Victoria-Vancouver passenger ferry to start this summer

The historic CPR Steamship Terminal building will resume its original role this summer, as a new passenger ferry service between Victoria and Vancouver begins operating from its dock.

On Tuesday, Riverside Marine signed a lease agreement with the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority for office space at the CPR Steamship Terminal building and a 14,000-square-foot water lot on the harbour.

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The two-year lease agreement — with a five-year renewal option — means service between Victoria’s Inner Harbour and Vancouver’s Harbour Flight Centre in Coal Harbour will likely start in July.

“This is terrific — it really brings back the Steamship Terminal to what it was originally used for, a dropping-off point for people coming to visit Victoria,” said Ian Robertson, chief executive of the harbour authority. “It’s really good news for tourism.”

Financial terms of the deal were not released, but Robertson said the GVHA is getting market rates for the office space and water lot — Australia-based Riverside will take about 4,500 square feet in the building on three levels, the bulk of it being 2,400 square feet on the upper level for its Canadian administration office.

Riverside, which will have spent $15 million to get the service up and running, will also extend the existing dock on the water lot, but will not displace businesses using the dock, such as water taxis.

There is a lot of work to do before service begins this summer, when Riverside begins a soft launch of the operation. It intends to ramp up slowly to become fully operational by the summer of 2017.

According to Nick Cheong, Riverside Marine’s vice-president of operations for the Victoria-to-Vancouver service, the company is preparing a catamaran for transport to Victoria from where it sits in Quebec. The vessel, which has been out of service for about a year, according to Cheong, will be transported by container ship through the Panama Canal.

“It was a dining boat operating on the St. Lawrence [Seaway],” Cheong said in an interview from Brisbane, Australia. “It’s been working in freshwater conditions, so it’s in good shape.”

The vessel will be given a complete interior refit, with new fittings, furniture and seating.

“We are looking to provide a premium experience for tourists between Vancouver and Victoria — we want passengers to get that sense of comfort and have them taken care of,” he said.

Cheong said the work will be done in Victoria, and the company has already been in discussions with Point Hope Shipyard.

“It makes sense, as our offices will be based [in Victoria] and we want to be able to have a facility where we can carry out work on the vessel, not just for the refit, but continually as it needs to be maintained.”

When the work is completed, the catamaran will be able to handle as many as 300 passengers. Ticket prices have not been finalized, but Cheong said they will be in the $80 range.

Daily sailings are expected to leave Vancouver in the morning, and Victoria in the afternoon. The harbour-to-harbour trip, covering 59 nautical miles, will take up to 3.5 hours.

It’s not the first time a passenger ferry has operated between the two harbours. The Royal Sealink Express lost millions of dollars due to low ridership and stopped operating after 19 months in 1993.

But Robertson said the new service is different. “What was tried in the past was a point-to-point passenger ferry system,” he said. “This operator has been careful to say they will not be a point-to-point passenger ferry and will not be competing with B.C. Ferries.

“It will provide a unique way, mainly for tourists, to travel between Vancouver and Victoria, and a unique way for people living in Victoria to travel to Vancouver for maybe a weekend getaway.”

Cheong agreed, noting Riverside is going after a different market than Royal Sealink, as it’s aiming to be a tourism experience as much as a transportation link.

Riverside is a division of Riverside Marine Australia, a family business incorporated in 1926.

The company operates divisions under the Riverside Marine Group, Rivtow Marine, RiverWijs and Fantasea Adventure Cruising brands.

The Victoria operation is its first expansion into North America.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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