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Fooling us again?


In the past 10 years Marine Atlantic has been fooling us with its choice of ferries. And thus its service. They first fooled us with the Max Mols. The high-speed catamaran ferry was used on the gulf run in the summer of 2000. It was a dandy time saver with its 2.5 hour crossing. You could leave here 9 a.m., get the 3 p.m. boat and be well on the mainland by dusk.

In the past 10 years Marine Atlantic has been fooling us with its choice of ferries. And thus its service.

They first fooled us with the Max Mols. The high-speed catamaran ferry was used on the gulf run in the summer of 2000. It was a dandy time saver with its 2.5 hour crossing. You could leave here 9 a.m., get the 3 p.m. boat and be well on the mainland by dusk.

However, its high speed meant for a rough ride for all too many people, thus it was unkindly named the "Vomit Comet". As well, its use was restricted to smaller vehicles. On top of those shortfalls it was a fuel guzzler. But the Max's buffet proved that Marine Atlantic could serve good food at a decent price.

They fooled us again in 2001 by purchasing the second hand stubby ferry, the Leif Ericson that lacked sleepers for night crossings. They were fitted in afterwards in an awkward location. The Ericson's "one way only" access to and from vehicle decks means congestion, especially on exit. The Ericson's booze bar surrounded by some general seating is not a good mix. The best the Ericson has to offer is an attractive eating area.

In 2009 they fooled us one more tine with the lease of the Atlantic Vision. Unquestionably, it's the most beautiful ferry ever on the gulf. But it wasn't designed for here. High winds have kept it out of Port aux Basques all the while the Smallwood and the Caribou were able to come and go.

As well, the Vision has no sleepers. Its washrooms and seating areas are in short supply. The Vision's lack of seating means there is a big mixture of bar patrons and the general public. Changes presently under way are supposed to alleviate the shortage of seating and washrooms. And like the Ericson's, "one way only" access to the vehicles, there is congestion at exit times.

Should we now expect Marine Atlantic's two ferries it is leasing beginning in 2011 to be the real deal? Or are they fooling us again? The leases are not on the cheap. According to a Swedish newspaper (Ekonomi), it's a billion dollar deal over five years.

The MV Trader and the MV Traveller look like larger versions of offshore supply vessels, top heavy up front and open back areas. Presumably, some of that open space will disappear once the 40 feet or so is lopped off each ship so that they can be used here.

How will these ships hold up in the often stormy Cabot Strait? Were models of these ships tested at the Marine Institute's flume tank?

A big failure for Marine Atlantic in the past 10 years has been their lack of competence in finding ferries to match their star ships, the MV Caribou and MV Joseph and Clara Smallwood.

Both ferries have bunks and cabins, ample seating, huge tv areas, lots of windows and a separate bar area. Their cafeterias can easily double as seating areas. Congestion on these ferries is less of a problem because both have six accesses to the vehicle decks. The Smallwood outshines the Caribou with its large passenger lounge in the forward bow. If both of these ferries had the beauty and fuel efficiency of the Vision, plus better food service, we would be laughing all the way across the gulf.

But sadly Marine Atlantic is wont to make us cry. Cry for better customer service. Cry for better facilities. Cry for better ferries. Cry for better food. Cry for better fares.

The structure of the Caribou and the Smallwood allows passengers to walk all around the outside of the ship and stand at the bow and have that marvelous experience, seeing into the horizon. But the forthcoming Stena ferries seem to lack that outside access just like the other European boats (Max Mols, Ericson, Vision). It's a side view or looking backwards from their sterns.

And looking backwards seems to be the real problem at Marine Atlantic. It's doesn't seem to know where it is going. It has struck out three times with its choice of ferries. And in the eyes of small trucking firms and independent truckers it has struck out with its new commercial vehicle reservation system.

How do you fix Marine Atlantic?

For starters, move the headquarters to Port aux Basques from St. John's. Marine Atlantic needs hands-on, hard-nosed, management who can see the docks from the office window. Be there when things get off kilter. As well, they need to check out the best ferry systems in the world and mimic their successful ways here.

The Argentia run is a side show that takes away the focus of doing a better job at Port aux Basques. It should be dropped. And never mind the squeals from the Avalon. Port aux Basques being the closest ice free port to the mainland is the best sight for the ferry service. It just needs a heavy investment to make the whole of the port more accommodating for the ferries.

The gulf run is already costly. But the present 19.7 per cent fuel surcharge is driving up the price of goods and making travel prices, prohibitive. Will the new leases be factored into the fares and make the crossings even more expensive?

A top notched ferry service is just not to be desired. It's an absolute necessity in our economy for the movement of goods and the choice of travel for hundreds of thousands of travellers.

Finally, Marine Atlantic (the federal government) is to be commended for its sense of self-degrading humour. The Atlantic Vision comes ever so close to amply describing the ferry service the past 10 years.

No vision.

Andy Barker can be contacted at abdp9@hotmail.com.

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