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Jack Knox: After 20-month break, Coho run resumes Nov. 8

After 20 long months, the Coho ferry run will return in less than three weeks.
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The MV Coho ferry at the Black Ball terminal in Victoria. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

After 20 long months, the Coho ferry run will return in less than three weeks.

The question is, will the resumption be enough to restore Victoria’s long-standing relationship with our cross-the-strait neighbours, or will Canada’s COVID-test requirement keep travellers on their own sides of the moat?

We’ll find out. Black Ball, the ferry operator, announced Tuesday that it will be back in business Nov. 8, when the U.S. reopens its land and marine borders to Canadians (at least, the fully vaccinated ones) travelling for non-essential purposes.

The first sailing from Port Angeles will arrive in Victoria at 9:50 a.m., then make the return trip at 10:30. After that, it will be two trips a day, seven days a week. Black Ball will update its website shortly.

It will be the only one of the three Vancouver Island-Washington ferry links in operation — a single, frayed thread connecting the past and present.

Washington State Ferries said in August that it wanted to re-establish its Sidney-Anacortes route this fall, but then in late September quietly changed that target to the spring of 2022. “Adding international service at this time would further stress already strained domestic service that’s affecting Washingtonians still navigating post-COVID travel,” it said. Note that on Saturday, the state system scaled back service on most routes due to ongoing trouble finding enough people to crew its vessels.

The third ferry service, the Clipper catamaran between Victoria and Seattle, called it quits for the winter less than a month after resuming operations in mid-September. It had reopened with American passengers only (Canada allowed them to go north before the U.S. permitted us to go south) but soon found that open border or not, Canada’s COVID-test requirements created another barrier.

Canadians and Americans alike must show proof of a recent test before entering this country (the U.S. only requires them of air passengers). The hassle and the cost were enough to put off travellers just wanting to visit for a day or two.

Black Ball president Ryan Burles acknowledges that hurdle will deter day-trippers, but he is counting on there being enough other business, particularly from Vancouver Islanders heading south for the winter. “We know the snowbird demand is there,” he said Tuesday.

Also, many truckers prefer the Coho route, which cuts off 138 kilometres (that’s a lot of time and fuel) if you’re hauling a load of produce from California. The border crossing is usually less congested, too.

Plus, there are Victorians who’ll just want to go to Seattle. “You can’t dismiss tourism, whether it’s going to a Seahawks game or a Kraken game, or shopping,” Burles said.

There are also lots of people with family ties that span the strait. First Nations are particularly keen to re-establish bonds that were in place long before the international border.

And then there’s Port Angeles itself. The city, with a population of 20,000, is just 30 kilometres from Victoria — close enough to make out our Canada Day fireworks — but isolated from everywhere else. The Olympic Mountains loom to the south, Seattle is a 21/2-hour haul to the east, and nothing lies to the west except the vampires and werewolves of the Twilight novels.

That isolation gives Clallam County residents a unique relationship with us. They listen to music on Victoria radio stations and get their weather from Ed Bain. Some, in normal years, have season passes to Butchart Gardens. All have go-to restaurants (one guy said he bee-lines from the ferry to the dining room at the legislature). Some even use the Coho to commute to work, though that obviously hasn’t been possible for a while.

From Victoria’s perspective, Port Angeles is a destination that is close both geographically and culturally, but still separate, comfortably familiar yet unmistakably American. It’s a fun place to go. Their baseball Lefties play our HarbourCats. A big contingent of Vancouver Island runners usually boats over for the North Olympic Discovery Marathon each June, and another big group packs the Coho deck with bicycles for the lung-busting Ride The Hurricane ascent in August.

Can all that be maintained (or, rather, revived)? After a year and a half of hunkering in our bunkers, is there an appetite for venturing out?

Victoria’s Burles, part of the tight-knit Coho family since 1981, is certainly eager to get going, to reconnect with staff who might as well have been an ocean away, not just 30 kilometres. It has been a long time since we have seen one another.

jknox@timescolonist.com