Harbour ferries dock for rest and overhaul after rough season

The little ferries that shuttle around the harbour and delight locals and tourists with their weekend ballets and gregarious captains are packing it in for the year.

Victoria Harbour Ferry ends its tumultuous season today after a year that saw a dispute over docking fees, an ownership change and ridership decimated by a pandemic that barred U.S. tourists at the border and scuttled the cruise ship season.

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General manager Barry Hobbis said COVID-19 hit the company hard, with ridership and revenue declining almost 70 per cent compared with last year. Fewer tourists meant severe operational cuts that left the company using only seven of its 18 boats — nine during a peak period in August — and reducing staff from 103 to just 18.

“It was tough at so many levels,” Hobbis said. “Like so many other businesses we had to adapt, change and be flexible.”

But Hobbis said the company is grateful for the locals who supported the ferry company, many of whom had never ridden before on routes that include 16 stops throughout Victoria’s waterways.

He said about 75 per cent of ridership this year was local and the remainder were from out of province, mainly Alberta.

The 30-year-old company will have a thorough debriefing next week on how to prepare for next year.

In the meantime, all of the little ferries will be pulled from the water and undergo complete refits, including hull repairs, painting and engine rebuilds.

A dispute over docking fees with the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority in late June led to Ian Maxwell of the Ralmax Group acquiring a controlling stake in the ferry company and negotiating new leases for key sites such as the Inner Harbour Causeway and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Hobbis and Wayne Dalby remain as minority shareholders.

There will be no final weekend water ballet for the little boats today. They will quietly dock and turn off the engines at 4 p.m.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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