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New Island owners to preserve 'vital' Lady Rose ferry that travels Alberni Inlet

Small communities and First Nations along the Alberni Inlet and the west coast of ­Vancouver Island breathed a collective sigh of relief Tuesday after a ­Nanaimo-based company agreed to acquire Lady Rose Marine Services and the ferry that delivers es

Small communities and First Nations along the Alberni Inlet and the west coast of ­Vancouver Island breathed a collective sigh of relief Tuesday after a ­Nanaimo-based company agreed to acquire Lady Rose Marine Services and the ferry that delivers essential goods and ­services.

“It’s really good news for all of our First Nations and everyone in the region,” said Tseshaht First Nation Chief Ken Watts.

It means the Tseshaht can resume regular pilgrimages through its traditional territory, where large groups can visit sacred sites and listen to elders speak of their history from Port Alberni to the Broken Group Islands, Watts said.

The passenger and freight service, using the MV Frances Barkley, is also a lifeline for the coastal villages of Bamfield and Anacla, delivering building supplies, groceries, mail and medical supplies such as lab tests and bloodwork, and ferrying students to the marine sciences centre as well as tourists to pristine kayaking and hiking spots.

Devon Transport Ltd., which operates vehicle rental and self-storage outlets across B.C., including operations in Port Alberni, threw the lifeline to save the service, which had been hit hard financially by the pandemic and announced it would stop the service on Aug.31.

Greg Willmon, who owns Devon Transport with Barrie Rogers, said the ferry service was “far too valuable to the region” to allow it to close.

Willmon and Rogers are from Nanaimo and Victoria, respectively. Both live in Nanaimo.

Willmon owns a summer home in Bamfield and regularly fishes in the area. He got his start with Devon Transport in Port Alberni and his company continues to do a lot of business there. “It’s a vital business for so many people,” he said of the Lady Rose service. “All you have to do is be on the dock at Bamfield to see the ship come in. There will be 60 people there waiting for their mail, their groceries. You really get a sense of how valuable this service is.”

Willmon said the deal will see Devon Transport purchase Lady Rose Marine Services from owners Mike and Pauline Surrell for an undisclosed amount, retain the Surrells and their entire team and continue uninterrupted service.

Details of the deal were not disclosed.

Surrell said he has known Willmon for years and discussions about a sale started two weeks ago when Willmon was unloading freight at the dock.

“My wife and I couldn’t be happier. We know how critical this service is for so many people who are waiting for their mail or prescriptions or groceries,” Surrell said.

“We fully understand the ramifications of stopping this service and the impact it would make in Port Alberni and the Barkley Sound.

“We are proud to be able to continue helping the new owners in making this company the success it was pre-COVID.”

Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions said she was “absolutely thrilled” the sale happened so quickly, avoiding what could have been major supply ­disruptions to Bamfield and the Huu-ay-aht village of Anacla, which has a population of about 150 that relies on grocery deliveries from Port Alberni stores.

“The threat of losing that service was horrible for those communities,” she said.

Minions said the ferry service is an essential piece to the region’s growing tourism sector as the ferry trips are a major attraction for international visitors.

Surrell agreed, saying most days during the summer months “English is not the first language … it’s German, Italian, French.”

The MV Francis Barkley has a capacity of 144 passengers, but under pandemic restrictions is only allowed to carry about half of that. The service is already fully booked for August and “the phones are still ringing off the hook,” Willmon said.

“We see the service making a full recovery. We are already getting tour companies inquiring about next year,” Willmon said. “We are heading into winter and a slower season, but the freight is always there.”

Watts said members of the Tseshaht use the service to travel along much of their traditional territory along the Alberni Inlet to Bamfield and allows many to connect with the neighbouring 13 Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. Lady Rose Marine Services’ dock and land is also the site of the Tseshaht’s traditional winter village.

He said the ferry service gave his people the opportunity to travel in a large group, whereas fishing boats and some barges allowed much smaller gatherings.

The sale of the company came after an emergency meeting Monday to find interim solutions to save the service. The meeting included Devon Transportation in discussions with MLA Josie Osborne, First Nations, Island Health, Canada Post, the University of Victoria — which has a marine research facility in Bamfield — and local and regional governments.

Lady Rose Marine Services has been a fixture in the area for 75 years, for most of that time using its namesake MV Lady Rose and, since 2008, the MV Frances Barkley.

The Lady Rose was built in Scotland in 1937 and was the first single propeller diesel to sail across the Atlantic under its own power. The vessel was sold to a group from the Sunshine Coast with family connections to the Union Steamships Company of British Columbia, which commissioned the vessel.

dkloster@timescolonist.com