Chi-Cheemaun sailing season’s planned start likely delayed

OWEN SOUND—The recalcitrant water levels of Lake Huron are refusing to rise, or at least refusing to rise fast enough to save the start of the 2013 MS Chi-Cheemaun ferry schedule. News Monday from the ferry’s operators, the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC), was dispiriting. A decision on whether to begin the season on May 3 as planned will be finalized on Monday, April 29.

“The start of the ferry service will likely be delayed,” admitted OSTC CEO Susan Schrempf. The issue is not the water levels, per se, but rather the height of the fenders at the ferry docks in Tobermory and South Baymouth. “There are only two solutions to the issue right now, that the water levels rise or that the owner of the docks (Transport Canada) does the necessary work on the fenders to make docking the ferry there safe.”

The decision will be made for the week. So if the decision not to sail is made on April 29, the start of the season will be delayed until at least the following Monday for the next week, and so on until the season begins.

In order for the ferry to safely dock, water levels would have to rise some 15 inches from where they are currently and that scenario is unlikely under even the most optimistic of current forecasts. “I will have that 15 inches by the first of June,” said Ms. Schrempf. “I don’t have it now.” Wind direction also plays a part in the level of the water at the docking sites and the OSTC utilizes the water gauges at Tobermory to assess whether there will be sufficient water at South Baymouth as well. The readings on those gauges have been bouncing up and down over the past few weeks. “But we need a steady and consistent rise in the water levels,” said Ms. Schrempf. “At the end of the day it is a question of safety for the ship and for our passengers.”

The owner of the docks is Transport Canada and according to an OSTC board member, the OSTC has been in discussions with that federal agency for months already. Cost of the renovations to the docks are not expected to be huge, but the time constraints are not playing well for any such work to be completed in time to maintain the integrity of the start of this year’s sailing schedule.

The issue could not have come at a less opportune time for Manitoulin Island’s summer link to the Bruce Peninsula. With passenger traffic down, the last thing the ferry service needs is to have to encourage people to travel around the lakes. “We know from our study that some of those people will likely not be coming back,” noted Ms. Schrempf.

The OSTC does not want to start and stop the service, which is perceived to be an even worse scenario than delaying the start of the sailing season.

“I am hoping the season starts as planned,” said Tehkummah Reeve Gary Brown, who sits on the OSTC board. “You can’t print what I want to say about what I think about the fender issues.”

Mr. Brown noted that his community will not be out of business, but that any delay in the season will hurt. “We are diversified,” he said. “But there will likely be some jobs that won’t be starting when they usually do. You can’t have people just standing around doing nothing.”

Manitoulin Tourism Association president Ken Ferguson said that he too chooses to be optimistic over the ferry schedule. “We will certainly be doing our best to see that Transport Canada gets those fenders moved,” he said.

Mr. Ferguson pondered the possibility of slinging large loader tires over the end of the docks to act as fenders. “You see them doing that all around the world,” he said. “They certainly do that at the Toronto Island ferry.”

In any event, all parties seem to agree on the biggest danger inherent in the delay of the ferry schedule. “It’s the uncertainty that will do us in,” said Mr. Ferguson.

Mr. Ferguson noted that there is currently a lot of construction taking place on Highway 69 between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie. “So that is not going to be encouraging people to drive around,” he said. “Of course we need the streams coming from both ends.”

Great Lakes water advocate Mike Wilton of Dominion Bay said that he was not surprised by the news. “We live right here on the south shore so we see the impact of the water first hand,” he said. “The ice is pretty much all out from the shore now and the water has not come up from where it was last fall.”

Even a rise over the next few weeks will be a temporary respite, suggested Mr. Wilton. “That would be the spring flechette,” he said. “I think it will go down even more unless something is done about the diversions down around Sarnia.”

Despite the barrage of dispiriting news regarding the ferry service seen recently, there are some encouraging breaks in the clouds ahead. The OSTC has initiated a marketing study to seek ways to turn the numbers around on the passenger traffic numbers and a lot of the marketing that will be seen going forward will be aimed at increasing tourism in the region in conjunction with the ferry. Perhaps these moments are the proverbial dark before the dawn.

“I would encourage everyone to have a little faith,” said Mr. Ferguson.

Michael Erskine