Report reveals new details about horrific Hecate Strait sailing

  • May. 31, 2012 12:00 p.m.

By Alex Rinfret–The Northern Adventure should never have attempted to cross Hecate Strait the night of Nov. 22, 2009, because predicted weather conditions were worse than allowed by both the fleet regulation and the vessel-specific manual, according to documents released by BC Ferries in response to a freedom of information request by the Observer. An investigation report into the attempted crossing, which left passengers terrified and resulted in injuries to six employees, states that the Environment Canada marine weather forecast that evening called for 44-55 knot winds and seas of four to six metres after midnight – conditions that were clearly excess of the fleet regulation and the Northern Adventure’s own vessel manual. According to the fleet regulation, ferries on the northern routes should not be taken into exposed water if the forecast calls for sustained winds of over 45 knots, and/or wave heights higher than 3.6 metres. Although the captain was informed of the forecast, and although crew believed the ship would probably stay in Prince Rupert until conditions improved, the Northern Adventure left on schedule just before 11 pm, the report said. The passengers that night were mostly islanders, including a girls’ volleyball team from Queen Charlotte Secondary, and the mayors of Port Clements and Masset. Immediately after the incident, BC Ferries claimed that the storm had hit stronger and faster than predicted. But the investigation report reveals that the captain had been given a weather report which clearly forecast marine conditions that would be unsuitable for a crossing. The report also notes that the unnamed captain “genuinely” believed he had enough time to cross before conditions deteriorated. “The correct choice, in accordance with the regulations contained in both the fleet regulations and the VSM, would have been to delay the crossing until such time as the conditions had peaked in severity and were known to be abating,” the report said. The Northern Adventure reached Seal Rocks at about 12:30 am, and at that point the captain made the decision to proceed with the crossing. By 1:20 am, the ship was in Hecate Strait, battling SE winds of 40 to 50 knots and seas of four to 4.5 metres and building. At this point, according to the investigation report, the crew tried to turn the ship around, but the heavy seas made it impossible to do so. “Attempts were made the turn the ship and reverse course towards Seal Rocks; however the bridge team was unable to find a combination of propulsion and helm that would achieve the turn. Throughout the night the vessel pitched and rolled in seas that reached a significant wave height of 6+ metres and winds that attained steady 60+ knots,” the report reads. Many passengers were terrified and some said their concerns were compounded due to a complete lack of information from the captain about what was going on. The investigation report did address these concerns, stating “the catering staff did a very good job meeting passenger needs in very difficult conditions, however, they were not kept regularly informed of passage intentions by the Bridge and therefore were unable to brief the passengers with a clear picture of the situation or the intentions for the voyage as events were unfolding.” Inadequate preparation for the rough sailing left the gift shop and other areas in disarray. In the engineering department, crews worried about flooding, and water did enter the ship in some spots. “The Chief Engineer required all hands to be kept up throughout the night. Flooding and potential electrical shorting in the forward part of the ship was a concern,” the report reads. “Heavy water on the foc’sle had caused water ingress through the spurling pipes to flood the cable locker and water entering through the foc’sle vent flaps had caused flooding (six inches) in the #7 fan room. Water ingress also occurred through the starboard aft passenger accommodation door (due to a leaking seal) and the bow thruster compartment and bosun’s locker (as a result of water ingress through the foc’sle flaps and the #7 fan room).” Conditions did not abate until morning. At 7:30 am, the wind was at 20 knots and the seas had settled to three to four metres. At this point, the captain decided to return to Prince Rupert rather than continuing to Skidegate, although the report does not say exactly why this decision was made. The ferry arrived in the early afternoon and the traumatized passengers disembarked. Some, like the girls’ volleyball team, refused to get back on and ended up flying home. The seven-page investigation report pointed out several areas where safety measures had not been implemented on the Nov. 22 sailing and made 12 recommendations to avoid similar incidents in the future, including:. standardizing the format for conducting weather briefings and preparations for heavy weather. holding formal pre-sail briefings with department heads from deck, engineering and catering. calling Environment Canada marine weather services directly for the most up-to-date forecast available. better communication with passengers during heavy weather. When this investigation report was completed in February 2010, two months after the incident, BC Ferries refused to release it to the public. Instead, Ferries issued a brief summary of some of the recommendations. The Observer obtained the full report through a freedom of information request. BC Ferries became subject to freedom of information laws in October 2010.

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