An icon of Vancouver Island’s West Coast is poised to take its final voyage.
Lady Rose Marine Services will close its doors as of Aug. 31, after 75 years of freight and passenger service down the Alberni Inlet.
The company is yet another victim of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic strain of extended closures and restrictions, owner Mike Surrell said Monday, Aug. 9. The company posted a brief statement on its Facebook page after rumours started circulating about the closure.
“Seventeen months of basically no income going into the winter, which is traditionally slow…maintaining and running these vessels is very, very expensive,” he said.
“With COVID-19 we managed to hang on for 17 months. We’re not able to maintain this pace. Unfortunately, the Frances Barkley will stop sailing at the end of the month.”
Surrell bought the company and all its operations in 2008. He said while COVID-19 was the final strike, it has also been difficult finding employees with the proper certification to help keep the ship running. Working as a mariner is a specialty, and government regulations demand a certain amount of current training and certification. Surrell said he is not the only company hurting for staff: even BC Ferries is looking for employees.
“We’ve done everything we can to survive,” he added. He said the business is not for sale, it will just cease to operate as of Sept. 1.
Alberni-Pacific Rim MLA Josie Osborne called the closure a “tough blow” for coastal communities. “While I was very pleased to help deliver provincial government bridging supports to the company, this outcome is certainly not what anyone hoped for,” she said. “Mike Surrell and his team have poured their heart into this company and have been so dedicated to serving residents, businesses and visitors to Barkley Sound. I also want to acknowledge the employees and clients who will be impacted by this change.”
The news has sent shock waves around the community, and people who depend on the service to move goods as well as people are scrambling to make other arrangements.
Surrell said he has done everything he could to keep the business operating throughout the pandemic. He sold the former BC Ferries car ferry MV Tenaka to an American buyer in March 2021 (it was then reportedly re-sold to another buyer and moved to Ucluelet Harbour). He purchased the ferry in 2016 and it sat for five years as government officials wound the red tape tighter and tighter, the idea of car service to Ucluelet and Bamfield sinking further and further.
He sold the former Sechart Lodge to Phil and Shannon Williams from Cowichan Valley and their partners Arnie and Janet Melissen of Pitt Meadows. They renamed the lodge, located down the Alberni Inlet, as Broken Islands Lodge. The new lodge owners are scrambling to figure out how to get staff and groceries to their tourist operation as of Sept. 1.
The lodge already had to come up with a plan to get tourists to their dock, Shannon Williams said, since government restrictions meant Lady Rose Marine Services could not transport people (for non-essential reasons). “Because of COVID they weren’t allowed to take any guests. We purchased a water taxi so we’ve been collecting our guests from Secret Beach and Bamfield. Now, luckily, we have a plan in place.”
The lodge owns two water taxis, and they have someone living at the lodge year-round. Whether or not they could put their water taxis to use for people needing service up and down the Inlet remains to be seen. “This is new for us. We haven’t done a feasibility study at all. What we’ve looked at is our short-term needs.”
The lodge has still been able to use the Frances Barkley’s services to bring staff to and from the lodge each week, as well as their grocery delivery. Now they will have to figure out different logistics, she said.
“It is an end of an era. It is a loss to our guests, for sure; people have enjoyed their services. It’s a romantic notion, to take a big boat down the Inlet.”
The Frances Barkley has always brought freight as well as passengers to Bamfield and a few remote points in between, like Kildonan. The vessel has also been known to make regular stops in Ucluelet during the busy summer season, pre-COVID-19.
The loss will be keenly felt by residents in Anacla, the Huu-ay-aht First Nations’ village that is next to Bamfield, said an executive council member. Trevor Cootes said residents rely on everything from building materials down to prescriptions to come down on the Frances Barkley.
“Our citizens will often take the Frances Barkley for medical appointments in town” instead of driving, he added. “It’s a well-used mode of transportation for our citizens. We’ll definitely be feeling it.
“It’s another example of why it’s essential to upgrade the Bamfield Road.”
Peter Mieras of Rendezvous Dive Adventures said the lack of passenger service will affect their business, which is located in Rainy Bay—one of the Frances Barkley’s occasional stops. “For us, we rely on smaller groups and film crews with lots of gear coming up on the local ferry,” Mieras said. “That will affect our business substantially too.
“We are devastated for the amazing crew and staff who have rendered a great service for decades to this remote area.”
Roland Smith, who was part of the ownership group that sold the company to Surrell, said he was sad to hear the news. Smith worked for the company for 32 years and was an owner for 11.
“From a legacy aspect…it’s sad news to us. I thought it would go a lot longer than this.
“I went there for a summer job and I ended up exiting as an owner,” he said. “We did a lot of interesting things with the company.”
He echoed Surrell’s comments about government regulations causing difficulties to marine-based businesses. “I have empathy for Mike,” Smith said. “It’s no reflection on current ownership. Times have changed.”
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