Most people think of the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic as the worst loss of life in maritime history, with more than 1,500 victims. However, the sinking of the German refugee/hospital ship MV Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945—with the loss of up to 9,400 lives, including those of 5,000 children and infants—holds the record.
Improved safety standards and better communications have resulted in fewer deaths at sea in more recent decades, with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) reporting only 1,925 passengers lost worldwide between 2006 and 2011. Almost 1,000 of those perished in one ferry sinking.
The April 16 sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol, however, with the probable loss of more than 300 passengers, mostly schoolchildren, demonstrates how nautical disasters can still strike without warning.
That tragic accident should prompt calls for renewed oversight of B.C. Ferries’ evacuation systems, which on some ships could be useless in a Sewol-style calamity.
Most B.C. ferries not bound by international standard
The sinking of the Titanic resulted in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), a maritime treaty ensuring that ships flagged by signatory states comply with minimum safety standards in construction, equipment, and operation.
SOLAS and its revisions are one of the most important international treaties concerning maritime safety. Cruise ships in Canadian waters are bound by SOLAS regulations.
But if you thought B.C. Ferries vessels would be bound by SOLAS, you’d be wrong. Because B.C. Ferries doesn’t operate in international waters, its ships are not required by Transport Canada to be SOLAS-compliant. Only the Greek-built MV Northern Adventure on B.C.’s north coast is SOLAS-compliant.
B.C. Ferries began plying coastal waters in 1960 with two terminals, two ships, and 200 employees. Today, as the largest ferry service in North America, B.C. Ferries employs 4,700 employees, has 35 ships docking in 47 locations, and carries 21 million passengers annually.
IMO code "voluntary adopted"
In 1997 B.C. Ferries voluntarily adopted the IMO’s International Safety Management Code, which provides an international standard for the safe management and operation of ships.
Every year, B.C. Ferries logs hundreds of safety incidents, but most are minor. In 54 years, the former Crown corporation, commercialized in 2003, has had its fair share of collisions, fires, and mishaps but has lost only one ferry, the MV Queen of the North, which ran aground on Gil Island in 2006 and sank, with the loss of two passengers.
The Queen of the North had life rafts and traditional davit-loading lifeboats. Beginning in 2003, davit-loading lifeboats were replaced on three of B.C. Ferries’ Lower Mainland–Sunshine Coast “C-class” vessels (the Queen of Coquitlam, Queen of Cowichan, and Queen of Surrey) by the marine evacuation system (MES) Marin Ark 1, which deploys a vertical chute into enclosed life rafts.
Other ships in the fleet do not use the vertical-chute system but employ airline-style open slides.
Some B.C. ferries carry as many as 900 children
Plying Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia, B.C. Ferries’ C-class vessels, the above three as well as the Queen of Oak Bay and Queen of Alberni, were built between 1976 and 1981. They are roll-on, roll-off (Ro-Ro) ferries, designed to carry wheeled traffic. (The Sewol was a Ro-Ro ferry like the Queen of the North.) Below the open car deck, C-class ships have watertight compartments.
Most C-class vessels carry a maximum of 1,488 passengers and crew. Some summer sailings to Sunshine Coast camps have had as many as 900 children aboard, far more than on the doomed Sewol.
Evac chutes can drop 23 metres
Unfortunately, the Marin Ark 1 MES isn’t perfect, and international tests and drills in recent years have resulted in vertical-chute injuries and at least one death in a Marin Ark 1.
Designed and developed in Belfast by RFD Beaufort (now Survitec Group) and approved by Transport Canada, the Marin Ark 1 uses a collapsible, vertical fabriclike chute that drops between eight and 23.5 metres into four connected inflatable life rafts. The chutes are designed to slow descent.
Twin chutes on each side of the ship can drop passengers into four 100-person life rafts on each side of the vessel. Survitec claims that the vertical-chute system is the “best solution for the least money” and can evacuate “up to 860 passengers in less than 30 minutes”.
