Denman Island resident calls for investigation into BC Ferries cable ferry

Denman Island resident calls for investigation into BC Ferries cable ferry
Photo by Madeline Dunnett/The Discourse
The Baynes Sound Connector cable ferry is seen shuttling from Buckley Bay on June 12, 2024.

Over the years, Denman Island resident Gracie MacDonald has become increasingly frustrated with unreliable service from the Baynes Sound Connector cable ferry, but her experience with it the day her brother died was the last straw.

Operated by BC Ferries, it is one of the world’s longest cable ferries and shuttles people between Buckley Bay, in the Comox Valley, and Denman Island. It was introduced in 2016, replacing conventional ferry service with the expectation that the cable ferry would provide cost savings as well as reliable service.

For those who do not have a boat, it is the only option to get to Vancouver Island from Denman Island and serves as a connector to and from Hornby Island as well. But the ferry regularly goes out of service and has been called “one of the worst performing routes in the entire system” by Mid-Island Pacific Rim MLA Josie Osborne.

FROM MAY: Repairs complete on BC Ferries’ Baynes Sound Connector ship

Gracie, whose brother Andy MacDonald was a terminal cancer patient, says a recent ferry breakdown contributed to unnecessary pain for Andy as he attempted to make it to a Vancouver Island hospital while nearing the end of his life.

“It’s hard to even explain how emotional it was because Andy was one of those people who really, really hid how sick he was,” Gracie says.

She’s now calling for an investigation into BC Ferries and the cable ferry service, as well as more transparency about what BC Ferries is doing to minimize disruptions on the route.

Cable ferry closure results in family hiring private boat

In the early hours of Thursday, May 2, the ferry went out of service after complications arose during a scheduled overnight cable replacement that caused the cable to fall to the ocean floor. The ferry was out of service for most of the day and left residents stranded on both sides of the route.

Andy MacDonald was due to check in at the North Island hospital, in Courtenay on Vancouver Island, on the same day. He returned to his Denman Island home from the hospital one day prior but the nurse told the family it was important to bring him back the following day due to his deteriorating condition.

In response to the ferry breakdown, BC Ferries added a temporary shuttle service between Denman Island West and Buckley Bay that began operating on May 2 at 11:30 a.m. But by that time, the MacDonald family already hired a private boat and used a private dock in Buckley Bay to get Andy to the hospital. He died shortly after arriving at the hospital.

While Gracie recognizes that her brother’s cancer was terminal, and she does not blame BC Ferries for his death, she says his death was much more painful than it needed to be because the cable ferry was not working. In a press release, she said riding in a small boat and walking across an uneven dock added to his end-of-life pain.

“We were really lucky to round someone up who was willing to get in the boat, [and] go,” Gracie said in an interview with The Discourse.

“We’re lucky to have a small clinic on the Island and a doctor. One of the reasons why Andy came to live with us is because I was able to get him a family doctor for the first time in his life,” said Gracie MacDonald, pictured on the left with her brother, Andy MacDonald on the right. Photo courtesy of Gracie MacDonald

Family calls for more transparency from BC Ferries

MacDonald is calling for a private investigation into BC Ferries and how it operates the cable ferry. While BC Ferries has self-reported data on ferry cancellations across all routes, MacDonald alleges that the corporation is not accurately reporting the number of cancellations on the Baynes Sound Connector ferry.

“They … provided no evidence of that,” she said, adding that there are many FOI requests that can be accessed on the BC Ferries website that have been filed by various people and organizations who are hoping to find out more about the corporation.

Colin Zak, a spokesperson for BC Ferries, says the year-to-date cancellations are below the average percentage of cancellations across the entire BC Ferries system. He says 99 per cent of sailings across all routes proceeded as planned, and 0.3 per cent were cancelled due to mechanical issues.

“Over the past year, we have made significant enhancements in the reliability of service on [the Baynes Sound Connector] route, resulting in a 40 per cent reduction in mechanical-related cancellations, and we expect this trend to continue as we continue making improvements to the vessel,” Zak says.

MacDonald says she doesn’t believe the 99 per cent figure shared by Zak is accurate and thinks a private investigation is needed for more accurate cancellation numbers to be revealed and reported.

