An Armchair Explorers Guide to the British Columbia Ferry Northern Expedition

by John MacFarlane 2017

Northern Expedition

The Northern Expedition at McLachlan Bay (Bella Bella BC). (Photo from the Orval Bouchard Collection collection.)

The pride of the British Columbia Ferries must be the Northern Expedition operating on the northern routes. In July 2017 I had the delightful experience of a vacation trip north to Prince Rupert. I have made this voyage several times before in other vessels but this one was the most enjoyable and most impressive ever.

Northern Expedition

The builder’s plate. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

The Northern Expedition was built by Flensburger Schiffbau–Gesellschaft in Germany. (The vessel’s keel was actually laid down in June 2008, and delivery was in March 2009 and public service started in May 2009. She is a handsome vessel, a cross between a cruise ship and a passenger car ferry. The big difference for those of us used to travelling on the BC Ferries southern routes is that the trip takes much longer. (the trip takes 16 hours in the summer with one stop, either at Bella Bella or at Klemtu. It takes 22 hours in the winter with 2 stops.) During this time passengers likely eat three meals on board and have the time to relax and enjoy the spectacular scenery along the way.

Northern Expedition

The Northern Expedition at Port Hardy waiting to load. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

The southern terminus is located at Port Hardy. It’s an early morning departure to Prince Rupert. The vessel lifts the bow to reveal a passenger and vehicle access that is different again from the designs of vessels on the southern coast.

Northern Expedition

The Purser’s Office is where staterooms are assigned, and special requirements are accommodated. The staff are friendly, professional and empowered to handle any situation that might arise. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

The Northern Expedition has 55 staterooms and accommodates 600 passengers and crew and 130 vehicles. Boarding for those who have reserved a stateroom is much like embarking on a cruise ship. Professional staff handle the sudden influx of customers with practiced ease and I observed a very high level of morale in the crew.

Chief Steward Carlos Verissimo

Chief Steward Carlos Verissimo actively engaging passengers. (Photo from the Lynn Salmon collection.)

Northern Expedition deck view

The upper deck of the Northern Expedition allows lots of easy outside access. This provides a marvellous platform for photography. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Northern Expedition

The impressive 180 degree bow view from the premium passenger lounge. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

All of the passenger areas are comfortable – whether inside or outside. There is a range of dining choices from the informal that is experienced on most ferries to a dining room that resembled a fine restaurant.

Northern Expedition

Captain Orval Bouchard (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Captain Orval Bouchard is the Senior Captain of the Northern Expedition. His youthful appearance belies the three decades of service and experience he brings to the job. He started his career in the Royal Canadian Navy as a Naval Weapons Technician in 1981 but quickly realized that his future lay in another direction. He went back to school for a deck officer’s professional qualification and served in merchant vessels on Canada’s east coast and around the world. His merchant service experience outside BC Ferries is mainly passenger ships (pocket cruise ships and major cruise ships). Once he had experience of the west coast he has remained here ever since.

Captain Bouchard has been a driver for ever higher standards of performance on the bridge and throughout every department of the Northern Expedition. He worked with a motivated team of other Masters and Mates and the management of BC Ferries and together they have introduced a Bridge Resource Management System. The bridge is highly fitted with electronic aids and monitoring systems.

For explanation to readers who are not familiar with these advancements a Bridge Resource Management (BRM) is a working protocol, equivalent to the ‘Cockpit Resource Management (CRM)’ in the aviation industry. The protocol consists of specific Bridge procedures that optimize all Bridge resources, (i.e. the Bridge Team (Officers, Quarter Master, Look Out, Captain), navigation equipment, check lists, communication protocol, etc.). Closed Loop Communication is a communication protocol which is part of the BRM system. The Nav / Co–Nav System is also part of the BRM system. It is a protocol that utilizes the ‘double checking AND confirmation’ process to the maximum, similar to what pilots and co–pilots do in the aviation industry. We employ a Bridge Electronic Log Book (BELOG) which is an electronic means of event recording. It replaces the traditionally–used paper log. The first ones were installed last year on the Northern Expedition and the Coastal Celebration. A plan is being worked out to install it on all BC Ferries by 2021.

