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All Aboard the Vomit Comet

An islander takes a trip on the new northern ferry.

By Heather Ramsay 13 Apr 2007 |

Heather Ramsay is a Tyee contributing editor based in Queen Charlotte City.

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BC Ferries' 'Northern Adventure'

Roiling seas, flooding below decks, public address system black outs and a call to abandon ship. Sound like the latest high seas Hollywood adventure film?

Think BC Ferries instead. The sunken Queen of the North's replacement, the Northern Adventure may have enjoyed enthusiastic receptions at a recent open house, but a series of mishaps have plagued the ship ever since. I was aboard the Northern Adventure on the Easter long weekend and lived to tell the tale.

For islanders, the adventure began at 2 a.m. on Good Friday. Ah, we were keen -- ready to leap aboard the fancy new BC Ferries ship for its maiden passenger voyage between Skidegate and Prince Rupert.

At first, I was willing to forgive the delays. It was a typical early spring day. The wind was predicted to build through the evening and had been blasting from the southeast the night before. Our sailing was scheduled to leave at 2 a.m., but after a visit to the BC Ferries website I found out the crossing from Rupert had been delayed.

Two in the morning is a strange-enough hour for a scheduled departure (typically the Thursday evening ferry leaves at 11 p.m.), but by 10 p.m., the departure time was already bumped to 4:30 a.m.

And so, in the middle of the night, the Skidegate terminal was packed with travellers, including families with small children, set to walk aboard.

Many were unprepared for what awaited.

Floating pukefest

First, there was a lot of waiting. Upon arrival, two hours of unloading drop trailers from the recently arrived ferry ensued, then more hours of backing different ones on as BC Ferries crew worked out the best way of loading the new vessel.

Passengers who had been revelling at 2 a.m. were reduced to curses and swears by the time we started loading. The frustration was evident on terminal attendants' faces as cars were finally directed on to the boat.

By 5:30 a.m. many of us were aboard, but the ferry was still in the dock.

I considered foregoing my wait-listed cabin ($55 for an inside room, $65 for the privilege of a window) for a spot on the floor, but I was warned. The voyage was sure to be a "pukefest," much as it had been on the sailing over from Prince Rupert.

After a mishap with a dysfunctional -- and still dirty from the previous passenger -- toilet, which staff said was due to a shortage of cleaners (not to mention the distinct lack of vacuuming going on), I settled into a berth and closed my tired eyes around 7 a.m. I was still wired from three hours of shivering in the car, but dozed off sometime later.

Emergency! Um, never mind

After two hours of rising high on the stormy Hecate Strait swells then pitching down with stomach-lurching drops, the sound of seven short blasts and one long alarm startled me awake.

I scrambled from my bed (very comfortable, by the way), bumping between walls to the door. My head and several others popped out of cabins up and down the hall. "What the 'bleep' is that for?" we all asked. No one knew. It didn't sound good.

I slammed my door, dashed to the bed and pulled on my socks and boots. I was in the midst of assessing what else to grab, when a voice yelled out from the hall.

"Disregard the alarm. Disregard the alarm," said the BC Ferries staffer stumbling down the hall in the pitch of the storm. The blasts, seven short and one long, (code for abandon ship, I was later told) continued.

Heads popped out again. "What was it all about?" we asked. No one knew.

I stumbled back to bed, trying to disregard the incessant blap, blap, blapping of the alarm.

When should we once again take notice of the alarm? My thoughts swirled with uncertainty about the boat, but likely my level of fear was nowhere near that of the crew, three of whom, I heard, had been on the Queen of the North the night it sank.

Finally the blast was cut short mid-ring, like a wire had been ripped out of the wall, and the noise ended for good. I praised be and tried once again to sleep.

Where's that water coming from?

When I arose, around 12:30 p.m., the hallways were a flutter with activity again. This time technicians were assessing the swamp of water squishing in the carpets. "The drainage system backed up and spilled on to the floor," I was told.

Gross. Later, I found out grey water from sinks and showers overflowed and flooded the galley during the rough seas.

BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall says the galley was closed for a time, to sanitize the area, but was open again before the ship docked.

Problems in the galley? Did that explain how awful my meal was? The grilled chicken in my burger tasted and felt like leather. At least it was offered for free.

By this time, many passengers had already agreed upon a new name for the $51 million ship, The Northern Mis-Adventure, she was dubbed. I've heard rumours that her malfunctions were the cause of much criticism in Trinidad and Tobago, where the Greek-built ship had worked as a ferry. More recently, she was a charter cruise ship in Spain. After spending $18 million already on refits, it seems clear there is more spending to come.

An idea: testing stuff

Down on the car deck, I found out why the alarm had rung. A fire extinguisher had come loose from its lashings, lost its pin, and started spraying dry chemicals all over nearby cars. The white powder got into the venting system and clogged up the alarm sensors. This was fixed before docking, but the incident brought an even bigger issue to the fore.

The public address system could not be used at the same time as the alarm was ringing, a major problem for passengers and crew trying to figure out what the "bleep" is going on. The BC Ferries crew member on the car deck said electricians were being flown in from down south to fix the problem. Had this type of thing not been tested before?

On April 10, Marshall told me both systems had been approved by Transport Canada before the first sailing, and the problem with the systems being connected was now fixed and Transport Canada had cleared the vessel for travel once again.

By 2 p.m. on Good Friday, I drove off the boat, relieved my mis-adventure was finally over.

But I hadn't heard the last of the tale yet. Over the weekend, in a town four hours away, friends relayed reports that the ferry had not moved from Prince Rupert since I had arrived.

I thought little about it until Monday, when we called to confirm the ferry was leaving that night at 11 p.m. "Oh yes," the man on BC Ferries' toll-free line said. "No problem." But he neglected to mention that my reservation had been bumped (Monday night's ferry was now Sunday night's and we were now scheduled to leave on Wednesday!).

After much panic and stress, I made it on the boat on standby, only to find there was plenty of room on the car deck for the bumped vehicles.

Sea of troubles

I also found out, by accident, that I was entitled to a free one-way trip on the ferry, after surviving the night of the alarms. Thanks for letting me know BC Ferries. If anyone else who was on the ferry April 6 doesn't know, the captain has advised that those passengers can have a complimentary trip between Rupert and Skidegate.

Reading through news stories over the weekend, I see that my three-hour wait was a mere ripple in a troubled sea.

Port Hardy-bound passengers waited until Saturday at 8 p.m., more than 24 hours after their ferry was supposed to depart, to get underway.

I heard about more mishaps on the new ferry on my way back to the islands. A friend took the trip from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert, but couldn't have breakfast because there were no eggs. There was no juice either, not to mention the pop machines didn't work. Also:

The video games area is gone and there is nothing specifically for youth to do.

There are only two spots in the cafeteria area with electrical outlets for those who want to use a laptop on the trip. And these plug-ins are found high up on the wall.

There is a shortage of cleaners available to help turn the ship around in Skidegate

The cafeteria is now open 24-hours because no gates were built in to enable staff to close the area for any length of time.

The foot rests in the lounge are too far away for short people (in other words, too much leg room!).

Then there were the toilets. The one in his cabin stopped flushing, as did those on the rest of the boat. Something to do with the vacuum system, my friend said. But something must have been fixed in the middle of the night, because that's when they awoke to the loud sucking sound of toilets becoming operational across the boat.

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