“I just feel like it’s a big, ginormous bureaucracy that doesn’t actually provide service,” MacDonald says.

The Discourse asked Zak about how cancellation data is tracked. He did not share any more specifics but says  “data on ferry cancellations comes from [BC Ferries’] detailed operational metrics, collected through [its] reporting system.”

He adds that BC Ferries is responsible for reporting services to the third-party BC Ferries Commissioner so they can “track and ensure we are meeting our responsibilities under the Coastal Ferry Services Contract we have in place with the Province.”

But MacDonald wants to see an investigation that’s not from the commissioner.

“I’m pretty sure what they’re going to say is refer us back to the BC Ferries Commissioner,” she says, adding that the commissioner already told her in writing that it was not her department and referred MacDonald back to BC Ferries.

BC Ferries watchdog satisfied with cable ferry service

In 2021, The Office of the BC Ferries Commissioner — an independent watchdog overseeing BC Ferries coastal operations —  looked into the Baynes Sound Connector Service.

The commissioner concluded that despite the increase in service interruptions at the time, the ferry was still providing a “higher level of service” compared to its conventional ferry predecessor, according to a letter from BC Ferries commissioner Sheldon Stoilen. The letter says the cable ferry did so in a way that was cost-efficient and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

“Furthermore, the Baynes Sound Connector appears to be operating at a reliability rate that is generally on par with the reliability of the rest of BC Ferries’ fleet,” the letter says.

The letter from the commissioner encourages BC Ferries to continue efforts to minimize service interruptions on the Baynes Sound Connector route. The corporation was asked to provide quarterly reports on the service reliability of the cable ferry, as well as measures taken to minimize service interruptions and communications with ferry users.

Residents fed up with BC Ferries

Since the cable ferry started running in February 2016, it has received a plethora of complaints from residents. First excused as growing pains, residents say there are no more excuses for the ferry’s unreliable service.

Residents were already concerned in 2016 when multiple mechanical breakdowns occurred within the ferry’s first year. In 2018, mechanical issues caused a four-hour ferry delay. On September 25, 2023, a fishing boat got stuck on a ferry cable and caused another delay and in July of 2022, customers waited eight hours during a breakdown and reportedly were not offered water or compensation.

In October of 2023, Denman Island resident Sharon Small wrote an open letter to the Minister of Transportation Rob Fleming regarding problems with the ferry’s service.

“The excessively long wait times due to mechanical failures, which have been dismissed by [BC Ferries] as ‘anticipated maintenance,’ have created profound safety fears especially for school children stranded overnight or for hours at Buckley Bay,” Small wrote.

MacDonald says she wants to see the ferry replaced with a conventional electric or diesel ferry.

“I was one of the people who, back in 2016 when I was daily commuting, I was actually a defender of the ferry,” she says.

“I was like, well we’re gonna save some diesel, maybe it’ll run quieter, it’s got a nice lounge. And just, I’ve completely given up, you know, you can’t say it’s teething pains anymore. This is unacceptable.”

The Discourse reached out to BC Ferries to ask if it is considering switching to a conventional or electric ferry for the route.

Zak says there are no plans to replace it with another vessel, but that the corporation is “exploring options to ensure dock availability for alternate services during disruptions and considering alterations to our existing facility to accommodate water taxi services in the future.”

As for the risk of this happening again due to a regular cable replacement, he says BC Ferries has successfully changed 12 cables overnight without any issues since 2015. However, to prevent similar disruptions from happening again, BC Ferries plans to schedule future cable replacements with out-of-service periods when an alternate vessel is already scheduled to cover for the cable ferry.

Zak says the corporation understands the disruptions caused “significant inconvenience to the community” and apologized for the impact it had on customers.

Meanwhile, MacDonald says the ferry service should not be seen as a business serving customers, but an essential service that residents rely on for various things including medical appointments, school, work and more.

“When I commuted daily to work in Courtenay I carried an overnight bag all the time,” MacDonald says. “We need to see it as transportation and not some kind of luxury cruise to camping on Hornby.”

Madeline Dunnett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse

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