The view from the deck of the Nimpkish during her last sailing into Bella Coola (Bobby Sherlock photo)

‘Scariest boat ride of my life’: Passengers trapped by ice on rocky Nimpkish ferry sailing

The ferry docked in Bella Coola on Jan.12 coated in a thick layer of ice

Passengers aboard the MV Nimpkish got more than they bargained for on the little ferry’s journey from Bella Bella into Bella Coola on Sunday, Jan. 12.

The ferry, which is the smallest in BC Ferries fleet, made a very late and very cold entrance into the Bella Coola harbour – five hours behind schedule and coated in a thick layer of ice.

Bobby Sherlock and his wife, Jen Thorpe, got on the vessel in Bella Bella in a snowstorm at 3 a.m.. They said challenges were apparent from the get go.

“Three vehicles slid down the ramp when we were loading,” said Thorpe. “It was dark and snowing heavily. If we’d had an option we would have stayed put, but there is really nowhere to stay in Bella Bella, especially at that time of night.”

Sherlock, an experienced mariner who ran a sailing tour company on B.C.’s west coast, said conditions got progressively worse as the sailing went on.

“Once we left Ocean Falls and headed into the Dean Channel, the weather got really bad,” he said. “I would estimate the wind was blowing 40 or 50 knots, and the whitecaps were up five or six feet high.”

The couple waited it out in their car with their dog, Cutie, but many passengers were trapped in the lounge for hours as the doors to the outer decks were frozen shut and the weather was simply too bad to take the stairs back down to the car deck.

“People could not get to the washrooms. The boat ran out of water because the lines froze,” said Thorpe. “No one could walk on the car deck because it was covered in a layer of ice.”

Denise Wilson and Bobbie Johnson were two of eight walk-on passengers stuck in the lounge areas while the doors were frozen shut.

“I’ve gone back and forth numerous times on that ferry and I’ve never experienced anything like that,” said Wilson. “It was like a nightmare.”

They spent the journey caring for numerous elders on board, many of whom were distressed over the conditions. It was dark for a good portion of the journey, and the boat was rocking heavily in the waves.

“At one point, I had to help my dad out on the deck and there was about four inches of slushy ice water,” Wilson recalled. “Then a wave came up over the bow and completely soaked him. It took hours for him to warm up.”

RELATED: Sheet of ice covers BC Ferries boat during stormy weekend sail

Johnson said she’s in no rush to go back.

“My community is blown away and upset,” she said. “That was the scariest boat ride of my life.”

Only three vehicles were onboard, one of which was a school bus that boarded in Ocean Falls, and they were all parked at the back of the boat to avoid the spray at the front. Sherlock said he was thankful the boat wasn’t full.

“With that amount of ice buildup, I’m just glad it wasn’t fully weighted down,” said Sherlock.

Both Sherlock and Thorpe were grateful to the crew for getting them in safely, but they have questions for BC Ferries.

“If anything had happened, there’s no way it would have been okay,” said Thorpe. “I don’t understand how anyone could access and deploy an emergency boat quickly when it’s covered in an inch of ice.”

Said Johnson: “The crew said they’d seen worse, but it didn’t seem right to me to be traveling in all that ice.”

In an email to Coast Mountain News, Deborah Marshall, the executive director of public affairs at BC Ferries, said safety was never compromised during the trip.

“The conditions were fine prior to the last leg into Bella Coola,” said Marshall. “On the last leg, the vessel was headed directly up the inlet and straight into the wind, which generated sea spray for several hours.” She said the crew wasn’t aware of what the conditions would be like until they got into Fitz Hughes sound and up towards Bella Coola.

Wilson disagreed. “The boat was rocking hard the entire time,” she said. “If there’s bad weather anticipated on other routes, sailings are delayed or cancelled. I feel like they shouldn’t have sailed.”

The Nimpkish has been criticized in the past for not being suitable for the route, and was only brought into service again as the Northern Sea Wolf underwent repairs.

As for Sherlock and Thorpe, they were planning to take the ferry back, but have now decided to drive.

“At no point did I feel like I was even on a ferry. It felt like a cargo ship,” said Thorpe. “I’m not doing that again.”

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The deck and exterior of the ferry was encased in ice (Bobby Sherlock photo)

Crews work to free the ropes upon arrival (Les Marston photo)

Sherlock and Thorpe’s dog, Cutie, watches from the deck (Bobby Sherlock photo)

Sea spray in the inlet covered the vessel (Bobby Sherlock photo)

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