The MV Caribou left the Marine Atlantic dock at Port aux Basques Friday morning on the last of its more than 160,000 trips to North Sydney, N.S.
The 24-year-old ship is making way for the next generation of ferries — a pair of modified ferry/cargo vessels from Swedish shipping company Stena Group, scheduled to go into service next year.
The Blue Puttees arrives next month and the Highlanders is scheduled to arrive in April.
Marine Atlantic expects to take possession of Blue Puttees in early December — just before the ship begins its transatlantic crossing from a German shipyard.
Wayne Follett, president and CEO of Marine Atlantic, said the ferry will go into service by the end of February.
He said he’s often asked why they decided to convert a pair of ferries rather than build new ones.
The answer: a shortage of time and a shortage of ice-strengthened super ferries available for sale or charter.
“We did not have the time to go for new builds, because new builds would take us over five years to complete. So, we had to look at existing vessels,” he said.
“We need that capacity in place to address the growing demand that we’ve seen and we expect to continue next summer.”
A year of transition
Follett said 2011 will be a year of transition for Newfoundland and Labrador’s ferry link to the rest of Canada.
And he’s asking for a little patience as the Crown corporation adjusts to its new ships.
“We can anticipate that there will be startup challenges with the new vessels.”
Follett said this has been true of every new Marine Atlantic vessel.
“This was certainly true of the Caribou when it came into service.
“The initial year it was heavily criticized as we had a number of challenges adapting it to the service.”
He expects the end result will be worth it.
“Customers should notice an improvement in that we’ll be able to ensure that people depart on time.”
Initially, said Follett, it will take longer to load and unload vehicles, and Marine Atlantic has allotted more time — four hours in port for each ferry run.
“We’ve not yet operated with these vessels, so we’ve got a lot of learning to do.
“As we gain experience with the loading and unloading, we’ll be able to fine-tune those turnaround times.”
More cabins and recliners
In March, Marine Atlantic received an additional $520 million in new funding over five years.
Of this, $335 million will go toward its fleet — the two converted ships, a refit of the Leif Ericson and the charter for the Atlantic Vision.
Marine Atlantic is also planning $84 million in upgrades to its terminal, ramps and traffic waiting areas over the next five years at Port aux Basques, North Sydney and Argentia.
The new sister ships are retrofitted to accommodate 1,000 passengers, the same as the ferries they’ll replace. Previously, the newer ships carried 300 passengers.
Other modifications include front and back loading, the length of each ship shortened by 12 metres, and additional thrusters to allow the ships to operate in high winds and manoeuvre in the tight quarters of Port aux Basques harbour.
They have 96 cabins each — twice that of the Caribou and the Joseph and Clara Smallwood. And they have 500 reclining seats spread over three decks.
“We did not have the time to go for new builds, because new builds would take us over five years to complete. So, we had to look at existing vessels. We need that capacity in place to address the growing demand that we’ve seen and we expect to continue next summer.” - Wayne Follett, president and CEO of Marine Atlantic
They’ll also have 40 per cent more capacity for vehicles.
“That’s one of the features that attracted us to the ships because it will significantly address the capacity issues that have plagued us the last two or three years.”
The top outside deck will be used for commercial vehicles, while passenger vehicles will park on the lower inside deck.
The ship also has a full restaurant, along with two smaller, food outlets located on separate decks.
The Leif Ericson, now the corporation’s oldest ferry at age 19, will receive a $17-million, mid-life refit that will take two months starting in January.
“It’s preventative maintenance and basically an upgrade of the vessel to ensure that it’s an integral part of the new fleet.”
As the designated Argentia ferry during the summer, the Atlantic Vision will be marketed as a “cruise ferry,” Follett said.
“We hope to market that and see some growth on that run.”
As for the Caribou, it will be decommissioned over the next few weeks. Follett said the ship will “lay up somewhere in Atlantic Canada” while Marine Atlantic goes through the formal process of preparing to sell a federal government asset.
The first task will be see if any other federal agencies want the ferry. If not, it goes up for sale.
“Over the winter, we’ll begin to market that vessel with the expectation that we should be able to sell it,” said Follett.