The Early Days of Vancouver Island Ferry Travel

June 10th, 2019

While ferry travel today between Vancouver Island and the mainland is commonplace, it was not always this way. In the mid nineteenth century, the Hudson’s Bay Company transported passengers and freight between Vancouver Island and the mainland, but in the earlier half of the twentieth century, previous to the creation of a regular ferry service, travellers across the Georgia Strait would generally fly. As time went on, the need to ferry increasing numbers of people across the water the led to some incredible feats of engineering.


In 1901, Canadian Pacific Railway assumed responsibility for transporting people and vehicles between Vancouver and Victoria. This lasted until the 1960s. Nanaimo got ferry service in the 1950s, when the Black Ball Line began to operate ferries between Horseshoe Bay and Departure Bay, as well as offering services between the Sunshine Coast and Jervis Inlet.


By 1958, BC Premier W. A. C. Bennett expressed the need for a regular ferry service and announced that the British Columbia Ferry Authority would take over ferry operations under the provincial government. This initial route offered service only between Victoria (Swartz Bay) and Vancouver (Tsawwassen). In order for the ferry terminal at Tsawwassen to be constructed, a two-mile long causeway and an artificial island had to be built.


While today this company, now BC Ferries, provides one of the largest and most sophisticated ferry networks in the world, offering trips to 47 destinations on 35 vessels and employing as many as 4700 people, at the outset the ferry service had only about 200 employees and two ships: the M.V. Tsawwassen and the M.V. Sidney.


Service began on June 15th, 1960, and as luck would have it, the day was exceptionally windy and rainy. Despite these poor weather conditions, the ferries sailed. As the summer went on, bad weather turned out in the company’s favour. Many days of thick fog resulted in cancelled flights, but the ferries could continue their service as usual in this weather. Passengers quickly saw crossing the water by ferry as a fine alternative to flying––although it took a little more time, it was more reliable and it cost a fraction of what it cost to fly.


Five years later, the company needed to expand ferry capacity and embarked on an ambitious endeavour known as the “stretch and lift” project in what is considered to be one of the boldest undertakings in the history of marine engineering. These “V-class” or “Victoria class” ferries included seven ships that were built between 1962 and 1965 and which underwent massive renovation projects to increase vehicle capacity. First, the company installed ramps and platform car decks. Then four of the ships were sliced horizontally and moved apart so that a new car deck could be slid into place between them. Some of these ships were subjected to the process as many as three times.


While the majority of these old vessels have been scrapped, the Queen of New Westminster and the Queen of Burnaby remain in the fleet. The Queen of Nanaimo, built in 1964, was sold in 2017. Renamed the M.V. Lomaiti Princess V., it is now operated by Groundar Shipping Co., in Fiji.

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