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Harbour ferries to run through fall and winter

For the first time in decades, Victoria Harbour Ferry will ply the choppier waters of the Inner Harbour as it continues its taxi and tour service through the fall and winter.
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Barry Hobbis with one of his vessels at the Inner ­Harbour’s Lower Causeway. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

For the first time in decades, Victoria Harbour Ferry will ply the choppier waters of the Inner Harbour as it continues its taxi and tour service through the fall and winter.

The 31-year-old company will operate three of its 12-passenger pickle boats this fall in what is being seen as a symbol of the perseverance of the ­hospitality ­industry through the pandemic and a new corporate ­philosophy at the company itself.

General manager Barry Hobbis said the idea to run came from new majority shareholder Ian Maxwell, founder of the Ralmax Group of Companies.

“He has a philosophy of serving the community,” said Hobbis.

“We have gone through some difficult times, as has everybody, but we’ve come through a remarkable season this year due in large part to the fact we focused on our local community and making sure we were there for locals who wanted to get out and do something again.”

Hobbis said the idea is to continue being there for the local community through the winter, and providing an option for anyone looking to get out on a decent day.

The company is under no illusion that there is money to be made. Hobbis said they tried winter runs years ago and found it simply didn’t work.

“We won’t become wealthy doing this, it won’t have the ridership that would support it,” he said. “But what will happen is we will focus on having an avenue for schools, for seniors homes and we know we can support the Victoria Conference Centre as it starts to open up. And of course on a nice weekend we will be there for local people who just want to get out.”

To make it more appealing, the company has winterized three of its fibreglass pickle boats – the company has a fleet of 17 vessels — by adding diesel heaters, winter doors, indoor and outdoor winter lighting and cushions for the seats.

“When you get on board it will be warm and comfortable,” Hobbis said, noting 15 of the company’s 35 captains have stepped up to run the vessels through the winter and they will be outfitted with new company outerwear that includes Victoria Harbour Ferry toques.

Paul Nursey, chief executive of Destination Greater Victoria, said they’re really happy about the news. “It’s great for the customers, that we do have things to do, so we are really excited about this.”

Nursey noted new federal funding announced this week for hard-hit industries like tourism should mean most of Victoria’s tourism businesses, such as the harbour ferries, should survive until spring whether they operate or not.

The federal COVID relief programs Canada Recovery Benefit, Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy and others expire today but will be replaced by a $7.4 billion targeted package that should ensure the tourism and hospitality industry is around to rebuild in the spring.

The Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program will offset wages and rent costs for hotels and restaurants, while the Hardest-Hit Business Recovery Program will provide wage and rent support to employers who have been hit the hardest by the pandemic.

“There are subsidies in place for lost revenue, that should keep all these businesses going,” said Nursey.

Victoria Harbour Ferry plans to offer a new tour in the fall and winter, a combination of its Gorge Waterway and Inner Harbour Tour that can be booked ahead of time. Its taxi service around the harbour will run between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily from six stops.

“Just call us and tell us where you are (on the harbour) and we will pick you up,” said Hobbis.

The company has had strong demand for charters this fall and has several bookings for what it calls “mariner’s farewells” where family members scatter a loved ones ashes at sea.

They are partnering with Ghostly Walks for haunted harbour tours until Oct. 31. Rservations are required for that tour.

The company said COVID protocols will be in place on board and masks will still be mandatory, though they are now able to operate at full capacity and allow 12 passengers per vessel.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

> Online: victoriaharbourferry.com