The sole ferry service responsible for transporting travellers between Nova Scotia and eastern Prince Edward Island has been no stranger to challenges over the past year.
In 2022, a fire broke out on Northumberland Ferries Limited’s MV Holiday Island vessel and put the ship out of service permanently. It was replaced by the MV Confederation, a 30-year-old vessel that’s now been pulled offline twice since mid-June due to “mechanical issues.”
The ferry has postponed operations while the company awaits the arrival of parts expected to resolve the vessel’s issues, meaning tourist traffic continues to routinely pause for communities on both sides of the Northumberland Strait.
Trish Carter, owner of the Galla Designs in Wood Islands, P.E.I., a gift shop located about five minutes from the ferry terminal, said the summer season “certainly hasn’t been fun” so far.
“Since the ferry (closed) it has been absolutely dead, stressful, and frustrating,” she said, noting that about 80 per cent of her summertime business comes from tourists travelling to and from the province via the Northumberland ferry.
In a release from the company on Thursday, it was said that the parts necessary to repair the technical problems were expected to arrive on Saturday, followed by an “expedited repair” that should see the MV Confederation back in service next week.
Carter said the entire business community in the area has been disrupted by the ferry’s reoccurring mechanical issues. In addition to the current problems, service was halted on June 18 as the company was awaiting the arrival of a replacement engine part.
“We’ve already seen one restaurant close because they can’t maintain product that’s not going to sell and they can’t maintain paying staff,” Carter said. “It’s definitely debilitating to our area.”
The restaurant she referred to is called the Whistle Stop.
Tanya Arch, the owner of the local eatery, said the summer season “has been slow to start and is not getting any better”.
The seasonal business, which runs from May to October, is in its fifth year of operation. Despite opening in early May, it was forced to close on June 24 after multiple interruptions with ferry service continually affected customer turnout and made it difficult to provide reliable working hours for staff.
“We really count on that ferry,” Arch said. “The bulk of the money that I make comes from the ferry business.”
She also said this year she was hoping to recover some losses experienced during the previous COVID-related lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, but the cancellation of ferry travel hasn’t been helping.
“We’re the kind of places that catch your eye as you’re driving by, and if there’s nobody driving by, there’s nobody pulling in.”
Arch said that two new ferries “would be ideal”, but at this point, she’d be content with having just one that’s consistently operating without interruptions.
She added that it wouldn’t surprise her if these reoccurring issues with the ferry will cause tourists to start considering alternative means of travelling altogether, even when the service is back up and running.
“One burnt last year, and one’s been out of commission for three weeks this year,” she said.
In the meantime, travellers who want to leave or travel to Prince Edward Island from Nova Scotia can drive on the Confederation Bridge or take an airplane.
Pictou’s mayor voices concerns
On the other side of the Northumberland Strait, Jim Ryan, mayor of Pictou, said that he thinks the lack of an accessible ferry could lead travellers to consider other options, which therefore could divert tourism traffic from the town.
“If people start being concerned about the reliability of that service, then they may start making other decisions in terms of how they travel,” he said.
Ryan said that if the ferry’s mechanical issues persist throughout the summer, even with a second vessel being loaned from Quebec, it could have a “significant effect” on the number of people travelling through the area.
According to the ferry operator, a second vessel, dubbed the MV Saaremaa 1, is scheduled to enter service by mid-July.
The mayor still anticipates an event-filled summer as Pictou celebrates its 150th anniversary, but he said there’s already a noticeable difference in traffic.
“Our accommodations and dining (services) will sure have some concerns.”
Ryan said he thinks it’s time the federal government expedites the production process for a replacement vessel, which is currently expected to arrive sometime in the next four to five years.
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“We have a 30-year-old ferry … that you can’t get parts for, and the parts need to be manufactured,” he said, adding that in addition to the area receiving a replacement vessel for the ship that was destroyed beyond repair in last year’s fire, talks to replace the MV Confederation should also be considered due to its age and ongoing complications.
The mayor said he’s previously had several letters back and forth discussing the issue with Canada’s transportation minister but plans to resume communications as the ferry’s struggle to stay on the water continues to pose a threat to the economies on both sides of the water.
“Our council discussed this on Monday, and we will be sending a letter to the minister again asking that they look seriously into how they might expedite that process,” Ryan said.
Although the second vessel from Quebec is arriving next week to begin preparations, Ryan also said: “There’s no reason why that shouldn’t have been here earlier.”
“If this is a vital link between two provinces in Canada, I think the federal government should’ve been treating it a little more seriously and not taking the chances that they’ve taken with it.”
“The horse is out of the barn on this one,” he continued. “We have to look forward and make sure it doesn’t happen again … and that traffic is reliable between P.E.I. and Nova Scotia.”
“Someone dropped the ball”
Carter, who opened Galla Designs in 2020, said the local business community was counting on this summer to be “their year” after previous interruptions such as COVID, Hurricane Fiona, and last year’s fire on MV Holiday Island.
“When you think you’ve been able to see everything and hit all the curve balls, you get one out of left field,” she said.
Carter added that the second vessel not arriving until mid-July “isn’t ideal.”
“Someone dropped the ball on that, that was really short-sighted thinking that we didn’t need it sooner,” she said.
“Since 2019 they’ve been saying ‘We’re getting a new ferry’.”
“We’ve got to live until 2028 with a ferry that’s already past its end date and hoping that we can get a rental from Quebec. What do we do if we can’t get a second ferry from Quebec and the Confederation goes down again?” she asked, adding that the area has since grown with more businesses in recent years.
“It’s stressful and we’re not sure how we’re going to survive.”
Carter said her store, alongside 21 other businesses in the Wood Islands area, launched a collaborative marketing campaign last week in response to the recent challenges.
She hopes it will encourage more tourists and people in nearby communities to visit her community and check out its variety of shops.
“We’re open for business,” she said. “We welcome anyone that wants to come here.”
Fire extinguished on ferry between Nova Scotia and P.E.I.
— with files from Alex Cooke