Why we don’t build ferries

Trevor Taylor
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When you drive down through Eddies Cove East, you have one of the most beautiful ocean views to be found anywhere. Depending on the time of the year, you can be treated to pack ice, icebergs, lobster traps and, if you look around, some of the finest bobsleds you will find anywhere.

Eddies Cove East should not be confused with Eddies Cove West. Eddies Cove West is up in St. John’s Bay, lobster territory. Eddies Cove East is more in cod country. And if you look across the Straits, you can see L’Anse au Loup, and West

St. Modeste, and Pinware, and you can see Point Amour.

On a clear night if you are driving northeast you can see the light flashing on Cape Norman, right alongside of North Boat Harbour, the home of Mel Woodward, owner of Woodward Shipping, amongst other enterprises.

If you can put up with the smell of the rotting kelp and the wind that doesn’t stop blowing, it is a fine spot.

But, by God, do they know how to build bobsleds. They have a great shape. They are built to ride over the snow. They are made to carry wood. And they paint them white, a very neutral colour, but one that speaks to the very functional nature of their design.

Look as you might, though, and you won’t find anyone building a ferry.

No, ferry building is not something that they are into. They make nice snowshoes, great lobster pots, fantastic bobsleds, but not a ferry to be found.

I suppose if we built a slipway in Eddies Cove East we could build a ferry there. And then we could have a shipbuilding industry in Eddies Cove East.

The problem, though, is that they would have access to building,  at best, probably 10 ships for the Newfoundland and Labrador service every 30 years, on average.

The other problem, unlike the bobsleds they build — which are pretty uniform in design, perfected over decades of construction — is the ferries would be almost all one-offs.

Of all the ferries in Newfoundland and Labrador, you would be hard pressed to find two runs where the volume of traffic, the sea conditions and the user needs necessitate a similar design.

On the contrary, almost without exception, the ferry service in Newfoundland and Labrador requires different boats for different folks.

This is why, when vessels are moved from one location to another throughout the year, either to replace a broken-down ferry or a ferry that is pulled off for annual refit, it is usually met with complaints from the local users, due to the inappropriateness of the vessel for their particular needs.

Historically, going back to the days when we were an independent country, when Newfoundland and Labrador ship operators needed large vessels we went to places that had a robust, competitive, efficient industry to get them.

When the shipping industry of the early 20th century needed ice breakers to prosecute the seal hunt, they went to Scotland.

Most of the large fishing vessels from the 1970s and ’80s were built overseas. Most of the ferries to operate on the Gulf service over the years, with the notable exception of the Caribou and Smallwood, came from overseas.

When we have deviated from that approach from time to time, it has been with considerable subsidization of the Marystown yard, for example. Even our recent foray back into the ferry-building business, a decision I had a part in making, has been plagued with cost overruns, construction delays and design problems.

The federal government’s decision, a decade old, to build icebreakers and Arctic patrol ships is bogged down.

When Mel Woodward wants a ship to take oil to the Arctic, he goes overseas to get it. But if he needed a set of bobsleds, he would probably go to the Straits to get them. He is kind of smart like that. If a Newfoundland fisherman wants a

55-, 65- or 85-footer, we have some of the best people and yards anywhere to build them.

But if we want to build ferries here, then we have to accept that it will cost more, take longer and need a considerable infusion of government subsidies to make it happen. We have been there, done that and got the multimillion-dollar, tax subsidized T-shirt to prove it.

In the time that has elapsed since the Newfoundland and Labrador government made its announcement, the hull of an ore carrier similar in size to those used to transport Voisey’s Bay ore has been started and launched in South Korea. Two months from now, she will sail away to work. Ninety days from start to finish, guaranteed. If you don’t believe me, ask FedNav.

We couldn’t paint her in that length of time.

Trevor Taylor is a former cabinet minister under the Danny Williams administration. Email: trevortaylor@nl.rogers.com.

Geographic location: Eddies Cove East, Newfoundland and Labrador, Eddies Cove West Pinware Cape Norman Arctic Marystown South Korea

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Recent comments

  • jim
    December 15, 2013 - 20:01

    Great article, tell it like it is but no one wants to hear the truth. Ninety days from start to finish for that ship and 6 months to do a refit on the Capt. Earl Winsor every other year. When listing the Gulf Ships built in Canada you forgot the Carson, Ambrose Shea, Patrick Morris, Frederick Carter and Sir Robert Bond.

  • Corporate Psycho
    December 10, 2013 - 12:39

    Call it what you want. If it looks and smells like a giveaway it must be a .........