Canadian Research Position Focuses on Marine Passenger Transportation

Ocean Sciences Centre, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Ocean Sciences Centre, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Published Mar 29, 2020 6:23 PM by Harry Valentine

The Canadian Ferry Association is investing close to CAN$700,000 to establish an Industrial Research Chair in marine passenger transportation technologies, at Memorial University located at St John’s in Newfoundland, Canada. Memorial University offers an undergraduate program in ocean and naval architectural engineering that includes a mandatory co-operative aspect. The university is apparently still open to accepting application for the research chair.


Canada’s intercity passenger transportation system includes essential airline and maritime modes. On Canada’s west and east coasts, building roads and undersea tunnels to connect to coastal communities would be prohibitively expensive. Ferry ships connect Canada’s eastern province of Newfoundland to Labrador, also to Nova Scotia and the Canadian mainland. In Western Canada, ferry vessels connect British Columbia to offshore Vancouver Island which is part of British Columbia, as well as many other offshore and coastal communities that are within that province. Ferry vessels connect remote coastal communities located in eastern Quebec along the St Lawrence River.

During an earlier era, ferry transportation connect Canada’s smallest province of Prince Edward Island to the mainland, until the Confederation Bridge was built across Northumberland Strait. There are several offshore and remote coastal communities located in the eastern region of Quebec on the shore of Gulf of St Lawrence. The combination of ferry vessel, seaplane and airplane services connect the remote and offshore communities to larger cities in Quebec that are served by railway and road transportation. In Ontario, a ferry service connects Manitoulin Island to Bruce Peninsula to provide more direct road access to Toronto.

Short-Distance Ferries

Several short-distance ferries operate across Canada, providing transportation access across rivers at locations without bridge access. In many of these cases, the volume of road traffic is too low to warrant construction of a bridge. A total of over a dozen river-powered kinetic ferry services operate mainly in western Canada, most incurring a direct operating cost of around two cents per hour. One ferry across the Ottawa River uses cable propulsion, the cable being driven by shore mounted electric motors. At the northeastern end of Lake Ontario, a battery-powered ferry service connects city of Kingston to an offshore island. 

A north-south ferry service operates across Canada’s famous Bay of Fundy with its extreme tides, greatly reducing the traveling distance (by road) between Saint John and Halifax/Dartmouth. Several north-south ferries sail across the Lower St Lawrence River downstream of Montreal, also reducing the traveling distance by road. A short-distance ferry connects Toronto to the nearby Toronto Island as well as between Montreal and Dorval Island. Short-distance ferry services operate across several regional rivers across Canada.

Alternative Technologies

Canada’s maritime environment includes a wide range of sailing conditions that varies from very calm to regions swept by strong winds, powerful currents and severe waves. Internationally, maritime researchers have built and tested several interesting boat designs that include using wave power, where boats have sailed at speeds of six knots. Now retired Canadian professor Brad Blackford built and tested a windmill powered boat capable of sailing at up to eight knots into a headwind. A scale model variation involved a boat-mounted waterwheel driving a winch that pulled in a tether secured upstream, using river current to propel the boat upstream.
Innovative underwater keel-sail design shows the promise of a current powered vessel guided by a cable, being able to sail up to 30 degrees diagonally upstream across a channel. Powerful currents flow offshore from Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and in Queen Charlotte and Strait and Strait of Georgia. Several short-distance ferry services operate around Newfoundland connecting the mainland to nearby offshore islands, the closest such ferry to Memorial University sailing five kilometers in Conception Bay between Bell Island and the western region of St. John’s peninsula. The ferry provides an opportunity to test new concepts in vessel propulsion.

Local Research Opportunity

Wind and waves occur along much of the coast of Newfoundland, providing research opportunities to explore possibilities in wind-powered and wave-powered vessels used for fishing, ferry and tourist service. Ocean currents and tidal currents flow through several coastal channels around Newfoundland, also through the Strait of Belle Isle located in the northeastern region of the Gulf of St Lawrence, where a trans-channel ferry service operates. Perhaps there would be scope to explore possibilities of using the current to propel a ferry across the strait, using sailboat precedent where the wind-driven boat exceeded the speed of the cross-wind.

Numerous sheltered ocean inlets are located along the Newfoundland coast, several being home to small and remote villages. Sheltered inlets also occur around the Gulf of St Lawrence and also along the coast of Canada’s other Atlantic maritime provinces, with a comparable geographic layout occurring along Western Canada’s Pacific coast. The geographic layout allows for the operation of wing-in-ground (WIG) effect vehicles that could offer low-cost, fast passenger transportation between coastal communities. During winter, it is crucial that Canada’s national transportation department allow such technology to touch down on and become airborne at coastal ice/snow runways.

National Opportunities

The development of wing-in-ground effect coastal transportation in Canada’s Newfoundland region could serve as a precedent to introduce such transportation services to connect to Canada’s remote northern coastal communities. There are several such communities located around James Bay and Hudson Bay. Winter ice conditions restrict the arrival of supply ships at many Arctic regional coastal communities. A ground effect vehicle could travel above surface ice that would stop a ship or prevent ship transportation. It could carry heavier load than an airplane while consuming a fraction of the amount of fuel to undertake the journey.

An interpretation from an official at Canada’s national department of transport requires that ground effect vehicles touch down on and lift off from water, not coastal runways. During winter, people would have to walk over coastal sea ice between the vehicle and coastal community while essential supplies would have to be pulled by sled, with the risk of falling through the ice. A repeal of the requirement would allow ground effect vehicles to touch down on and lift off from coastal snow runways excavated above solid ground. Many communities would benefit from such a regulatory revision.


There is much potential for research into maritime passenger transportation technology in Canada, where many coastal communities are without intercity roadway connections. Canada’s region of Newfoundland and Labrador is home to several such communities where coastal boats regularly deliver essential supplies. There may be scope to adapt a variety of maritime technologies to provide future passenger transportation service to both short-distance and long-distance markets.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.