Ferry Land

PHOTOS: G. PATCHET, TORONTO PORT AUTHORITY; BAY FERRIES LTD.

PHOTOS: G. PATCHET, TORONTO PORT AUTHORITY; BAY FERRIES LTD.

The Maple City ferry heads to Toronto City Centre Airport; (Inset) The Cat zooms between Yarmouth, N.S., and Bar Harbour, Maine.

It is a sun-drenched morning and any minute now the 20-metre motor vessel Maple City, owned by the Toronto Harbour Commission, will churn away from a dock on Toronto’s waterfront. On board are 15 walk-on passengers, three cars and a delivery truck, all bound for the Toronto City Centre airport on Toronto Island, a 90-second trip away on the world’s shortest ferry run.

Some 2,000 kilometres to the northeast, the flagship of Marine Atlantic’s Newfoundland and Labrador fleet, MV Caribou, docks at Channel-Port aux Basques on the rugged southwestern coast of Newfoundland. The roll-on/roll-off ferry—known in the business as a “roro” ferry—has just completed a 6 1/2-hour, 155-kilometre journey across the Cabot Strait from North Sydney, N.S. Any minute now her massive bow will lift and some 370 cars and trucks, carrying 1,200 passengers, will stream ashore—ever thankful for the year-round service.

Across the continent at Riverhurst, Sask., cars line up to board the provincially owned 15-car ferry that runs on 2,600-metre cables. This vessel, which operates between April and mid-November (depending on ice conditions), carries cars and their passengers across Lake Diefenbaker, the largest body of water in southern Saskatchewan.

All across this river- and lake-strewn country of ours, dozens of small, medium-sized and large ferries are arriving and departing on seasonal or year-round schedules, carrying passengers, vehicles and sometimes trains across bodies of water. And by doing that, these relatively unsung services, which are too numerous to list in total, tie families, friends and communities closer together, deliver goods and services and serve as lifelines for the residents of islands and isolated settlements. Another benefit is they get travellers off the pavement and allow more time to see the sights from the water.

But with these advantages come certain challenges. Off the west coast, ferry operators face fog, tides and floating logs or deadheads. On the Great Lakes and off the east coast, between mainland Canada and Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, they also deal with gales, blizzards and ice.

The tides are especially treacherous between Yarmouth, N.S., and Bar Harbor, Me., and further north in the Bay of Fundy on the route that connects Digby, N.S., and Saint John, N.B. But it is Newfoundland’s craggy shoreline and icebergs off the Labrador coast that make the greatest demands on navigation skills.

Fortunately, modern technology has done much to make the job of today’s ferry captain easier. When Captain Ken Smith obtained his captain’s papers 14 years ago, the Global Positioning System (GPS) did not exist. Neither did electronic charting. Now the Northumberland/ Bay Ferries’ captain can call upon both. He also has recourse to radar plotting of other ships’ positions.

Nevertheless, Smith still finds himself relying heavily on reliable sources, such as Navtax for weather particulars. “On days when weather and winds dictate whether or not a crossing will be made, I have direct contact with the marine weather office,” explains Smith.

For ferry captains off the west coast, the Vancouver Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centre, operated by the Canadian Coast Guard, is indispensable, says BC Ferries engineer David Kempling. From its two locations, one at Harbour Centre, Vancouver, and the other at Patricia Bay, Sidney, B.C., the centre, which is packed with electronic equipment, informs captains of the exact position of nearby boats and of the location of any vessels that might be in distress.

Across Canada, the multitude of ferry services are distinguished by marked differences in type of service, ownership and the types of vessels. Owners run the gamut from small private operators to provincial governments and federal Crown corporations. The types of vessel used range from small cable ferries to large, well-appointed cruise-type vessels, such as the M/S Scotia Prince, which travels between Maine and Nova Scotia, and fast ferries like Northumberland/Bay Ferries’ The Cat.

Some ferries, such as those that operate over very short distances (e.g., Vancouver and Halifax harbours), carry only passengers while others carry passengers, automobiles and trucks. Some vessels are dedicated commercial freight ferries. One such vessel is Marine Atlantic’s Atlantic Freighter, which transports trailers and dangerous commodities.

