Smooth sailing
Providence ferry opens to rave reviews from motorists

The first load of traffic clears the deck of the Merv Hardie, beginning another season of floating freight and passengers across the Mackenzie -- Terry Halifax/NNSL photo

Terry Halifax
Northern News Services

Fort Providence ( May 15/00) - With a roar from the engine room and a belch of black smoke from the stacks, the Merv Hardie set sail across the Mackenzie for the first time this year.

The ferry set out at noon on May 9 -- the same day service began last year -- moving stranded motorists and anxious truckers loaded with supplies across the river.

Captain Ian Leishman piloted the first ferry across this year. He has spent 11 seasons on the Merv Hardie, the last six years as captain.

Leishman says it takes a few runs before he gets his sea legs.

"I'm a little rusty on the first couple landings, but after that, it's like I never left," Leishman said of the winter layoff.

The young captain got his start swabbing the deck -- with a paintbrush.

"I started as a labourer, painting, then I got hired on as a deck hand," he said. "I did that for four years, then I sent myself off to school and here I am."

While the Mackenzie is virtually ice-free, Leishman says it won't be clear sailing until the ice on Great Slave Lake comes through.

"It's going to get worse before it gets better," he warned.

"It depends on the winds; sometimes you see it up there coming down and two hours later the river could be full of ice.

"Mother Nature is so unpredictable," he said.

While he says the Mackenzie is pretty easy to read with its stable water levels, navigating the river can be tricky business during low water.

"It depends on the low water, if it gets any lower, we're going to have to go down in almost a V," he said. "There's spaces out there where we can hit bottom at four feet."

The Merv Hardie was built in Vancouver, B.C. in 1971 and can carry 200 tonnes or about 16 light vehicles, but Leishman says the usual load is a couple trucks and 12 cars.

"In the summer we average about 80 trips a day," he said.

The wait for the ferry can be trying for some, he said, especially the drivers who earn their living behind the wheel.

"For most people it's a nice rest," he said. "It's the trucker we worry about. They don't get paid to sit. When we get ice coming down and they have to sit for three days, they don't appreciate that."

Marine engineer Bill Turnbull has been keeping the engines running smoothly and the Merv Hardie afloat for seven years.

Turnbull said they need about a month to get the ferry ship in shape.

"Before we go in service, we put fresh oil in all the engines and gearboxes," Turnbull said. "A lot of it was hull work. It was damaged last year, but we changed propellers, shafting and rudders."

He said the Merv Hardie is powered by four 500- horsepower Caterpillar diesel engines, but they only use full power when pushing through heavy ice.

The Deh Cho sailors have yet to see the return of the ship's mascot -- a raven who comes by every year to feast on the crew's left over sandwiches.

"We named her after one of our bosses, but I can't tell you which one," Captain Leishman laughed.