Beware the Wreckhouse winds

by James Menzies

CAPE RAY, Nfld. – Electronic warning signs, installed at both ends of a notorious stretch of Newfoundland highway in the Wreckhouse region of the province, seem to have done little to prevent truck rollovers.

Already this winter, several trucks have been blown onto their sides by the fierce Wreckhouse winds that whip down the Long Range Mountains through the Codroy Valley, reaching a velocity of over 150 km/h. Calvin Churchill, St. John’s terminal manager for Armour Transport, says the region has had “more trucks flip over in the last eight to 10 weeks than we’ve had in a long time, because we’ve been getting long stretches of wind, which takes the trucks out of service and then the guys get anxious to move. A lot of guys want to put it in gear and go.”

Truck rollovers have become so common in the area that Cape Ray resident Wayne Osmond says the local media rarely reports on  them. The photography enthusiast, in fact, has taken to photographing flipped over transport trucks with the same zeal others might photograph, say, wildlife.

Osmond says the Wreckhouse winds blow trucks off the road every year – sometimes as many as 15 in a year – and his treks along the road following a windstorm often reveal three or four tractor-trailers with the dirty side up.

That’s what prompted the province to invest $100,000 in new electronic warning signs aimed at deterring truckers from making a run for it when the winds are high. But the signs are only effective when the warnings are heeded. In mid-December, a convoy of trucks ignored the warnings and set out along the notorious stretch of the Trans-Canada Hwy. When one blew over, the remaining truckers sought help from the Department of Transportation, which advised them to travel three wide with the heaviest truck on the windward side to provide protection from the wind.

This did not impress motorist Tiffany Ford, who was on the highway at the time and quite startled when she rounded a corner to see the trucks travelling in her direction three abreast and occupying all the available road space.

“If I’d been going the speed limit that day, I’d have run right into those trucks,” she later told CBC television. “I was scared and very angry. I thought, ‘what are they doing?’ There should be repercussions for their actions.”

The truckers were charged by the RCMP but later had their tickets rescinded when it was discovered they were acting on the advice of the Transport Department. Gord Peddle, operations manager for Atlantica Diversified Transportation Systems, cut his teeth trucking in Newfoundland and says using a loaded truck to shield an empty one from the wind is not that uncommon.

“The three trucks running side by side, that’s not new to us,” he says. “That’s usually orchestrated by the officials, either the DoT or the RCMP. Typically, what they will do is close off the road on both ends and let trucks go through with the heavier one on the outside and the lighter one on the inside.”

Although Peddle wondered how Ford got onto the highway if it was closed, he downplayed the risks of a head-on collision.
“You can’t picture three trucks barreling down the road at 90 mph,” he said. “They were probably coming through at 10 km/h.”

So while Ford may well have been furious, the truckers who found themselves puttering down the Trans-Canada three wide may have been more concerned about facing the wrath of their bosses. Peddle’s driving days are behind him, but as a co-owner of Atlantica, he foots the repair bills when a rig is overturned.

“The last one I paid for, the guy made a judgment call,” Peddle recalls of a Wreckhouse rollover that occurred two years ago. “Unfortunately, not everyone makes perfect judgment calls.”

Atlantica’s policy is to let drivers decide whether or not the winds are too high to safely travel through the Wreckhouse region.
“My guys have strict instructions that if you go there and they’re making an advisory or you’re not comfortable – don’t go. Pull out,” Peddle says. He says even with the advisories, the winds can be unpredictable.

“Once that gust funnels through that mountain, it is very unpredictable,” he explains. “It’s not a steady wind and it will change pretty fast. You could be going through there and the wind may be measured at 50 km/h, which is not too bad, so you could leave the Chignick Lodge and by the time you move five kilometres, the winds can be 100 km/h.”

Armour Transport has a similar policy. The company trusts its drivers to make the right call and will never force a driver to make a run for it against their better judgment.

“The driver is in control,” Churchill says. “If he’s there three or four days, we’ll send them to a motel if they can get to a motel. At Armour, it’s strictly up to the driver and we will never tell the driver to go. We may tell them to stop, but we’ll never tell them to go until they decide it’s safe.”

The well-placed Chignick Lodge burnt down several years ago, but the property is still used as a staging area for trucks and trailers. Churchill remembers getting a call from a local shop owner one morning, informing him one of his trailers was found nose down in the ditch in front of the lodge. After making some calls, Churchill learned his driver dropped the trailer 400 feet from the road, near the motel, but it skidded along the parking lot overnight as the Wreckhouse winds howled.

“Some people in the Chignick Lodge saw the trailer blowing across the parking lot all night long,” he recalled. “They thought it was going to go skate right across the Trans-Canada Highway, but the landing gear went down into a hole and it tipped forward. That’s a scary thought when you can park 400 feet back (from the road) and it skids along like that.”

Who’s to blame?
Osmond, who grew up in the region, developed a knack for photographing truck rollovers initially out of frustration. He would see tractor-trailers flipped onto their sides and grow angry over the recklessness and the fact the costs ultimately are passed onto the consumer. He began posting his pictures online in hopes of raising awareness about both the dangers and the carelessness of some truckers. Osmond’s blog contains an embarrassing photo collection of Wreckhouse victims. If you like trucks, seeing finely polished rigs reduced to crumpled heaps of metal is hard to look at. Osmond says he has noticed certain similarities between each of the rollovers.

“It’s the same procedure every time,” he says. “Usually it’s the empty ones that blow over. The window is kicked out on the passenger side.”

