Wednesday, May 18, 2011


photo: Sybil MacDonald, Facebook
That boat should not be on those rocks.  That's the first thing your should know.

The next thing you should know is that everyone is safe and life has returned to next to normal.   

This morning around 9, as happens every morning at 9 every day but Christmas and New Year’s, the ferry from my hometown of Grand Manan island prepared to dock at the mainland port of Blacks Harbour.     

Normally those final minutes of the 90-minute crossing are the same every trip:  pack up your books or magazine or deck of cards, finish the last of your tea, stash your cafeteria tray, say your goodbyes to friends and make a final pit stop at the washroom before heading down to your car to continue your day.   As the ferry turns and prepares to back into the dock, there’s always some tilting and churning and grinding. If you’re an islander you don’t normally pay much attention to it.  For my mother it was when she realized she was walking uphill to the restroom sink, that she knew something was not right. 

On this morning, mere metres from the final destination, the ferry ran aground.  Nothing has been officially determined but it looks like a mechanical problem.  In any case, a full load of passengers and crew found themselves stranded within sight of the dock but still too far to make an obvious exit that wouldn’t involve boats.  They were listing badly, it wasn't known if they were taking on water (they mercifully weren't) and there was no indication of the condition of the Island’s one link to the mainland.  

The “first boat” that leaves the island at 7:30 a.m. is what you take when you’re “going away for the day.”  On any given day you have a number of elderly people heading for medical appointments.  You’ll often see mothers with babies and young children headed to Saint John for a day of shopping or visits with family.  And there are those, like my dad who was making his second trip to the mainland in as many days, for whom this is a business commute.   The first boat is usually filled with passengers and with a sense of anticipation for the busy day ahead.   Today those days took a detour.

From accounts and photos people were very calm and orderly.  Passengers uploaded iPhone pictures of people standing calmly on the top deck in the morning fog.  The only sign of anything unusual was that everyone was wearing orange life jackets.  There seemed to be some debate as the minutes ticked on as to whether passengers would be evacuated from the ferry by lifeboat or whether they would wait for the Bay of Fundy’s famous tides to rise and loosen the boat from its position.  The decision was made to begin evacuating by lifeboat.

Life boats are by their very nature designed as a last resort.  They are designed for necessity not comfort.  My mother said watching the shuddering, jerky descent of the first load of thirty passengers to the water below made her think that staying put and waiting out the rising tides seemed like the preferable option.  The lifeboats are also not capable of powering themselves and so were towed to the ramp by a zodiac.  The tide being as low as it was, the climb up the ramp from the lifeboat was steep for passengers with canes and wheelchairs and young children.  

After the first lifeboat trip, a salmon boat from Cook’s Aquaculture arrived and passengers were ushered to the vehicle deck where they boarded the waiting boat.  Still no pleasure cruise but far preferable to facing the lifeboat at least in my mother’s mind.  (Their response this morning along with their response to December’s devastating floods have pretty much cemented Cook’s reputation as Charlotte County’s good Samaritan company.)

Not long after my parents came ashore the ferry was able to dock and cars began to unload and islanders, pragmatic as always, began to resume their regularly scheduled day.  The time from my father’s first email that they had gone aground (only my father would title such an email "Shipwreck") to his email as they drove out of Blacks was barely over an hour.   But it felt so much longer.    And the extent of the damage is still not known nor when ferry service to the island might resume.

As unenviable as the situation was the passengers were never in any real physical danger.  But the psychological impact for all islanders even those who live away is real.   Grand Manan is lies in the middle of the Bay of Fundy, 32 kilometres away from the rest of New Brunswick.   The island is geographically large enough and the population such that most days there is little sense of isolation.  Yes, going anywhere else takes a bit more planning for islanders than for others but that’s how things are on an island. Mostly life on an island just fills you with a sense of community, resilience and self-reliance.

Most days you don’t think that one boat, one ocean-going vehicle – and not even a terribly large one as ships go -  is the only tie that binds you physically to the rest of the world.  And sometimes that tie doesn’t hold.   

We come from an island. We count on that boat.  That boat should not be on those rocks.  It’s a lot to absorb.

UPDATE: it's now being reported by some sources that the ship wasn't grounded but was wedged under the ramp.  Sure it will be some time before we know all the details.  In any case, the boat was not where it was supposed to be.

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