Terre Neuve, Part 2, Embarkation (after a fashion)

August 8, 2010

A company called Marine Atlantic runs the ferry service from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port-aux-Basques and Argentia, Newfoundland. The Port-aux-Basques run is by far the shorter, at about five hours, as compared to the Argentia run, which takes fourteen or more. Naturally, the Argentia ferry is more expensive, but it makes a good deal of sense for those traveling to the capital, St. John’s, as it is much closer and it saves a 900km road trip across the island. Back in the day, I am told, if you wanted to go to Newfoundland you simply drove to the ferry terminal, paid for a ticket and waited until there was a ferry with sufficient room for you and your party. Now, thanks to the advent of modern technology, online or telephone reservations are available (and required), and therein lies the rub. After half an hour or so messing about unsuccessfully with the website, it took me thirty-two phone calls (really!) to connect with a live person, only to find out that a) there were no reservations to be had for the next two weeks, and b) if I wanted to be wait-listed for a space resulting from a cancellation, well, that was not possible. I would have to check back repeatedly on the website, and if a space opened up, book it quickly (and irrevocably). “Irrevocably” presented something of a problem, as it was also not possible to book the round trip at one go; therefore, I had to commit to an outbound journey not knowing if I would be able to get back in the available time frame. On top of that, the kind folks in Newfoundland who offer temporary lodging are well aware of the vagaries of the ferry system, so they too make their deposits irrevocable. Still, I soldiered on. After perhaps two dozen refreshings of the Marine Atlantic web page, I finally found a cancellation that would work for me; I hurriedly booked the outbound leg of the trip before a) someone else did, or b) I lost my courage altogether. I was sternly admonished to present myself at the terminal, along with government-issued picture identification, one and one-half hours before the scheduled departure time.

So, now that I had my outbound reservation firmly in hand, I set about booking leg two. There was still no space to be had, according to the website, but at least I didn’t have to waste all the phone time once again; I simply had to keep refreshing the web page until a cancellation materialized. On the bright side, a cancellation did indeed turn up; on the dark side (literally), it was for a 12:30am sailing. In the event, neither scheduled departure time had anything whatsoever to do with reality, so it really didn’t matter in the slightest what time I chose to leave. My outbound ferry, scheduled for 9:30am, finally steamed underway a bit after noon, and the return ferry, the aforementioned 12:30am one, set sail (figuratively) somewhere around 3:30am. Judging by the horror stories I heard from other passengers, we were lucky to be sailing at all. One told of having been delayed 24 hours, not allowed to leave the staging area where cars were parked awaiting the signal to be loaded onto the ferry.

The reservation system seems to be the culprit, and everyone agreed that the old first-come first-served method was far superior in operation. Unbelievably, there was actually empty deck space on my outbound ferry, as the “stand-by” customers were not sufficient in numbers to fill the spaces of the cancellations or no-shows. On top of that, the “stand-by” customers who did make it were folks who were booked on a later sailing the same day; if you don’t hold a confirmed reservation, you are not allowed into the staging area, and thus cannot even find out if space is available (without running the online or phone gauntlet referenced above). Unless you happen to be hovering somewhere near Port-aux-Basques in hopes of scoring a space, you are, as the Brits say, well and truly stuffed.

By some stroke of good fortune, I was able to secure what must surely have been the last motel room available in North Sydney on the night prior to the outbound ferry departure. As I walked from my car to the motel check-in area, a clearly disgruntled traveler sitting on the hood of his SUV informed me that I’d better just turn around unless I had a reservation. “I do,” I replied brightly, waving my printed confirmation slip in the air. He muttered something under his breath, got into his Explorer and drove off. The desk clerk told me that the fellow was hoping against hope that I would be delayed past check-in time (and indeed, I cut it close, checking in about fifteen minutes before the deadline), biding his time in the parking lot and presumably praying for a traffic jam, a mechanical breakdown, or worse. The motel was a scant seven minutes from the ferry terminal (I measured, just in case…) and so, after a quick seafood supper at a local restaurant, I settled myself in for the duration, ready (eager, even) to board the 9:30 ferry. Only then did I think to do a status check on the Marine Atlantic website: DELAYED.