No more Nonia

Barb Sweet
Published on February 16, 2013
The Bell Island ferry the Nonia in 2011
— Telegram file photo

The province is finally pulling the plug on the troubled ferry Nonia.

The Telegram has been telling the story of the Nonia for several years through exclusive reports on the state of the used foreign-built vessel.

In the last month, it also asked about the Nonia’s troubles in drydocks, but received no details from Transportation and Works.

Friday, the department issued a news release on the ferry system,  and announced several paragraphs down that the Nonia is done.

“The MV Nonia is currently in drydock, and is not expected to return to service until January 2014,” Transportation and Works Minister Paul Davis said in the news release.

“Given this time frame and the estimated cost of $9 million to complete repairs, a decision was made to remove it from the provincial fleet, have it decommissioned and sold. The vessel was acquired in 1999 at a cost of $1.2 million. Including purchasing costs, approximately $19 million has been spent to date to keep it in service.”

Davis told The Telegram Friday  in the latest refit Transport Canada said the thickness and strength of the steel in parts of the vessel’s superstructure didn’t meet regulations.

That meant rebuilding decks, cabins, lounges and the front wall of the wheelhouse bridge, requiring dismantling of electronics.

While most asbestos had been removed years ago, there were some sections not touched that would have to be dealt with under the proposed work. On top of that, the estimate for refit costs was

$2 million annually over the next five years.

It came down to a concern of throwing good money after bad, Davis said.

But the province hasn’t soured on acquiring used vessels on the world market, including buying — as well as short-term and long-term leases — to make up for the shortage of ferries while it goes ahead with time-consuming vessel construction, he said. The used vessels have to meet stringent Transport Canada standards, he added, and some private operators under contract to the province already purchase used vessels and refit them.

The MV Nonia was once dubbed a “rust bucket” by then Tory opposition politicians and nicknamed the “MV No-Go” by Bell Island residents, where it has operated as a swing vessel.

Built in Estonia in the mid-’80s, the ferry — originally called the Ahelaid and known as the Hull 100 when it arrived here — has been a money pit since the Brian Tobin government bought it.

The Liberals then expected to have it operating for $2 million.

Efforts to make the Nonia seaworthy dragged on and on.

The Conservatives continued piling money into it after they gained power in 2003.

By the time it met Canadian standards and was put into service six years after its purchase, the price tag was five times greater than anticipated.

Since entering the provincial ferry system as a swing ship in 2005, it has caused considerable headaches for users.

The low points include running aground near St. Brendan’s Island in 2006 and being so unreliable on the Bell Island run that residents there gave it its unflattering nickname.

Finding parts has been one of the biggest challenges in keeping the Nonia going. A number of key components are unique to the Russian manufacturer that built the ship. So much so, that before the province bought the ferry, recommendations were made that its sister ship be purchased, too, for parts.

That the ship's instruction manual is written in Russian has reportedly been another obstacle.

A Transport Canada memo written in those early years expressed concern about the quality of vessels for sale on the foreign market and Canada becoming a dumping ground for junk ships.

Friday, the province also announced a rejigging of the provincial ferry service, which Davis described as a domino effect.

Following refit, the Hazel McIsaac is returning to the Green Bay run, with the Sound of Islay moving to the St. Brendan’s ferry service.

 The Grace Sparkes is moving from the St. Brendan’s run to be deployed to Bell Island as the replacement for the Beaumont Hamel, which is entering refit

Feb. 18 for about 10 weeks.

The Beaumont Hamel will provide service to Fogo Island upon completing required refit work. This will enable the Capt. Earl W. Winsor to enter refit, where

it’s expected to remain until late June. Upon the return of the Capt. Earl W Winsor, the Beaumont Hamel will go back to Bell Island and the Grace Sparkes will return to St. Brendan’s.

Davis acknowledged the switching around of vessels will cause logistical problems for some communities used to large vessels.

For Fogo, which has a bustling tourist season, the smaller Beaumont Hamel is a concern. Its usual ferry can accommodate almost twice the number of vehicles and the best-case scenario for getting the Winsor back is late June.

“We’re still looking at options to mitigate those negative impacts on all these ferry communities,” Davis said.