The weather along British Columbia’s Inside Passage was relatively calm the night the Queen of the North passenger ferry struck an island and sank, two passengers told a crew member’s criminal negligence trial Tuesday.
Fourth officer Karl Lilgert’s defence lawyers have suggested poor visibility caused by bad weather was among a list of factors that contributed to the sinking in March 2006. Two passengers were never seen again, and Lilgert is charged with criminal negligence causing their deaths.
But several crew members and passengers have recalled encountering gentle winds, light rain and even clear skies when they stepped onto the ship’s outer decks shortly after the ship collided with an island.
Drew Pawley was on the ferry returning from a work trip on the Hadia Gwaii islands. Pawley has worked for Environment Canada for more than two decades, first as a certified weather observer and then as an instructor and inspector, evaluating other federal government weather observers.
Pawley, who was on the first life raft to be lowered into the water, was asked to describe the weather as he sat in the life raft.
“Pretty good, considering the time of the year,” Pawley told a B.C. Supreme Court jury on Tuesday.
“The wind was less than five knots, visibility was good, there was occasional light or moderate showers, the sea state was good. It was generally quite pleasant.”
The ship struck Gil Island shortly after midnight on March 22, 2006, hours after leaving Prince Rupert en route to Vancouver Island. Several hours earlier, Pawley was on the Queen of the North for the ferry’s previous run from Hadia Gwaii to Prince Rupert.
Pawley said that earlier voyage was very rough as the ferry sailed through strong winds and three-metre seas.
“And how did the passage from Prince Rupert to the time of impact compare (with the previous sailing)?” asked Crown counsel Michel Huot.
“Like a Mediterranean cruise,” replied Pawley.
Also on the ferry was Graham Clarke, whose company was considering a bid as BC Ferries examined the possibility of privatizing its northern routes.
Clarke was also on the previous sailing between Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert, and he agreed the weather was much better during the ferry’s final voyage.
“There had been gale warnings earlier in the day, and in fact the ship sped up when we were crossing from (Haida Gwaii) to stay ahead of the weather front,” said Clarke.
“When we were going down the channel, we were surrounded by a high land mass, so there was very little wind in there. There was a bit of wind in Wright Sound initially, but not much. It was raining lightly. I’d say there was a two-foot chop.”
Gil Island is located in Wright Sound, a large body of water that the ferry entered after passing through Grenville Channel.
Pawley and Clarke were both inside their berths at the time of the collision, and neither were outside to observe the weather.
One of Lilgert’s lawyers was quick to point out this fact, suggesting to Pawley that just because the voyage felt like a cruise, that doesn’t mean everything was fine outside.
“You agree that the weather can sometimes interfere with visibility and yet not interfere with movement of the boat?” asked Kevin Westell
“Right,” replied Pawley.
The jury also viewed a series of photographs that Clarke snapped during the evacuation, first on the ferry and then from his life raft.
One of the photos shows a line of passengers wearing life jackets as a crew member instructs them on the ship’s deck. One of the passengers appears to be carrying a small child, also wearing a life jacket.
In one of two of the photos taken from Clarke’s life raft, the blurry deck lights of the Queen of the North can be seen in the distance, creating a rough outline of the ship surrounded by darkness.
In the end, 99 passengers and crew made it off the ship, but two were unaccounted for. Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette were never seen again and presumed drown.
The defence has said the sinking was caused by a combination of inadequate training, unreliable equipment and poor weather.
The Crown has alleged Lilgert was negligent when he missed a scheduled course alteration, sending the ship sailing straight into Gil Island. The Crown has said Lilgert took no evasive actions or attempted to slow the ferry down before the collision.
Lilgert has pleaded not guilty to two counts of criminal negligence causing death.
His trial is expected to last until late spring or early summer.