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Frustrations with Strait of Belle Isle ferry service heat up

As of Monday afternoon Sept 9, the MV Qajaq has made once round crossing since last Thursday. EVAN CAREEN
As of Monday afternoon Sept 9, the MV Qajaq has made once round crossing since last Thursday. EVAN CAREEN - Evan Careen

Stranded Labradorian Ross Pike believes a better service is required

Ross Pike is looking for answers. 
The Red Bay man has been stuck on the island since last Friday, waiting for a ferry crossing to go home.
And now he’s questioning how and why the province has gotten to this point with frequent transportation delays across the Strait of Belle Isle.
Pike, who had travelled to Corner Brook from his Labrador hometown for a hospital appointment, had reservations to cross the Strait of Belle Isle aboard the MV Qajaq W on Friday, Sept 6.
However, crossings were cancelled for that day, just as they were for Thursday.
A round trip on Saturday morning was unable to accommodate everybody. 
Pike, and many more like him, were left behind, still waiting to get to southern Labrador.
And with Hurricane Dorian approaching on Sunday, he wasn’t going to get home any time soon.
Skip ahead to Monday and they were still waiting.
Departures for that day had been cancelled as the ferry was still anchored off of southern Labrador, where she had moved to take safe refuge from Hurricane Dorian.
Pike has been staying with family in St. Anthony. 
But he knows others who are less fortunate, traveling with large numbers of family members and having to incur costs for accommodations and travel.

Ross Pike of Red Bay believes the service provided by the MV Qajaq is not sufficient for the Strait of Belle Isle crossing. STEPHEN ROBERTS
Ross Pike of Red Bay believes the service provided by the MV Qajaq is not sufficient for the Strait of Belle Isle crossing. STEPHEN ROBERTS


Pike believes the situation is unnecessary and was frustrated that the ferry didn’t make an extra crossing before Hurricane Dorian struck.
“With such a beautiful day ahead and with inclement weather coming, a storm, maybe 32 hours away, the boat could have loaded and cleared up all the traffic before the storm came,” he told The Northern Pen.
But Pike believes the ferry isn’t making what should be routine crossings because it is simply not up to the task.
He says the MV Qajaq is inadequate for an essential service for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
In fact, Pike is concerned there’s a potential catastrophe waiting to happen, given how the boat lists on the water.
He believes the problem is the way the boat is designed.
“She don’t have a good weight distribution,” he said. “She has heavy traffic all up on top and small traffic at the bottom. So, in swells, she has a tendency to list to either side and lurch.”
He’s concerned that there could be a disaster.
“With a heavy and long swell, with the weight, if it’s not proper, the boat can capsize, it’s as simple as that,” he said. “That’s not fearmongering either.”
Pike believes the captains are nervous to operate the boat in conditions the MV Apollo, the ship that ran from 2000 to 2018, could safely navigate.
This is why the boat is making fewer crossings.
“I think the captains are afraid of this boat because this is not what they’re used to being captain on,” he said. 

What are the solutions?
Pike believes the only solution is to either get a better boat or to construct a fixed link subsea tunnel across the Strait of Belle Isle.
“A thought out, well-rounded, down to earth, passenger-minded, vehicle-minded solution and that this boat can handle a little more than 20 to 25 knots of wind,” said Pike. “Something that services us sufficiently.”
But if this ship continues on the run, Pike says the interruptions are only going to increase.
“It’s only going to get worse in the fall when wind picks up,” he said.
In the long-term, Pike believes a tunnel would solve the problems.
“It’s one of the best ideas ever mentioned in respect to Newfondland and Labrador,” he said.
He’d like to see an independent committee set up to advocate for the tunnel and to petition on behalf of all Labradorians.
In the meantime, if no progress is made soon to improve the service, he thinks a “visible protest” will be necessary.
“It’s got to be a visible protest to send a message that this service that is being provided on the straits is not what the people were expecting,” said Pike.

Company responds
The ferry service across the Strait of Belle Isle is run by the Woodward Group of Companies through a subsidiary, Labrador Marine.
According to Labrador Marine Operations Manager Dave Leyden, crossings were canceled on Thursday, Sept 5 and Friday, Sept 6 due to high winds/sea state from weather system passing through.
“We had hoped to get some departures late Friday, however conditions did not improve to allow it,” he wrote to The Northern Pen.
Leyden said there was only sufficient time to complete one round trip, accommodating as many passengers as possible.
“While we moved as many passengers as possible we recognize that there are many who could not be accommodated on the departures available,” he wrote.
Woodward Group President, CEO and Owner Peter Woodward added that the number of crossings they completed before they left was dependent on how much time it would take to find a safe harbour for refuge from Hurricane Dorian.
He said the choices were Alexis Bay or Cartwright, which were both a considerable steam away.
Waiting for the storm would not have been prudent, he added.
Pike believes the ship could have sought refuge nearby in St. Anthony or Red Bay.
However, according to Woodward, while they were considering St. Anthony and White Bay, they decided to move the boat further away, where it would be outside the path of the storm.
Addressing the listing concerns, Woodward said the boat has been fitted with “anti-roll devices.” 
He called the boat “very stable” with an “extremely low center of gravity.”
“However,” he added. “It only has four meters of draft because that is the max for (a) vessel at the dock in Blanc Sablon.”
Woodward expressed his confidence that the vessel is capable of handling typical conditions in the Straits and said the boat is certified to do so by the class society and Transport Canada.
“Having said that, it is not our intent to risk passenger safety by venturing into conditions that require passengers to be strapped into seats,” he concluded.

Next crossing
The MV Qajaq W, as of Monday afternoon, has returned to the Straits area and is expecting to cross at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
If operations start Tuesday morning, he says those with reservations for the 8 a.m. departure would get first priority.
They then backtrack and pick up any served customers from the first cancelled crossing, the second, and onward until all reserved traffic is accommodated.
Then non-reserved are accommodated in order of check-in.

Background
The MV Qajaq W was purchased by the Woodward Group of Companies to transport passenger traffic across the Strait of Belle Isle last year. It started its run in January 2019, replacing the MV Apollo.

stephen.roberts@northernpen.ca

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