ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Trucks no match for ‘Wreckhouse’ winds

PORT Aux BASQUE, Nfld. — It’s not uncommon in these parts to see tractor-trailers take to the air, getting blown clean off the Trans-Canada.

It happened two more times in late May, near Port aux Basque, Nfld. at a notorious section of the highway called "the Wreckhouse." Terrain in the Cape Ray area is flat and wide open, but the gale-force winds funneling through the valleys of the nearby Long Range Mountains in the southwestern part of the province can reach hurricane strength by the time they cross the highway near the coast.

Wreckhouse wind-related rollovers are so common they don’t
even make the news pages any more. (Photo by Wayne Osmond).

There are no formal or official wind speed warnings or indicators in the area, leaving drivers at the mercy of the winds. Dozens of times each year, high-profile vehicles are caught in the 100-km/h-plus south-east crosswinds and blown off the roadway.

Last December 17th, winds in the area were clocked at 180 km/h.

Wayne Osmond of Cape Ray travels that stretch of road daily, and photographs overturned vehicles. In January, he made three trips to the area with his camera, and two more trips last month.

"It’s such a common occurrence the local papers don’t even bother to report them anymore," he says.

Gord Peddle, president of D.D. Transport and chair of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association (APTA) says it’s been like that forever, yet the province has done nothing about a warning system for road users.

"The locals know the tell-tale signs of a risky Wreckhouse crossing, and we don’t tempt fate," he says. "Those unfamiliar with the area and maybe in a hurry to make a ferry at Port aux Basque have been known to try — sometimes unsuccessfully."

There are signs in the area alerting drivers to the possibility of high winds, but no accurate real-time warnings exist.

Peddle says APTA has approached the province several times about a warning system, but "they seem uninterested."

There was once a windsock at a local truckstop — Doyles Irving — but the truckstop closed several years ago, and the windsock is gone. Peddle says there’s no place for trucks to stop and wait out the winds, either.

"There’s the Hungry Bear truckstop near Stephenville, but that’s a ways away," he says. "Marine Atlantic doesn’t want us hanging the ferry terminal waiting out the winds, either."

There have been no reports of fatalities at the site due to roll-overs.

The 100 km/h-plus crosswinds can resemble
mini-hurricanes. (Photo by Wayne Osmond).

David Salter, director of communications for the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Transportation and Works told us in an interview that an electronic warning sign is presently "under active consideration."

"We issue wind warnings and advisories," he said. "But we’re located at the other end of the province in St. Johns."

There is a wind speed gauge in the area, and there’s a number you can call, but that’s not much help to a moving truck. There’s no cell phone service in the area.

In January, the Honourable Dianne Whalen, Minister of Transportation and Works, announced $182 million in road improvements funding, there was nothing specific in the announcement about wind warning signs for the Wreckhouse area.

Both Peddle and Osmond say they are aware of a private initiative to install a permanent wind warning system with electronic signs and real-time wind-speed alerts, neither has heard anything official from the Department.

The last accurate Wreckhouse wind gauge died in 1965. Lauchie McDougall (know as the Human Wind Gauge) lived in the area, and was paid $20 per month by the Newfoundland Railway to warn passing trains of the winds. His wife, Emily, continued the service until 1972.

Truckers heading across Newfoundland have no choice but to travel through the Wreckhouse area. It’s the only highway route connecting the ferry terminal at Port aux Basques and the rest of the island.

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