As B.C. Ferries prepares to buy catamarans, PDA's Gordon Wilson raises difficult questions

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      They’re called fast ferries. Soon they’ll be zipping between Nanaimo and Horseshoe Bay, carrying up to 800 passengers and 240 cars and travelling at speeds of up to 37 knots.

      That’s faster than most small power craft operating in B.C. waters. But these ferries are also fast on their way to becoming part of a full-blown political controversy.

      Next week, the government-owned British Columbia Ferry Corp. is expected to announce the winning bid to design three of these vessels, which will cost $210 million.

      However, a trail of confidential documents unearthed by Gordon Wilson, leader of the Progressive Democratic Alliance, raises new questions about the safety and economics of fast ferries and about the process that led the Harcourt government to include this technology as part of the Crown corporation’s $800-million capital plan announced last June.

      “It would seem to me that B.C. Ferries really has allowed itself to be sold on a technology that is completely unproven, and I think there needs to be a full public inquiry into the advancement of the capital plan,” Wilson told the Georgia Straight.

      Glen Clark, the minister responsible for B.C. Ferries, said the government spent two years developing the capital plan, which he called “the best piece of work done by a Crown corporation—maybe ever—in terms of planning for the future”.

      The plan includes many components, including a new truck terminal at Duke Point in Nanaimo and a new ship-replacement program for the northern routes, but it’s the prospect of fast ferries travelling from Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay that has attracted the most controversy.

      Wilson is particularly concerned over the role of Victoria planning consultant Sam Bawlf in the decision to go with these ferries—especially in light of documents suggesting that Bawlf’s former business associates might win the contract to design the vessels. Bawlf, the minister of deregulation in Bill Bennett’s cabinet, tried to persuade B.C. Ferries to adopt fast-ferry technology in 1990.

      A year later, he held a news conference and announced that he would like to build a privately owned fast-ferry service from downtown Vancouver to downtown Victoria. Bawlf’s partner would have been International Catamaran Design Ltd. (Incat) of Australia, but the service never got going. During the past four years, however, 13 car-carrying fast ferries have been launched elsewhere in the world.

      Bawlf told the Straight that he severed his business relationship with Incat before the Harcourt government hired him to offer advice on ferry issues. “It has always been clear to me that if you’re working for the government, you can’t be working for someone else at the same time,” said Bawlf, a former chairman of B.C. Ferries.

      Last July, Clark’s ministerial assistant, Ron Wickstrom, wrote a note instructing then–B.C. Ferries CEO Mike Martin to arrange for a suitable liaison person to assist Bawlf with information for analyzing ferry issues.

      Clark told the Straight that Bawlf was instructed to end all relationships with the ferry industry as a precondition for doing this kind of work.

      A recent company search revealed that Bawlf is the president of Camcat Catamarans Inc., but a dissolution has begun and no annual report has been filed since May 1991. Camcat once held the exclusive Canadian rights to Incat’s fast-ferry technology.

      Naval architect may have been chosen

      Now it appears that Incat, in conjunction with Vancouver naval architects Robert Allan Ltd., will win the competition to design the fast ferries for the Horseshoe Bay–to–Nanaimo route. An internal B.C. Ferries memo on October 12 suggested that Incat and Robert Allan Ltd. will design three new catamarans with aluminum hulls for B.C. Ferries.

      “International Catamaran Designs Inc. of Sydney, Australia was deemed to be the most experienced and innovative designers with the best potential to work with our Corporation and the B.C. shipbuilding industry to produce a design that would closest fit our needs,” wrote Tom Ward, senior vice president of B.C. Ferries and one of four members of the fast-ferry design-review panel. “Incat’s proposal included the use of Robert Allan Ltd. as their preferred B.C. based naval architect... The panel recommends that Robert Allan Ltd. be selected as the B.C. based naval architect.”

      “To me, it just smacks of an insider decision that doesn’t look good from a public-policy point of view,” said Wilson. “I’ve talked to senior engineers—marine engineers who work for B.C. Ferries—who have indicated to me...that nobody believes that [the large aluminum-hulled catamaran] is a proven technology that we should be spending that kind of money on.”

      B.C. Ferries’ Ward replied that aluminum is used all over the world in shipbuilding, even in large car-carrying ferries for Sweden’s Stena Line. “I’m not aware of any senior people within the organization that haven’t got confidence either in the program or in the use of aluminum,” he said.

      Wilson still thinks it outrageous that Bawlf’s former business associates might win the contract after Bawlf advised the government on issues involving ferries. Glen Clark acknowledged that Bawlf offered input on the recent submission to cabinet to gain approval for fast ferries, but he said Bawlf was not involved in the call for proposals, nor in evaluating those proposals. That was done by the panel, which included British naval architect Nigel Gee. And that’s why Clark said “it wouldn’t bother [him] in the slightest” if a company formerly associated with Bawlf ended up winning the Crown corporation’s competition to design fast ferries.

      Clark wouldn’t confirm whether Incat and Robert Allan Ltd. had won the contract, saying this decision is ultimately up to the board of B.C. Ferries. When Clark appointed this board three years ago, he was subjected to searing media criticism because many of the new members had no experience in the shipping industry.

      Damning evaluation written

      Wilson isn’t the only one to raise concerns about fast-ferry technology on the Nanaimo–to–Horseshoe Bay route. Last July, North Vancouver naval architect Peter Noble submitted a report to B.C. Ferries listing several potential problems.

      When contacted by the Straight last week, Clark didn’t know of the existence of this report.

