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Marine transportation safety investigation report M20P0110

Roll-on/roll-off passenger ferry Spirit of Vancouver Island
Tsawwassen, British Columbia

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) investigated this occurrence for the purpose of advancing transportation safety. It is not the function of the Board to assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability. This report is not created for use in the context of legal, disciplinary or other proceedings. See Ownership and use of content.

Description of the vessel

Figure 1. Spirit of Vancouver Island (Source: BC Ferries)
Spirit of Vancouver Island (Source: BC Ferries)

The Spirit of Vancouver Island (Figure 1) is a single-ended roll-on/roll-off passenger ferry of 167.5 m in length, owned and operated by British Columbia Ferry Services Inc. (BC Ferries). The vessel was built in 1993 and can carry a maximum of 2100 people and 400 vehicles.Footnote 1 The propulsion plant consists of 4 diesel/natural gas engines with a combined capacity of 16 000 kW. The engines drive 2 inward‑turning shafts via reduction gearboxes, developing a maximum speed of approximately 21 knots. The shafts are fitted with controllable‑pitch propellers. The vessel has 2 bow thrusters with a combined capacity of 1540 kW and 2 articulated Becker rudders.

The wheelhouse is located at the fore of the vessel and is fitted with navigation equipment and machinery controls. The forecastle has 2 windlasses that control the vessel’s 2 anchors. The anchors can be released manually from the forecastle or remotely from the wheelhouse. The vessel operates under a voluntary safety management system (SMS), which is audited internally by BC Ferries and externally by a classification society.

Between October 2018 and February 2019, the vessel underwent a mid-life upgrade at a shipyard in Poland. The upgrades involved

History of the voyage

On 18 April 2020, at 1501,Footnote 2 the Spirit of Vancouver Island departed Swartz Bay, British Columbia (BC), for Tsawwassen, BC. This was the first of 2 crossings for the vessel that day on its reduced sailing scheduleFootnote 3 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After exiting Active Pass, the bridge team contacted the Tsawwassen Terminal and the vessel was assigned to berth 3, the only suitable vacant berth at the time.Footnote 4 To allow more time for the vessel to offload its current load at Tsawwassen and then embark the full load of vehicles waiting for the return crossing, its speed was increased to 21 knots after exiting Active Pass. The reduced number of daily sailings between Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay had increased the amount of time required for loading and unloading. This increased time was due to a higher than normal number of drop-trailers per sailing and passenger walkway restrictions in force at the time.Footnote 5 On the previous day, the crew had experienced a situation where the vessel had departed Tsawwassen 9 minutes late despite having arrived on time. The Spirit of Vancouver Island was scheduled to depart berth 3 at 1700, allowing 15 minutes before the scheduled 1715 arrival of the next ferry to use berth 3.

At 1616, as the Spirit of Vancouver Island was approximately 3 nautical miles (NM) off the outer dolphin,Footnote 6 the bridge team notified the master and commenced the pre-arrival checklist. At this time, a deckhand went to the forecastle deck to stand by the anchors. The master arrived on the bridge at 1620 and took control of the vessel. The chief officer assumed the role of co-navigator. At 1622, after briefing the bridge team, the master began reducing the vessel’s speed for arrival. At this time, the vessel was approximately 1 NM off the outer dolphin. The tide was ebbing and the bridge team anticipated that the vessel would setFootnote 7 to the southeast. The winds were from the southeast at 8 to 10 knots.

To counteract the effects of the wind and tide, the vessel approached by steering onFootnote 8 berth 5, which was located to the left side of berth 3. The master subsequently ordered the helmsman to adjust the course to starboard and steer on the end of the Spirit of British Columbia, which was moored at berth 4. The master then ordered the helmsman to adjust the course to starboard again and steer down the middle of berth 3.

