MTO’s new Pelee Islander started service in Autumn 2018
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2018 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
Canada’s Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC) traces its roots back to 1921, a time when there was no road infrastructure and the entire population was concentrated along the shoreline and railway line.
OSTC became a crown corporation and subsequently an Provincial agency. “We’re now owned by the Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines and we have an operating contract with the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) for the Pelee Island ferry service on Lake Erie,” says Susan Schrempf, OSTC’s chief executive.
OSTC owns one landing craft-style ferry named Niska 1, which operates ro-pax services in the far north of Ontario to Moose Factory Island, just below James Bay. “Niska 1 is largely there to move goods and big trucks and people over to the island – most tourists use small water taxis owned by island community members,” says Schrempf.
OSTC also owns and operates a ferry service to Lake Huron’s Manitoulin Island with Chi-Cheemaun for six months a year. Following the construction of a highway, OSTC redefined the ferry’s raison d’etre as a key component of the island’s social and economic development, which is driven by tourism. Hence, Chi-Cheemaun is not just a mode of transport, but also a venue for dinner cruises with live entertainment from Canadian musicians and an exposition space for local artisans and cultural experiences.
“There are several indigenous communities on the island and the peninsula, so overseas tourists come to learn more about their cultures and traditions,” says Schrempf. “We’re using the ferry as a platform for those communities to come onboard and provide information and tour options. We’ve had local artisans and craftspeople come onboard and give demonstrations or sell their products, while our local craft brewery community comes together annually to host a cruise.”
Schrempf aims to expand the range of available experiences in future. “We have to keep the experience alive and that means finding new experiences every year,” she says. “We do a star-gazing week during meteor showers in August because we’re sailing on Lake Huron and there’s no light from the shore. We also invite new authors or musicians to perform to attract more visitors.”
OSTC faces several unique operational challenges, largely because it shares its routes with multiple other users. “On the Great Lakes and inland waterways we’re operating in and around fishing grounds, so we must avoid nets and other obstacles,” Schrempf explains. “We also operate in freight shipping lanes and tourist areas with lots of recreational vessels. As we’re all working in such close quarters, we spend almost as much time docking, loading and unloading as we do on the run.”
Another challenge is the weather, which can change rapidly within hours. “Ferries with a shallow draught are greatly affected by crosswinds,” adds Schrempf. “In the winter, Niska 1 is unable to operate for a period of time because the river freezes and we have to wait until the ice is strong enough to support an ice road for transport services to move across it. During this time, passengers are flown by helicopter. The other challenge associated with sailing on the Great Lakes is that in remote regions we don’t have much shoreside support; we have to be our own lifeboat and back-up ship.”
This autumn, OSTC will start services with MTO’s new US$40 million Pelee Islander II, which was built by Asenav in Chile. The newbuild was specifically designed for these kinds of conditions, with azipod propulsion units to give her greater manoeuvrability. “We’re using a marine simulator built by Georgian College in Owen Sound to train the crew to use the azimuth thurster propulsion system before they undergo more training onboard the vessel,” says Schrempf.
Pelee Islander II is the first ferry in Canada designed and built in compliance with Tier 3 emission regulations, accomplished by installing low-emission engines fitted with selective catalytic reduction units, burning low-sulphur fuel. This was one of the Provence’s efforts to get ahead of legislation related to pollution and waste management.
“Emissions are an issue with our older tonnage because they’re not suitable to be retrofitted with scrubbers but upgrading engines so they can run on ultra-low sulphur fuel is an ideal option. Although ultra-low sulphur fuel isn’t available yet, I don’t believe we’ll have any problems sourcing supplies when it does. In future, a possible source of power could be hydrogen fuel cell technology.”
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