This business of delivering goods and people by water has benefited from various advances in marine technology. While ferries have gotten faster, they have become more efficient. Hovercraft, hydrofoils and catamarans have maximized their speed by reducing the friction between their hulls and the water. The Cat, which Northumberland/Bay Ferries purchased from Intercat, Australia, in 2002, is billed as North America’s fastest car ferry. It carries up to 900 passengers and 240 cars at highway speeds from Yarmouth to Bar Harbor, slashing a six-hour journey on a conventional car ferry down to two hours and 45 minutes.

Some ferries are equipped with an ice-breaking capability that allows them to operate year-round. To ease their way through the water, they depend on a so-called bubbler system that employs a perforated tube, located on the bottom of the body of water, to release air bubbles that agitate the water. Except in the coldest weather, this system keeps the water ice-free.

One of many beneficiaries of this technology is the Wolfe Islander III. Owned and staffed by the Ontario government, it provides year-round service between Kingston, Ont., and Wolfe Island for nearly 1,400 island residents. It holds approximately 55 cars and 330 passengers. Crossing time is about 20 minutes, and many people have come to rely on it to get to and from work in Kingston.

To cope with winter ice conditions on routes that are served throughout the year, the Ontario government also operates bubbler systems at Howe, Glenora and Amherst ferry terminals. Passengers on these and other Ontario government-owned ferry operations ride free of charge because the ferries are considered part of the Ontario highway system.

On a grander scale, ferries constitute the sea-going extensions of the Trans-Canada Highway, the world’s longest national highway. In fact, drivers journeying from Victoria, B.C., to St. John’s, Nfld., must rely on ferry services between Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, and Vancouver on the mainland, a distance of 57 kilometres. And rather than drive on and off of Prince Edward Island from New Brunswick, drivers can follow the Trans-Canada to Wood Islands where they can board the ferry for a 75-minute trip to Caribou, N.S.

A much longer sea-going extension of the highway begins in North Sydney in Cape Breton and connects travellers to Channel-Port aux Basques, Nfld., or Argentia on the Avalon Peninsula. The former, which is a year-round service, involves a journey of between six and seven hours while the latter, which operates between June and September, can last at least18 hours. But while these trips are long, they are popular. In 2002 Marine Atlantic’s vessels carried a record 528,975 passengers and 172,728 passenger vehicles. In 2003, there were 457,229 passengers and 151,188 passenger vehicles. Once on the Rock, travellers in Newfoundland can—depending on the season—take advantage of more than a dozen ferry connections, ranging from Bell Island to Portugal Cove to Lewisporte to Goose Bay, Labrador.

BC Ferries, which operates the service from Nanaimo to Vancouver, is by far the largest ferry operator in Canada. In 2003, it carried a whopping 21,400,000 passengers and eight million vehicles while serving the coastal communities of eastern British Columbia. This compares with close to 800,000 passengers and 270,000 vehicles handled by P.E.I.’s Northumberland/Bay Ferries, which describes itself as a medium-sized operator.

BC Ferries was, until 2003, a provincially owned corporation. As a Crown corporation, however, it had weak financial underpinnings for the fast growing service it was required to provide. It also had an aging fleet of vessels. The provincial government and BC Ferries’ board of directors therefore decided, after a great deal of deliberation, to relaunch the operation on April 2, 2003, as a new, independent company called British Columbia Ferry Services Inc.

In operation since June 15, 1960, when the M.V. Tsawwassen and M.V. Sidney began linking Victoria with Vancouver and the rest of the British Columbia mainland, BC Ferry Services is not only one of the largest services, but one of the most sophisticated transportation systems in the world. It boasts a fleet of 35 vessels of all sizes, including the 37.4 metre-length Mill Bay that runs between Brentwood Bay and Mill Bay, providing a convenient route across the Saanich Inlet for passengers travelling to or from the Swartz Bay terminal and north Vancouver Island destinations. At the opposite end of the scale is the 470-car ferry, Spirit of British Columbia, which runs between Tsawwassen on the mainland and Swartz Bay.

