STRAIT OF BELLE ISLE, NL – Dwight Bilodeau missed the opportunity to say goodbye to his father and he’s blaming the transportation service across the Strait of Belle Isle.
Bilodeau’s father Thomas (Tom) passed away in Old Fort Bay, on the Quebec Lower North Shore, on Feb. 19.
His funeral was on Feb. 21, but Bilodeau, his brother and daughter didn’t get there – they were stuck on the island and unable to cross the Strait of Belle Isle due to delays with the MV Apollo.
Now Bilodeau is saying improvements are needed to help people in these situations.
At 5:30 a.m. on Feb 19, he left Woody Point and drove to St. Barbe to ensure he had time to catch his 10:30 a.m. ferry reservation. That morning, his daughter also left from Corner Brook and his brother from Deer Lake. They all had plans to catch the ferry in hopes of saying goodbye to their ill father/grandfather.
But the ferry didn’t cross that morning. They waited until noon for an update and then were told to wait until 4 p.m.
During that time, Tom passed away.
Bilodeau acknowledges they wouldn’t have gotten across in time to be with him when he passed had the ferry crossed, but they would have been there for his funeral.
The three decided to stay overnight at the Dockside Hotel and cross the next day to join the rest of the family in funeral preparations.
In hindsight, Bilodeau says had they known the ferry would not go the next day, they would have checked flight options.
On Feb. 20, the ferry sat idle offshore.
An icebreaker, the CCGS Henry Larsen, was in the area but Bilodeau says they were told even if an icebreaker cleared a path, the ferry could have trouble with ice near the shore.
According to Trevor Hodgson, icebreaking superintendent for Canadian Coast Guard Atlantic Region, the Larsen could not accompany the Apollo to dock that day.
“Unfortunately, even though the CCGS Henry Larsen is quite a capable icebreaker, not all vessels are suitable to be escorted through the ice in all conditions,” Hodgson stated in an email to Bilodeau, subsequently attained by the Northern Pen.
“The current conditions on the St. Barbe side of the straits include not only some ice pressure, but also a lot of ridging from previous storms that have blown through. This has created conditions where it is not practical to escort the M/V Apollo and there is a high risk that if passengers were boarded, they would likely be stranded on the ferry in the ice for extended periods of time.”
The family was desperate and even looked into whether a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) helicopter could possibly bring them across. But Bilodeau says they were told DFO could not accommodate them as it would interfere with local business.
They also tried to get a private charter but had no luck.
Bilodeau says if he were alone, he would have even considered walking across, forcing a rescue situation.
“If it were me, myself, I would have actually put on a survival suit and attempted to walk across, just to bring attention to the issue,” he said. “Then Search and Rescue would have had to come and bring me across to the other side.”
But that evening the three of them travelled back down the Northern Peninsula coast, knowing they would not get across in time for the funeral on Feb. 21.
On the day of the funeral, and in similar conditions according to Bilodeau, the ferry crossed.
That crossing would have been too late for them to make it to Old Fort Bay, but he feels it demonstrates that the ferry could have crossed the previous day as well.
“From what I see online, the ferry actually crossed this morning and the ice conditions were exactly the same as yesterday,” he told the Northern Pen on Feb. 21. “I got the feeling they were doing it just to save money and making a crossing every couple of days.”
In the event the ferry cannot cross, Bilodeau believes there should be a back-up plan to let people travel in the event of a personal emergency.
He worries there have been and will be people in even more desperate situations and hopes more people speak out on the matter.
“That’s the only way change for the better will happen and change is certainly needed,” he said.
Other than an emergency back-up plan, Bilodeau believes there are two other ways to resolve the transportation issue. He suggests either a ferry capable of travel in the straits’ winter conditions or a tunnel linking Labrador and the island.
A tunnel, in particular, would solve all the problems, he said.