The winds can flare up at any time of the year, but Osmond says the most treacherous winds always blow from the southeast. He says many of the trucks he’s photographed are plated from outside Newfoundland, and believes drivers who aren’t familiar with the region take too many chances. His advice to visitors? “Don’t run the gauntlet,” he warns. And ask the locals for advice. “Just ask somebody locally when you get off the (Marine Atlantic) boat. The local people – we know.” Environment Canada also posts wind advisories for the region on its Web site.

Churchill agrees truckers from other parts of Canada and the US don’t give the Wreckhouse winds the respect they deserve.

“We’ve had guys up from the States with their chests blown out saying ‘We’re used to driving in the wind, it’s windy in Texas,’ and they think it’s impossible for the wind to blow trucks over,” he says. “Little do they know that not too long ago, before Newfoundland lost the railway, it was blowing 200,000-lb rail cars off the tracks.”

But while Osmond and Churchill blame outsiders for many of the rollovers, Peddle argues that locals must share the blame – especially those who’ve become complacent.

“To be honest, I really think the people that are from away are not the ones getting caught, because they’re unfamiliar with it so they’re scared s-tless to move on,” he says. “What you’ve g
ot are the cocky bastards that run it every single day and think they know it all.”

Once you’ve had a scare, however, you’re not likely to take any further chances. Peddle recalled his own Wreckhouse near miss as a young truck driver.

He was riding as a passenger in a lightly loaded truck, pulling a dry van with about 10,000 lbs on-board. The driver was a fearless older fellow, Peddle says, who decided to make a run for it despite gusting winds. A younger Peddle looked into the mirrors and was horrified to see the rear of the trailer being picked up and tossed in the wind.

“Needless to say, I had no more issues with Wreckhouse after that, because I wouldn’t go,” he says with a chuckle.

Wreckhouse history
The Wreckhouse winds are not a new phenomenon, although anecdotally the winds are increasing, according to locals.
“This year the winds have been very excessive,” Churchill says. “They’ve been 150 km/h and for very long periods of time. Whatever is going on in the world is changing our patterns a little bit.”

But the winds have always blown through the valley and trucking is not the only mode of transport that has had to contend with the dangers.

As Churchill alluded to, the Newfoundland Railway use to send trains through the Codroy Valley and at times the rail cars were blown off the tracks by the same Wreckhouse winds that truckers fear today.

Those familiar with the region tell the story of Lauchie MacDougall, a local farmer who was employed by the railway to send warnings to Port aux Basques when the winds were too fierce to risk sending the train.

Legend has it the one time his warnings were ignored, more than 20 rail cars were blown off the tracks. MacDougall died in 1965 and his wife continued serving as a wind advisor for the railway until 1972.

MacDougall lived in a small house that was built low to the ground to sustain the winds. Sadly, Osmond says the house was burnt down by vandals, sending a fascinating piece of Canadian history up in smoke.

Fair warning
Government officials in Newfoundland must be disheartened that their six-figure investment in electronic warning signs has not yet reduced the rate of truck rollovers.

Transport Minister Tom Hedderson blasted the truckers who ignored wind warnings in December, telling local media their actions were “dangerously irresponsible.”

Department staff were equally irked when they had to go in after the truckers to help them get through safely.

“They should never have been there,” Hedderson told the CBC. “They should have never put us in a situation where we had to do that.”

The two digital signs, up and running since last November, are located at the Visitor Information Centre just outside Channel-Port aux Basques and the other is 47 kilometres east of there, near the Mollichignick River Bridge in the Codroy Valley.

Churchill remains hopeful the signs will eventually be effective, but for now, the problems are two-fold: drivers don’t know the signs are there and there’s no explanation on what the signs mean.

“This electronic sign would be critical if guys would stop and use it properly or if something on the signs would tell us what it means,” he says, noting drivers coming off the Marine Atlantic ferry have little time to interpret the sign and no place to park upon disembarking.

Unfortunately, there’s no help for drivers who find themselves caught in the midst of a Wreckhouse windstorm.

Snow, ice, fog or torrential rains can all be waited out by parking the truck – but there’s no escaping the wind and a parked truck is no less vulnerable than one that’s moving.

“If you get out there and you get caught, you’re on your own,” Churchill says. “There’s no place to turn around. Once you’re out there, you’re in it. It’s just like being in a wind tunnel and you’ve got to get through it because there’s no turning back. That’s why it’s critical that guys not try it. It’s better to err on the side of caution.”

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  • The long-range mountains themselves are very old, and are small as far as mountains go, this could be one reason why people take them for granted.

    If it helps your readers: we were taught in school that the driver of these winds is the Bernoulli principle – the same physics behind making airplanes fly.

    Essentially how it works is that winds coming from any easterly direction (the south-east being the most direct angle to the wreck house area) travel across wide open barrens before being squeezed through narrow channels through the southern end of the long-range mountains in the codroy valley. As the wind (air) is squeezed through the mountains, it speeds up. And spills across the road which hugs the coast on the western side of the mountain chain.

    You can try this yourself by blowing a “hole” in a sink full of water with your mouth from a given distance and observing how it affects the water surface, and then repeating it by blowing through a straw (better again if you can get different width straws) you can also do it without a straw, and just change how wide your mouth is when you blow through it. (This is a kids science experiment folks don’t look too deep into it)

    I’ve also heard anecdotally that if you stand anywhere in the wreck house during strong winds, you can feel the pressure in your ear drums as if you were changing altitude on a plane or scuba diving. However, locals are known to tall tales all over this island.