Denman Island Cable Ferry Joins Fleet, but Critics Still Wary

BC Ferries says new vessel on budget, while retired master calls it a 'colossal waste of money.'

By Andrew MacLeod 21 Nov 2015 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, April 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

After several months of delay and amid continuing criticism, BC Ferries has taken ownership of a new cable ferry to serve Denman Island.

"I think this thing is a colossal waste of money," said Peter Kimmerly, a retired senior ferry master who worked on the Hornby Island route for BC Ferries during the last 12 years of his career. "At one point we thought they were going to scrap it, but they keep throwing more money at it."

But Mark Wilson, the vice president of engineering for BC Ferries, said the new vessel is on budget and once in use will save the publicly owned company about $2 million a year, mainly on fuel.

In a press release, BC Ferries announced it has taken ownership of the vessel, the Baynes Sound Connector, from builder Seaspan's Vancouver Shipyards.

The new ferry is to go into service in February -- about seven months later than originally planned -- to replace the Quinitsa on the route between Vancouver Island and Denman Island. The 1,900-metre crossing will be the longest in the world served by a cable ferry.

BC Ferries' announcement said, "During rigorous acceptance trials and testing conducted by Seaspan in conjunction with BC Ferries, the new cable ferry met or exceeded all contract specifications, including speed and lower fuel consumption compared to the Quinitsa."

The release quoted president and CEO Mike Corrigan saying that the new ferry reached a speed of 8.7 knots while fully loaded, which is faster than the required 8.5 knots, and that it completes the crossing in a time "consistent" with the Quinitsa.

Project cost $40 million

The vessel cost $15 million under a fixed price contract, Wilson said. Including upgrades to terminals, ramps and docks, the total project cost is $40 million, he said.

Wilson said BC Ferries expects the new vessel will require three crew members to operate, compared to six on the Quinitsa, adding to the cost savings. The vessel still requires Transport Canada certification, which will include a decision on how many crew are required.

Kimmerly has been assessing the vessel as part of a community group that includes naval architects and professional engineers. They've filed 27 freedom of information requests about the project and produced two 20-page reports. Kimmerly also maintains a website that is critical of the project.

Kimmerly said BC Ferries has overstated the fuel consumption of the Quinitsa, which runs at just above idle once it is up to speed. "The cable ferry can't do that. It has to run balls-out to get up to the speed."

He also said the cable ferry only hits the required speed of 8.5 knots in the last third of its run and at the mid-point only goes 6.4 knots.

Other concerns Kimmerly listed included the strength of the cables, the shallowness of the hull, and the placement of the engines on deck. The design will make the ferry less able to negotiate wind and rough weather, or for the crew to balance heavy loads since they can't be put in the middle of the vessel, he said.

"I think it's an embarrassment of engineering," he said. "Time will tell."

NDP deputy ferry critic Gary Holman said his party has had concerns since the cable ferry was announced, many of which it shares with the BC Ferry and Marine Workers' Union.

With a crew of three, it will be difficult to participate in rescues, as BC Ferries often do, he said. If two crew were to go help another vessel, that would leave just one on the ferry, he said. Transport Canada may end up requiring more crew on the ferry, he said.

There are also reports that the cables are already rusting, suggesting they may need to be replaced more often than BC Ferries is planning, Holman said. "Once rust starts, it doesn't stop."

All as expected: BC Ferries

Higher crewing and maintenance costs would cut into the amount of money the new ferry was supposed to save, Holman said.

"One hopes that it does work," he said. "At least it was built in British Columbia, and apparently it's met its design standards."

BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall said that while there were some concerns about the vessel being incompatible with the rest of the fleet -- making it harder to move vessels around depending on need -- on balance the annual savings made it worth pursuing.

"We'll be able to do better than a 50 per cent fuel saving," Wilson said, comparing the cable ferry to the Quinitsa.

Acknowledging there have been concerns in the community, he said, "We've got a strong record of doing exactly what we say we're going to do."

Indeed, part of the delay involved double-checking everything in response to concerns raised by people living on Denman and Hornby Islands, he said.

With the Quinitsa able to continue on the route until it's replaced, the delay mattered little, he added. "This is a unique project where timing isn't that important."

Wilson said that several other vessels in the fleet also have designs that don't allow heavy vehicles to be loaded in the centre, and he doesn't think there will be any trouble loading the cable ferry either. The two guide cables on the outer sides of the vessel will add to stability, he said.

As for reports of rust, Wilson said, "The cables are holding up well."

There is some rust at the ends of the cables that are exposed to the air, but it is within what the company predicted, he said. "It's all as we expected and designed for."  [Tyee]

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