Author Tags: Non-Fiction
One of B.C.'s top news stories in 2006 was the sinking of the BC Ferries passenger vessel, Queen of the North. Two people lost their lives in the accident. In the aftermath of that terrible night, members of the crew were fired and Fourth Mate Karl Lilgert was sentenced to four years in prison for criminal negligence. The Captain of the Queen of the North, Colin Henthorne, reveals a first-hand account of what happened in his book The Queen of the North Disaster: The Captain's Story (Harbour 2016).
How did a ship that sailed the same course thousands of times fall victim to such an inexplicable error? Was the bridge crew fooling around? On the tenth anniversary, Captain Henthorne recalls in detail the ill-fated voyage and dispels rumours about what really happened and reveals an insider's take on a modern marine disaster.
Colin Henthorne was born in Vancouver and spent nearly all his life living and working on the water. At the age of 21 he became commander of his first vessel and continued to command ships most of his life. He sailed as master with BC Ferries from 1990 and was 52 when the Queen of the North sank. He was not on watch at the time of the ship's grounding and fought to keep his job but lost. It took him over six years to recover his career. He later became the Canadian Coast Guard Rescue Co-ordinator at the Joint Co-ordination Centre in Victoria.
The Queen of the North Disaster (Harbour 2016) $24.95 978-1-55017-761-9
Ten years after
by Beverly Cramp
It's been ten years since the BC Ferries' passenger vehicle Queen of the North, carrying 101 passengers and crew, struck an underground ledge and sank off the coast of B.C. near Gil Island, between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert. Two passengers went missing, were never found and are presumed dead.
And, for ten years, questions have swirled around this tragedy.
The vessel was on a well-known course; it was a voyage successfully undertaken thousands of times, so how could this possibly have occurred? One theory quickly floated to the top of public conversations around the water cooler. It was widely surmised that a male crewmember and a female crewmember--who had previously been involved romantically--had been distracted by romantic canoodling.
A first-hand account of what happened the night of March 22, 2006, The Queen of the North Disaster: The Captain’s Story (Harbour $24.95), by the ex-captain of the Queen of the North, Colin Henthorne, is one man's effort to dredge up the truth about the plight of the ferry that stills lies on the sea bed. His carefully worded, in-depth account thoroughly debunks those salacious rumours about sex on the bridge.
“I would guess that anyone who has heard of the sinking has heard that rumour," he writes. "Maclean’s magazine called it ‘perhaps the best-known rumour in B.C.’ A dismaying number of people believe it to this day.”
Helmswoman Karen Briker and fourth mate Karl Lilgert, who were alone on the bridge, have denied the rumour, testifying under oath. Henthorne adds credence to their testimony while noting it was only normal for two people on the bridge to engage in sporadic conversation. "It would be very strange if they hadn’t,” he writes. “If crew members working long shifts on a bridge don’t speak to each other, it indicates something amiss with the working relationship. Briker testified that she had been showing some fellow crew members ‘paint swatches she was considering for the walls of a home she had recently purchased. Hours later, when Briker and Lilgert found themselves alone together on the bridge, Briker said the subject of the house came up again.’
"Lilgert reportedly said, ‘I didn’t know you were buying a house.’ This was played up by the Crown as evidence of hot passion, although it could just as easily be seen as evidence the pair was no longer close. Their own evidence was that they had had a brief affair in the past, but that it had been casual and was over. It may not have come up but for an unknown informant who passed the rumour to the RCMP.”
Prosecutors in Lilgert's case and the press seized upon the ‘sex on the bridge’ rumour says Henthorne.
Henthorne writes: “Michel Huot, one of the ten prosecutors at Lilgert’s trial, emphasized it. Huot accused Lilgert of relieving the second mate, Kevin Hilton, early so he could be alone with Briker on the bridge. ‘The relationship the two of you shared,’ Huot said, ‘the attraction was powerful enough that whether it was sexual activity or an argument or a discussion coming out of the breakup of the relationship, that’s what occupied your attention that night, not navigating the vessel.’ The fact that the prosecution couldn’t decide whether to accuse the pair of making love or making war shows just how little evidence they had to suggest anything untoward had taken place between them at all.”
Henthorne writes despairingly: “Nobody seemed to give serious consideration to the fact that the bridge of a moving ship is subject to constant, unannounced intrusion, making it one of the most unsuitable venues imaginable for any kind of intimate behaviour, or that it would be bizarrely out of character for a veteran seaman entrusted with the conduct of a BC Ferries flagship to risk his career, his ship, and the lives of all on board, including his own, for a moment of foolish indulgence. Certainly those who knew Lilgert as a responsible shipmate who took great pride in his professionalism find it unthinkable.”
