[BELL ISLAND, NL] — It’s an overcast, but mild, day on Bell Island. It’s not the type of day many people would spend at the beach, but suitable for going out for a drive.
That’s just fine for Jean Bursey. It’s all the more likely that tourists will stop in to her small gift shop, Jeannie’s Treasures, along one of the island’s more scenic roadsides.
The building is only a bit larger than a shed, but it’s full of Bell Island trinkets, candy and travelling essentials such as chips, soda and maps. It’s all geared towards tourists.
Bursey greets her visitors with a warm smile and chitchat.
But when asked about the island’s infamous ferry service, her face screws into a frown.
“Nobody has come in to me and said to me, ‘the ferry is not running again today.’ ... You don’t have to tell me. I know, because I don’t have the business,” said Bursey.
“I need the two ferries running in order to make this work. I depend on the boats running,” she said.
She doesn’t make much money, but it’s enough for a bit of extra summer cash. She’s been running the shop in one form or another for years and has always managed to make it worthwhile. But that almost changed last summer.
“It was to a point last summer when it got so bad I was really going to shut’er down and not open. I was here for days and didn’t see anybody. It was awful,” she said.
The Bell Island Ferry Users Committee estimates that in July of 2011 alone, the ferry service between Bell Island and Portugal Cove had 10,000 fewer passengers than in the same month the previous year.
It also estimates that in the past three years, 15 per cent of scheduled crossings have been cancelled, mostly due to ferries breaking down.
That being said, Bursey is happy to report that things have improved for her this year. Because the ferries spent less time down for repairs, it meant more business for her.
But the service has been much maligned over the past couple of years as various issues continue to crop up.
There’s also been a lot of local news coverage and political wrangling back and forth over what needs to be done to fix the system’s problems.
Bursey, as a citizen and business owner on the island, hopes stories of people who really rely on the ferries for their daily bread don’t get lost in all the ink spent on this issue.
About 500 people line up on the Bell Island dock every morning to get to work on the province’s mainland. Going the other way in the summer are tourists eager to take the mine tour or explore the island’s scenery.
“People are poisoned. They’d love to come home, to live here. But with the ferries? It’s just not going to work,” said Bursey.
Angela Simms and her family are good examples. They started leasing the Bell of The Bay Inn, a local bed and breakfast/cafe, six months ago. But now they’re packing up and moving on.
Simms said the ferries played a big part in their decision to leave.
“During the winter we had people who came here for one night and got stranded for two or three because the ferries couldn’t run. Or people that phoned when they heard (only) one ferry is on and just cancelled their bookings because they just didn’t want to take that chance,” she said.
If you only have a week of vacation, she added, why risk getting stuck in one place longer than you’d like?
In May when the MV Beaumont Hamel lost power and collided with the dock in Portugal Cove, Simms had several bookings call and cancel out of fear of stepping on the ferries.
It’s too bad, she said, because Bell Island is a nice place to live — so long as the ferries are running on schedule.
“It’s a crime really, because it is such a beautiful place,” she said.
“There’s so much potential here, even commercially land-wise. But that ferry is such a drawback.”
Many residents of Bell Island have called on the province to purchase a new ferry for the run. That, they contend, is the only way to ensure reliability.
But the province has been hesitant on that front, insisting instead that the MV Flanders and MV Beaumont Hamel have several more years of service left in them.
The province is slowly replacing the older ferries in service. The plan involves replacing 10 vessels — six small, three medium and one large — and reducing the refit required. So far, two medium-sized ferries have been delivered.
Bell Island resident Stacey King was having a picnic on the beach Saturday while she chatted with The Telegram about the service.
“If they’re not going to invest the money to buy a new boat, they need to find some other way to fix the gap in service,” she said.