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David Sovka: A prairie boy's love letter to B.C. Ferries

I love the weird metallic clunking noises you hear when boarding, the random strange smells in whatever hallways are called on a boat, and even the long lines and crazy expense for mediocre food.
Foot passengers at Swartz Bay Terminal this summer. While Islanders love to hate B.C. Ferries, David Sovka argues the company is extremely well run given the circumstances, including living and working in the bonkers 21st century. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The sun rises over the cold Salish Sea, its golden rays warming the tops of tall cedars and fir trees that have stood sentinel here for many hundreds of years.

The sunlight warms and shifts low clouds, and steam swirls off the lush green towers full of excited birds: tiny dark-eyed juncos flitting about, a bald eagle bending the topmost branch almost horizontal with its weight.

It is morning on Vancouver Island. Where the hell is my ferry?

During the last fiscal year, B.C. Ferries carried 21.6 million passengers and 9.4 million vehicles, most of them with their car alarms left on for the entire sailing.

To meet the travel demand, B.C. Ferries made 86,835 round trips, only 85,000 of which were cancelled due to manpower issues and weather conditions, such as the unanticipated presence of water on routes between the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.

I’m kidding! Yes, OK, during 2023, B.C. Ferries has experienced a high level of sailing cancellations due to various reasons, most of which fall under the category: “Look, pal, we had REASONS, OK?”

And honestly, sailing wasn’t so bad for people who did not have their travel plans wrecked. For those who did experience cancelled trips, ruined vacations and other missed opportunities, keep in mind only 1.6 per cent of sailings were cancelled, affecting the lives of a mere 345,600 people.

About four in 10 cancelled sailings last fiscal year were the result of staffing troubles, according to a B.C. Ferries report entitled “Management’s Discussion & Analysis of Financial Condition and Financial Performance,” which I should tell you does NOT contain any exciting photos of killer whales attacking seals or fighting giant squid, as suggested by the name.

Anyway, the report found more than double the number of crew-related cancellations this year over last year, which was already more than 20 times higher than the year before that.

According to the report, B.C. Ferries is facing a shortage of skilled workers and high levels of illness among staff.

The staffing problems are only likely to get worse, with up to 25 per cent of crew eligible to retire in the next five years. I am sympathetic to the problem, because I am also aging and easily get seasick, but I am less sympathetic to the retirees, because I still have to go to work.

Another issue is that Transport Canada regulations — which B.C. Ferries often and correctly blames for the dumber things it has to do — require marine operators to have a minimum staffing level or they can’t sail.

And fair enough, a fully staffed Coastal-class vessel, for example, can carry about 1,600 passengers and crew, while a short-staffed vessel can only carry about 900 because their arms get tired.

Right now, you’re probably wondering: “Hey, Dave, if there aren’t going to be any pictures of killer whales battling giant squid, what about the exciting topic of greenhouse gases?”

I’m glad you asked that. According to B.C. Ferries’ 2022-23 sustainability report, our ferry system is already responsible for emitting 80,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent over the 2030 target.

This begs two important questions. First, how does anybody expect us not to emit tremendous volumes of greenhouse gases with White Spot Double Double burgers on the shipboard menu? Second, does anybody understand exactly what “carbon dioxide equivalent” means?

The truth is, coastal British Columbians love to hate B.C. Ferries. It’s our comfort food when handsome, reassuring Ryan Reynolds is not around to make joyously sarcastic comments along with whatever he is currently selling.

But I don’t hate B.C. Ferries. I love B.C. Ferries, and I think the corporation is extremely well run given the circumstances. Those circumstances being living and working in the (so far) bonkers 21st century.

I love the weird metallic clunking noises you hear when boarding, and the random strange smells in whatever hallways are called on a boat, and even the long lines and crazy expense for mediocre food.

I love the men’s splashzone washrooms. I love the extreme stress of trying not to speed along the Tsawwassen causeway in the inevitable high-octane race to the check-in booths, which are guaranteed to be slow and annoying because 90 per cent of the travellers ahead of me are not prepared for the challenge of paying and then parking in a line of other cars.

It’s all part of the experience.

Most of all, I love the view.

I grew up on the prairies in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, so I naturally feared the ocean and the big, white-and-rust-painted boats that plied her waters, if that phrase is still acceptable to use in public.

My first real view of coastal British Columbia wasn’t until my early 20s, with my beautiful new wife on our honeymoon.

We spent a happy week in the Gulf Islands, even though we couldn’t afford the magnificent view of forest and rock and sky and sea.

There is nothing like it in all the world, and it is worth cancelled sailings and jackboot reservation fees, neither of which were part of the experience in August 1989.

I guess what I am saying is B.C. Ferries is having enough trouble already, so don’t leave your car alarm on during the sailing.