Exploring British Columbia by Ferry

Exploring British Columbia by Ferry

Jan Lee's Travellin' News

A Powell River ferry at sunset.
Photo courtesy of Sean Percy

There was a time, not long ago, when travelling BC coastal waterways took ingenuity and spunk. History books are filled with the anecdotes of brave sailors forging new passages through the Georgia Strait. Gold rush pioneers once paddled their way through the Gulf Islands in pursuit of Klondike gold in the Yukon. Turn-of-the-century steamers shuffled commuters between Vancouver Island and the mainland; a regular overnight voyage that linked BC's capital with the mainland.

Nowadays, travelling to the Island is considerably easier. A trip to Victoria takes less than 2 hours sailing time. Commuters can reach the Island from any number of ports, and sailings are available throughout the day. A reliable bus service provides an inexpensive alternative for those who choose not to drive their car.

The Comox-Powell River ferry at port.
Photo courtesy of Sean Percy

BC Ferries also provides the link for numerous destinations up and down BC's coastal waterways. With more than 27,200 km/17,000 miles of coastline, ferries remain an essential transportation network for many rural communities.

The brainchild of Premier W.A.C. Bennett in the 1950's, BC Ferries was considered by many to be an impossible venture. Bennett's dream was to build a government-run ferry service that would provide transportation to BC's major ports and islands. The province desperately needed a ferry system that would ensure regular, daily service to its island capital, Victoria. When a union strike in 1958 threatened to freeze private ferry service to the Island, Bennett stepped in. The government purchased several vessels and announced its bold plans to start a ferry service to the Island. According to one source, skepticism about Bennett's plan was so high, that many of the province's ministers refused to turn out for the maiden sailing. Bennett prevailed however, and by 1966, "Bennett's Navy" included ferries to Prince Rupert, just south of Alaska.

Now considered one of the largest ferry services in the world, BC Ferries sails to 47 ports of call. The Spirit of British Columbia and Spirit of Vancouver Island serve the Vancouver- Victoria route. Equipped for a passenger load of 2,000 people and 470 vehicles, the S-class ship is equipped with ship-to-shore telephones, a cafeteria and BC Ferries' famed buffet service.

A romantic view from the decks of the Powell River-Texada Island ferry.
Photo courtesy of Sean Percy

A new terminal at Duke Point, south of Nanaimo, provides easy access to both Victoria and Nanaimo. These ferries connect with Tsawwassen (south of Vancouver) and take approximately 2 hours.

Many a story has been told about the uncanny skill and nerves of steel that were required of earlier skippers to dock their ferries in Horseshoe Bay (euphemistically referred to as "Cardiac Cove"). It is not uncommon for a BC Ferries skipper to make more than 1,000 landings per year, so captains commanding the Horseshoe Bay-Departure run are quite experienced in this particular route. The sailing takes 1 hour and 35 minutes and is the second most popular route serving Vancouver Island.

The Powell River-Comox crossing is a popular sailing for travellers taking the Coastal Circle Tour. Powell River is world renown for its diving and recreational opportunities. Visitors can also connect with Texada Island from this point.

One of BC's first ferry services began in the Gulf Islands in 1930. Service was irregular and costly to maintain and in 1961 the government purchased the small fleet. Today, ferry service to the Northern and Southern Gulf Islands serves more than 15 ports of call. The Southern Gulf Islands are popular summer getaway, so be sure to make a reservation if you plan to take your vehicle on board.

The "Inside Passage" and the Queen of the North.
Photo courtesy of BC Ferries

Until 1979, ferry service to Prince Rupert operated out of a tiny bay in the centre of Vancouver Island. Ferry service to Prince Rupert proved to be an expensive venture and after a new road was put in, the ferry authority moved the terminal to the northern tip of the island, at Port Hardy.

The Inside Passage route (to Prince Rupert) and the Discovery Coast Passage (to Bella Coola) offer unforgettable views of some of Canada's best countryside. Summertime is the best time to experience the beauty of the mid-coast. The Queen of the North handles most excursions to Prince Rupert and takes approximately 23 hours sailing time in the summer.

Cabins are available for overnight guests, but many knowledgeable travellers just spread out their sleeping bags on the deck and enjoy the evening starlight. Tents are available for rent as well.

The Queen of Nanaimo in the Southern Gulf Island.
Photo courtesy of BC Ferries

BC Ferries' website offers a virtual tour of the Discovery Passage cruise, with excellent images and descriptions of the cruise's activities and sights. For example, the ship provides a "kayak wet launching" for passengers who bring along their kayaks.

The Queen Charlotte Islands have been the home of the Haida people for 8,000 years and represent an unforgettable stop on your tour of Canada's westcoast waterways. The voyage on the Queen of Prince Rupert takes approximately 7 hours. The ship is equipped with a variety of amenities, including showers, a licensed lounge and facilities for persons with special needs.

BC Ferries operates a number of smaller sailings throughout the province as well. The Horseshoe Bay-Langdale sailing connects passengers with the Sunshine Coast. The Saltery Bay-Earls Cove sailing is one of my favourite short excursions. Sitting on the deck enjoying the summer weather and pristine beauty, I can almost imagine what it must have been like to travel BC's waterways during those first, bold years of ferry travel. The travel time may be shorter now, but the vistas are still awesome.

Information Contacts
BC Ferries
24 hour Recorded information
In BC (toll free): 888-BCFERRY
Outside of BC: 250-386-3431
FAX: 250-381-5452
Or visit their website at www.bcferries.com
For Tourist Info Visit:
Vancouver Island North Visitors Association
Box 1755
Port McNeill, B.C. Canada
Phone: (250) 949-7622 / Fax (250) 949-6653
Bannerman, Gary and Patricia, The Ships of British Columbia Hancock House Publishers, Surrey BC/Blaine, Washington 1985
Cadieux & Griffiths, Dogwood Fleet, Nanaimo, BC 1967 (available through local libraries)
Spalding, David, Spalding, Andrea and Pitt, Lawrence, BC Ferries and the Canadian West Coast Altitude Publishing Canada, Vancouver 1995

"Sean Percy lives in Powell River, where he works as a reporter/photographer for the Powell River News and Town Crier. A self-taught photographer, he specializes in scenic, wildlife and underwater images. If you are interested in purchasing one of his photographs, he can be reached at seanpe@prcn.org"

Copyright Jan Lee

Jan Lee        jnlee@sfu.ca

Be sure to read other articles by Jan Lee in the BC Adventure Network

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Exploring British Columbia by Ferry