Thursday, August 25, 2011

One man's history with BC Ferries

I first travelled as a coastal steamship commuter over sixty years ago. I was a city kid but spent summers with a cousin on a beach south of Powell River until moving there at age ten. Before the highway and Jervis Inlet ferry, this important paper-making town 85 miles north of Vancouver linked to the outside world by air, barge or CPR ship. Trips to the big city took considerable planning and time.

In 1954, the small wooden Bainbridge, built near Seattle in the twenties, provided ferry service from Horseshoe Bay to Gibsons. The subsequent 50-mile drive for the crossing from Earls Cove to Saltery Bay, 20 miles south of Powell River, was demanding. Connecting former logging roads, the partly paved track never went through, over or under obstacles; it always went around. Motion sickness on the road of endless curves was common for car travellers with children and even for those without.

At the north end of Sechelt Peninsula, Quillayute, another aging wooden-hulled ferry, crossed Jervis Inlet in 65 minutes. From there, it was an almost one-hour drive to Powell River, half on gravel road.

Both Quillayute and Bainbridge had kitchen facilities and old-timers remember happy anticipation of ferry food. Dining helped pass the time and since this was before days of pervasive food outlets, for many it was one of few dining-out opportunities.

Travel memories were refreshed last week on board Island Sky, a 3-year old 125-car BC-built ferry that seems quite fine, except for the food. Factory-built sandwiches sold out in the first quarter hour so choices were limited pretty much to do-it-yourself microwave mac and cheese or a toast-it-yourself bagel. Of course, overpriced beverages were available for people happy to spend almost $3 for an item that cost BC Ferries 40-cents. Not just car and passenger fares are exorbitant in British Columbia.

Our trip from Vancouver to Powell River this month started at Horseshoe Bay aboard the ferry Queen of Coquitlam. The passenger load was larger years ago but the crossing took well over an hour, longer than the Bainbridge needed in 1956.

Today's 35-year old vessel is rated for 362 cars. It underwent refit in 2002, extending life until 2022, according to plan. The ship though is showing signs of fatigue and, to a layman, excessive rust in visible steelwork of the car decks. I ascribed the non-functioning elevator to poor maintenance. The ship, I'm told, runs occasionally below required manning levels. If traffic is heavier than expected, crew should be added to meet Canadian safety standards. This is not always possible on short notice but the ship might sail anyway. Luckily, the waters are sheltered and the risks low.


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3 comments:

  1. We moved to Gibsons(then Gibsons Landing)as my father was hired by Blackball Ferries,as chief engineer on the MV.Bainbridge.
    Later to join that run from Gibsons to Horseshoe Bay,was the steam powered ferry MV Smokwa
    My father then transferred over on to the Horseshoe Bay run to Departure Bay,on the MV Sechelt Queen,(ex cCity of Sacramento),the Landgale Queen (ex City of San Fransisco)
    He continued employment as senior chief engineer at BC Ferries,brought to BC the ex Stena Ferry 'Stena Danica' ferry that was sold to BC Ferries.She sailed for many years and ended up sinking known as the Queen of the North)
    He remained as senior chief engineer o many ferries in the fleet until his retirement 30 years later.
    My mother worked as a cshier(coffee shop) on the MV Bainbridge,for many years under the sub contracted food services owner Mr.Ole Emholt.
    He provided food services on all Langdale,Saltery Bay,Horsehoe Bay on all the ferries,as well as the terminal coffee shops.
    My brother joined BC Ferries as an oiler and rose up to ranks in certification and seniority to relieving Chief engineer on the Langdale as well as other other vessels in the fleet with 18 plus years employment.
    My wife worked at BC Ferries as head stewardess on the Langdale ferries for a number of years.
    I joined the ferries as a rwelieving 2nd.engineer for a short period of aprox 3 years and then continued on to other Coastal vessels.

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  2. I'd love to see a real examination of ferry needs. The larger ships may work well on Georgia Strait crossings but the validity of 350 car ferries on sheltered routes such as Horseshoe Bay - Langdale is doubtful. We could be running four small ferries every 40 minutes and give better service that could easily be scaled down in periods of slack demand.

    The Queen of Coquitlam has about 12,000 horsepower driving the vessel, whether it carries 50 cars or 350. The old Bainbridge had an 850 HP engine and could make the crossing in an hour, about the same as today.

    We should examine operating efficiencies of small vessels used more frequently. Total crew sizes would be much the same because a lot of the people working on the big ferries are there to satisfy safety regulations.

    I think most users want frequent, inexpensive transportation. No need for reservations, gift shops, lounges and dining facilities if your purpose is merely to cross the body of water with the greatest possible convenience. Let's focus on eliminating useless wait times that face every ferry rider stuck in a terminal.

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  3. While we do ride the ferries from Vancouver, we discovered Powell River by airplane. The airport is perfect for small wheeled aircraft, and of course the Pacific Coastal Airlines commuter service. It always bothers me that BC Ferries offers "specials" on the major routes to Vancouver Island, but there's never anything for those of us who use them to get to and from our homes along the coast. - Margy

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