Nova Scotia

Nastier winter storms prompting more Marine Atlantic ferry cancellations

The turbulent waters of the Cabot Strait have not been kind to Marine Atlantic in recent years, especially during the winter months, as longer-lasting storms have kept ferries tied up and passengers stranded.

'Right now, we're seeing storm systems that might settle in for 2 and 3 days,' says spokesperson

A Marine Atlantic ferry docked in Port aux Basques, N.L., is barely visible through the weather conditions on Feb. 10, 2019. (Darren Dodge/Twitter)

Mother Nature has not been kind to Marine Atlantic and its passengers in recent years as a rash of stubborn storms has cancelled scores of ferry crossings and left behind angry travellers and weary truckers.

Marine Atlantic operates ferries between North Sydney, N.S., and Port aux Basques, N.L., and a second route that goes from North Sydney to Argentia, N.L.

In the last five years, the average number of cancelled crossing for Marine Atlantic has been about 175 per fiscal year. In 2018-2019, there were 204 cancellations.

Darrell Mercer, a spokesperson for Marine Atlantic, said the company is seeing stronger winds and more powerful weather systems.

"What may have been in the past a 24-hour storm system and we'd lose a couple of crossings, right now, we're seeing storm systems that might settle in for two and three days," he said.

Bad weather during the fall and winter months has kept Marine Atlantic ferries tied up more often in the past few years. (Marine Atlantic)

Most cancellations are happening from October to March, sparing Marine Atlantic's busy summer season.

CBC meteorologist Ryan Snoddon said the most frequent and strongest storms in Atlantic Canada happen from late fall to early spring.

"This is the time of year when the cold air is pushing southward into the region and clashing with the warm air, which is doing it's best to hang on along the Atlantic coastline and over the Gulf Stream offshore," he said.

"Where this cold and warm air are constantly doing battle is where we find the most active storm track. More often than not that track is somewhere here in the Atlantic Canada region, which is why on average we see our highest winds and also our heaviest precipitation totals during the months of November through April."

Climate experts say stronger storms are all a part of climate change.

In February 2018, cancelled ferry crossings led to lineups of transport trucks at the ferry terminal in North Sydney, N.S. (Yvonne Leblanc-Smith/CBC)

The CEO of the Canadian Ferry Association (CFA), Serge Buy, said ferry operations across the country have been hurt by climate change. The CFA represents ferry owners, operators and industry stakeholders.

"We're seeing changes and it's hard to prepare for and hard to predict," he said. "We do know that generally the weather is changing and we're just trying to make sure we plan our operations in order to make sure passengers are safe."

Buy said ferries on the Pacific coast have also been hit with stronger storms, and in Canada's North, waters are freezing later and thawing earlier, which means ferries have to alter their schedules to try and keep up.

Marine Atlantic's ferries have state-of-the-art bow thrusters and stabilizers to keep the vessels balanced and comfortable for passengers. However, Mercer said the technology can't keep the vessels from rocking when there are high waves and strong winds.

In the past, he said ferries would "jog the coast," meaning they would sail up and down the coast waiting for the weather to calm down so they could dock. That could transform an eight-hour crossing into a 16-hour or longer trek in rough seas.

Darrell Mercer is the spokesperson for Marine Atlantic. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

"People would be getting sick, we'd have damage to cargo on our passenger decks and then of course you're burning excess fuel, so from an environmental and cost perspective, it wasn't efficient," said Mercer.

Captains now look at the forecast, consult with each other and make the decision if they can dock on the other side. If it looks like they won't be able to get the ship into port, they don't sail.

"You look at the safety and you look at the passenger comfort, you look at the potential damage that could be created by making a crossing, our captains take all that into consideration," said Mercer.

Buy said there's no way around Mother Nature and ferry passengers need to accept that sometimes the weather is just too bad to sail. In some cases, cargo vessels that only have crew aboard can sail, but ferry services can't do that because they have to look after the safety and comfort of passengers.

Besides high winds and rough seas, ice can also hamper the ferry service. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

"We know the impact of the ferry not sailing, nobody is doing this just to have fun with people's schedules and people's lives," said Buy. "You know what, those guys have actually sailed thousands of times and people have been safe on those trips, maybe they know something about their business."

Mercer recommends people stay in touch with Marine Atlantic to get the latest information on crossings and cancellations.

"We know there is no perfect solution when we have a climate such as Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia," he said. "Atlantic Canada is known for challenging weather in the winter months and we're trying our best to serve our customers."

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