I think we can excuse BC Premier John Horgan his brief flash of temper a few days ago when he lamented “an unwelcome intrusion by the federal government” into the provincial fight to control the COVID-19 pandemic.
He does have a lot of other issues on his first minister’s plate more challenging to resolve than a decision by Transport Canada to restore a standard public safety procedure that bans automobile drivers from remaining with their vehicles once parked and secured onboard a BC Ferries vessel for a journey time longer than 30 minutes.
Back in May, it was felt that by “self-isolating” car drivers for the always busy 90-plus minute runs between Vancouver Island and Greater Vancouver, ferry travellers could make an impact in the battle to “flatten the curve.”
Transport Canada, the regulatory body for such matters, agreed to give it a try. Back in May, it lifted the rule ordering car drivers and any passengers to vacate their vehicle and retire to an upper deck for the voyage. With “self-isolating” in place, automobile drivers have been able to snug down once parked, and nap, snack on homemade sandwiches, read a good book, or, if duty called, catch up on a little office work.
Complaints were minimal until early August when someone remembered why drivers had been banned from the lower car decks in the first place. The regulation was imposed years ago as “a safety measure.” What better time of the year than August to recall it was on the second day of that summer month in1970 that we were reminded that our ferries were not immune from the perils of the sea.
On August 2, 1970, the unthinkable happened in Active Pass – the narrow scenic passage between the Gulf Islands linking the mainland port of Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island. The weather was fine, the tide near slack. At around 11 a.m., the newest vessel in the BC Ferries fleet, the Queen of Victoria, en route to Swartz Bay with a relatively light load of 500 passengers and 150 vehicles, signalled its position by whistle and radio and requested a response from nearby traffic.
There was no radio response as the ferry navigated the twisting channel and was confronted by a Russian freighter, the Sergey Yesinin, bound for Vancouver with a full cargo of steel. Regulations of the day demanded freighters obtain clear rights of passage through the pass and at cautious speed. A subsequent inquiry established the Russian ship did not have permission to transit Active Pass and was travelling at high speed when it rammed the ferry midship.
The ship’s owners accepted full responsibility for the crash that saw the Sergey Yesinin knife into the port side of the ferry crushing to death three passengers. One, a 17-year-old girl from Allendale, New Jersey, standing near the main deck rail, presumably watching the almost touchable Gulf Island scenery float by. Below her on the car deck, George Hammond and his wife Ann, having opted to stay with their car for the journey, were attending to their restless seven-month-old son, Peter. Mr. Hammond had just lifted the baby from their Volkswagen and passed the child to his mother when the freighter struck. The baby was killed instantly. Mrs. Hammond was taken to hospital by Coast Guard hovercraft but died from her injuries.
At time of writing, Transport Canada appears to have made no response to Premier Horgan’s outrage that on September 30, the old “safety requirement” will be reinstated on three Greater Vancouver to Vancouver Island routes as well as between Comox and Powell River, and Tsawwassen and the southern Gulf Islands. Drivers will again be ordered to leave their vehicles and travel on the upper decks, better able to escape a similar or worse disaster that we pray will never occur.
I’m hoping Transport Canada adheres to its “safety requirement.” It is a regulation in place to lessen the chance of bad things happening. It’s not unlike the “buckle up and live” legislation we used to hate when seat belts laws were introduced and were initially considered such a nuisance.
Next time you are muttering about leaving your vehicle to languish upstairs on your ferry ride, take a moment to remember Active Pass 50 years ago and a moment of unanticipated terror that took the lives of travelers below decks – and could have been so much worse.