Ferry with fewer cabins won’t return for weeks

  • Mar. 28, 2006 7:00 a.m.

Islanders won’t be able to get on and off Haida Gwaii by ferry until at least mid-April, following the devastating loss last week of the Queen of the North in the Inside Passage, Alex Rinfret writes.
The only other ferry which can serve the Skidegate-Prince Rupert route, the Queen of Prince Rupert, is currently undergoing its regular refit in Vancouver and wasn’t scheduled to be back in service until early June. BC Ferry Services Inc. spokesperson Deborah Marshall said that while the refit is being speeded up, the vessel still needs quite a bit of work done and must be recertified.
“We don’t have a definite date yet but it looks like it will be mid-April,” Ms Marshall said.
BC Ferries has also decided, in the wake of the sinking, to convert a large portion of the passenger cabins into crew accommodation, so the crew will no longer have to sleep under the car deck.
“It is going to greatly reduce the accommodation available to customers,” Ms Marshall said. “But safety is paramount.”
There are 31 cabins below the water line on the QPR and 48 cabins above, she said. It is hard to say how many cabins will be left for the public after the reconfiguration, because more space will be needed for crew shower areas, she said. That means there can’t possibly be any more than 17 cabins available for passengers, and most likely far fewer.
“It will be significantly reduced,” Ms Marshall said, adding that the cabins that are left will probably be reserved for passengers with medical issues.
The below-car deck cabins have been closed off to the public since 1994, when the ferry Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea. However, they were still being used by the crew.
Meanwhile, BC Ferries has arranged for a barge to bring groceries and other supplies to the islands, with its first arrival scheduled for 6 am Tuesday (March 28).
BC Ferries is making arrangements to fly people who had reservations on any of the cancelled sailings, Ms Marshall said. Islanders who need to travel to the mainland for medical reasons may also qualify for flights at the cost of a ferry fare, she said, but they will have to contact BC Ferries, who will decide on a case-by-case basis.
Questions like how the ferry schedule will work in the summer, when both ferries usually served the Skidegate-Rupert and Rupert-Port Hardy routes, are still unanswered.
More than 100 BC Ferries employees are out of work for now, as a result of the accident. Ms Marshall said the two full-time crews are on paid leave, and will return to work when the Queen of Prince Rupert comes back.
BC Ferries is still going ahead with the “alternative service provision” process, an attempt to see if another company could run the northern routes more efficiently, Ms Marshall said. (According to MLA Gary Coons, representatives of one of the interested companies were aboard the Queen of the North the night she sank, along with some high-ranking BC Ferries staff, taking a tour of the route.)
There is only one company still interested in running the service, Ms Marshall said. According to the latest timeline, the company will have until February 2007 to submit a proposal.
However, that’s not going to stop BC Ferries from going ahead and ordering three new vessels for the northern routes, she said. The provincial government approved funding for the new vessels last week (no word on the exact amount, but it’s rumoured to be around $350-million), a plan which has been in the works for several years.
Ms Marshall said the ordering of the new vessels will be speeded up due to the accident.
“It’s absolutely necessary,” she said. “We will really expedite it.”
There are three investigations underway in Prince Rupert at the moment, with BC Ferries, the Transportation Safety Board and Transport Canada all looking into the March 22 sinking.