The maiden voyage of the summer BC Ferries “Connector” service between Bella Coola and Bella Bella launches at high noon, June 18 at the Bella Coola Harbour, featuring an improved MV Nimpkish, the smallest, slowest vessel in the fleet plying the third longest route.
After her winter work serving mid-coast communities and a lengthy maintenance clinic this spring in the Lower Mainland, the little boat is dutifully back on the Central Coast all geared up and ready to do its job getting passengers and vehicles to and from Bella Coola, Ocean Falls, Shearwater, and Bella Bella, where it connects with the route of the big ferries between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert.
Last year, the “Connector” service replaced one that sailed twice a week directly between Port Hardy and Bella Coola, an 11-hour sailing that brought thousands of tourists traveling the “Discovery Coast Circle Route” since the service was instated in 1996. That service involved the 115-vehicle Queen of Chilliwack, taken out of service last summer as a cost-cutting measure. In those summers, the Chilliwack also made four trips a week that took in Outer Coast ports on trips lasting 22-33 hours. Only one sailing, entirely during daylight hours, was very popular with tourists.
This is the second summer that the16-vehicle Nimpkish has been deployed as a replacement for the Chilliwack – now up for sale. Following a tsunami of passenger complaints about the trip on the inadequate little vessel – ranging from the quality of the complimentary food, to the uncomfortable seating on a nine-hour-plus voyage, to the constant roar of the engines, to the inaccessibility of the two washrooms a deck below the passenger area – the BC government has done little or nothing toward restoring an adequate service.
Nonetheless, the crew is proud of the changes on board since last year’s experience. Topping the list is a third washroom, this one with a gel dispenser instead of a sink. Although not accessible to wheelchairs, hand bars and crew assistance make it more accessible for those with mobility challenges.
Another major improvement makes the second lounge (port side) more useful: A lack of ventilation in the past resulted in heavy condensation, especially in cool, damp weather. Installing an extractor fan and replacing the carpets make the lounge more usable, and a hot and cold water dispenser eliminates the problem of disposing of plastic water bottles. In both port and starboard lounges, lights can now be dimmed, and the starboard “Servery”, where complimentary food is available, is better lit and a microwave oven is now available.
The crew appears proudest of improvements to the outdoor areas. Life rafts have been relocated so that passengers can use the upper outer decks fore and aft (smokers aft), with the outdoor viewing lounges providing excellent views of the car deck operations and passing scenery – often dolphins and other marine life alongside.
Finally, a bus-stop-type shelter has been erected at the top of the ferry ramp at the Government Wharf. This long-awaited development follows an offer from the BC Tourism Minister on a tour of the Nimpkish more than a year ago. Although the shelter will not be lighted, BC Ferries plans to monitor the ambient lighting with a view to lighting the shelter next winter.
In response to the effort by Ferries (and government) to increase comfort on the little vessel – dubbed by critics of the government cutbacks to be “a little tub”, “a barge”, the “MV Skimpkish”, and “a toy in a fjord” – local tourism promoters continue to be astounded by the decision – a chokehold on the marine link in the Circle Route. (Only a few spots remain for small vehicles on the 44 “Connector” sailings scheduled this summer – 24 eastbound and 20 westbound – with virtually no room for RVs or campers.)
Doug Baker, President of Bella Coola Valley Tourism, says: “The way things were, in reality, was great. The crew was great. The scenery was great. The Chilliwack was able to handle the demand. Clearly, the tourism industry in the region can accommodate much more than the Nimpkish can deliver.”
Petrus Rykes, President of the West Chilcotin Tourism Association and Chair of the “Save the Discovery Coast Ferry” campaign says he is no longer angry. However, the decision which “crippled” the Circle Route still amazes him. “We could have a winning combination, here. The crew is phenomenal.” (Ferry passengers last summer resoundingly applauded the crew, some suggesting the crew were embarrassed but went the extra mile to “make the best of a bad situation”.)
Simply put, says Rykes, “What we need is a bigger boat, with better amenities for such a long trip, sailing on a sensible schedule through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.”
Baker and Rykes agree that the Nimpkish is a fine little vessel and would be suitable for short sailings, but it is not the vessel for the task it has been given.
Bella Coola Valley Tourism is working with other organizations and agencies to get the marine link in the Circle Route restored to a level that would support the regional tourist industry.