New B.C. Ferry evac system never proven
The trouble is that the new system might not be able to deploy properly—or perhaps at all—with a stricken vessel listing more than 20 degrees, which is the regulatory standard under the Canada Shipping Act and meets SOLAS standards. If an emergency occurs, evacuation times are short if water reaches the car deck: the Sewol, reportedly, developed a 43-degree list in only 16 minutes.
There are 1,000 Marin Ark 1 evacuation systems installed worldwide, and according to information sent to the Georgia Straight by Survitec spokesman Richard McCormick, as of March 2014 the system had never actually been used in an emergency event.
During a phone interview, in response to a question about whether or not the Marin Ark 1 system would be deployable with a 10-degree or higher list, B.C. Ferries vice president of fleet operations Capt. Jamie Marshall said: “They will operate at a 20-degree list and a 10-degree heel. Marin Ark 1 is compliant [with regulations] with that.”
Ferry official: safe for three-year-old daughter
Marshall says anyone can use the chutes. “I put my three-year-old daughter through it [the chute] and she was fine,” he said.
Women with babies can use the chute system, Marshall added, although evacuation signage aboard these C-class vessels shows an evacuee with hands above his head and appears to advise against holding purses, backpacks, and shoes in your hands.
Marshall also said anyone who doesn’t want to, or can’t, use the chutes during an evacuation could use one of eight 25-person inflatable life rafts located on the upper deck of all five of the C-class vessels. He added that wheelchair-bound passengers on the lower car deck would have to be carried to upper decks, as elevators are not in use during an emergency.
Retired B.C. Ferry captain critical
Capt. William Cursiter—who worked on 20 B.C. Ferries vessels, including 12 as master, and who has also worked European ferries—is now retired and is president of the nonprofit B.C. Coastal Transportation Society (BCCTS).
“We have concerns about B.C. Ferries’ evacuation plans, particularly for people with disabilities,” he told the Straight by phone. “I was on a ship and asked the captain how they’d get wheelchair-bound passengers up to the life rafts and was told: ‘We’ll get a hockey team to carry them.’ You can’t always depend on having a hockey team onboard.”
Cursiter, who was involved with B.C. Ferries safety programs in the past, added: “If water gets onto the car deck, those roll-on, roll-off ships list pretty quickly….Why fit a [MES] system on a ship that will at some point list greater than 10 or 20 degrees? I find it difficult to understand.”
He added: “Transport Canada should shoulder some of the blame. They don’t approve evacuation plans; they approve evacuation systems."
No plans to upgrade evac system for two decades
B.C. Ferries is not planning to upgrade its Marin Ark 1 system to the newer Marin Ark 2, Marshall said, because the current evacuation system is expected to function for the next 20 years—the planned life of the three vessels.
In his 2006 master’s thesis, a comparative analysis of lifeboat accidents, Trevor Ross—now marine operations manager at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, England—wrote: “MES systems are not trouble-free; injuries including broken ankles and arms have been reported and one woman died of asphyxia when her body jackknifed within the chute.”
Volunteer died testing system
In 2002—the year before B.C. Ferries bought the system for the Queen of Surrey and Queen of Coquitlam and six years before it fitted the Queen of Cowichan—during a dockside drill in quiet waters in the ferry port of Dover, England, a 52-year-old volunteer died after entering the Marin Ark 1 chute.
Her life vest rode up and she apparently splayed her legs in an attempt to slow her descent, presumably to reposition the life vest. Because her body was heavier than her legs, her legs rose over her head. She was in a pike position when a crewman found her four minutes later. He couldn’t pull her into an upright position.
After six minutes in the chute, she was cut free but had died from positional asphyxia, which can occur when abdominal contents are compressed upward against the diaphragm and preventing breathing.
A 2008 study of vertical-chute evacuation systems—by Alexandra Farrow and Daniel Harwood for London’s Brunel University—found that short and heavy trainees using the vertical chutes had increased odds of suffering injuries, but it concluded that appropriate training and well-briefed operators could reduce adverse events. All injuries studied occurred during dockside drills.
