Day 6: Aboard MV Caribou Convivial drinkers spurn fast ferry for leisurely crossing to Newfoundland
Friday, August 11, 2000
There's a battle raging in the North Atlantic, one that's dividing families, pitting communities against each other and, worse, threatening the very constitution of Newfoundlanders.
It's the battle of the ferries.
For the summer, Marine Atlantic, the agency that connects Newfoundland with the rest of Canada, has added a high-speed, catamaran-style ferry to its otherwise slow daily service to and from North Sydney, N.S. The Danish-made Max Mols can cover the crossing to Port aux Basques in less than half the five to six hours (or 36 hours in rough weather) taken by Newfoundland's stalwart, MV Caribou.
To some Islanders, the Max Mols represents a new Newfoundland, a province that now boasts Canada's fastest-growing economy. It has a business lounge, café and easy chairs, and a five-day waiting list for vehicles.
To others it is the slower, 14-year-old Caribou that represents what's important about the island, namely, its old-style conviviality and easy pace. The ship-like ferry has a movie lounge, escalators, a video arcade and the Killick Lounge, a bar where a generation of travellers have whiled away their hours to bands like the current performer, Bread 'n' Butter, a duo that offers jigs and Newfie jokes.
So far, Newfoundlanders are flocking to the new wave, the Max Mols. While the high-speed ferry is usually full, the older Caribou is struggling to fill half its passenger capacity of 1,200 -- on a recent day it carried only 126 people -- and survives now on a hull full of trucks and motor homes which cannot fit on the new craft.
But the Caribou's staff believe the battle is not over, not when Newfoundlanders are just starting to realize the Max Mols' most serious downside. Out on the sea, the new ferry has been known to hit swells so hard -- especially after the all-you-can-eat buffet -- it can cause passengers to dart for the washrooms. Which may be why Newfoundlanders now call it the "Comet 'n' Vomit."
Regulars on the Caribou, however, say the choice is not about comfort or convenience; it's about the lost notion of a journey. "Here, you got enough time to get drunk, have a sleep and cure your hangover," said John (he would not give his last name), a wholesaler from St. John's.
In the Killick Lounge, where Bread 'n' Butter was into its third set, John and his three friends were well into their fourth pitcher of Newfoundland's Black Horse beer, worried only that Port aux Basques and its rocky outcrops were within sight, five hours after the Caribou had left North Sydney.
John thought once more about the Max Mols and scoffed. "You can't drink enough in two hours."
John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on globeandmail.com, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.