Ferry Follies in Victoria, BC

I spent Friday back in my hometown of Victoria, in the downtown core, revisiting the Royal BC Museum and it’s soon to be defunct BC Human History 3rd floor exhibits (The museum is going to screw this up, but I digress). While there, I noticed a catamaran in the harbour below the old Royal Steamship terminal (formerly home to the Royal London Wax Museum) and assumed it was the Victoria Clipper parked in the wrong spot.

Catamaran behind the tree to the left but also, look how pretty my hometown is.

From a better vantage point, however, I realized the catamaran in question was not the Clipper but was rather the “V2V” Victoria 2 Vancouver catamaran:

Upon further research I found out that this is a ferry owned by an Australian company who bought the catamaran as a secondhand boat from a route in Quebec and re-wrapped it with a Coast Salish design. I very much doubt that any actual Indigenous creators were paid or accredited for this work, especially since the boat itself is named the Empress. I cannot sometimes with the exploitative colonial mindset of my homeland.

I also discovered via the Times-Colonist (actual name of local newspaper still) that the V2V service had become defunct before COVID, in January 2020. The surprise of the parent company also made me suspect that the Australian owners had not checked in or spoken to any locals in Victoria prior to launching the service. Had they done so, they would have learned of the prior failed attempt to create a similar service, the Royal Sealink, in the 1990s, which met with a tragic and disastrous end in 1993, becoming a Victoria local disaster tale on a par with the Great Blizzard of 1996.

Before I get to the Royal Vancouver catamaran though, let us take a few steps back and understand why people keep trying to create new maritime links to the mainand. Victoria is a former Britiah colony on the traditional land of the Lkwungen (now known as the Esquimalt and Songhees) peoples. It was originally a Hudson’s Bay Company town at its inception in 1843. Victoria was made the capital of British Columbia in 1866, but its future was sealed as a secondary city to Vancouver after the railroad was completed. Victoria, after all, is on an island, and cannot not be connected to the mainland by physical roads or rails.

Physical connections, however, are no longer needed to connect with the outside world. Now technology and the internet make it viable to work from the Island, andmy hometown has evolved from being a quaint tourist destination and government town, to being a small, modern city that both locals and tourists alike would like to be able to travel to and from.

The isolated aspect of my hometown surprises Americans. The idea of a modern city, with a population of almost 400,000 people, being unreachable by highway, is hard to grasp. There are car ferries that are part of the highway system (or used to be, before privatization), each carrying hundreds of cars and up to two thousand people. There are commercial flights in and out of Victoria International (YYJ). There are seaplanes and helicopters for those people who want to get to the mainland quickly and can pay the premium for the experience. And this is why every few years, a businessperson with no ties to the Island or to our ferry-based culture will decide that what wealthy people really want to travel on is a luxury fast ferry that will take them from downtown Victoria to downtown Vancouver.

Let’s start by defining fast ferry. The S-class BC Ferries (aka “Spirit class vessels”) that run from the Saanich Peninsula north of Victoria to the Tsawwassen peninsula south of Vancouver run at about 20 knots or 22mph. They go faster in the open Salish Sea east of the Gulf Islands than they do through Active Pass, but that is their overall speed.

Spirit Class vessel, launched for the Commonwealth Games in Victoria in 1994. Also this is what I mean when I make jokes about large cars being a vessel class.

Catamarans fast ferries, by contrast, run at speeds over 35 knots, or 40+MPH. These are passenger only ferries that are much smaller and lighter than the huge barge-like car ferries.

The Victoria Clipper, a fast ferry catamaran running between Victoria and Seattle. The Clipper runs at between 30 and 50mph depending on wake limitations for habitation.

The Victoria Clipper service has run between Victoria and Vancouver since 1986. It’s a fast ferry that goes from downtown to downtown, making what would be a 5 hour car trip via ferries at Tsawwassen or Anacortes or Port Angeles into a two hours and change ferry ride. It’s always been billed as a luxury service. Not real luxury, because actual wealthy people recognize that time is money and the seaplanes between the two cities are a better investment in that time. But the Clipper is an affordable ferry upgrade that also provides some fantastic views along Puget Sound for people who either do not wish to pay for, or just do not like flying in a tiny plane.

It’s very likely the success and longevity of the Clipper service that makes non-Island business people think that a similar service to Vancouver is a good idea. However, these are people who probably cannot read maps. The route from downtown Seattle to downtown Victoria is fairly direct, up through Puget Sound and across what used to be the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Those boats enter Victoria’s harbour on the southwest corner of Vancouver Island. But because the harbour entrance is on the southwest side of Victoria, and Vancouver is to the northeast, the Vancouver route has to go around Victoria before they can get through the Gulf Islands and the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver

Map of the Salish Sea. Paul is shown where we are today on Saltspring Island

Because of the loop around the lower Island, it takes three and a half hours to get from Victoria to Vancouver — a full hour longer than it does to Seattle, which is further away. It also requires the boat to travel through some of the most open areas of the Salish Sea, which at high speeds, can cause seasickness.

It was the added time and the nausea inducing nature of the journey that spelled out DOOM for the Royal Sealink thirty years ago. Well that, and the fact that the Royal Vancouver smashed head-on into a Queen-class BC Ferry in Active Pass in 1993, injuring two dozen people and smashing in the snout of the catamaran so it looked like a Volvo in a crash test commercial. (The BC Ferry, for the record, was slightly dinged up)

This led me down an entire Google hole yesterday of reviewing what exactly happened to this first failed fast ferry fiasco, and I actually found the original incident report which I have now read with glee. Let me tell you, if it is possible for a maritime incident report to throw shade, this report does so. It is both factual and judgmental in all the best ways, thoroughly blaming the Royal Vancouver fast ferry crew for serving drinks when they should have been on the bridge, and calling out the ship master and first mate for being out of practice on the high seas. As my sister put it, “you done f**ked up, Royal Vancouver!”

I suppose V2V, had they even recognized that a prior similar service had failed, would have rationalized their atSo tempt regardless. The new Empress ferry was supposed to have stabilizers that would enable people to carry drinks to their seats without spilling. I also sincerely hope they had crew who had gone through Active Pass more than ten times before attempting to do so in the fog. But no amount of correction for the past’s most egregious mistakes could make up for the fact that there are not enough tourists to cover the costs of a fast ferry service year round — and while 80% of locals say they would take a fast ferry that went directly to Vancouver’s harbor, very few will do so at 15x the cost of a BC Ferry walk-on foot passenger ticket.

So there you have it: my commentary on why memory is important. Had the new Riverside Maritime Group surveyed Victorians my age and older, they would have known, there is no demand for a fast luxury ferry to Vancouver. It is not something that was asked for or needed, and only served to add one more very loud ship into the aural mix around the endangered Southern orca population. Victoria is a unique place with a long memory. I am surprised when lessons from those memories are forgotten so quickly.

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Jillian Tate

Jillian Tate

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