Heavy construction loads adding weight to BC Ferries trips to Gulf Islands

It turns out the Salish Heron doesn’t have a weight problem — it’s just seeing a lot more heavy construction vehicles amid a building boom on the southern Gulf Islands.

BC Ferries has won permission to carry more weight on the Salish Heron, as a growing number of heavy commercial vehicles use the vessel to travel between Swartz Bay and the Southern Gulf Islands.

Lloyd’s Register notified BC Ferries on Friday that the vessel is now allowed to carry an additional 150 tonnes — equivalent to about three more construction vehicles.

Transport Canada has delegated Lloyd’s to act on its behalf. It classifies and certifies vessels and can approve special requirements for ships.

BC Ferries made the request because such heavy construction vehicles, which can weigh 60 tonnes or more when full with aggregate, can use up much of the ferry’s weight allowance.

Early this month, the Salish Heron pulled out of Swartz Bay with empty deck space, leaving several motorists behind, after its load of commercial vehicles used up its weight allowance. Those left behind had to wait four hours for the next sailing.

Several large trucks carrying aggregate showed up on the Mayne Queen on Friday as it left Swartz Bay to make stops at Saturna, Galiano and Mayne Islands.

Mayne Island’s Scott Wright, who is employed as a carpenter on new houses and renovations, said the construction sector is “booming”: “Everyone seems to be building new houses. Since COVID, it has really taken off.”

Census data released in February identified the southern Gulf Islands as one of the fastest-growing areas in the country.

Population growth on the islands easily outstripped the rest of the province between 2016 and the most recent census in 2021. As BC grew 7.6 per cent, the southern Gulf Islands — not including Salt Spring — saw 29 per cent growth.

Mayne Island’s population climbed by 37.4 percent during that time, followed by Galiano Island at 33.7 percent, Saturna Island by 31.4 percent, South Pender by 30.2 percent and North Pender by 19.4 percent.

Government infrastructure projects, such as road and trail works, are also contributing to commercial-truck traffic to the islands.

Last month saw the second-highest volume of commercial vehicles in a month on the Swartz Bay-Southern Gulf Islands route since April 2009, said BC Ferries spokeswoman Deborah Marshall.

Braedon Bigham, owner of Braedon’s Big Digem Excavating and Trucking on Pender, said business is steadily increasing on the island. “Every year we kind of get busier and busier.”

When the pandemic arrived, buyers snapped up island properties and many moved to the islands, he said.

When questions were initially raised about the Salish Heron’s weight-carrying capability, BC Ferries said it was considering swapping the vessel, its newest, for an older Salish-class ferry.

But the company found there was little point in a switch.

Bruce Paterson, BC Ferries’ director of naval architecture, said the difference in weight between the newer Salish Heron and the other Salish ferries equates to about a two-centimeter difference in draft — the distance between the waterline and the bottom of the hull.

“From our perspective, there is no problem with the weight on the Salish Heron. She weighs what she is supposed to weigh,” said Ed Hooper, BC Ferries’ executive director of shipbuilding. “She has the load-carrying capacity that we asked for.”

The contract for the Salish Heron was delivered in accordance with BC Ferries’ specifications, he said — but the weight of construction vehicles can quickly add up to a few hundred tonnes.

Paterson added that construction-vehicle traffic is episodic. “We happened to have hit this cycle right now where we’ve got building, we’ve got road repair,” he said. “We’ve got everything happening at the same time.”

When BC Ferries defines the weight a ship is supposed to carry, it looks at traffic statistics to get a perspective on what is required, he said.

If a ship was designed to carry too many heavy vehicles, it would be more of a box-shape, which would translate into higher fuel consumption for the life of a ferry, he said.

BC Ferries plans to seek permission from Lloyd’s to carry more weight on the other Salish-class ferries in the future.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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