As for how the ferry could have run aground after thousands of previous sailings on that route, Henthorne writes: “This attitude is perhaps understandable in non-mariners. Experienced mariners know that vessels on scheduled runs do not have the luxury of choosing when they sail; they have to be out there every day except in the most extreme conditions, and they are out there so much that they are more likely than other vessels to be involved in freak occurrences – perfect storms of weather, traffic, equipment failure, or poor judgment that the more occasional seaman might never face. In this sense, highly repetitive navigation carries with it a special risk: if anything can go wrong, sooner or later it will.”
The possibility of equipment failure was dismissed early. Henthorne begs to differ: “The Queen of the North," he writes, "had a documented record of equipment failure, including total steering failures that could never be explained (one occurred in August 2005; incident reports were filed), as well as failures of the autopilot that were also never explained.”
Henthorne has tactfully suggested: “By the time Lilgert came to trial, the declarations of various expert witnesses, pundits, and armchair sailors had been so widely publicized that it seemed to be almost universally accepted that the accident was caused by negligence. People who had not been there had made categorical statements about the state of the weather, about the state of the equipment, about the ship hanging up at Gil Rock (it didn’t), and about the precise damage that had been done to the ship (as if they had swum down 1,400 feet/427 metres, cleared away the silt that buried the hull, and examined it).”
And thus, Henthorne avers, the assumption of negligence hung over the incident. “Every formal hearing, from BC Ferries’ own Divisional Inquiry to the Workers Compensation Board Appeal Tribunal to the Supreme Court, felt justified in making assumptions about Lilgert’s being ‘distracted’ and ‘not doing his job.’ In this way the rumour may have been as effective a prosecution weapon as any smoking gun.”
Henthorne provides extensive coverage of Lilgert's own testimony about what happened. It reads like a cascade of ill-fated events involving course alterations to avoid Gil Island and a tugboat towing a log boom as well as another vessel in the area; a sudden storm; strong winds sucking the ferry off-course; and "issues" with navigational equipment.
The ferry actually struck an underwater ledge a short distance off Gil Island, the island that Lilgert was attempting to navigate away from.
“When told by the court the electronic data didn’t show course alterations," Henthorne writes, "Lilgert said he did not understand why. Briker had testified earlier, and Canadian Press reported: The ship was on autopilot, and at some point, Lilgert ordered Briker to enter a large course correction into the system… Before she could make the change, Briker saw trees through a window that were illuminated by the ferry’s lights. ‘I then remember hearing him say something like, ‘Oh my God,’ or, ‘Oh no,’ said Briker. ‘He then ordered me to turn off the autopilot and I told him that I didn’t know how.’… Briker was a casual employee, and she had said she hadn’t worked on the bridge of that ship for nearly a year… Shortly after, Briker said she overheard Lilgert speaking with another officer. ‘I heard him say, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I was trying to go around a fishing boat. We hit a squall and the radar screen had whited out.”
The mention of another boat was given short shrift by the media, writes Henthorne, and the narrative returned to the love distraction story. “Even Judge Sunni Stromberg-Stein in her sentencing decision said she thought Lilgert’s relationship with quartermaster Karen Briker was a significant factor in the crash,” he writes. The court record cites Stromberg-Stein concluding that she didn’t need to speculate on what Mr. Lilgert was doing on the bridge that night, “I know what he was not doing. He was not doing his job.”
This viewpoint, says Henthorne, provided the best outcome for BC Ferries. “To some extent," he writes, "it deflected blame away from the company and onto replaceable employees. It gave the travelling public some reassurance that the problem had been dealt with.”
Briker was fired.
Lilgert, who soon felt it was in his best interest to move away from Prince Rupert where he had a house, was eventually charged with criminal negligence causing death and sentenced to four years in prison.
Captain Henthorne, who wasn't on watch when the grounding occurred, fought to keep his job and lost. He found himself jobless with his reputation severely tarnished.
Again the public engaged in relatively uninformed conjecture. Without knowing much of the details, some people assumed Henthorne was the fall guy for BC Ferries.
In The Queen of the North Disaster: The Captain’s Story Henthorne has posited a far less spicy reason for the accident. “Another way of looking at the incident, and one it is safe to say BC Ferries would not favour," he writes, "was that ‘given the state of the company’s safety practices and protocols, the fleet was an ‘accident waiting to happen’ and that ‘systemic problems that affected the whole fleet… might have been the cause, or one of the causes, of the sinking of the Queen of the North.’ This view was held by none other than BC Ferries’ own director of safety, health and environment, Captain Darin Bowland.”
