Rod Weir and Ryan Bensen, captain and chief mate, respectively, of the Island Kwigwis hybrid ferry, steer the vessel into Descanso Bay on April 12. The Island Kwigwis and Island Gwawis started service on the Nanaimo-Gabriola Island route today, April 12. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)

Rod Weir and Ryan Bensen, captain and chief mate, respectively, of the Island Kwigwis hybrid ferry, steer the vessel into Descanso Bay on April 12. The Island Kwigwis and Island Gwawis started service on the Nanaimo-Gabriola Island route today, April 12. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)

B.C. Ferries’ hybrid vessels begin Nanaimo-Gabriola service

Island Kwigwis, Island Gwawis increase capacity, decrease emissions

After a year of preparation, B.C. Ferries has debuted two new hybrid vessels to shuttle commuters between Gabriola Island and Nanaimo.

The Island Kwigwis and Island Gwawis started sailing between Nanaimo Harbour and Descanso Bay terminals today, April 12, replacing the MV Quinsam, which serviced the route for 40 years. The new vessels will allow for increased service and capacity, Darren Johnston, B.C. Ferries’ executive director of fleet operations, told the News Bulletin.

The bridge is fully configured with double consoles, screens, readouts and monitoring systems. It’s state-of-the-art and “a big step up from the Quinsam,” Johnston said.

“In some respects, it’s a lot easier to operate because we’ve taken advantage of new technology and automation in order to simplify some of the procedures, especially with respect to navigation,” said Johnston. “A big step up in operational safety, with the various electronic chart systems that have navigation at the leading edge, as opposed to paper charts and rulers and pencils. Having said that, there’s always a challenge when you make a generational step up in technology. The learning curve can be steep, but we have obviously very comprehensive training programs to account for that.”

The ferries have two traditional diesel engines, primarily for propulsive power, said Johnston, but can also recharge the batteries, which can operate at any time, whether the ship is sailing or at the dock. He said the ship can run at normal operating speed for about half an hour after a full charge, and then needs to “kick over” to generator power.

“The diesel engines power an electric motor and there’s one electric motor for each of the ship’s two thrusters. And the thrusters are omni-directional thrusters, which make the ship highly manoeuvrable, which is an added bonus for the ship handlers,” he said.

The ships also generate less noise, Johnston said, with reduced sound above the water surface, benefiting people who live near ferry terminals as well as aquatic life.

B.C. Ferries’ long-term plans are to convert the ferries so they rely solely on battery power and that transition will be done in phases over the coming years. Johnston said the batteries now aren’t powerful enough to handle an entire operating day, but predicted that as the technology improves, the ferry company will be able to physically fit more batteries on the ship.

“What we’re doing now is we’re putting hybrid ships in operation, which gives us the chance to learn about the technology to get good at how to operate this sort of technology and learn lessons that’ll make us even more successful when we go to fully electric version in the future,” he said.

An ongoing challenge related to the hybrid vessels has been lack of qualified staff. Johnston said a request has been made for mariners from Ukraine since the start of the invasion by Russia.

“Part of our strategy to deal with the shortage of licensed deck and engineering officers is to, through the Canadian government, reach out to Ukrainian seafarers with appropriate licences and certifications, and fast-track them through a sponsorship program to have them potentially come and work with B.C. Ferries, hopefully within the next six months,” said Johnston.

RELATED: Island Kwigwis to begin Nanaimo-Gabriola service in new year

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