‘I’ll swim, it’s fine’: Nanaimo-bound passengers make the most of hours-long ferry delays

Resident recounts being left out at sea — literally — after mechanical issues leave BC Ferries vessel stranded at sea.

Nanaimo resident Sonya Hartwig was headed home on an 8 p.m. Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay sailing Wednesday (April 13) when she began to feel the ship slow.

“[Boarding] was business as usual,” she recalls. Hartwig had chosen the late weeknight sailing to avoid terminal delays closer to the Easter long weekend and guessed she’d be in a cab home by 10 p.m.

Partway through the journey, however, the ship’s speed faltered. 

“I felt the ship slow down [and] the vibration stop. I didn’t really think much of it.”

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But within minutes of the ship stopping, passengers aboard the BC Ferries’ Queen of Oak Bay vessel heard a voice over the intercom announce there’d been a problem with the steering mechanism.

Staff told passengers the delay would be brief, but after 15 to 20 minutes another announcement followed saying the problem was serious — it would be at least another hour until the stranded BC Ferries vessel could resume.

“I’ll swim, it’s fine!” Hartwig jokingly told her mother over the phone as staff began setting out free tea, coffee and hot chocolate for those waiting. She watched Star Trek on her phone as the boat drifted aimlessly, sometimes going in and out of cell service.

A beleaguered passenger grabs some shut-eye while waiting to resume sailing.
A beleaguered passenger grabs some shut-eye while waiting to resume sailing. Photo courtesy of Sonya Hartwig

Then a third announcement came.

“Bad news, it’s much more serious than we thought — we’ll need a tugboat to pull us to shore,” Hartwig remembers hearing. Crews predicted help would arrive by 1 a.m.

“Once they said 1 a.m. the energy shifted … I definitely saw parents with kids [looking frustrated].”

Travellers passed the time enjoying free refreshments, napping in their seats and wildly gossiping with neighbours about what might happen next.

“There was a rumour going around the boat that they might tug us back to Vancouver,” Hartwig says.

Tugboats to the rescue for BC Ferries vessel stranded in Salish Sea

After about an hour and just past midnight, the tugboats arrived. Hartwig says she saw one on either end of the ship. Passengers crowded by the windows hoping to see the tiny vessels in action. 

A family huddles around a window of the Queen of Oak Bay to watch a tugboat in action.
A family huddles around a window of the Queen of Oak Bay to watch a tugboat in action. Photo courtesy of Sonya Hartwig

The two boats then slowly towed the Queen of Oak Bay towards Departure Bay. 

Docking was another issue, as it seemed the faulty steering pump inhibited the ship’s ability to position correctly. Passengers were herded on and off the deck as it became clear disembarking would be delayed, too. 

One of two tugboats enlisted to tow the BC Ferries vessel to Nanaimo shores.
One of two tugboats enlisted to tow the BC Ferries vessel to Nanaimo shores. Photo courtesy of Sonya Hartwig

Hartwig says she heard a woman berating staff for forcing people out into the cold.

“[Crews] were trying to inform us as best as possible,” she says. “Eventually they announced anyone in their cars should come back up to the main level because it might be a little longer.”

Land ho! for stranded BC Ferries vessel

Shortly before 1:30 a.m., passengers were able to get off the Queen of Oak Bay. What should have been a two-hour journey lasted five, and foot passengers like Hartwig still had one hurdle ahead of them — finding a cab.

Upon arrival, Sonya Hartwig posted an selfie to Twitter with the caption, “Freedom! We did it!” Image via Twitter

“I called the [taxi] company and let them know,” she says. “They told me they would reroute drivers to us.”

Hartwig shared a cab with another weary passenger and finally made it home to her husband and cats by 3 a.m. “I don’t even remember hitting the pillow,” she says. “It was surreal.”

Extra hours for overworked staff

Wednesday’s exhausting events took place in the midst of ongoing staffing issues for BC Ferries. The company has been forced to cancel sailings with increasing frequency due to staff retirement, illness and unpaid leave.

Hartwig says it seemed clear crew members of the Queen of Oak Bay felt the delays as keenly as their passengers.

“As a lady was yelling at one of the staff, she replied, ‘please be patient, because some of us have been working for over 12 hours,’” Hartwig remembers. BC Ferries staff on this route typically work 10-hour shifts. “I was talking to one of the staff who said this was her first of five days in a row.”

Ultimately, Hartwig says most passengers and staff were understanding, and she bonded with others over the experience.

“I was reflecting on how thankful I am to have my data plan,” she laughs. “The crew acted so fast and updated us often. We were all laughing together.” [end]

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