A trip across the country on the Trans-Canada Highway would inevitably bypass several major ferry operations. In the British Columbia interior, these include the BC Ministry of Transportation and Highway’s and Fraser River Marine Transportation’s inland ferries. Although they trail far behind BC Ferries in the volume of traffic carried, they nevertheless play an important role in the lives of certain mainland communities. In 2003 alone, their vessels carried 6.6 million passengers and three million vehicles.

Further east are several provincially owned and operated ferry services— in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. In Quebec, these ferries, organized under La Société des traversiers du Québec, carried 5,249,527 passengers and 2,632,259 vehicles on routes across the scenic St. Lawrence River in 2003.

Some of the other ferry services missed on a Trans-Canada Highway odyssey include small, family-owned and operated enterprises. One is Ferry Bourbonnais Inc., launched in 1938 with one vessel. Over the years it has grown steadily and today it boasts five ferries, each of which can carry up to 15 cars on the crossing between Cumberland, Ont., and Masson, Que. And thanks to an air bubbler system that was installed in 1982, the service can operate year-round. “Today,” says Aline Bourbonnais, “our greatest challenge is to operate day and night, 365 days a year.”

Faster forms of transportation do not pose a challenge for many of the smaller ferries. Ferry Bourbonnais Inc. attracts a lot of recreational vehicles headed for the Gatineau Hills. They also get business from trucks seeking to avoid traffic congestion in the Ottawa-Gatineau area. This, however, is not the case with some other services. Northumberland/Bay Ferries, for example, is keenly aware of the competition it faces from faster forms of transportation and the Confederation Bridge, which has linked Prince Edward Island with the mainland since 1997.

In order to persuade visitors and locals alike to abandon the highway for the ferry, Northumberland/Bay Ferries’ publicity material drives home the point that its ferries are the “only” ferries where you can “experience the true spirit of Maritime travel”—where you can stretch your legs and your mind and “listen to the soothing rhythm of the waves and taste the salt on your lips.”

Other ferry services may take issue with this claim, but there’s no question that these images do conjure up the reasons why so many of us opt for a relaxing and scenic ferry ride over other available and faster transportation alternatives.

Northumberland/Bay Ferries also competes with faster forms of transportation by promoting the use of The Cat, the high-speed catamaran-type boat mentioned earlier. Having invested in The Cat, however, the company has to find work for it year-round. “Our business has peaks and valleys and the challenge is to find work for boats that don’t operate in the off season,” reports John Cormier, vice-president of Northumberland/Bay Ferries. Charter work is one answer. And fortunately for the company it was able to lease the boat last year to a charter company operating between Florida and Freeport in the Bahamas.

Many of us who take a ferry for pleasure or convenience probably don’t give any thought to the fact that for many people ferry service is essential. Into this category fall year-round island residents who don’t possess a seaplane or boat—the vast majority. Indeed, unless they rarely leave home, ferry schedules regulate islanders’ lives. And while many have gotten used to pacing their lives around the ferry schedules, others have grown tired of the dependency.

One former resident of Saltspring Island, the largest of the Gulf Islands off the west coast, recalls that dependency on ferry service was a major reason she and her husband decided to move to Victoria. “We found,” says Elspeth Thomson, “that we might want to go to a movie on a dull day, look at the watch and realize we’d make the 4 p.m. showing but by the time we got out it was add the cost of a hotel room to the trip or forego supper at a Japanese spot, or some other restaurant unavailable on Saltspring, in order to get the last ferry (9 p.m.) home. Consequently, we tended to not go and ended up resenting the inability to do such things spontaneously.”

Today’s ferries have certainly come a long way from the time when rafts or skiffs were used or from more recent times when year-round mail service to Prince Edward Island was maintained by small iceboats hauled by men who hitched themselves to the vessels like harnessed dogs.

But while ferries have made it easier to transport goods and people from Point A to Point B, they have also given us a more relaxing way to travel. Sure, you often have to line up to get on the ferry, but once you are on, all you really have to do is park your car, get out, stretch and then go find a place to take in the sights, sounds and smells that help define this country of ours.

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