Figure 2. Damage to the vessel (circled) (Source: BC Ferries, with TSB annotations)
Damage to the vessel (circled) (Source: BC Ferries, with TSB annotations)

At 1624, the vessel was approximately 0.25 NM from the outer dolphin, which is the command decision point (CDP)Footnote 9 for Spirit class vessels approaching Tsawwassen. At the CDP, the master must make the decision whether to proceed with or abort the planned manoeuvre. With all machinery components operating satisfactorily, the master continued with the approach. Soon after, the master observed that the vessel was setting in the opposite direction to that expected.Footnote 10 To counteract this, the master ordered the helmsman to adjust the course further to starboard and steer at a point halfway down the wall of berth 3. A few seconds later, the master applied astern pitch to the starboard engine, while the port engine was maintained on ahead pitch. The speed of the vessel at the time was 13.9 knots. At 1625, the astern pitch on the starboard engine was increased to 70% and subsequently to 90%.

During the approach, the chief officer called out the vessel’s speed for the master twice and noted that the Spirit of British Columbia was resting against the wing wall to its port side, which indicated a northwesterly set in the vicinity of the terminal.Footnote 11

With the speed at 9 to 10 knots, the master ordered the helmsman to steer hard to port to control the bow. The vessel did not respond to the helm order, even after the ahead thrust on the port engine was increased, and the vessel continued moving forward towards the wall of berth 3. At 1625:25, the master applied full astern on both engines and put the thrusters full to port in an attempt to avoid striking the wall. The vessel passed the outer dolphin at a speed of approximately 6.2 knots. At 1626:10, the chief officer was instructed to let go the port anchor. The chief officer pressed the remote release button and, approximately 4 seconds later, reported that the port anchor was not releasing. He was subsequently instructed to release both anchors. He pressed the remote release buttons for both anchors, but neither anchor released.Footnote 12

At 1626:32, the vessel struck the concrete abutment on the wall of berth 3 at a speed of approximately 5.4 knots. The master stopped the engines and thrusters, and the crew conducted a damage assessment. Although no warning was broadcast to notify passengers about the impending striking, no injuries were reported immediately following the occurrence; the next day, 2 crew members and 1 passenger reported minor injuries.

Figure 3. Damage to the concrete abutment (circled) (Source: BC Ferries, with TSB annotations)
Damage to the concrete abutment (circled) (Source: BC Ferries, with TSB annotations)

The vessel sustained damage to the deck plate, rubbing strake, and the forepeak tank above the waterline (Figure 2). The concrete abutment of the berth wall was also damaged (Figure 3). The vessel docked at berth 3 at 1637. Vehicles on the upper car deck and foot passengers offloaded at 1802, and the remaining vehicles on the main car deck offloaded at 2058.

Approach speed guidance

Each vessel within the BC Ferries fleet maintains a vessel-specific manual (VSM) that forms part of the company’s SMS. The VSM is updated at regular intervals by the senior master for the vessel, establishing guidelines and instructions for safe, efficient vessel operation in compliance with company policies and procedures. The intent of the VSM is to provide specific instruction, through the use of checklists, etc., for the execution of unique and/or critical shipboard operations. The passage plan section of the VSM contained a voyage checklist as well as best practice guidance for speed and propeller thrust in order to maintain consistency across watches. On the day of the occurrence, the vessel’s speed and propeller pitch settings during the approach to the berth were higher than what was recommended in the VSM (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Vessel’s speed and pitch (both actual and recommended) on approach to the berth (Source: Google Earth, with TSB annotations)
Vessel’s speed and pitch (both actual and recommended) on approach to the berth (Source: Google Earth, with TSB annotations)
Distance off Recommended speed (knots) Recommended  pitch Actual speed (knots) Actual pitch
1.5 NM N/A 80% 20.6 90%
1.0 NM N/A 40% 20.4 90%
0.75 NM 15.0 N/A 19.9 85%
0.5 NM 12.0 20% 18.0 62%
0.25 NM 9.0 Astern 13.8 40%
Outer dolphin N/A N/A 6.2 Full astern

Although the VSM in effect at the time of the occurrence did not specify a speed limit for the Spirit of Vancouver Island when transiting the outer dolphin, the general practice was to transit at a speed not greater than 6 knots. The guidance in the VSM had been revised following the vessel’s mid-life upgrade to take into consideration the changes to the machinery and propulsion systems.


