Marine Atlantic vessels finally arrive after being stuck in ice off Cape Breton

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This photo, taken by MV Highlanders passenger Cara-Leigh Wyllie of Corner Brook, shows the expanse of ice off the bow of the Marine Atlantic ferry on April 2 as it attempted to make the crossing to Port aux Basques from North Sydney, N.S.

By Chris Quigley

and Cory Hurley

Star Staff Writers

And Greg McNeil

TC Media

As the hours passed by, with no end in sight, not even those travelling with a cheerleading team could stay positive.

“The whole time, everybody was just left wondering,” said Carrie Dennis, who had accompanied her 12-year-old daughter Olivia to a cheerleading expo in Halifax.

Olivia is a member of the Corner Brook Gems, which falls under the umbrella of Saltos Gymnastics. Roughly half the team flew home Sunday night, but the other half opted to try their luck on the water. What followed was a hellish 24-plus hour crossing.

“(Marine Atlantic staff) weren’t very informative,” said Dennis, finally home and in her pajamas on Thursday night.

“I think they could have accommodated their passengers a little better than they did.”

Following the competition over the weekend, the local group — including eight cheerleaders and two coaches, along with parents and siblings — were supposed to depart Sunday night but, because of the recent spring storm, their crossing kept getting cancelled. They were forced to stay three nights at the North Star Inn in North Sydney, absorbing the extra costs that went with it, before finally getting word they could depart 11:45 Wednesday morning. After digging vehicles out of the hotel parking lot and making it to the Marine Atlantic terminal around 9:30 a.m. — the recommended two hours before departure — they had another wait as transport truck drivers, lined up in the parking lot since Saturday, dug themselves out,  “with no assistance from Marine Atlantic,” said Dennis. The MV Highlanders didn’t begin to move until 5 p.m.

A little more than an hour later, it was stuck in ice.

Cara-Leigh Wyllie was part of the same group, along with her 10-year-old daughter Jenna and her mother Carolyn. At first, the experience was something of a curiosity.

“We went up to the front of the boat, the girls were amazed, everybody was taking pictures,” said Wyllie. “It was just once we realized we weren’t going anywhere, that’s when frustration set in.”

Dennis, on the other hand, never saw the attraction in the first place.

“It was one big crunch going through, it was scary,” said Dennis. “You’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, is this thing going to sink?’”

The group was only prepared for a day crossing and lacked the essentials that the unexpected over-nighter would call for. They were also bumped out of their cabins, relinquishing them to passengers from earlier cancelled crossings, so they spent the entire night either in chairs or on the floor.

“We were on the boat for 26 hours before we were offered anything, not so much as a bottle of water,” Dennis said. “It was really cold ... I asked one of the officers on the boat if we could get some blankets for the kids and he said, ‘No, we don’t have any.’ It was frustrating.”

She said her daughter Olivia spent the night on the floor, wrapped up in a small blanket they had brought with them, with a winter coat over that and her hood up. According to the Marine Atlantic Twitter account, @MAferries, extra blankets did not return from the cleaners prior to the vessel departing port due to the storm.

At one point during the night, it was announced an icebreaker would be arriving to help out by midnight. Some passengers, Dennis said, went to bed believing the situation was about to be remedied. The icebreaker — which was apparently the MV Atlantic Vision, Dennis said — never arrived.

“When everybody woke up, they were thinking we had already crossed,” she said. “But what the boat was doing was just backing up and going forward all night, trying to wiggle out.

“Once we were out there and stuck out there, we kind of felt like they knew what the conditions were going to be,” she added. “A lot of people questioned why they even took us out there in the first place.”

Eventually the Highlanders did break free, which actually produced a few other problems.

“We went into really high seas, so people started getting sick on the boat,” Dennis said. “You had people throwing up everywhere.”

To add more stress to the scenario, no one in the group was able to fuel up that morning in North Sydney, because the gas station was closed. Not knowing when they would arrive in Port aux Basques, but realizing it would be after midnight, nobody knew how they’d manage to get gas to make it back to Corner Brook.

Wyllie said a truck driver overheard their dilemma and called his sister, who owns a gas station in Doyles. The woman said she was willing to meet the group at her gas station anytime, whether it was 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, to let them fill up. Ultimately, it never came to that, as the Highlanders didn’t dock in Port aux Basques until 2 p.m. Thursday.

Marine Atlantic said in a press release that the vessel would be unloaded and prepared for a 6:30 p.m. departure to North Sydney.

With ice-breaking assistance from the MV Atlantic Vision, the MV Blue Puttees arrived in North Sydney at around 4:30 p.m.

The Blue Puttees was heading to North Sydney with about 350 passengers and crew on board, while the Highlanders had about 450 passengers and crew when they became stuck.

“We were concerned about the northeasterly wind when we were mentioning this a few weeks ago, and of course we had that big nor’easter that moved in a few days ago, and that pushed the ice into Sydney harbour,” said Marine Atlantic spokesman Darrell Mercer.

“At some places the ice thickness is up to eight feet, so trying to get through that is pretty challenging.”

Passengers on the ferries were difficult to reach by telephone but some did take to social media to discuss their experiences.

Adam Penney, a photographer and videographer from Newfoundland, tweeted a photo from the Blue Puttees at 10:30 a.m. Thursday with the caption “22 hours on the ferry and we are still stuck. Keeping in good spirits though!”

Mercer said there were a few complaints among passengers who were mistakenly asked to pay for food during the delays, but that mistake was corrected.

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Henry Larson was expected to arrive in the area at 8:30 p.m. to provide icebreaking services through the next couple of days. Paul Veber, supervisor of ice operations for the Canadian Coast Guard, said it will be at least Saturday before there is any relief in the ice conditions in the area, so the ship will continue patrols to provide assistance as required by Marine Atlantic and other vessels.

Customers travelling with Marine Atlantic over the next 48 hours may be impacted by schedule adjustments resulting from these severe ice conditions and can obtain the latest sailing information on Marine Atlantic’s website, www.marineatlantic.ca or by calling 1-800-341-7981.

As for both Dennis and Wyllie, neither will likely be on the water in the winter anymore.

“Definitely not,” said Wyllie. “I’m definitely flying next time.”

Dennis echoed that statement, before announcing her plans for the rest of Thursday evening

“I’m going right to bed,” she said.

cquigley@thewesternstar.com

Twitter: WS_CCQ

churley@thewesternstar.com

Twitter: WS_CoryHurley

The Cape Breton Post

Organizations: Marine Atlantic, North Star Inn, Canadian Coast Guard MV Atlantic Vision

Geographic location: North Sydney, Cape Breton, Halifax Port aux Basques Doyles North Sydney.With Sydney Newfoundland

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