Harwood, now the principal investigator of marine accidents for the U.K. Department of Transport, told the Straight by phone that he’s aware of “several instances [since 2008] where trainees have got stuck in chutes and suffered injuries”.
System failed in English test
And according to the Southampton-based Marine Accident Investigation Branch, in 2008 the Marin Ark 1 system vertical chutes failed during drill deployment on the P & O ferry Pride of Canterbury in Dover. Survitec notified Marin Ark 1 users of the failure, which occurred as a result of cable and sea-air corrosion problems.
Chris Abbott, president of the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union, informed the Straight that to avoid injuries, B.C. Ferries crews no longer use the chutes during drills.
Cursiter is critical. “B.C. Ferries’ management system has a corporate culture of safety apathy.…They brought in a Danish-English SailSafe system and think it’s fixed problems. My concern is training; it doesn’t go far enough. Not to European standards.
"Better broken bones than dead"
“They [B.C. Ferries crews] can’t assist a person from a wheelchair and their evacuation plans don’t go into enough detail in how to do it. There’s a safety apathy toward the disabled. I attended a safety training course with RFD [now Survitec] personnel and I said, ‘If an elderly person uses the chute and has osteoporosis, they’ll have broken bones.’ I was told: ‘Better broken bones than dead.’ ”
Cursiter also said he was warned not to be too insistent about safety. “I was told by a marine superintendent that bringing up safety issues could affect further promotion.…For the last two years, I refused to work as captain for safety reasons.”
The BCCTS is so concerned about disabled access during evacuation that they have made submissions to B.C.’s recently finished Disability White Paper Consultation and to the Canadian Marine Advisory Council.
Special-needs passengers can't use system
According to the BCCTS, marine-industry “special-needs passengers” include all children too small to use evacuation equipment on their own, persons too large to safely use evacuation equipment, infants, the disabled, and elderly persons who require assistance or who might be fatally injured using evacuation equipment.
BCCTS also includes in that category passengers returning from hospital after surgery that might affect their ability to be evacuated.
Cursiter said he feels that B.C. Ferries’ evacuation and training standards aren’t equivalent to European or, in some cases, other Canadian standards. “In Nova Scotia, the ferry system has a training video so crew learn how to lift passengers from wheelchairs…Here, they seem to be reliant on volunteer passengers.”
The BCCTS is also concerned that B.C. Ferries is relying on self-identification/registration by disabled passengers—a concept that relies on all passengers being aware of the policy and having access to the Internet to register.
B.C. Ferries gets federal safety "exemptions"
B.C. Ferries averages 1,000 safety drills a year and is bound by the Canada Shipping Act and its Life Saving Equipment Regulations unless granted exemptions by Transport Canada’s Marine Technical Review Board.
According to the BCCTS website, B.C. Ferries has received “hundreds” of exemptions in previous decades.
In 2011, B.C. Ferries’ C-class vessels were granted extended evacuation times, from 30 minutes to 45 minutes, for the summer months only. These exemptions expire in 2017.
Not aware of exemptions
Barry Cavens, chair of B.C. Ferries’ southern Sunshine Coast ferry advisory committee (FAC), was surprised. “We’re not aware of any exemptions granted by Transport Canada.”
Cavens added that with fare hikes, loss of seniors’ discounts, and reductions in sailings, safety hasn’t been one of the issues the FAC is dealing with.
“Sometimes you have to trust B.C. Ferries and hope Transport Canada will do the right thing,” he said.
B.C. Ferries: "We can evacuate...in half an hour"
B.C. Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall explained the exemptions: “B.C. Ferries didn’t ask Transport Canada for those [evacuation] exemptions…It’s part of a renewal of an old board decision that was granted in the ’80s when we had davits to launch lifeboats. We didn’t ask for them to renew those decisions. We have a new system [Marin Ark 1] and don’t need them…We can evacuate these ships in half an hour.”
Marshall refused comment on whether or not the federal Conservatives’ recent closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard base represented a potential “deficit” in emergency-evacuation assistance for B.C. Ferries.