For the first time in 18 months, the Victoria Clipper V vessel will sail into the Inner Harbour at 10:30 a.m. Friday. As welcome a sight as the passenger ferry will be for Victoria’s tourism economy, it may be a bigger relief for the company itself.
One of the first companies forced to shut down last year by the pandemic, FRS Clipper has been on a knife’s edge waiting for the chance to get back to its daily business of ferrying people between Seattle and Victoria.
“This is critical for us,” said chief executive David Gudgel. At one point, the company was planning to be out of commission until the spring of next year. “But one of the key pieces for us was the staff.”
Gudgel noted that U.S. federal unemployment benefits for many ran out on Sept. 3 and if the company couldn’t recall its staff, it risked losing key personnel.
The company was very happy to get back to work, and “retain some highly qualified folks who have unique credentials and a lot of institutional knowledge,” he said. “This opening is most critical in that it allows us to maintain key staff through the winter.”
Starting Friday, Clipper will operate a four-day schedule over weekends, with added sailings around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons.
Passengers, who may be U.S. citizens or permanent Canadian residents living in the U.S., must be fully vaccinated at least 14 days prior to arriving in Canada and must provide proof of vaccination and submit travel information via the ArriveCAN web portal within 72 hours of arrival.
Travellers must wear masks while on board and inside, and will also have to provide a negative COVID PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test result.
All Clipper staff must be vaccinated as a condition of employment.
Paul Nursey, chief executive of Destination Greater Victoria, said the return of the Clipper is exciting. “It’s massive, not just the short-term benefit, but the key strategic piece is we could have lost it. If they didn’t have a timeline for reopening, how long was their parent company going to wait around?
“They were at risk of losing some highly skilled marine staff and now they are able to get some business continuity going, get geared up for [next] summer, re-engage customers and re-engage their brand a little. Otherwise they were languishing, so this is massive to get them going.”
Nursey said having 100 to 200 passengers arriving from Seattle four days a week is valuable, given they are all overnight stays.
“Add that all up and it’s [the equivalent of] a convention a week,” he said. “Considering how hard we have been hit, we will be grateful for it.”
Gudgel said the company will operate with restrictions including the requirement of a negative COVID PCR test, which adds costs and another hurdle, and Canadians are still not able to travel to Seattle by boat. While Canada has opened the marine border to U.S. travellers, the U.S. has not reciprocated.
The Clipper will run Friday through Monday each week, with one round-trip per day. Until Oct. 10, the vessel will leave Seattle at 7:30 a.m. and then leave Victoria at 5 p.m. Then it switches to leaving Seattle at 8 a.m. and Victoria at 5 p.m.
Gudgel said the PCR test virtually rules out day-trippers, which made up about 30 per cent of the company’s business.
He said the first trip on Friday already has about 100 people booked for the 535-passenger catamaran.
“We are pretty excited to be back — it’s been a long time to be separated from our friends, colleagues, partners and suppliers,” he said.
Clipper V is expected to be met Friday and escorted into the Inner Harbour and the Belleville Street Terminal dock by a flotilla of boats, including a fire boat.
Clipper has been operating a domestic business this summer. Starting in May, it ran trips from Seattle to Friday Harbor that included whale-watching excursions. That service ends Oct. 10.