It was a struggle but the 40 passenger bus managed to squeeze on to the Nimpkish last weekend

Nimpkish or bus(t)? Tales from an early morning sailing

With the rain falling in Bella Coola after weeks of record-breaking drought, the MV Nimpkish recently ran out of water.

  • Wed Jul 15th, 2015 5:00pm
  • News

With the rain falling in Bella Coola after weeks of record-breaking drought, the MV Nimpkish recently ran out of water.  Responding to a late Saturday phone call, this NEWS reporter arrived at the BC Ferries terminal at 6:30 a.m. Sunday to find Nimpkish crew members pouring water into their coffee makers – water they had boiled to sterilize – according to Nimpkish Captain Ramir Cloma.

What about the “potable” water installed along with free food on the little boat last year (on Transportation Minister Todd Stone’s instructions) to make the vessel more comfortable?

The crew hadn’t been allowed to fill up their water tanks in Bella Bella because of the water shortage there resulting from the dry summer.  Besides, the island is short of shipped-in water because their supply trucks are often “bumped” by BC Ferries.  While docked alongside, the resourceful crew had boarded the big ferry and picked up a supply of Dasani bottles to hand out to Nimpkish passengers on their 9-hour voyage to Bella Coola.

On arriving in Bella Coola, where the rain was softly falling, the crew found more bottles on the Townsite and stocked up for the 7 a.m. trip back to Bella Bella. They also sent a sample of Bella Coola water away for testing – as required by Health Canada.  Cloma expected to have the test results in three days, and if it tested clean, the Nimpkish could supply its “potable” water tanks in Bella Coola.  Meanwhile, passengers would continue to get their water in plastic bottles, and “out of service” signs would be fixed to the Nimpkish water taps.

In the Nimpkish wheelhouse, high above the car deck of the little boat, with the light welcome rain trickling down the window panes, and the glacier fed jade-green inlet placidly surrounding the little boat (dubbed the “MV Skimpish” by some), Yours Truly was struck, like the “Ancient Mariner” by the notion that there was “water, water everywhere”.  But on the Nimpkish, you had to get “potable” water from a 341 ml plastic bottle because the tap water might be hazardous.

Also noticeable were a few folks taking advantage of the dry benches in the newly-installed plexi-glass shelter at the top of the ferry ramp.  (It seems that convincing Tourism Minister Naomi Yamamoto 15 months before to help “mitigate” the damage created by throttling the Discovery Coast Circle Tour had not been entirely in vain.)

An amusing way to start your Sunday morning.

Disembarking sometime after the scheduled 7 a.m. departure time, I counted five standard vehicles flanking each side of the 16-vehicle vessel.  In the bow were two campers in the centre overheight lane.  A motorcycle crouched aft starboard.  A large space (nearly half of the boat’s 110-foot length) stood vacant in the overheight  centre lane behind the campers.

Up on the dock, I watched, along with the Nimpkish passengers, as a 40-foot tour bus slowly inched backward down the ramp and onto the Nimpkish car deck.  The driver of the forward camper was asked pull ahead, beyond the yellow stop line and right up to the chain separating the deck from the sea below.  The second camper pulled ahead and the bus slowly backed onto the deck.  Then, a muffled screech and spinning rear wheels.  The bus’s undercarriage had hung up because of the sharp angle between the ramp and the deck.   In forward gear, the wheels continued spinning.

A crew member, shouted up to me (over the roar of the Nimpkish engines):  “We weren’t supposed to get these big buses this year.”   (This had happened last year, the first year of the Nimpkish doing the “connector” run between Bella Bella and Bella Coola.)  I shouted back across the 15 meters of open water between us: “So why is it happening this year?”  His shouted reply:  “Reservations, probably – Who knows?”  Captain Cloma later said by phone:  “Those big buses are meant to go on big ships.”

Cloma went on to say that the 2013 decision to replace the 115-vehicle Queen of Chilliwack with the tiny Nimpkish was “a surprise to all of us”, that it was made by “higher-ups”, and “hopefully they are recognizing” the decision was flawed.  However, he said, “I have to reserve my comments to the operations.”  He suggested that the Chilliwack (now up for sale) could have been rescheduled to phase in her retirement.

Down at the rainy Sunday morning loading, the crew of six scrambled around the bus, blocking its wheels, and talked of running a strap from the bus to the camper ahead to give the bus a tow, yanking it down onto the car deck.  For whatever reason, this idea was abandoned.  Someone suggested finding a Bella Coola tow truck to try pulling the bus back up the ramp.  Someone countered that they would be hard-pressed to find a tow truck big enough to handle that task.

Someone took off for the Townsite to get a hydraulic jack to raise the driving wheels on the bus in order to block it up and provide traction on the rain-wet deck.

Over the roar of the Nimpkish engines, the tour bus driver shouted to me: “Fun and games.”  He’d heard from last year’s driver that the tide had been higher on that sailing, so the bus had been easier to dislodge.  High tide today was four hours away, and waiting would make them too late for the Bella Bella connection.  The friendly crew member shouted again:  “You can control these buses.  But you can’t control the tide.”

I learn that the 45 passengers have 90 minutes between arrival in Bella Bella and departure on the big ferry to Port Hardy.

Shouting back I ask:  “Have you been to the washroom yet?”  A lady shouts back: “Are they even legal?” (The three washrooms are not wheelchair accessible and anyone with mobility issues would have difficulty using them.)

The tour guide shouts:  “We might have to stay over in Bella Bella.”  I shout back: “There’s nowhere to stay over.”  She shouts, “Maybe we can billet.”  (I don’t have the heart to tell her about the water taxi and hotel at Shearwater.)

A young man claiming to be a “ferry geek” shouts out that he has sailed on every route and on every vessel in the entire BC Ferries fleet.  Then he shouts to all:  “We have Todd Stone to thank for this.”  Some passengers indicate their agreement.

8:16 a.m. (14 minutes shy of the 90-minute Bella Bella transfer window):  The bus begins to roll slowly backwards onto the deck.  The jacking has worked.  A cheer drowns out the roar of the Nimpkish engines.

8:26 (with four minutes’ “spare” time remaining in the window of a 9-hour cruise affected by wind, tide, and other variables, the ramp comes up and the little boat chugs out onto the cloud-draped waters of North Bentinck Arm – churning the calm jade-green into a white wake as fast as it can, heading out to Labouchere and right, up to Dean Channel, then left,  and southwest out the fjord toward Bella Bella where, too, the relieving rain will be falling at last after so many hot, dry weeks.

Once back in cell phone range near Shearwater, the “ferry geek” phones me to say they are going to make it because they have bypassed Ocean Falls, saving enough time to ensure a timely arrival in Bella Bella.

Ocean Falls resident Sharron Cartier, who serves on the Ferry Advisory Committee for the region, says the Nimpkish radioed that they weren’t coming in, a frequent practice in bad winter weather when no one is booked in or out of Ocean Falls.  Otherwise, the BC Ferries/Government contract requires them to stop in there.  Says Cartier:  “It made sense.  I’m not sure why they were coming in here anyway.   I think they should do that more often as it would save time and money.  It (the bypass) didn’t affect us at all,” she says.

That early Sunday morning, driving slowly home, with the clouds beginning to break and a hint of the sun piercing through, I think again of the “water, water everywhere” and the Ancient Mariner, and wonder:  “If I were Gustave Dore illustrating the famous poem, and the Nimpkish were an albatross, from whose neck would I picture the great bird hanging?”