M.S. Chi-Cheemaun ferry sails into its 41st season

SOUTH BAYMOUTH—The news on the front page of the October 3, 1974 edition of The Expositor announced the maiden arrival of the Chi-Cheemaun ferry in South Baymouth, where an enthusiastic crowd of more than 100 people greeted the long-delayed replacement for the venerable Norisle and Norgoma ferries as she slid tentatively into her new berth.

The Expositor story quoted the exclamations of members of the crowd, whose cries of “isn’t she beautiful,” “why it’s so big” and “look at the little old Norgoma beside it” captured the sense of wonder and excitement that greeted the vessel.

Throughout the preceding year and through the summer of 1974, the pages of the paper had played host to tales of delay caused by dockyard strikes in the Collingwood shipyards and the difficulties the company had experienced in obtaining critical equipment and materials for the vessel that was supposed to make its first appearance in the spring of 1974.

The inaugural voyage was indeed tentative and the ship riding high in the water, as the ferry was only carrying one automobile on this first journey. According to The Expositor article, the ferry took what would “probably go on the record as the slowest for the new ship” before her captain, Del Chatwell of the Slash, finally eased it into its berth.

The late Captain Chatwell, a Manitoulin native, was a career skipper with the Owen Sound Transportation Company and appropriately at the helm as the brand new ship docked for the first time on Friday, September 27, 1974.

The paper recorded that it took “several attempts” before the loading ramps were finally able to descend and the crowd waiting onshore was able to tour the new vessel.

Many in the crowd were young children, as through a fortuitous coincidence, there was a teacher’s convention taking place that day.

The Norgoma had already settled into her berth at South Baymouth when her replacement arrived that day, but her sister ship the Norisle had already entered retirement earlier that April. The Expositor recorded that the Norgoma’s arrival had been at first mistaken for the new ferry when she appeared on the horizon. “This fact however did not succeed in dampening the crowds’ enthusiasm and the Norgoma’s reception was probably her most joyful since her first voyage back in the spring of 1950.”

The 113-vehicle capacity of the new ferry was a wonder to those touring the ship, as her predecessors could barely manage 38 in the Norgoma and 48 in the Norisle. Those ships took at least three hours to make the transit, weather permitting. The Chi-Cheemaun, it was noted, could travel in weather much less clement than her elders and make the transit in “less than half the time.”

While “loading and unloading the two older ferries took the patience of an elephant, the organizational skills of a traffic cop and the job itself required a full hour.” The roll on and roll off design of the new ferry meant she could clear her decks much faster even though she carries more than the two other vessels combined.

Over the course of her 40 years, the ferry has played a pivotal role in the lives of many Islanders across all communities. Melinda Trudeau of Wikwemikong recalled days when her grandmother and aunt worked in the kitchens of the new ferry. “I’m taken back to memories of when my grandmother, the late Rose Lena Murray, had in her time sailed aboard this ferry in service on board in its cafeteria,” she said. “Our family had the joy and pride of spending numerous times in watching her board and sail off on duty aboard the Chi-Cheemaun ferry.”

Ms. Trudeau said her memories of her grandmother’s warm smile and unique laughter spoke volumes of how she “thoroughly enjoyed her service time aboard.”

The granddaughter laughed as she recalled her grandmother arriving at the last minute and having to board the ferry through the car port, with the crew shouting words of encouragement as she leapt aboard.

Ms. Trudeau said that she was disappointed not to have heard anything of celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the sailing.

Robert Brown of South Baymouth notes the role the ferry has played in his family’s businesses in South Baymouth has been seminal through the past 40 years. “Not just for our business, but for businesses all across the Manitoulin and beyond to Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, a lot of people were complaining,” he said. “When the ferry was delayed last year (when low water levels required dock adjustments) we heard from people all the way out about the impact that was having on their communities.”

“A lot of people don’t realize what that ferry means, even here on Manitoulin,” continued Mr. Brown, who said that he meets a lot of people, particularly from southwestern Ontario communities like London and Windsor, that make a circle tour. “We meet people travelling from Toronto to Sudbury and back to Toronto using the ferry. I’ve even seen people just doing a weekend tour.”

The ferry trip takes a huge bite out of school trips to places like the Stratford Festival. “It is a lot easier on the kids than taking the long way around,” he said.

Robert’s brother Gary, reeve of Tehkummah, recalled the impact of the ferry business on his community. “Before the ferry we were really just a little fishing village destination,” he said. “Most of the businesses around here are geared to the ferry now. The season starts with the ferry and it ends with the ferry. It is what it is.”

Although their store does stock items year round for local consumption, the mix is very different. “We don’t sell a lot of fishing lures after the ferry stops running,” laughs Mr. Brown.

While in school Gary Brown took a lot of drafting courses and one of the first things he did was draft the plans for the current family business, a business that has thrived for most of its existence on the bounty brought to the Island each year by the ferry.

For Ms. Trudeau, who follows a traditional lifestyle that includes participation in many off-Island powwows and cultural gatherings, the ferry also continues to play an important role.

“In my time, I’ve come to enjoy the fond and good memories this sailing ferry has brought in my life as in boarding to places near and far to attend gatherings and events of my time,” she said. “I always find it is a unique journey.”

She said that she finds the views presented by the ferry journey to be “magical in their own ways.”

“For myself, sailing on this ferry continues to be a joy, and very much so, times to remember, times to reflect and times to dream,” she said.

To mark the start of the Chi-Cheemaun’s fifth decade the OSTC is undertaking a marketing endeavour to reposition the Chi-Cheemaun in the minds of Ontarians and other visitors.

The highest volume of traffic over the last four decades was in the late 1980s, encouraging the province to bring a second ferry, the Nindawayma, or Little Sister, into service. Ridership began to decline at about the same time, however, and the second ferry was retired after just three seasons.

For many Islanders, from all communities, the Chi-Cheemaun ferry travels not only from the tip of the Bruce Peninsula to the port at South Baymouth, but back through the gulf of intervening decades to recall pleasant memories from the days of our youth—recalling bright smiles and that a sense of wonder and adventure that accompanies each of our first boarding.

Coincidentally, the October 3, 1974 newspaper that reported the inaugural docking of the M.S. Chi-Cheemaun in South Baymouth on her first trip across Georgian Bay the previous Friday was also the first paper published by Rick and Julia McCutcheon as “resident proprietors” of the paper.

They had moved back to Manitoulin that week 40 years ago from Thunder Bay where Julia McCutcheon had studied nursing science at Lakehead University. Rick McCutcheon had edited the paper in the late 1960s.

Mr. McCutcheon, still in the same role, recalls now that “it was a memorable week all around. No question about that!”

Happy 40th anniversary, M.S. Chi-Cheemaun, long may you