Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

How safe is the Strait?

Ferries, cruise ships prepared for the worst in the wake of fatal sinkings around the globe

The slate-grey skies have started to break up, allowing sun to stream across southern Vancouver Island's waterways. And with that glimmer of sunshine comes the inevitable crush of marine traffic.

As the weather heats up, a record cruiseship season begins, with 229 port visits expected to bring more than 475,000 people to Victoria this year. That crush of vessels will jockey for space on the straits of Juan de Fuca, Georgia and beyond with myriad pleasure craft, scheduled passenger vessels and cargo transport.

For those outside the industry, the mass of marine traffic raises safety questions, especially given the recent tragedy of the cruise ship Costa Concordia, which hit a reef off an Italian island in January and partially sank, killing 32 of the 4,229 people aboard. The fatal sinking of the Queen of the North passenger ferry off the B.C. coast in 2006 also continues to cast a long shadow.

Some wonder about the chances of a largescale disaster playing out on Victoria's waterfront. But the companies that operate commer-cial passenger vessels in the region and the network of organizations responsible for water safety are convinced it's highly unlikely.

"You never say it will never happen, but considering all we have done since 2006, all the learning and all the changes we've made have certainly reduced the likelihood," said Capt. Jamie Marshall, vice-president of fleet operations for B.C. Ferries, which carries more than 21 million people through the province's waters every year.

Indeed, the numbers back him up. According to the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria, run by the Canadian Coast Guard and Department of National Defence, the number of on-water incidents is dropping significantly.

Last year, the centre, which fields calls for help from up and down the B.C. coast, handled 2,864 calls, down from nearly 4,000 in 2010.

The number of "notable" marine incidents recorded in the Pacific Region was 2,101 last year, slightly up from 2,056 in 2010 but down from 2,306 in 2009.

Of those incidents last year, the coast guard said only 109 involved commercial vessels. Of the 17 cruise-ship-related incidents, all were medical evacuations.

The rescue co-ordination centre says the chances that a ferry or cruise ship will be involved in any kind of serious incident are minimal.

The centre's Susan Pickrell, regional supervisor for marine search and rescue for the Canadian Coast Guard, said despite their size, the number of passengers they carry and their increasing number, cruise ships and ferries are not the big concern.

"Cruise ships are the least of our worries, in some respects. They are very good customers, they look after themselves and they have very good safety records," she said. "It's the mom and pop not doing enough in getting the message that their kids need lifejackets, they need to have VHF radio and their boats need to be registered."

Pickrell said only six of the calls they fielded in 2010 involved cruise ships, down from a high of 25 in 2008.

"And over the last four years, 100 per cent of all calls related to cruise ships were all medevac situations," where passengers are so ill they must be removed from the vessel, she said.

There are a slew of reasons why cruise ships and passenger ferries like the B.C.

Ferries fleet and the MV Coho, which carries a million people between Victoria and Port Angeles each year, are not considered a high risk, but the biggest one is preparedness.

"Safety is the most important thing, and it's an ongoing thing. The minute you think you have it all figured out is when you get bit," said Capt. Elmer Grasser, port captain and master of the MV Coho. "Safety is part of our culture and always has been."

Grasser said on his ship, there are weekly drills both at sea and in port, inspections both bi-weekly and quarterly and regular exercises to ensure the crew and the ship is prepared for anything, be it fire, someone going overboard, terrorism or mechanical failure.

The bridge of the Coho is also filled with lists of protocols and procedures that kick into gear should a problem arise.

"It's our safety-management system - we have the plans in place and are ready to go," said Grasser.

At B.C. Ferries, safety systems have been established for all 35 vessels and 4,000 employees in a fleet that spends more time at sea and carries more people than any other in this region. The corporation conducts more than 1,000 safety drills each year and at least one per shift.

Marshall, the B.C. Ferries vice-president, said the reason for so many drills is simple: "What you practice in drills is what you execute in real life."

To that end, there are drills on shore and on the water, even while passengers are on board - they are sometimes asked if they would like to participate.

Off the ship, the fleet's three bridge simulators, installed in 2007 at Swartz Bay, Tsawwassen and Departure Bay terminals, have been used to enhance the training of 210 deck officers and deck hands.

While the simulators currently are used for bridge operations, skills and systems, B.C. Ferries is working on creating engine-room management and crew resource management training exercises as well.

"We have dynamic models for almost all the ships," said Marshall, noting the simulator provides a chance to do trial runs of any kind of scenario involving other vessels, severe weather and anything else they can imagine happening on the water.

"We can stop any time and ask [the crew member being trained] who has the right of way, what course of action they should take," said Capt. Scott Tuttle, manager of the bridge simulator.

"We can ask what sound signals they'd use. It just reinforces skills and when they walk out the door, they feel that much more confident.

"If you don't use it, you lose it, and there are a lot of aspects that don't get used in a typical day."

Greg Wirtz, president of the North West and Canada Cruise Association, which speaks for the cruise lines in this market, said their ships also have rigorous safety-exercise schedules and strictly adhere to international regulations.

"There's a global network of regulations on safety, and the safety of life at sea governs all things," he said. "Our industry is constantly working to be in compliance with and ahead of regulations."

Wirtz also noted there is an extra layer of safety governing large vessels like cruise ships in Canadian waters.

B.C. waters require large, foreignflagged vessels over 350 gross registered tonnes to have a B.C. pilot on board to navigate the ship, meaning it's piloted by a master with local knowledge of the waterways and harbours.

"Our marine area is very different from, say, over in Italy from the standpoint cruise ships cannot function in our waters without a B.C. coast pilot aboard. Although the captain has command of the ship, it is being navigated by a B.C. coast captain. Ships would not be allowed to get as close to shore [as the Costa Concordia]," said Pickrell.

There are about 110 pilots in B.C., 40 of whom are based in Victoria, according to B.C. Coast Pilots Ltd.

Pilots are responsible for navigating through the passageways along B.C.'s coast to ensure no damage to the ship, crew, public or the marine environment.

[email protected]