Passengers endured a harrowing ride onboard a BC Ferries vessel that finally arrived in Bella Coola five hours behind schedule and coated in a thick layer of ice.
Bobby Sherlock and his wife, Jen Thorpe, got on the Nimpkish in Bella Bella in a snowstorm at 3 a.m. last Sunday. They said challenges were apparent from the get go.
“Three vehicles slid down the ramp when we were loading,” said Thorpe. “It was dark and snowing heavily. If we’d had an option we would have stayed put, but there is really nowhere to stay in Bella Bella, especially at that time of night.”
Sherlock, an experienced mariner who ran a sailing tour company on B.C.’s west coast, said conditions got progressively worse.
“Once we left Ocean Falls and headed into the Dean Channel, the weather got really bad,” he said. “I would estimate the wind was blowing 40 or 50 knots, and the whitecaps were up and five or six feet.”
The couple waited it out in the car with their dog, Cutie, but many passengers were trapped in the lounge for hours as the doors to the outer decks were frozen shut and the weather was simply too bad to take the stairs down to the car deck.
“People could not get to the washrooms. The boat ran out of water because the lines froze,” said Thorpe. “No one could walk on the car deck because it was covered in a layer of ice.”
Denise Wilson and Bobbie Johnson were among the walk-on passengers stuck in the lounge areas.
“I’ve gone back and forth numerous times on that ferry and I’ve never experienced anything like that,” said Wilson. “It was like a nightmare.”
They spent the journey caring for elders on board, many of whom were distressed over the conditions. It was dark for a good portion of the trip, and the boat was rocking heavily in the waves.
Only three vehicles were onboard, and they were all parked at the back of the boat to avoid the spray at the front.
“That was the scariest boat ride of my life,” Johnson said. “The crew said they’d seen worse, but it didn’t seem right to me to be traveling in all that ice.”
In an email to Black Press Media, BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall said safety was never compromised during the trip.
“The conditions were fine prior to the last leg into Bella Coola,” she said. “On the last leg, the vessel was headed directly up the inlet and straight into the wind, which generated sea spray for several hours.” She said the crew wasn’t aware of what the conditions would be like until they got into Fitz Hughes sound and up towards Bella Coola.
Wilson disagreed. “The boat was rocking hard the entire time,” she said. “If there’s bad weather anticipated on other routes, sailings are delayed or cancelled. I feel like they shouldn’t have sailed.”
The Nimpkish, which is the smallest in the BC Ferries fleet, has been criticized for not being suitable for the route, and was only brought in again when the regular boat, the Northern Sea Wolf, went for repairs.
Sherlock and Thorpe now plan to drive back home.
“At no point did I feel like I was even on a ferry. It felt like a cargo ship,” said Thorpe. “I’m not doing that again.”