01/21/2013 04:48 EST | Updated 03/23/2013 05:12 EDT

B.C. ferry involved in fatal sinking in 'best condition' after upgrades: trial

VANCOUVER - The passenger ferry that sank off the coast of British Columbia seven years ago, leaving two passengers missing, had recently returned to service after five months of upgrades and was probably in the best condition of its life, a crew member's criminal negligence trial heard Monday.

Navigating officer Karl Lilgert is on trial for the deaths of Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, who vanished when the Queen of the North sank in March 2006 and were presumed drowned.

The Queen of the North was taken out of service in October 2005 for scheduled upgrades, which included installing a new radar system, a senior mariner with BC Ferries testified.

Ross Bowen, who has worked on BC Ferries' northern routes for more than 30 years, told the court he was with the ship during those upgrades. He was also involved in subsequent sea trials and helped sail the vessel back to the start of its route on the northern end of Vancouver Island once the work was complete.

"The vessel operated properly," Bowen testified. "I don't recall any issues that were outstanding from the sea trials."

At the time, Bowen was a senior officer on the Queen of the North and worked on a separate watch from Lilgert. Crews were divided into two watches, each working two weeks at a time and then spending two weeks off.

The Queen of the North returned to service at the beginning of March, and Bowen's watch operated the vessel until Lilgert's watch took over on March 15. During those first two weeks, Bowen said the vessel appeared to be in excellent shape.

"What condition was the Queen of the North in?" asked Crown counsel Robert Wright.

"I personally felt that it was in the best condition that we ever had it," Bowen replied.

"How was the bridge equipment working at that time?" asked Wright.

"Everything was working very well," replied Bowen.

The defence has suggested unreliable navigation equipment, along with poor weather and inadequate BC Ferries policies, contributed to the sinking.

The Crown argues Lilgert failed in his duties to keep the ship on course as it sailed toward a large island after missing a crucial turn.

The upgrades that took place in late 2005 and early 2006 included a new radar system and a new gyro compass, which measures true north instead of magnetic north, the court heard. There was also other work done in the bridge, such as the installation of an additional autopilot switch.

Transport Canada officials inspected the ferry before it returned to service and concluded it was seaworthy, said Bowen.

An inspection report identified a number of deficiencies that needed to be fixed, but none that required immediate attention, said Bowen.

Defence lawyer Nancy Adams noted those deficiencies included the ship's lack of a written evacuation plan; a marine safety plan — essentially a map of the ship's lifesaving equipment — that was not approved by Transport Canada; and a lack of alarms on the ferry's exterior decks.

Bowen said the ship had a muster plan, and the requirement to have a written evacuation plan was new. Transport Canada allowed the vessel to sail with the expectation that such a plan would be completed.

He said the ship also had a marine safety plan map, but it had not been submitted for Transport Canada for approval. The exterior alarm requirement was also new, and those alarms were expected to be added later.

Bowen had worked with Lilgert and had kind words for his former colleague, who watched the testimony while sitting alone at a table behind his lawyers.

"I enjoyed working with Karl," said Bowen. "I thought he was a good guy."

"And a competent mariner?" asked Wright.

"Yes," said Bowen.

Lilgert was on the bridge of the ship with one other crew member, quartermaster Karen Bricker.

Lilgert was normally a deckhand but was filling in as the ship's fourth officer at the time. That meant he was responsible for navigating the ship.

Bricker's role as a quartermaster, or helmsman, was to physically steer the ship with the wheel or, if autopilot was turned on, to keep a lookout for any dangers outside.

Court has already heard the two were former lovers, working alone for the first time since their affair ended about two weeks earlier. The Crown hasn't said just how that affair fits into its theory about what happened, but the defence has insisted their failed relationship had nothing to do with the sinking.

The ship struck Gil Island shortly after midnight on March 22, 2006. It had left Prince Rupert several hours earlier on an overnight route to Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

The sinking prompted a number of fishing vessels to head to the scene, as well as residents from the nearby First Nations community of Hartley Bay, who jumped in their own boats to aid in the rescue.

Those efforts saved 99 passengers and crew. Foisy and Rosette were never seen again.

Lilgert has pleaded not guilty to two counts of criminal negligence causing death. His trial, before a jury, is expected to last up to six months.