The currents in the Strait of Georgia set to the southeast during the ebb tide and to the northwest during the flood tide. High water at Tsawwassen on the day of the occurrence was predicted at 1541. The tide was ebbing just before the striking, which occurred at or just before peak ebb current.

At the TSB’s request, the Ocean Modeling and Predictions Section at the Institute of Ocean Sciences, which is part of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, created a modelFootnote 13 to simulate the direction of the currents at the time of the occurrence and examine the possibility of a current reversal,Footnote 14 which could have caused the vessel to set in a direction opposite to that which was expected. Current reversals have been known to occur in the vicinity of the terminal and can differ between tidal cycles.Footnote 15

Figure 5. Model predictions for direction and speed of current (top graph) and model predictions for height of tide (bottom graph) (Source: Ocean Modeling and Predictions Section, Institute of Ocean Sciences)
Model predictions for direction and speed of current (top graph) and model predictions for height of tide (bottom graph) (Source: Ocean Modeling and Predictions Section, Institute of Ocean Sciences)

Figure 5 shows the model’s recreations of the direction and speed of the currents (top graph) in correlation with the height of the tide (bottom graph), leading up to the occurrence time. The model showed unexceptional currents at the time of the occurrence; according to the model, the current was at peak ebb and, with currents near the terminal (solid line, top graph) similar to those further out in the channel, there was no current reversal. The current near the terminal generally changes from ebb to flood slightly before the currents farther away (dotted line and line of squares, top graph), but this occurs as the currents are approaching zero (slack tide), not immediately after peak ebb.

Anchor release during emergencies

The anchors on the Spirit of Vancouver Island can be released remotely from the wheelhouse (Figure 6). This capability is particularly useful during emergencies, as it allows the anchors to be released quickly without having to manually operate the windlasses.

The process to release an anchor remotely involves 2 steps. First, the CHAIN STOPPER UP button, which raises the chain stopper that secures the anchor while at sea, needs to be pressed. Second, the ANCHOR RELEASE button needs to be pressed and held until the anchor releases and the required amount of chain pays out.Footnote 16 There is a delay of 4 to 6 seconds before the anchor starts to deploy, during which the anchor brake is remotely disengaging. At the time of the occurrence, there were no labels or instructions on the control panel to notify operators of this delay.

Figure 6. Remote release controls for the anchors (Source: BC Ferries, with TSB annotations)
Remote release controls for the anchors (Source: BC Ferries, with TSB annotations)

On the day of the occurrence, the chain stoppers for both anchors had been raised remotely as part of the pre‑arrival checks. In the final moments before the striking, the master instructed the chief officer to release the port anchor and, when it did not release, to release both anchors. The investigation could not determine how long the release buttons were pressed or why the anchors did not release. When tested by the crew after the occurrence, the remote anchor release for each anchor worked successfully. Subsequent testing of the anchors on 05 May 2020 identified an issue with overtightening of the anchor brakes, which may affect their operation. The senior master issued a directiveFootnote 17 providing instructions to crew about securing the anchor brakes after operation.

TSB Watchlist

The Watchlist identifies the key safety issues that need to be addressed to make Canada's transportation system even safer. Safety management is one of these issues. In the marine sector, TSB investigations have found that, even when formal processes are present, they are often not effective in identifying hazards or reducing the risks.

The Spirit of Vancouver Island’s SMS was certified and audited by an approved authority. However, the investigation identified gaps in the effectiveness of safety management related to the guidance provided to crews regarding recommended vessel speeds and critical vessel operations (in this case, releasing an anchor), which was not well documented or understood by the crew.  

Safety action taken

Following the occurrence, BC Ferries completed a site investigation report and the following safety actions were taken:

Safety messages

It is essential that bridge teams adhere to recommended speeds and guidance set out in a vessel’s SMS. Higher speeds, particularly during docking, can reduce the time available to respond to any changes in environmental factors and result in a loss of control over a vessel’s movements.

Clearly posted operating instructions, such as for the remote release of anchors, are essential to increase the likelihood that critical safety equipment will be operated successfully in emergency situations.

This report concludes the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s investigation into this occurrence. The Board authorized the release of this report on . It was officially released on .