Last week, I sailed from Digby, Nova Scotia to Saint John, New Brunswick aboard Bay Ferries Princess of Acadia. But when I pulled up to the ticket booth, reservation in-hand, the young brunette girl behind the glass looked perplexed.

“It says here you’re supposed to see the Purser once you’re onboard. I don’t really know why.”

Bay Ferries Princess of Acadia docked in Digby, Nova Scotia, one day prior to my sailing. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Bay Ferries Princess of Acadia docked in Digby, Nova Scotia, one day prior to my sailing. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

I didn’t really know why, either. But usually in these situations, it’s safe to assume they’ve marked “Journalist” in bold, red letters next to your name. Sometimes, that’s a good thing. Sometimes, it’s a bad thing.

So after parking the car on the vehicle deck of the ship, which was constructed in 1970 and entered service the following year, I went up to the Purser’s window and introduced myself. He’d heard I was a big fan of ships, he explained, and would I like to see the bridge?

The Passenger Cafeteria aboard Princess of Acadia. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The Passenger Cafeteria aboard Princess of Acadia. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

A ship’s navigation bridge is to ship-spotters what the cockpit is to aviation buffs: the Holy Grail of technical spaces. So after we’d cast off our lines from Digby, I was escorted upstairs to the navigation bridge, where I met Captain Dave Doucet.

An easygoing and friendly gentleman, Captain Ducet was more than happy to show me the vast array of navigation equipment on the bridge of the Princess of Acadia, some of which dates back to the vessel’s construction over 40 years ago.

Captain Dave Ducet on the bridge of Princess of Acadia. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Captain Dave Ducet on the bridge of Princess of Acadia. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

To illustrate the contrast, consider this: a modern, digital chart and track system sits next to a KaMeWa control unit made of solid steel and loaded with knobs, levers and working systems. Captain Ducet opened a panel underneath the console to show the miles of chains and pneumatic piping interspersed with modern-day cabling. If something doesn’t work on the bridge of the Princess of Acadia, a wrench is more useful than a good IT person.

Old Meets New. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Old Meets New. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The ship was laid down in 1970 and entered service in 1971. In fact, except for a few brief jaunts – like the one to a Charleston, South Carolina drydock earlier this year to fix a malfunctioning bow thruster – she’s largely remained on the same Digby-Saint John run for her entire career.

The crossing itself takes just over three hours and can be complicated by the region’s famously strong tidal conditions, not to mention weather systems that can move in from the north and the south.

The portside bridge wing. Both enclosed wings look markedly different from the rest of the bridge, owing to their late addition. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The portside bridge wing. Both enclosed wings look markedly different from the rest of the bridge, owing to their late addition. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Old route maps and deck plans for the Princess of Acadia, kept in the Captain's Room. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Old route maps and deck plans for the Princess of Acadia, kept in the Captain’s Room. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Princess of Acadia, though, isn’t your average ferry. She sports clean, attractive lines that are reminiscent of ocean liners like P&O’s Canberra, with an elongated bow and swept-back superstructure. Her navigation bridge looks about ten years ahead of its time, with enclosed bridge wings that were retrofitted onto the ship in short order after her first season, when snow buried the floor of the original exposed ones.

Lifeboats overhead and plenty of deck space give Princess of Acadia an old-style cruising feel. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Lifeboats overhead and plenty of deck space give Princess of Acadia an old-style cruising feel. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

She can carry 650 passengers and 155 vehicles on the three-hour crossing, and despite her sleek appearance, she’s actually a RORO ferry (Roll On, Roll Off) – her bow swing up to allow vehicles to drive off in Saint John, while her stern doors act as a loading ramp while docked in Digby.

At 479 feet in length, she can average a speed of about 18 knots, though on our crossing there was never really any reason to travel faster than 14 knots.

On the bow, looking aft towards the navigation bridge. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

On the bow, looking aft towards the navigation bridge. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

As Captain Ducet explained, despite the differences in equipment on this bridge as compared with modern bridges, there’s no actual difference in the principles behind sailing a vessel of this size.

There are no fin stabilisers onboard, giving Princess of Acadia a gentle roll from port to starboard during our voyage. There was, at one time, a tank ballast stabiliser system of dubious effectiveness that is no longer in use, but on a three-hour voyage, chances are most guests won’t notice it’s missing.

Note the attractive, swept-back forward superstructure aboard Princess of Acadia. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Note the attractive, swept-back forward superstructure aboard Princess of Acadia. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

For ship aficionados, the Princess of Acadia is an absolute dream to sail aboard. She’s been run hard, to be sure, but she is still in excellent shape and her friendly crew do a darn good job of making sure everyone onboard is well-fed, caffeinated, and entertained.

Of course, the best coffee is served up on the bridge, where it’s brewed to “Navigator Strength.”

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The Princess of Acadia's bow. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The Princess of Acadia’s bow. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

A guest watches the shores of Nova Scotia slip away. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

A guest watches the shores of Nova Scotia slip away. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The future for Princess of Acadia is far from certain. A CBC News article published in January indicates that she may only run until March of next year, though lacking a suitable replacement vessel at the moment, it’s likely she will run longer than that.

I sure hope she’s still there, the next time I travel to Saint John.

Sailing into Saint John, as seen from the bridge. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Sailing into Saint John, as seen from the bridge. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

More information on BAY Ferries and the Princess of Acadia can be found by paying a visit to their website!

 

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