Just in time for Easter, a story of — ahem — reberth.
“I’ve missed her,” says Jim Kingham, peering down Satellite Channel from his North Saanich home.
Every morning for 7 1/2 months, he has been forced to go through his morning ritual alone.
For more than 13 years, Kingham’s old pal had showed up each day like clockwork, offering encouragement as he ran the Canadian flag up the pole at the end of his dock. But then, right after Labour Day, his friend disappeared, sailing off to Poland to deal with some mid-life crisis.
Or, rather, mid-life refit.
For Kingham’s friend is B.C. Ferries’ Spirit of Vancouver Island, whose crew have long enjoyed a special relationship with the retiree. They salute one another first thing every morning, Kingham waiting until the ferry lines up with his dock before raising his flag, the ferry tooting its horn in return.
That’s what happened Thursday when the ship returned to the Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen run after its Polish adventure. Except this time, there was an extra flourish, Capt. Jody Stevenson’s amplified voice booming out across the water: “Good morning, Jim.”
This is a tale that goes back to 2000 when Kingham, after a career in the upper levels of the federal and Ontario environment ministries, retired to the property. His background gave him a keen sense of the connectivity of things, one that guided him as, over time, he built a waterfront home that is as much work of art as house, one that blends into its surroundings.
In July 2005, he erected the flagpole and broke out the Maple Leaf (“I’m proud of the country and I’m proud of what it stands for,” he says). As he raised the flag for the first time, the Spirit of Vancouver Island glided past, having just pulled out of Swartz Bay. “To my great surprise, as the ferry went by I got a toot.” Kingham tipped his hat to the passing vessel.
The next morning, it happened again. As Kingham worked the flag up the pole, the ferry sounded its horn, briefly. Then it happened the next morning, and the one after that, and soon it was a daily thing.
After a month of this, a couple of guys in a rigid-hull inflatable swung by about 6 a.m. one day as Kingham, an early riser, was working in his garden. “What’s your name?” they called out.
At 7:07 that morning, as the Spirit of Vancouver Island slid past, a voice boomed out over the loudhailer: “Good morning, Jim!” That was the first time it happened. Thursday was the second.
Thus began a routine that has endured almost 14 years. “I put up the Canadian flag, and the day begins,” Kingham says. He times it to match the 7 a.m. sailing, except for the darkest months, when we waits for daylight and the 9. The Vancouver Island sounds a reply.
One day, a ferry captain, Alex Loy, showed up at Kingham’s door with a blue-and-white gift in his arms. “If you’re going to put up the Canadian flag, you might as well put up the B.C. Ferries flag, too,” he said. So Kingham began raising a second flag each morning, albeit on its own pole, as protocol demands.
After that, the bond grew tighter. Once, Kingham was invited aboard the Spirit of Vancouver Island for a round trip to Tsawwassen and bridge-to-engine-room tour, which delighted him. A longtime B.C. Ferries veteran told him that in the old days, when navigation systems weren’t so sophisticated, crews would use his dock as a guide, lining it up with another landmark when making a turn.
Kingham likes the human connection of the daily flag ritual. He also likes that it pulls him to the edge of the water, in touch with the natural world.
“Sometimes, I’ll sit on the dock and watch the seals go by.” Sea lions, too, or — rarely — an orca. Thursday’s conversation was punctuated by a passing otter. There are also two resident gulls he calls Francis and Frances (a tactful choice of names, he explains, as confusing the female and the male might hurt their feelings — ruffle their feathers, as it were).
After all those mornings, it felt weird when the Vancouver Island went off on refit last fall. The Island-based vessel is the only one that salutes Kingham each morning. The mainland-based Spirit of British Columbia doesn’t do so. As for the Coastal-class ferries that subbed in for the Vancouver Island during its 71/2 month absence, they don’t pass by Kingham’s dock at all, as the position at their Swartz Bay berth takes them around the other side of Piers Island. So, when the Vancouver Island was gone, Kingham was left raising the flag alone.
But back it came Thursday, cleaner and greener, now capable of running on natural gas (take that, Jason Kenney!) or low-sulphur diesel. Passengers won’t see the below-decks upgrades, but up top, the gift shop has doubled in size and there are spiffier washrooms, a new coffee bar and new carpets and upholstery.
Some things remain unchanged, though, including the flag-and-horn routine.
“It’s a connection that makes it more than a ship passing in the night,” Kingham says. “It’s a form of communication.”