The MV Queen of Chilliwack, which plied the waters of BC’s Central Coast for 18 summers, is soon heading into the sunset on a voyage to the South Sea paradise of Fiji.
The vessel was sold recently by BC Ferries for an undisclosed amount to Goundar Shipping Ltd., bringing the Goundar fleet to three vessels – two of them former BC Ferries vessels. The Queen of Prince Rupert was sold to Goundar in 2011 after a career as the main link between Haida Gwaii and the mainland between 1965 and 2009. That vessel was replaced by the Northern Expedition.
The Queen of Chilliwack, a 115-vehicle vessel built in Norway in 1979, was bought by BC Ferries in 1991 for $10.85 million and began its West Coast service in the southern Gulf Islands and the Sunshine Coast before taking on the summer service on the Discovery Coast Passage Route #40 in 1996. This route twice weekly made direct sailings between Port Hardy and Bella Coola and four times weekly included Outer Coast stops at Bella Bella, Shearwater, Ocean Falls, and sometimes Klemtu.
While the direct sailings made the journey in 12-13 hours, those serving the other ports ranged from 22 – 33 hours long. Only one of the sailings (which made the trip entirely in the daylight) was well utilized, prompting BC Ferries to recommend cancelling the route as a cost-saving measure in 2013 – a recommendation implemented by the BC government without conducting a socio-economic study of the effect such a move might have on the region.
In the meantime, throughout the 18 seasons of Route #40, a fledgling tourism industry had been developing in the Bella Coola Valley and along the Highway 20 corridor, largely based on the promise of the “Discovery Coast Circle Tour” that would lure travelers into the region, bolstering an economy that was flagging with the decline in resource-extraction industries such as forestry and fishing. Conservative estimates of direct loss to the regional economy range from $10 million annually.
Replacement of the Queen of Chilliwack with the 16-vehicle MV Nimpkish which requires a transfer at Bella Bella resulted in harsh criticism from local communities because the smaller vessel is incapable of handling the demand and lacks the amenities expected by many international tourists wishing to include a voyage into the Great Bear Rainforest as part of their Canadian eco-adventure.
The government and BC Ferries are engaged in plans to replace the Nimpkish – due for a 2018 retirement – with a more suitable vessel, and the tourism industry hopes the scheduling will involve direct sailings connecting Highway 19 at Port Hardy with Highway 20 at Bella Coola in order to revive the Circle Tour.
As for the sale of the Chilliwack, owner George Goundar is pleased with the company’s latest acquisition which makes his firm Fiji’s largest passenger cargo inter-island ferry operator – a feat accomplished in only four years since the establishment of Goundar.
However, at 36 years old, the Chilliwack may not go into service in Fiji immediately because foreign vessels more than 20 years old cannot be registered under Fijian law. Goundar is asking for a legal amendment to allow for registration.
In the meantime, Goundar says Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama visited the Queen of Chilliwack in Canada last month, and “The PM was very impressed with the vessel’s state-of-the-art facilities and high standard condition.” He says that BC Ferries had spent more than $28 million on upgrades and maintenance of the Chilliwack just two years ago. This figure far exceeds the $15 million commonly understood to be the cost of the recent refitting. Goundar also said negotiations between his firm and BC Ferries had begun two years ago (before the cancellation of Route #40).
BC Ferries and the government have drawn criticism over refusal to reveal the sale price of the vessel – especially in view of the recent refitting costs which involved water-proofing doors, improved lifesaving equipment, and upgrading electrical systems. NDP Opposition Leader John Horgan says “the public has the right to know” the amount received in the deal.
Horgan says the Discovery Coast ferry route is “the envy of North America” and it is now being handled by “a barge – not the newly refitted Queen of Chilliwack because it’s going offshore for a price that we don’t know.”
“People should be outraged,” Horgan says.
It is understood that BC Ferries has not revealed the price because negotiations are under way to sell two more vessels, and revealing the price received for the Chilliwack could undermine the prices on those future deals.
The Queen of Chilliwack is scheduled to sail for Fiji on a 17-day voyage by October 14.