forward to the ferry corporation. “It’s very serious and BC Ferries needs to examine itself.” Ms Kulesha was on a conference call last week with BC Ferries’ vice-president of operations, and said she asked lots of questions about how the passengers were treated, whether the Northern Adventure is safe, and how it ended up in a hurricane. “He didn’t have any answers,” she said, although he did note that Ferries is doing its own internal investigation. Ms Kulesha said she asked BC Ferries to take a close look at communications both during the sailing and in the aftermath as part of the investigation. Spokesperson Deborah Marshall said the BC Ferries process now underway is a “local area investigation”. It will examine decision-making, vessel preparedness for heavy weather, and onboard routines related to weather analysis, crew briefings and pre-sail checks. She said the purpose is to learn from what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. “We expect to complete the investigation by mid-December and the findings will be made available.,” she said. Many passengers have complained that the captain should have made more announcements during the sailing. Ms Marshall said the bridge team did make several announcements, and crew members made rounds of the passenger areas talking to customers. “Having said that, we have heard from some passengers who’ve said that we should have made more announcements. We accept forms part of our learning from this incident,” she said. The Observer asked BC Ferries who the captain was on the Nov. 22 sailing but Ms Marshall responded that the corporation does not give out the names of employees. BC Ferries currently has eight captains who work on the Northern Adventure. Ms Marshall also said that BC Ferries believes the Northern Adventure is suitable for the Skidegate-Prince Rupert route during the winter, adding the vessel meets or exceeds all international and Canadian safety regulations, including stability requirements. As for the possibility of switching to the new, larger Northern Expedition, she said it can’t be used for the northern routes right now because it doesn’t fit the dock at Klemtu on the Central Coast, and it would cost too much to operate both ferries during the winter when traffic is light. “If we were to have two ships based at Prince Rupert, we would need two deck crews and two engineering crews which would be at great expense,” she said. “In addition, there would be additional costs of storing and de-storing of catering supplies.” The Northern Adventure will be going down south for its annual refit from March to May, at which point the Northern Expedition take over both northern routes, she said. The smaller Nimpkish vessel will provide service to Klemtu during that time. Weather prevents that vessel from serving Klemtu in the winter, she said.