Northern Expedition

The bridge (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

The bridge is the command centre of any modern vessel but the atmosphere in this ship is different from what I have experienced on other similar vessels. My impression was that the procedures and behaviour of the officers on watch was similar to a naval vessel. All communication between the officers was very formal and highly focused. A typical watch consists of an Officer of the Watch, a Junior Officer of the Watch, a lookout and a Quarter Master. In areas of restricted navigation additional lookouts were closed up for duty. The Captain is also usually present on the bridge and handles the ship during berthing.

Northern Expedition

Third Officer Dave Jenks (left) and Second Officer Blake Brunel (right) in the ergonomically set up watchkeeping positions. As comfortable as they appear I observed that they spent much of their watch on their feet proactively observing the coast and traffic in the path of the vessel. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

They employ a system of ‘closed loop communications’ and utilize a formal bridge protocol which is taken very seriously. The officers are obviously highly trained. BC Ferries has its own simulators on which they gain their initial experience with the ship. All have extensive experience in their positions in this and other vessels. They all display a pride in their operation as well as in their ship and this is obviously communicated down through very member of the crew.

Northern Expedition

Captain Bouchard monitoring ship system consoles on the bridge. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Great strides of progress have been recently made in command and control systems on ship bridges and engine rooms. Besides giving real time data on ship operation and performance it also offers unparalleled ability of the Captain and the Chief Engineer to operate the ship directly. In fact the engines can, if need be, operated from the bridge. All the operations are logged electronically and now form a permanent record of every action during the voyage.

Northern Expedition

The Engineering Department of the Northern Expedition. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Behind secure access and hidden from all bu the crew are the engineering spaces of the Northern Expedition. Hot and noisy these are where the ship's engines are located, and where the electricity is generated, air conditions, water provided and waste systems operated. If the bridge is a ship's brains then the engine room is the heart, lungs and vital organs of the ship.

Northern Expedition

Walter Ossip, one of the ship’s engineer officers. The control console allows the engineer on watch to monitor every aspect of the machinery and it gives alarms at the first hint of trouble whether mechanical, electrical or emergency. This space is sound-proofed against the machinery noise.(Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Marine Engineer Andy Martin

Marine Engineer Andy Martin justifiably proud of the engineering and machinery spaces. (Photo from the Lynn Salmon collection.)

We had an opportunity to view the engineroom spaces close up. Andy Martin, the Engineer on Watch, gave us a cook’s tour.

Northern Expedition

The main engines are kept in immaculate condition. The engineroom, while very noisy and warm, is a cheerful, spacious and well organized space. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Andy Martin noted (with pride) that they have very few equipment–caused delays in the ship as they have an aggressive planned maintenance program that keeps ahead of these potential problems. He noted that they have on board capability to deal with issues as significant as replacing a shaft bearing.

Northern Expedition

The well appointed machine shop allows for on the spot repairs. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Northern Expedition

One of the main shafts and its bearing. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Northern Expedition

Captain Orval Bouchard on one of the wings of the bridge using the controls of the thruster. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Captain Bouchard makes good use of the thrusters to ease into the low float at Bella Bella. Cars and passengers embark and disembark here at a small ferry terminal in a very constricted location.

Northern Expedition

The Northern Expedition manoeuvring at McLachlan Bay (Bella Bella). (Photo from the Susan Roberts collection (by permission through Captain Bouchard).)

No wake, no bump, no fuss – the Northern Expedition comes alongside the float (which is almost at water level.

Northern Expedition scenery

Exceptional coastal scenery (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

When the weather cooperates (the sun doesn’t always) the scenery is unrivalled anywhere in the world. Regular announcements warn passengers of significant attractions ahead in plenty of time for them to position for photography. A short diversion to the old Butedale Cannery townsite is an added attraction. A narrative is sometimes broadcast that provides an interpretive insight into the history of the coast. There are a number of light stations that are passed in close proximity - and marine wildlife often seems to turn up as well as unanticipated attractions. I particularly enjoyed the marine traffic (and there was quite a bit) that we passed allowing good photographic opportunities.

Northern Expedition

BC Ferries House Flag (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

I have always been proud of our ferry system, but the refreshing commitment to excellence I observed in Captain Bouchard and his crew was very heartening. It reminded me of the heady days in the 1960s when the system was new and establishing itself but with an added heightened air of professionalism. We are being well served by this ship.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2017) An Armchair Explorers Guide to the British Columbia Ferry Northern Expedition. 2017.

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