The Queen of the North was settling in for her return trip to Port Hardy. A reciprocal cruise was scheduled the next day as the Queen of Prince Rupert was relieved of her duties to sail south to Tsawwassen. The Queen of the North was an old lady of thirty-seven years, and was due for retirement in four years. But with her fine lines and size, she was a favourite of many and was for a very long time considered the flagship of the BC Ferry fleet. She may have been looked down by the larger ladies of the Inside Passage, the large Alaskan Cruise Ships as they shared the same route, but for all that knew her, she was an important part of the Central Coast.
The Queen of The North cast off from Prince Rupert at 8 PM on March 21st, with sixteen vehicles and 101 passengers aboard. The ship makes a few scheduled stops along the way, to small communities such as Klemtu and Bella Bella. During the off tourist period the Queen of The North was an important link on the Central Coast, working as a supply ship which calls in a various small communities in rotation each week. The route involves tricky navigation through islands and islets south of Prince Rupert, then settling into the highway like Grenville Channel. Grenville Channel is a long straight channel that offers exceptional scenery, the first taste of the Inside Passage for southbound travellers. Transit through Grenville Channel takes about 2 hours at 16 to 18 knots. She entered Grenville Channel at around 10:00 PM. The ship was making good speed travelling at her service speed of about 18 knots. Weather was reported to be strong winds of about 40 to 50 knots with periodic bouts of heavy rain caused by squalls. Sea conditions were choppy. Visibility was good. Typical for the northern coast in early spring, but a nasty night. The Queen of The North was designed and used to sailing in such typical conditions.
The ship made good through Grenville Channel. At the southern end the three crew on the bridge at the time, a senior deck officer, a junior deck officer and helmsman would have seen the flashing light of Sainty Point on the port hand. The Queen of the North exited Grenville Channel at around 12:15 AM. A course correction which brings the ship in line with Point Cummins is started at the exiting of Grenville Channel and used for the transit through Wright Sound. Gil Island would be in the near distance, about to their 1 to 2 o’clock position, or starboard bow. Sainty Point light would be directly to port as the ship exited Grenville Channel to transit Wright Sound. The Queen of the North somehow did not make course correction towards Point Cummins and sailed directly without course alterations towards Gil Island at speed. The beach at this location is very minute and almost next to nothing since this is a region of deep fjords and many islands including Gil Island simply are vertical walled with no gently rising beach from the water.
At approximately 12:26 AM, having exited Grenville Channel and sailing through Wright Sound, she struck Gil Rock, near Juan Point, Gil Island, severely gashing the bottom of the hull. The hull was of an old design, single compartment. Newer vessels are required to have multiple compartments so that if one or two of those compartments are cut open by rock and flooded, the ship would still be able stay afloat for quite some time. At the time the Queen of the North in her birth name the Stena Denica was completed single hulled vessels were commonplace.
The grounding on the rocks began with a loud bang, perhaps one or two, and a nauseating grinding sound of screeching steel and vibrations from rough movements over rocks. Then silence. Water instantly began to fill the lowest parts of the ship and the crews below scrambled to safety. She sat on the rocks developing a list to starboard, moving about five degrees to starboard in about five minutes. Water was flooding in at a rapid rate. But luckily she remained fast to the rocks that had her in their grip.
From the bridge, alarm bells and whistles were sounded off immediately. The orders to close watertight bulkheads, crews to stations, passengers to muster at lifeboat stations were barked over the public address system over the now ear piercing alarms and bells. The crew on the passenger decks dropped everything in their hands and went into action immediately. The crews below decks in the engine room were facing in rushing water and scrambled to get out from the rising water as fast as they possibly could.
A Mayday call went out. The mayday call was also heard by citizens of Hartley Bay, who maintain a guard on VHF marine channel 16 at all times. At 12:28 AM, the call was repeated (relayed) to all stations in the region by Prince Rupert Coast Guard radio, reporting the situation and the location of the ferry. The two radio calls were heard by citizens living in nearby Hartley Bay. The citizens of Hartley Bay quickly went into action, lit up their houses, and moving into fast action, the women staying ashore to tend to blankets, clothing and meals for the incoming passengers and crew of the Queen of the North, the men taking to their boats and heading to the crippled ferry.
The crew aboard the Queen of the North meanwhile scrambled to safety and began quickly to pound furiously on every door of the staterooms to get everyone out onto outside decks for boarding into the lifeboats. They checked all rooms to locate everyone. Luck was on their side as the ship did not move for quite sometime, despite filling with water quickly. The Sir Wifred Laurier, a Canadian Coast Guard light icebreaker and currently serving as a coast station tender and patrol vessel, advises that she is preparing departure and dispatches a fast response boat.
The captain having assessed the grave situation of his crippled ship gave the “abandon ship” order at 12:53 AM and all crew and passengers, mustered to life stations began to leave the ship. The captain was the last person off the crippled vessel. The crew and passengers were safely off and from distance of the ship about a half hour after the ship struck the rocks. The citizens of nearby Hartley Bay were by now fully engaged in the truest sense of the traditions of the sea reflecting providing assistance and help to ships in distress, continued their rescue mission with urgency.
After an hour on the surface, the electrical system failed as the still rising water had flooded the engine room completely and the ferry plunged into darkness. She could not stay afloat with the heavy burden of water flooding in. She began to raise her bow reminiscent of the Titanic, fixtures inside began loudly crashing and hammering towards the heavier stern of the ship. The air pressure inside the ship blew out the forward windows, all sounds of painful agony from a ship at death. The passengers and crew that could see her, watched with shock and deep sadness as the ferry tilted up about eighty degrees and began to sink. She slipped stern first, below the now boiling waves around her and went to the bottom, resting in 450 m of water upright, landing on a bed of silt and gravel. In just a few minutes, the ferry was gone and there was stillness in the cold wet night, other than the choppy water slapping against the life rafts and lifeboats.