It took Henthorne more than six years to recover his career after the firing. At first he couldn't get a maritime job. He ended up looking for unskilled jobs until Captain Elgin McKillop hired him to run an inland ferry between Galeana Bay and Shelter Bay on Upper Arrow Lake. He was hired as a first mate, but not full-time, and also took work as a deckhand. At age 56, thirty-five years after his first command, he swept decks and cleaned toilets. Now he works as a Canadian Coast Guard Rescue Co-ordinator at the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria.
The Queen of the North Disaster: The Captain’s Story
The Queen of the North Disaster: The Captain’s Story
by Colin Henthorne
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2016. $24.95 / 978-1-55017-761-9
Reviewed by Jan Drent
Ten years after the sinking of the Queen of the North in March 2006, the vessel’s captain, Colin Henthorne, provides a first-hand account of why the ship struck an underwater ledge off Gil Island, 135 kilometres south of Prince Rupert.
The impact tore open the ship’s bottom, ripped out both propellers, and sent the ship to the bottom of Wright Sound with the loss of two lives.
Reviewer Jan Drent, who commanded destroyers in the Royal Canadian Navy and served as Canadian Naval Attaché in Moscow, Helsinki, and Warsaw, gets his bearings and reads the barometer on the decisions made on the bridge of the Queen of the North on that fateful night on the Inside Passage.
At twenty minutes after midnight on Wednesday, March 22, 2006, the BC Ferry Queen of the North, well off her normal track, drove onto an underwater ledge at 17.5 knots (32.4 km/hour) on a remote stretch of the Inside Passage.
The underwater hull was fatally damaged but momentum carried the vessel into deep water where she filled with water and sank eighty minutes later. The ship was being operated by a crew of forty-two on a routine run from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy.
Fortunately, although her maximum passenger capacity was 650, there were only fifty-nine on board during this winter voyage. In favourable weather conditions there was sufficient time for an orderly evacuation of passengers and crew into lifeboats, life rafts, and a rescue boat carried by the ferry.
The captain, Colin Henthorne, was among the last to leave the ship thirty minutes after the grounding. Other vessels in the area and people at Hartley Bay, six miles away, had heard the ferry’s distress call and responded promptly. Help began arriving even before the Queen had sunk. Tragically, two passengers -- Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette from 108 Mile House -- had disappeared and were later declared dead after a prolonged RCMP investigation.
Queen of the North, just out of a $3.3 million refit, was a well-equipped modern vessel crewed by experienced mariners on a familiar voyage. How could this horrific accident with the loss of two lives have happened?
Colin Henthorne sets out his version of the sinking and its aftermath in The Queen of the North Disaster: The Captain’s Story. His story is complex. He writes clearly, explains issues unfamiliar to general readers, supports his narrative with welcome footnotes, and includes a comprehensive glossary of nautical terms. This book has been nicely produced by Harbour Publishing and contains a useful index.
The sinking became notorious almost immediately amidst intense public interest. It became known that the only crewmembers on the bridge, Fourth Mate Karl Lilgert and Quartermaster Karen Briker, had recently ended a relationship.
Rumours and speculation abounded because they and the Second Mate, Keven Hilton, who was the senior officer on watch, but who was on a meal break, all refused to explain to initial investigators and the media what had happened.
What followed were two official inquiries, other hearings, a coroner’s report, and finally a trial seven years after the event, which found Karl Lilgert criminally negligent in the deaths of the two passengers.
Captain Henthorne was one of five crewmembers whose employment was eventually terminated by BC Ferries. His book tenaciously disputes many of findings in the official inquiries and the trial and challenges the termination of his captain’s position.
Henthorne and other crewmembers were questioned promptly by a BC Ferries team, which released a “Divisional Inquiry” in March 2007, one year after the sinking. Meanwhile, the federal Transportation Safety Board, which investigates the causes of accidents but does not recommend any disciplinary actions, had its own inquiry underway and sent the Sidney B.C.-tethered submersible ROPOS down 427m (1,400 feet) to the wreck to recover the hard drive from the electronic chart system.
The Transportation Safety Board inquiry was not released until March 2008, two years after the event. The Supreme Court of British Columbia had declared the two missing passengers presumed dead in April 2007. The orphaned children of Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette sued BC Ferries for damages due to wrongful death; but without the cash required to take their cases to trial, they settled out of court in 2009. A coroner’s report on the death of Gerald Foisy was competed in September 2010 as part of the evidence required for the criminal trial.
