Jack Knox: Ferries pick up speed for a very different summer

Years ago, CBC Radio ran a contest in which it asked listeners to come up with the best Canadian joke. The winner went something like this:

Q. How do you get 20 Canadians out of a pool?

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A. Ask them to leave.

Yes, we’re an obedient lot. When Dr. Bonnie Henry et al asked us to please stay home and stop riding a drastically scaled-back B.C. Ferries service this spring, we did. This week, passenger numbers on the major routes were down 75 per cent compared to last year. Vehicles were down 65 per cent.

But now summer is coming, the COVID clouds are lifting a bit, and many are anxious to know when, or if, they can plan an off-Island holiday.

The answer: Soon. Ish. Maybe. When asked Thursday about when B.C. communities could start to see travellers from within the province again, Henry said she couldn’t put a date on it, but perhaps mid-June into July.

The thing is, it’s not like B.C. Ferries will be rushing back to full service in any case. On Friday, the corporation unveiled a new agreement with the provincial government that will see levels gradually increase, but not to where they would be in a normal summer. Among the measures:

• There will be at least seven to 10 round-trips a day between Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen between July 1 and Sept. 7.

That could rise depending on demand, though don’t expect the usual peak summer service in which four vessels provide hourly service. “Looking at our staffing levels, we won’t be able to do that this year,” says B.C. Ferries’ Deborah Marshall. The corporation, which has been losing $1 million or more each day, hasn’t hired the 500 seasonal workers it would usually take on.

• The Horseshoe Bay-Departure Bay run will see at least six to eight daily round trips between July 1 and Sept. 7. Service on that route, suspended during the shutdown, resumed June 3 but with only four round-trips a day.

• The Brentwood Bay-Mill Bay ferry will chug back to life June 24.

• Service to the Southern Gulf Islands will increase June 9. The boats from Swartz Bay will ramp up to a winter schedule. Direct sailings from Tsawwassen to the Southern Gulf Islands will resume, which means Salt Spring Island’s Long Harbour terminal will re-open. There won’t be a second ferry on the Tsawwassen-Southern Gulf Islands during peak periods, though.

• Mid-coast and northern communities will continue to see winter service levels. There is no plan to revive the direct run between Bella Coola and Port Hardy will summer, though. Demand has dropped up north, in part because of visitors from Europe cancelling their vacations, and in part because Haida Gwaii and other communities asked outsiders to stay away.

• Some inter-island routes will actually see sailings removed as service is reduced slightly in coming weeks.

“B.C. Ferries understands the important role we play in British Columbia’s social and economic recovery,” CEO Mark Collins said in a statement. “We remain committed to ensuring coastal communities have reliable access to essential goods and transportation for residents, emergency personnel and health care workers. However, it will take some time before we return to pre-COVID-19 traffic demand and full-service offerings.”

It will be interesting to see what that demand actually is. Ridership has plunged since March, when service was reduced to core levels and non-essential travel was discouraged. A provincial government order requiring B.C. Ferries to give priority to essential goods, services and workers, and to residents of the coastal communities served, remains in effect.

Traffic is already rising, and will rise more as COVID-19 restrictions are eased and leisure travel resumes, but no one knows by how much. Will stir-crazy Islanders escape the rock, or choose to hunker down here on the safer side of the moat? Will the tourists who would normally come from the U.S. be offset by Canadians coming here instead of going to Disneyland?

It will be a different experience when they board. People can stay in their cars on the vehicle deck again. The eateries have closed, though B.C. Ferries is working on a grab’n’go option. As a physical-distancing measure, Transport Canada halved the number of passengers on each vessel. That means, for example, just 1,050 passengers and crew on one of the Spirit class boats instead of 2,100. Will that be enough at the peak of summer? We’ll find out.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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