Crossings across the Strait of Belle Isle have been few and far between since the MV Qajaq W started its run in January.
And one Labrador Straits mayor is blaming the provincial government’s decision-making process of choosing a vessel for the run.
Trent O’Brien, Mayor of L’Anse au Loup, has been vocal about his concerns with the MV Qajaq. He says these concerns date back to the selection process.
In a Facebook post on March 15, O’Brien said he sat as the vice-chair of the Transportation Advisory Committee, founded under the previous Progressive Conservative government.
O’Brien denied this committee was complicit in selecting the MV Qajaq for the Strait of Belle Isle run.
He says last June, when he was president of the Combined Councils of Labrador, he met with the Department of Transportation and voiced his concerns about the ferry selection process.
According to O’Brien, in August, before the vessel was announced for the Strait of Belle Isle, he asked transportation minister Steve Crocker for a public consultation process.
His request was ignored.
In recent weeks, the new ferry has been unable to complete crossings; the transportation department cites ice conditions.
“Ice conditions in the Strait of Belle Isle are the worst they have been in 30 years,” Rod Drover, media relations manager for the department, told The Northern Pen in an email last week. “The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Molly Cool, a vessel with 18,000 horsepower, recently became stuck in the Straits due to ice in recent days.”
However, O’Brien believes if the province had selected a ferry with more horsepower, more crossings could have been completed this winter.
“If you had the right vessel, maybe we would only be missing two or three crossings every week,” he told The Northern Pen last week. “As it stands right now, we’re only getting one or two crossings every two weeks.”
The Department of Transportation and Works says the MV Qajaq has a horsepower or 7,500 and is an improvement upon the 48-year-old MV Apollo, which operated on a horsepower of 6,000. The department adds because the vessel is significantly newer, it is much more efficient and capable than its predecessor.
However, O’Brien, who has been advocating for a 16,000-horsepower vessel, believes they’re actually only getting about 5,300 horsepower from the MV Qajaq.
He explains the MV Qajaq’s engines do not function in a traditional manner. Typically, he says, a vessel has mechanical engines that produce mechanical horsepower directly to the propeller, but the MV Qajaq uses four generators to produce electrical power to its engines.
“It’s not about the output, it’s about what the thrusters themselves can input,” he said. “This vessel has two 1,600 kw generators and it has two 1,200 kw generators. If you do the math, it’s just shy of 8,000 horsepower. However, the thruster system on this vessel is powered by two Rolls Royce azipods and they are only able to produce 2,000 kw each, so that’s 4,000 kw of power. If you do the conversion on that, it’s about 5,364 horsepower.”
Even with an icebreaker, crossings are risky for the MV Qajaq.
Janet Kelly, communications advisor for the Canadian Coast Guard, said during the week of March 5-9, it had icebreakers available in the Straits area. Kelly explained that, when on scene, the commanding officer of the Coast Guard icebreaker assesses ice conditions and discusses the situation with the captain of the ship to be escorted. Ultimately, the captain of the vessel makes the decision whether to sail or not.
O’Brien said he is not aware that any crossings were completed during this period.
O’Brien believes the decision to use the MV Qajaq for the Strait of Belle Isle was rushed.
He says the MV Apollo was coming up for inspection last year and he believes the vessel was going to be turned down.
The MV Apollo recently failed an inspection conducted by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. (see related story this page)
At that point, he says the province had to do something immediately. He feels they should have acted sooner.
“They should have started this process in 2016 and given proponents enough time to build a vessel while the Apollo had sea time left,” he said. “But they didn’t, they left it until the last minute. Then, they had to go with a used vessel and take whatever was available to get. By virtue of wasting time, they backed themselves into a corner.”