      Ward, who joined B.C. Ferries on August 1, said Clark probably never received Noble’s evaluation, which was commissioned by former CEO Mike Martin.

      Contrary to Bawlf’s pronouncements, Noble’s report claimed that a new fast ferry built in B.C. would have more than twice the capital costs of conventional ferries built to carry the same number of cars. Noble also claimed fast ferries have higher operating costs when it comes to fuel, crews, and machinery maintenance.

      The report carried even more bad news for taxpayers and future passengers.

      “To date, there is no clear proof that large high speed catamarans can produce a faster marine transportation system which is more economical, has higher safety or has less environmental pollution than existing, more ‘traditional’ ferry systems on short haul routes,” Noble concluded.

      As a cautionary note, he added that fast ferries could also “lead to safety problems, especially in densely travelled waters such as Horseshoe Bay and approaches”.

      Noble submitted his report shortly after Clark and Harcourt publicly announced that B.C. Ferries would adopt fast-ferry technology. From 1988 to the spring of 1994, Noble managed Kvaerner Masa Marine’s (KMM) B.C. operations. After he left, KMM was among 20 companies that answered B.C. Ferries’ call for proposals to design new fast ferries.

      KMM recommended a monohull concept over a twin-hulled catamaran because, among other advantages, monohulls offer far lower construction costs and a much simpler structure.

      Those arguments didn’t impress one member of the fast-ferry design-review panel.

      “These points concerning the relative merits of fast ferry hull forms were not particularly well argued or backed up with particular figures, and reflects this company and the region’s lack of exposure to these technologies,” concluded naval architect Nigel Gee in a message to Ward. That message was one of a dozen private notes and documents that Gordon Wilson delivered to the Straight.

      Clark says B.C. Ferries wants balanced approach

      Clark noted that there are “technology priesthoods” in the shipbuilding industry, with some experts vehemently supporting their pet projects to the exclusion of all other points of view.

      He said B.C. Ferries, on the other hand, will adopt a balanced approach by putting fast ferries on the Horseshoe Bay run while having the bigger boats dock at Tsawwassen.

      Wilson said the fact that Clark may not have seen Noble’s report indicates either that the minister was kept in the dark deliberately or that someone had already approved catamaran service. Wilson also alleged that the process was tilted in favour of catamarans as soon as the fast-ferry design-review panel was selected.

      Two panel members, Ward of B.C. Ferries and John Bruce of the engineering firm Sandwell Inc., had earlier served as consultants to the government’s Crown corporation secretariat. In a confidential draft report obtained by Wilson, they discussed in detail the use of aluminum-hulled catamarans in B.C. waters. Back in May, they wrote that it was anticipated that “the majority of the hull structure will be fabricated from aluminum.” It wasn’t until August that B.C. Ferries finally invited proposals to design and build three car-carrying fast ferries.

      Ward and Bruce reached conclusions different from Noble’s in several important areas. Unlike Noble, they claimed that the capital costs would be relatively modest using aluminum hulls, because aluminum is much lighter than steel. Ward and Bruce also suggested that berthing is very simple for high-speed ferries compared with traditional ferries. Noble, on the other hand, had written that catamarans’ high decks may not be compatible with the existing B.C. Ferries ramp systems. He also reported that no large catamaran designs have been produced that can load simultaneously from upper and lower ramps.

      Ward, who is also the former president of Vancouver Shipyards Co. Ltd., told the Straight that once B.C. develops its own expertise in fast-ferry technology, there will be an opportunity to develop export markets. But that possibility was downplayed by naval architect Noble. He pointed out that governments are often the purchasers, politicizing the process and making it very difficult to penetrate major markets.

      “A Pacific Rim technology partner (i.e. Australia) might be less inclined to allow competition within its own back yard,” wrote Noble in his report for B.C. Ferries.

      Wilson says project can't be justified 

      Gordon Wilson hopes the catamaran design never even makes it through the approval process, let alone into B.C. shipyards.

      “They were looking at a size of a vessel that has not been built and been in service anywhere in the world. They’re looking at a design which is going to be more expensive to run. It’s going to require greater crewing hours in terms of securing vehicles and so on,” he complained.

      Clark believes that, in the end, the use of fast ferries will save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. First of all, their speed enables them to make more trips per day. This will allow B.C. Ferries to put off spending vast sums of money on a parking structure at the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal. In addition, the corporation will be able to route truck traffic through Tsawwassen to the new terminal at Duke Point, taking advantage of major capital improvements already made to that terminal.

      Half the ferry fleet was built between 1962 and 1965, so Clark said something had to be done to prepare for inevitable replacements. In addition, demand for ferry service is projected to increase 2.5 percent per year because of population growth on Vancouver Island.

      “If we were to proceed the way they have in the past, which is simply to build bigger and bigger steel boats and bigger and bigger facilities at Horseshoe Bay, et cetera, the bill would have been several billion dollars,” said Clark. “We had to design something that deals with our replacement problems in a rational way rather than in sort of a ‘boom and bust’ political way over time.”

      Wilson recognizes these challenges, but still said there is no justification for including aluminum-hulled catamarans as part of the solution.

      “What we could have been doing is building modern, smaller, faster, steel single-hulled ferries that would provide more frequent service and would be able to use the existing terminal and docks,” said Wilson. “All of the shipyards in British Columbia are skilled and trained at constructing single-hulled steel vessels, not aluminum catamarans. We don’t have the trained personnel. We don’t have the shipyards in place to build them.”