Henthorne’s employment with BC Ferries was terminated by the company in January 2007. The following year, he won a Workers’ Compensation Board appeal about his dismissal and was re-instated in May 2009. He then worked three two-week shifts as Master of the Queen of the North’s replacement ferry starting in November 2009.
Meanwhile, BC Ferries had successfully appealed the original Workers’ Compensation Board decision, and Henthorne’s employment was terminated for a second time in March 2010. His subsequent appeals of the WCB Tribunal decision, first to the Supreme Court and then to the Appeals Court of British Columbia, were unsuccessful. He has now painfully re-established his career as a Canadian Coast Guard Rescue Co-ordinator in Esquimalt.
The inquiries by BC Ferries and the Transportation Safety Board identified various issues requiring action by BC Ferries and Transport Canada. However, both found that the ship had been adequately equipped and crewed. BC Ferries had not provided an emergency evacuation plan for the ferry.
Henthorne reveals that, during the sinking, the crew used a cabin search system that he had designed and exercised during weekly fire drills. He reveals that some crewmembers had to escape from accommodation that was being flooded below the car deck, and that therefore some crewmembers earmarked for the search were not available. The search was also hampered because the chalk was missing that was supposed to be used to mark cabin doors as they were cleared of occupants. Later, because of conflicting head counts, it took a long time to establish definitely that two passengers were missing.
Both official inquiries determined that actions by the Fourth Mate caused the grounding. The Supreme Court ruled that he had failed to safely operate or navigate the Queen of the North, causing the death of two passengers.
Captain Henthorne explains that the ferry’s deck watches worked in two twelve-hour shifts. There were two certified Mates in the night shift, but only one was normally on the bridge except in restricted visibility or when transiting “the more challenging passages.”
Fourth Mate Lilgert took over conduct of the ship on the bridge from Second Mate Keven Hilton in good visibility shortly before midnight on March 21, 2006. The ferry was being steered by its autopilot system. Soon afterwards, she entered a broad stretch of the Inland Passage called Wright Sound. Mate Lilgert called Prince Rupert Marine Traffic to report that he would be altering course 17 degrees to port to take him clear of Gil Island, which jutted out into the Sound four miles ahead. However, the Queen of the North maintained course for fourteen minutes beyond the planned alteration without changing speed and eventually ran aground.
Henthorne does not say whether he and his officers had been alerted to unfavourable weather through weather forecasts or reports during the voyage. The Transportation Safety Board inquiry cited an Environment Canada analysis that the passage through a Cold Front had brought gale force southeasterly winds and heavy rain through the area.
The Queen therefore encountered heavy rain and high winds around the time she entered Wright Sound. The BC Ferries Divisional Inquiry established that, when Mate Lilgert took over the watch in the channel leading to the more open waters of Wright Sound, winds were already westerly at twenty knots. Lilgert told his trial that the ship encountered a squall that reduced visibility shortly before entering Wright Sound.
The post-accident investigations determined that a shrimp boat, which had been pointed out to the Mate on taking over conduct as being four miles ahead, moved north out of Wright Sound to shelter from the squall. Lilgert testified that he decided to delay his planned alteration of course because he was concerned about a contact ahead, which he had lost on radar.
Moments before striking the underwater ledge just off Gil Island, the Mate ordered his quartermaster to alter course to port. As she left her chair to make the change, both Lilgert and Quartermaster Briker apparently sighted trees off the starboard bow. The Mate ordered his quartermaster to switch to hand steering, but she told him that she did not know how to do so.
The Transportation Safety Board determined that the ferry’s course did in fact begin to alter to port shortly before striking the ledge. The impact sheared off both propellers and the Queen eventually drifted off to the northward. Meanwhile, Captain Henthorne had been summoned to the bridge, where he took charge.
Henthorne writes that he had long wondered what happened on the bridge and formed a theory only after the criminal trial, seven years after the accident. He firmly disposes of the rumours of salacious activity.
In his view, poor bridge layout and defective equipment contributed to the ship’s loss. During the recent refit, one of the two radars had been replaced and the system for switching between automated and manual steering had been modified. By the time the ferry was lost, Henthorne and his crew had accomplished three round voyages between Prince Rupert and Haida Gwai and one round trip to and from Port Hardy using the new systems. The Queen of the North’s other regular crew had previously operated the ship successfully for twelve days in the same waters.
The BC Ferries inquiry noted that no crewmembers had reported defects in bridge equipment. The high winds and heavy rain brought by the squall encountered in Wright Inlet would have caused clutter on radar displays.
