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'Northern Adventure' Wasn't Safe to Sail: Union Inspector

Report alleges many problems, claims certifying ship was 'negligent.'

By Andrew MacLeod 11 Mar 2009 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Greek-built, refitted Northern Adventure.

A senior B.C. Ferry Services Inc. worker, since promoted to a management position, ripped the company for putting a new vessel into service before it was ready. He compiled a long list of safety issues and called the federal government inspectors who allowed the ship to sail "negligent."

"What exactly did B.C. Ferries learn from the Queen of the North's sinking?" asked Captain David Badior in an April 2007 president's report for the ships' officers component of the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers' Union. "Nothing!"

B.C. Ferries bought the Sonia for $50.6 million in 2006, and renamed it the Northern Adventure, to replace the Queen of the North after it hit Gil Island and sank. Two people, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, remain missing after the March 22, 2006, sinking, and are presumed drowned.

The company reportedly spent $9 million on refits in Greece to get the Greek-built ship ready for the trip to Canada, then a further $9 million at the Victoria Shipyards. Including taxes and the cost of getting the vessel to B.C., the company spent some $100 million.

The ship went into service between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert on March 31, 2007. There were delays of some three hours, but the vessel sailed. A week later there was a 30 hour delay before another sailing.

At the end of April, after using the Northern Adventure for a month, BC Ferries sent the vessel for a 10-day refit at Deas Pacific Marine in Richmond. The company publicly acknowledged "some issues cropped up" but did not go into detail about the safety concerns.

Badior's report offers a glimpse of what was happening behind the scenes.

High level team investigated

"I was personally getting all kinds of phone calls and emails from the Northern region about the state of the training (or total lack thereof), the state of equipment, lack of documentation and the physical state of the vessel itself," he wrote. "I know that other Executive members were being passed similar information."

At a meeting about bringing the Coastal Renaissance into service, he said, representatives of the union and the company focussed on avoiding "another debacle" like what happened with the Northern Adventure.

They agreed to send a "high level team" to sail on the Northern Adventure out of Port Hardy on April 18. The team included two captains, a vice president and "delegations" of managers from three B.C. Ferries divisions. The union sent then president Jackie Miller and five other representatives. Badior and an eighth union representative flew up and met the ship in Prince Rupert.

"My personal experience in the three or so hours I was aboard the vessel can be summed up in one word, stunned," he wrote. "I am stunned that Transport Canada certified the ship to sail.

"I am also stunned at the total lack of preparation that was completed by Vessel Acquistion and New Construction Team prior to the ship being turned over to Operations. I am stunned that anyone in Operations accepted the Northern Adventure in the condition she is in today let alone what it was like aboard a couple of weeks ago."

Vessel problems, crew unprepared

Badior made a "by no means exhaustive" list of 17 things he observed himself, including the following:

There were also worries about ill-prepared crews and unsafe working conditions. Badior noted:

Badior also wrote "crew members told me" that when Transport Canada came aboard to certify the ship, the federal officials watched BC Ferries crews do their drills. Asked to show an official how to operate a particular piece of life saving equipment, "The crew member responded 'I don't know I have never seen this piece of kit before.'"

Wrote Badior, "TC passed the ship anyway."

He stressed that what he saw was only in a short three-hour visit aboard the Northern Adventure. "I am absolutely certain that the rest of the team will have more to report as there were many items I was told about but did not have time to see personally."

'Bag of offal'

Badior said the state of the ship would make it hard for the people working on it. "Once again they have been handed a bag of offal and are expected to make a steak out of it."

"Sure the carpets and curtains look good but look under or behind them and it is a totally different story," he wrote. He could blame the people who bought the ship, he said, but ultimately he held the federal government officials responsible. "Once again [Transport Canada] did a substandard inspection and issued a certificate allowing this to happen."

"In my opinion there are people at Transport Canada who are negligent in the performance of their duties and should be sacked," he said. "Transport Canada is a joke, actually it isn't because people have died due to their incompetence." He added, "So much for protecting the public interest."

The Transportation Safety Board had criticized Transport Canada in reports for doing "substandard inspections" on the Queen of Surrey and other vessels, he said. "It appears that if anything things are much worse in that regard four years later."

Badior advocated that the ship be taken out of service "and at the absolute minimum the regulatory required items be repaired."

As previously noted, the Northern Adventure did go to Deas Pacific Marine for further work.

A Transport Canada media contact in Vancouver yesterday took a list of questions from The Tyee about the certification process in general and the Northern Adventure in particular. The contact said specific reports about the Northern Adventure would likely only be available through an access to information request. Later, another Transport Canada spokesperson sent an e-mail that said:

"BC Ferries' passengers can be assured that safety is Transport Canada’s top priority. Transport Canada has a strict set of standards and regulations which ferry operators like BC Ferries must meet in order to certify their vessels. To stay certified, they are inspected each year. The Canada Shipping Act, though, requires owners to keep their vessels in shape to meet these conditions at any moment."

An e-mailed request for comment to BC Ferries went unanswered Tuesday.

Tourism pressures

Badior noted that despite the vessel's deficiencies, there would be opposition to taking it out of service even for a short time. "Politically that will never happen as even the mayor of Prince Rupert, Herb Pond, was already squawking about taking the ship off the run and how bad it would be."

NDP ferry critic and North Coast MLA Gary Coons raised safety concerns at the time. He put out an April, 28, 2007, press release saying Northern Adventure had "serious safety concerns."

B.C. Ferries president and CEO David Hahn attacked Coons in an e-mail, saying, "This is the type of negative publicity which undermines the efforts of everyone to rebuild tourism and travel since the sinking of the [Queen] of the North. It hurts BC Ferries and everyone who owns and operates businesses on the North Coast and beyond... Not helpful and not very smart."

And Steve Smith, who has since been appointed a B.C. Ferries board member, lashed out in a letter to the editor of the Prince Rupert Daily News. "I read with disgust the recent press release from our NDP North Coast MLA Gary Coons," he wrote. "The Northern Adventure is a first-class ship with amenities that are unsurpassed by anything we have had before to serve our northern marine highways."

Coons said Badior's report shows he was right. "Once I got the documentation, I was shocked and appalled that the minister and the premier and those at BC Ferries would allow the ship out," he said. "Somebody weighed the pros and cons and they put the safety of crew and passengers and the public confidence in our ferry systems at risk."

There needs to be a public inquiry into the sinking of the Queen of the North and a follow-up on the report by George Morfitt that found a "dysfunctional safety culture" at B.C. Ferries, said Coons.

There's too much secrecy at B.C. Ferries, which is not covered by provincial freedom of information legislation, he said.

The problems with the Northern Adventure show why more information should be available, he said. "A year after the vessel sank, a vessel was put out there that should not have been on the waters."

Another new vessel to be used on the Northern Routes, the Northern Expedition arrived last week. It was built by the same FSG shipyards in Germany that built B.C. Ferries' three new Super-C Class vessels.

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