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Clipper cancels Vancouver ferry plans; focuses on Seattle service upgrade

Victoria Clipper has cancelled plans to operate a passenger ferry between Victoria’s Inner Harbour and Vancouver’s Coal Harbour, and will instead upgrade its Victoria-Seattle service.
Clipper V.jpg
Clipper's newest and fastest vessel, Clipper V, travels at up to 36 knots. It previously sailed on the North Sea.

Victoria Clipper has cancelled plans to operate a passenger ferry between Victoria’s Inner Harbour and Vancouver’s Coal Harbour, and will instead upgrade its Victoria-Seattle service.

The Seattle-based company, which planned in the spring to launch a service to compete with V2V Vacations’ existing passenger ferry service on that route, has dropped the idea due to “unexpected operational costs” in Vancouver.

David Gudgel, Clipper’s chief executive, said due to the size of the vessel chosen for the route — significantly bigger than Clipper’s other vessels — the company faced the prospect of building a new float and driving new pilings in Vancouver Harbour to ensure stability.

Gudgel wouldn’t rule out looking at the route again at some point, but it won’t be in 2018.

“We never say never,” he said. “We want to be part of the transportation fabric and part of the tourism industry here in a big way. [The route] is basically tabled, it’s always an option.

“If there’s an opportunity again at some point, we want to be able to respond to it. But right now we want to focus on enhancing the service between Victoria and Seattle.”

Australia-based Riverside Marine launched V2V Empress catamaran, a passenger ferry running between Victoria’s Inner Harbour and Vancouver’s Coal Harbour, in May. It has has struggled with low ridership and mechanical problems, and in mid-August the vessel was sidelined, needing a new engine.

The vessel is at Point Hope Shipyard where it continues to undergo repairs.

“I think [Clipper bowing out] actually helps everybody,” said Riverside chief executive Hume Campbell, noting it allows both companies to focus on their core businesses.

“I think we get some certainty and we can move forward.”

Campbell said far from taking the pressure off V2V, being the lone operator adds to the burden.

“When you’re a monopoly, you have a huge task to be relevant and you have to compete with yourself, so you have to constantly challenge your decisions,” he said. “And you have to listen to a lot of people to make sure you’re on the right track. And someone else can always start up, so you can’t afford to be complacent.”

Riverside, which spent just over $12 million to establish the service, said it hopes to have the vessel back in the water next week for sea trials, with service resuming Dec. 22.

For its now-cancelled Vancouver-to-Victoria route, Clipper procured Clipper V, a 579-seat catamaran that had been working in the North Sea between Hamburg and Heligoland in Germany, as part of the fleet owned by its parent company, FRS.

The new 52-metre vessel is the fastest in Clipper’s fleet, travelling up to 36 knots.

Clipper V will replace the original vessel, the 330-seat Clipper I that kicked off the Victoria-to-Seattle service 31 years ago.

“That’s one of the bittersweet pieces of this, the Clipper I will be leaving our fleet,” Gudgel said. “But we need to be able to offer a different level of service.”

The new vessel is 12 metres longer and 2.5 metres wider than Clipper I. It has a motion-dampening system that will allow it to operate in weather that would otherwise have forced cancellation of sailings. The faster top speed means it will be able to maintain schedules more easily.

“There’s a lot of amazing things this brings to the route,” Gudgel said, noting the new vessel has a full galley that can serve hot food, will have a gift shop, duty-free service, and three classes of seating including business class with a private cabin area, complimentary snacks and refreshments, and leather seats.

When it first goes into service, Clipper V will cap passenger loads at 440 as the Belleville Street ferry terminal cannot comfortably accommodate 579 passengers.

Clipper has not finalized next year’s schedule, nor next year’s fare structure, Gudgel said.

With Clipper I being retired, the route will be serviced by Clipper IV and the larger Clipper V.

The new vessel is en route from Europe via heavy-lift carrier and is expected to arrive Dec. 16. It will undergo refit work in drydock and Clipper expects to have it in the water for trials in late January.

Clipper V is expected to be in service in March.

aduffy@timescolonist.comt