Skip to content

The tides of time for Prince Rupert Airport Ferry - 50th anniversary sails quietly by

Fifty years for the ferry are a blink of an eye for local man, Ernie Sanchez
The plaque identifier that Ernie Sanchez saw when he realized that his hands had built this ferry. The Digby Island Ferry was built in 1970 and has just sailed passed it’s 50th anniversary. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

Since the early 1970s Prince Rupert residents, tourists, business professionals, contractors and many more have touched local man Ernie Sanchez’ handiwork without even knowing it. If anyone has arrived in Prince Rupert via the airport, it is thanks to Ernie’s efforts.

The year 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the Prince Rupert Airport Ferry. Built in 1970, in what was then the Vancouver Shipyards, the ferry sailed to local shores soon after, where it has berthed and sailed most days since. While the actual half-century milestone date has quietly passed by without any mention from its owners, the City of Prince Rupert, this fundamental transportation vehicle has been remembered specifically by one local man who gave his heart and nearly his soul to the building of the vessel.

READ MORE: Airport ferry due for a refit

In the early 1950s it was determined by engineers that a safe location for building an airport in Prince Rupert could not be established on the mainland or Kaien Island due to the mountainous terrain. By 1962 the unique island airport, located on Digby Island, was under construction and a ferry was needed for transporting passengers to and from flights. Prior to this, air passengers would catch amphibious craft to Sandspit airport on Haida Gwaii, then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.

During this time Ernie Sanchez and his wife Louisa lived on another continent and hadn’t thought of a life in the true north strong and free. It was only when Ernie’s brother, who already lived in British Columbia, suggested he come that he thought about it.

When Ernie Sanchez first arrived in Canada in 1968 as a new immigrant from Belize, he had no idea or plans that his job as a labourer in Vancouver would be a major part of Prince Rupert history, and pave the way to form a crucial 9 km water road for local transportation.

Ernie sat in the living room of his Prince Rupert home, where he has lived for more than 45 years and welcomed in The Northern View to share his memories and contributions of the early days in how both, he and the ferry he helped to build, ended up in Prince Rupert - together.

“I came to Canada in 1968 and my first job was at Vancouver Shipyard in North Van. at the foot of Pemberton. I went in as a labourer. We were bringing up the tugs and barges on the “syncrolift” to be repaired. Then we transferred them into the yard,” Ernie described.

In 1969 his employer purchased a set of shears to cut metal and steel plates for the making of boats and ships.

“Because I had a mechanical background they asked if I would like to do that. So, from being a labourer I got a promotion. I’d get the blue prints from the office and cut the 34 ft. by eight ft. plates to make the vessels,” Ernie said.

Ernie set to his job learning from and respecting the team members who showed him the ropes. He still remembers each of their names and fond qualities about them. Joe Gillis his immediate supervisor, Jack Warwick, Al Gifford, Jack Atchison, Tommy Curskin, Bill Bradley, Chuck Wikine, John Wiens, Bob Compo, Jim Millard, ‘Big Gordy’ a guy from Prince Rupert, whose last name he doesn’t know. Many of them later settled in the Fraser Valley, Ernie said.

All the men worked together building ships, boats, ferries and building memorable friendships along the way.

The day came in the spring of 1970 when sea-trials on the vessel they had been constructing were scheduled. There was still a bit to be completed on the anti-corrosion spray painting, but everything was on schedule for the testing. At 11:45 a.m. the numerous electricians, painters and the mechanical crew all downed tools a little early and off-boarded for lunch.

Left on the boat was a single painter known as “Eric the Red”, because he was from Norway Ernie said, and a lone welder. Just as Eric Red reached above deck to mix more paint a huge explosion from below deck rang out. The explosion could be heard blocks away, Ernie said.

The aft end of the ferry was blown at a 90 degree angle with the solid steel plates bent upwards like hinged tailgates, Ernie said. Eric the Red was thrown across the deck from the force and had head injuries for three weeks which left him for some time cross-eyed from the magnitude of the detonation. Tragically, the welder below deck was killed.

READ MORE:City of Prince Rupert to explore funding for Kwinitsa airport ferry

There was an investigation into the accident but no conclusive determinations about the cause were arrived at. Ernie said the main theory is that the mist from the paint spray, combined with the string of bare light bulbs hanging in the corridors plus a spark from the welders torch ignited to create the lethal blast.

“The only reason no one else got killed was because all those guys were leaving to get lunch,” Ernie said shaking his head as he recalled the tragedy in which so many more lives could have been lost, including his own.

“We repaired it and everything. They finally had the sea-trials and then it was shipped away,” Ernie said. “I didn’t know where it went.”

He said often they would build vessels and not know where they were destined for. The ferry was officially launched on May 22, 1970.

Ernie went on with his life in Vancouver and at the ship yards. Then in 1973 his wife, Louisa, was offered a teaching position in Prince Rupert. Ernie, his brother, and Louisa drove up north on Labour weekend for the start of the school year and so the car could be left with her, while Ernie flew back to Vancouver.

As Ernie approached the ferry to the airport his eyes fell on a familiar sight that warmed his heart.

“I looked up and I saw the plaque on the ferry that says ‘Built in Vancouver Shipyard, Hull No. 10.’ It was that moment I realized my handiwork was in Prince Rupert.”

“We came here for two years and it’s been 45 years now,” Ernie said.

“I figured that since it’s been almost 50 years, and I’ve never seen anything I built last 50 years, and seeing I am here that it hit me maybe I should share my story,” Ernie said about the making of the ferry and it’s anniversary.

Ernie said the ferry took between six to nine months to build. Historical records show the twin screw propulsion passenger and vehicle ferry was originally named the Prince Rupert Airport Ferry. It was renamed in 1995 as the Digby Island Ferry. It has been owned by the Corporation of the City of Prince Rupert since 1970. The steel hulled vessel has a gross tonnage of 214.12 running on two 246 brake horsepower (bhp) diesel engines.

When asked if he was proud of the job he did and his contribution, Ernie said, “Yes”.

“Well, fifty years later, sure I am. I am still here along with it, let’s put it that way. I am proud of the job I did,” Ernie said, but he didn’t do it alone and that’s why he mentioned the names of the other men who also helped create the historic ferry for Prince Rupert.

Ernie said he hasn’t seen or heard of any of the construction crew for a very long time. He ran into ‘Big Gordy’ once in Prince Rupert. He doesn’t have the other guys’ addresses and doesn’t have any photographs either. One thing for sure is his memory of building the cornerstone of the air transport to and from Prince Rupert is sharp. Ernie Sanchez is proud of how his hands have contributed to Prince Rupert and he wishes the ferry a happy 50th anniversary, as do we at The Northern View.

K-J Millar | Journalist
Send K-J email
Like the The Northern View on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter
Ernie Sanchez is back on board the Digby Island Ferry on June 15, 2020, after building it more than 50 years ago. Both he and the ferry started off in the Vancouver ship yards. Ernie had no idea back in 1970 that his contribution to the build would become part of Prince Rupert transportation history. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Prince Rupert resident Ernie Sanchez remembers the identifying plaque of the airport ferry from when he built it in 1970, in the Vancouver Shipyards. Sanchez had no thoughts at the time that his contributions in building the ferry would be such a big part of Prince Rupert transportation history. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)