Ferry service faced with double whammy

Bonnie Belec
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Marine Atlantic says wind and ice cause service to be backed up

It seems Marine Atlantic can’t win — if the Crown corporation isn’t fighting to free its ferries from sea ice, it’s tying them up in North Sydney to prevent them from being blown out of the Cabot Strait.

Transport trucks are parked in North Sydney, N.S., because ice and wind have prevented ferry runs to Port aux Basques.

“Mother Nature has not been co-operating with us over the past two weeks,” said Marine Atlantic’s Darrell Mercer.

“As soon as we start to make progress we run into another weather system or we experience what happened to us last week when our vessels got stuck in ice,” the media relations officer told The Telegram Tuesday afternoon.

Primarily because of the winds, both ferry crossings to Port aux Basques Tuesday — at 11:45 a.m. and 11:45 p.m. — were cancelled.

That meant a long line of commercial traffic stuck in North Sydney and scores of products not getting to Newfoundland.

“We do have a significant backlog of traffic in North Sydney and we were making some progress moving the traffic over the past few days, but unfortunately now we are facing wind conditions,” Mercer said.

“It’s calling for winds in excess of 100 kms in Port aux Basques and 160 (km/h) in the Wreckhouse, and that’s certainly not ideal sailing conditions for us.”

As of Tuesday evening, there were more than 200 commercial vehicles stuck in North Sydney and 13 in Port aux Basques. Mercer said it would have been worse on the province’s west coast, but Marine Atlantic was fortunate enough to get a morning crossing.

“We’re in good shape there, but over the next 24 hours the traffic on the island will start to return through Port aux Basques. So how we are going to try to make some progress is we’ve got three vessels that are going to be in North Sydney (Tuesday), and (today) when the weather clears we will have four vessels in service,” he said.

“We’re bringing the Leif Ericson back into service out of Port aux Basques and the Atlantic Vision, Highlanders and Blue Puttees are all in North Sydney and all will load and start to move traffic across. We will have four vessels in operation, and hopefully that will give us some extra capacity to move that traffic that’s been sitting in North Sydney,” said Mercer.

While commercial traffic is Marine Atlantic’s biggest customer this time of year, there are about 200 passengers affected by the cancelled crossings, Mercer said.

He said the Highlanders ran into trouble Monday when it got stuck in ice with 271 passengers on board, but fortunately was able to get out of it on its own.

However, it was four hours late.

The Highlanders was also one of the two ferries that became temporarily stuck in ice last week, delaying arrival times for about 800 passengers travelling between the two provinces.

“The ice is still present, but our hope is the winds we’re supposed to be experiencing tonight and tomorrow will break up the ice a little and make it a little easier to get across,” Mercer said Tuesday.

“The wind and tidal conditions have a lot to do with how the ice stacks together and hopefully we’ll get some relief from that.”

Depending on the wind conditions, the ferries were expected to make the 11:45 a.m. crossing today.

“It’s challenging at times. This apparently has been one of the worse winters we’ve seen for ice in decades, and on top of that the nor’easters have been blowing here and in Cape Breton, then blowing the ice onshore, so it’s like a double whammy,” he said.

The association that represents trucking companies says its members are also feeling the affects of this harsh winter.

“It’s been a really hard winter for delays and this seems to be the tip of the iceberg this last week, because we thought we were out of the woods,” said Jean Marc Picard, executive director of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association.

“We lose money, it’s not efficient — especially for the companies that have a lot of loads sitting there, and if the driver is with the load it’s even worse because they might have to pay him as well to just hang around,” he said.

Picard said Marine Atlantic’s hands are tied and the corporation has been keeping the association updated, but it is still frustrating for the companies, which want to get products moving as fast as possible.

“So, it has been a struggle, and obviously the people in Newfoundland are impacted the most, especially if fresh produce is involved,” he said.

The difficulties Marine Atlantic has been experiencing prompted the corporation’s vice-president of customer service to post a note on its website.

“Over the past two weeks, Marine Atlantic has experienced a number of schedule and sailing impacts due to severe weather systems and heavy ice affecting the Cabot Strait. While weather and environmental conditions can often be harsh this time of year, the past couple of weeks have been extremely challenging for us,” Don Barnes wrote at marineatlanticjourney.ca.

“We recognize the frustration that is being experienced by you, our customers, and the impacts that are being caused to your travel plans and businesses. Please be assured that Marine Atlantic shares this frustration and we are working to move traffic as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Ferry users are being advised to check the website www.marine-atlantic.ca daily for advisories and updates.

 

bbelec@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Marine Atlantic, Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association

Geographic location: North Sydney, Port aux Basques, Newfoundland Cape Breton

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