Henthorne postulates that Mate Lilgert was so preoccupied in trying to find a target previously seen on radar through clutter that he lost situational awareness. He does not speculate on how long the squall lasted. When the ferry grounded, it was not raining and the evacuation of the ship was not hampered by winds.
Henthorne is particularly scathing about the new radar systems that had been installed in the recent refit, stating that he told the trial that they were “third rate” (p. 70). An electronic chart system that displayed the ship’s position based on GPS input on an electronic chart was at the front of the bridge.
The Transportation Safety Board inquiry learned that Mate Lilgert had turned down the brightness on the electronic navigation system to avoid interference with night vision, and the inquiry learned that other bridge officers were in the habit of doing the same thing. As a result, Lilgert would have been unable to readily observe what the electronic navigation system was telling him about the ship’s position.
Yet Henthorne writes that the electronic navigation system was “almost unusable” because of “massive faults” (p. 100). One of the navigational techniques using radar is called parallel indexing. Henthorne provides a concise description backed by a clear diagram (p. 89), but in his opinion the ship’s equipment was so cumbersome that parallel indexing was “practically useless.”
He does not speculate on why the Mate, even if concentrating on trying to locate a target on radar through sea return, did not observe echoes growing closer (“sea return” occurs when waves reflect a radar echo, hampering target identification).
In June 2013, following a trial by a Supreme Court of British Columbia judge and jury, Mate Lilgert was found guilty of criminal negligence causing the death of the two passengers and sentenced to four years in prison. The relevant section of the Criminal Code specifies that everyone is criminally negligent who (a) in doing anything, or (b) in omitting to do anything that it is his duty to do, shows wanton or reckless disregard for the lives and safety of other persons.
The trial heard expert opinion that Karl Lilgert failed to reduce speed in restricted visibility, to keep a good lookout, to call the Second Officer or the Captain, or to call the standby deckhand as an additional lookout, as prescribed.
Henthorne concedes that all of these actions could have been appropriate, but he feels that the “real problem was with the Fourth Mate’s assessment of the situation. All evidence points to the fact that he did not perceive how close to the island he was” (p. 104). Henthorne rejects the notion that Lilgert was negligent.
While elsewhere stressing Mate Lilgert’s professional competence and experience, Henthorne writes that the issue was “proficiency not criminality” (p. 76), and he adamantly disputes the notion that the Mate was distracted by the presence of Quartermaster Briker.
Henthorne writes that “no one has been able to determine exactly why” Mate Lilgert failed “to determine his position or course made good over the last few minutes” before the grounding, “and this is the one essential thing that needs to be determined” (p. 99). He suggests that an equipment failure or difficulties in using the bridge systems might well explain the problem.
Elsewhere, Henthorne asserts that investigators failed to probe the “human factors” that led Lilgert, who he states had more than 10,000 hours of navigational experience, to make faulty decisions. Indeed, Henthorne is so determined to dispute the results reached by painstaking inquiries and a four-month trial that he offers judgements that are open to question. Thus he suggests that because “There are so many ways to go wrong navigating the confined waters of the Inside Passage, it is seldom necessary to posit gross dereliction of duty as an explanation for an accident. Slight miscalculation is often a fully adequate reason” (p. 76).
But what became a disastrous situation on the bridge unfolded in just under a quarter of an hour. Was not realizing that the ship was standing into danger really a “slight miscalculation”?
Colin Henthorne apparently has over thirty-four years of experience as a ship’s master. He also has an aircraft pilot’s licence. Readers of this book will learn a lot about crewing in BC Ferries and the impact of the traumatic sinking on passengers and crewmembers. And indeed, lessons were learned. Management and the unions instituted a new program called SailSafe -- not cited here -- to identify and deal with safety issues called.
BC Ferries now operate with two certified navigation watch-keepers plus a trained Quartermaster on the bridge all times, but Henthorne is grudging about the effectiveness of the Bridge Resource Management training provided after the accident.
The Queen of the North Disaster, while written by a thoughtful and highly seasoned mariner, strains credulity about why this ship was lost, largely because the author is so one-sided in challenging what was determined by official inquiries, hearings, and a trial.
A graduate of UBC, Jan Drent was a career officer in the Royal Canadian Navy. He commanded three warships on both coasts and served ashore in Canada and overseas. Since retiring to Victoria with his wife, Jan has been active as a volunteer. He has pursued interests in languages by doing freelance translations from Russian and German. His nautical writings have included articles and book reviews in periodicals in Canada and the UK. His hobbies include sailing, walking, and reading.
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