For a time it seemed like it would never happen, but at 6 a.m. on May 1, more then 200 people lined up at the CFB Esquimalt Colwood “D” jetty for a quick boat ride across the harbour.
It’s a surprisingly short trip aboard the MV Grey Selkie. The 10 minute cruise to Dockyard and Naden is certainly shorter than driving around the harbour and joining the thousands of others braving the “Colwood crawl.” It's far more pleasant too, as the noise of vehicles and the stench of exhaust is replaced by the hum of the boat and the crisp sea air.
It almost didn’t happen, this trip on May 1. The Department of National Defence and CFB Esquimalt announced only in March that the Blue Boat commuter service, provided free of charge for military and civilian personnel for the past 55 years, would be no more as of April 30.
From the ashes of that program came ideas for a replacement ferry. There were plans for a privately operated bus, but in the end Victoria Harbour Ferry stepped up with a plan to offer a similar ferry to the Blue Boat, only privately operated and at a cost to riders.
CFB Esquimalt base commander, Capt. Craig Baines, admitted he was genuinely surprised to see a new commuter ferry up and running the day after the Blue Boats set sail for the last time. He described cancelling the service as one of the hardest tasks he has done as base commander, and is glad to see an alternative has been found.
“I am surprised, I’m not even going to pretend,” Baines said. “But I think it’s a real testament to what the community can do when it puts its mind to it. It was that collective will that made this happen.”
Despite the tight timeframe of less than three months, owner Barry Hobbis said that he never misses a deadline and didn't doubt they would have the Baseline service up and running by May 1. To reach that point it, he said took a lot of teamwork, deft navigation of bureaucracy and a willingness to develop the idea at the same time as moving forward on it.
“None of us had a path to follow. Nobody. And we just created that path as we went along and that’s a difficult thing to do,” Hobbis said. “Our goal is to make sure that people get to work and get home safely and efficiently. And that’s what we’re going to do, that’s our focus.”
Victoria Harbour Ferries hosted an opening celebration for the first day of operations. Area politicians, military officials and media types attended to hear some words from organizers and to enjoy a free run across the harbour and back.
Colwood Coun. Shari Lukens said the privately run ferry is positive for everyone, especially in regards to keeping traffic off the roads and out of the commuter grind between Colwood, View Royal and Esquimalt.
“It also provides options,” Lukens said. “Any time we can work with another municipality, it’s a great opportunity to bridge those relationships and continue to build and work together.”
The results of 747 surveys helped to decide the level and cost of service. The trip is $2.50 one-way, or cheaper with weekly and monthly passes. Baines said he has heard grumbling about having to pay for what used to be a free service, but most employees feel the fares are reasonable and are happy to see a service in place.
The vessel can hold 40 passengers and there are plans to bring in another 40-passenger vessel in a few weeks to meet demand. If necessary a third boat will be added.
Hobbis said that although there are no concrete plans yet, the intention is to expand the service. Down the road, Hobbis said that he envisions transporting civilians from the West Shore to the downtown area by way of water.
“When you live on an island the shortest distance between two points is water,” said Hobbis. “We can, I think, look at this reasonably and picture a day when you could be removing 2,000 vehicles from that roadway.”
For more on the Baseline commuter ferry service, see victoriaharbourferry.com/baseline