By ANDREW CAMERON
On Wednesday, April 25, I needed to make a day trip from Pender Island into Victoria. Several days earlier a mishap during a training exercise resulted in the Queen of Cumberland being removed from service until at least April 30. The replacement vessel for the trip from Otter Bay to Swartz Bay in the morning was a direct, non-stop voyage, and I appreciated the extra menu options the Salish Eagle offered for breakfast, so no complaints there (though I’m sure people trying to travel between the Gulf Islands and the mainland these days are not very happy).
My return home in the evening, however, has me stunned with disbelief at how poorly thought-out the alternate schedule is. I arrived at the Swartz Bay terminal ticket booth at 6:55 p.m. and was told that they would try to get me onto the 7 p.m. sailing. Sure enough, a few minutes later, after all the Salt Spring Island-bound vehicles were loaded onto the Skeena Queen, all the Pender Island-bound vehicles were also directed aboard, and we departed only a few minutes late. At Fulford Harbour, Salt Spring Island vehicles disembarked and one lane of traffic bound for Swartz Bay was loaded. We then set off for Otter Bay. According to the temporary schedule posted on the BC Ferries website, we were supposed to arrive at Otter Bay at 8:30 p.m.
In the meantime, the Bowen Queen departed Swartz Bay on its scheduled 7:55 p.m. sailing direct to Pender Island, where it was due to arrive at 8:35 p.m. That the two ferries were scheduled to arrive at the same port five minutes apart is bewildering. Anyone seeing this would give their head a shake at how BC Ferries thought this was remotely possible given that the Otter Bay terminal only has a single berth.
Since the Skeena Queen was scheduled to arrive earliest, I expected that we would dock there on schedule and quickly unload so that the berth could be opened up for the Bowen Queen as quickly as possible. I was shocked, therefore, when I saw that the Bowen Queen was instead allowed to berth at Otter Bay first.
While the fortunate passengers on the Bowen Queen unloaded after their 40-minute direct sailing from Swartz Bay, we on the Skeena Queen watched with incredulity while hovering in the vicinity waiting for our chance to go ashore. Not only did the Bowen Queen unload, but judging from the nearly empty waiting area at the terminal, they also took the time to load Swartz Bay-bound traffic, even though that vessel would be going to Galiano Island first, whereas the Skeena Queen, with lots of empty space, would be heading directly to Swartz Bay after we disembarked.
When the Bowen Queen got out of the way we finally docked at 8:50 p.m., 20 minutes late, and fully an hour and 50 minutes after our scheduled departure from Swartz Bay.
Those passengers travelling from Salt Spring Island to Swartz Bay were not only delayed by the added detour to Otter Bay, but also by an additional 20 minutes wasted waiting for the Bowen Queen to get out of the way. How is it that BC Ferries thinks anything about this arrangement is in any way practical or fair to their customers? The lack of common sense governing this operation makes one wonder if anyone there bothers to actually think things through.
As I see it, there are two simple options for making this alternative scheduling arrangement better.
1) Ensure that the Skeena Queen gets priority at the Otter Bay terminal for its scheduled 8:30 p.m. arrival time so that the passengers that left Swartz Bay earliest at least arrive at their destination before their later-departing cohorts, and so that passengers travelling from Fulford Harbour to Swartz Bay are not needlessly delayed any longer than necessary. As a bonus, travellers heading from Pender Island to Swartz Bay at that time would take the direct sailing on the Skeena Queen instead of being forced to go via Sturdies Bay on the Bowen Queen. The time taken to load those few vehicles onto the Skeena Queen would be recouped by the Bowen Queen subsequently having a quicker turn-around because it would only be unloading at Otter Bay.
Or, 2) Change the routing of the Skeena Queen’s 7 p.m. sailing from Swartz Bay so that it proceeds to Otter Bay first, arriving at a time when there is no competition for the berth by other vessels. After quickly unloading, it can then proceed to Fulford Harbour where the Salt Spring Island-bound passengers will arrive a little later than usual, but because the turn-around time at Otter Bay would be faster without loading new traffic, that delay would be minimized. The final sailing from Fulford Harbour would likewise depart a bit later than it currently does, but because of the greater efficiency overall, those passengers would arrive at Swartz Bay considerably earlier than the poor sods who were on tonight’s voyage.
I have been baffled by many decisions that BC Ferries has made over the decades that I have been using the services. So, I must admit that while dismayed, I am not altogether surprised at this latest display of incompetence. I hope that my suggestions will be taken into consideration so that travellers on the remaining days of this current service disruption will be less inconvenienced.
The writer is a Pender Island resident.