Captain Fergus Stewart (right) and First Mate Joel Bridle navigate the Powell River Queen across the Discovery Passage from Quathiaski Cove to Campbell River on July 18, 2019. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River

‘No chance to get bored’: BC Ferries gives glimpse of life on Powell River Queen

Campbell River-Quadra route among the ‘most difficult on the planet,’ says skipper

It’s easy to take ferry service for granted, but challenges range from steep waves to erratic passengers, and from wandering whales to careless fishing boats.

That’s according to senior crew members aboard the Powell River Queen, which serves the Campbell River-Quadra Island route. BC Ferries invited the Mirror into the wheelhouse of the ship for an interview with the captain and first mate.

Captain Fergus Stewart said ferry workers are often asked if they get bored navigating the same passage of water.

“It is so dynamic there’s not a chance to get bored,” said Stewart, 37, who grew up on Quadra Island.

He got his start at the April Point marina as a child, before finding work on yachts and cruise ships, later becoming a skipper for BC Ferries. The former Carihi Secondary student has been a captain on the Powell River Queen for about six years.

Stewart said the waters of Discovery Passage are marked by steep waves, and the waters along Cape Mudge in particular are among the worst on the coast. The combination of a southeast wind against a flood tide “is a real ship sinker,” Stewart said.

Waves rolling off Cape Mudge come in with the tide and head straight into the Campbell River terminal, he said, so crews try to get away from “horrendous” conditions there fast. The ship is berthed nightly in the relative shelter of Quathiaski Cove.

The ferry has four propellers that hang from the hull, two at the bow and two at the stern. Those propellers can rotate 360 degrees, allowing for tight manoeuvres in the highly variable waters of the passage.

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It’s an important feature on a ship that performs four manoeuvers hourly. Cargo ships, in contrast, may perform the same number of manoeuvres in a month, Stewart said.

“Some of the most difficult ferry navigation on the planet is in this pass,” he said, citing the high volume of marine traffic, along with intense currents and waves that come “straight up and down.”

The ship was built in 1965, and Stewart described it as a reliable workhorse that’s no longer big enough for the busy route.

He said BC Ferries is planning to replace the Powell River Queen with two smaller vessels that will together carry more passengers. There were 5,806 sailings in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, according to BC Ferries. Of that number, 975 were overloaded.

A control panel on the bridge of the Powell River Queen during a sailing across the Discovery Passage from Quathiaski Cove to Campbell River on July 18, 2019. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River

The Powell River Queen isn’t equipped with sonar for surrounding waters – most commercial traffic ships aren’t, Stewart said – meaning they can’t locate underwater objects such as whales. Crew are always on the lookout for the huge sea creatures, which sometimes block departures.

Humpback sightings are becoming more frequent, and those whales are “a little bit clumsier,” Stewart said. “We keep our distance.”

Other hazards include the large number of small sports fishing vessels from various local marinas.

“We’re constantly monitoring the small crossing traffic,” Stewart said, noting that sometimes those vessels shoot recklessly across the water ahead of the ferry. “The non-commercial boats, the fishermen tend to be not quite as aware of seafaring rules and etiquette.”

The ferry is outfitted with as much modern navigation equipment as possible, Stewart said, pointing to a multi-functional screen that can overlay radar images with electronic maps. The system can also instantly provide data about nearby vessels, including the boat’s name, current speed and destination.

For all that gear, some of the biggest challenges come from the passengers on board.

“Most forms of shipping, you’re dealing with professional sailors only and inert forms of cargo,” Stewart said. “Well, we’ve got passengers driving their cars, and then foot passengers walking between them, so the potential for something to go wrong is really there.”

When the Mirror rode the ferry on July 18, crew was concerned about a passenger who said she needed to get off the ferry just as the ramp was going up at the Campbell River terminal. But the departure had begun, and the ferry was already running late.

READ MORE: Revamped Campbell River terminal should protect safety of walk-on passengers, says ferry customer

First Mate Joel Bridle was keeping an eye on the distressed passenger, and with good reason. Last summer, he helped attend to a young intoxicated person who was contemplating suicide on the ferry. The youth was prepared to leap off the side of the ship, Bridle said, and ferry workers found themselves serving as impromptu counsellors.

Crew members also deal with passengers experiencing childbirth, drug overdose, a heart attack or mental health breakdown. Anything could happen.

“There are drunks, there are people who can’t drive, there are tourists that are driving massive RVs that are rentals that crash into the side of the ship,” Bridle said.

The Powell River Queen, which was built in 1965, is expected to be replaced by two smaller vessels in the coming years. Undated file photo from BC Ferries 

The crew is also on-call in case of a medical emergency at night.

“If the ambulance gets a call, we will all come and fire this thing up,” Bridle said.

As far as authority on the ship is concerned, Stewart said the old-fashioned role of captain as autocrat has largely been rejected.

“We train everybody more thoroughly, and we empower the entire team that they can question anybody at anytime about what they’re doing,” Stewart said, also noting that multiple safety checks are performed during each sailing.

Some aspects of the ferry bear witness to old times. Control panels in the bridge might have seemed futuristic in the 1960s, but now they look as retro as the green and blue zebra-stripe carpet. Details about each sailing are handwritten in a paper logbook.

The data is entered into a computer later on.

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