Idle BC crew boat finds new niche as commuter ferry

Hollyburn 1

Traveling the coasts of North America, it is not uncommon to see crew boats from the 1970s and ’80s tucked away in a backwater or corner of a port — the older ones built in steel with a pair of 12V-71 Jimmies, the newer ones in aluminum with a variety of four-cycle engines. Some in this class have found work in whale watching, supporting marine construction or handling other niche work. Others sit idle while their owners mull opportunities or simply write them off as having had their day.

In British Columbia, Graham Clarke has been involved in just about every kind of marine business, not to mention air and highway transport. Currently he operates a successful fleet of 14 vessels under the company names of Harbour Cruises and Western Pacific Marine. In 1979, he had Al Renke’s Shore Boatbuilders fabricate a 57-by-17-foot, twin-screw, 40-passenger aluminum crew boat. The boat was named Centurian IV at its launching and Clarke put it to work between French Creek, Vancouver Island and False Bay on Lasqueti Island.

Hollyburn heads for the pier at Lulu Island with the Annacis Island car carrier port in the background and the south shore of the Fraser River in the distance.

Over its 38-year lifetime, the boat also has taken assignments that have included Prince Rupert and Kincolith, Darrell Bay and Woodfibre, plus relieving on several other routes. More recently Centurian IV, now named Hollyburn, had been laid up for lack of work. Then Clarke saw that the city of New Westminster was advertising for a ferry to take part in a pilot project to unite the subdivision and high-rise development on the top end of Lulu Island, a delta in the Fraser River, with a development on the city’s waterfront.

The proposed route, on a narrow section of the river as it divides between deltas, runs about six-tenths of a mile upriver from the island and over to the mainland. As housing prices have soared in nearby Vancouver, the development of high-rises along the river has mushroomed. Initial plans for a footbridge to join the two neighborhoods were scrapped when an initial estimate of $10 million climbed to over $30 million.

Capt. Chris Jenkins pauses during his busy weekend aboard the ferry in July. He was at the helm for about 50 round trips across the Fraser River.

On the mainland side, the Westminster Quay shopping area attracts a lot of foot traffic from the immediate area, and officials believe the addition of citizens from just across the river would further boost that business. City planner Mark Allison and local businesses pitched in to propose a ferry, and they agreed to fund a trial for the summer.

On a weekend at the end of July, they provided free service and passengers flocked to the opportunity at the Queensborough and Westminster Quay terminals. Survey forms were distributed on the “Q to Q” ferry and a count of passengers was taken. Preliminary results indicate that about 2,500 people rode the boat.

“We will have to see how the ferry does when we charge a fare, which will be the same as a one-zone public transit fare,” Allison said. “We are surveying people now on their willingness to use the boat for commuting in the dark days of February, but we anticipate being able to operate with a 50 percent cost recovery.”

Passengers line up at the Westminster Quay pier in July for a free ferry ride aboard Hollyburn. About 2,500 people took advantage of the two-day trial that officials hope will lead to year-round commuter service between Lulu Island and the mainland. 

During the initial two-day trial, Hollyburn made about 50 round trips under the command of Capt. Chris Jenkins. The project was scheduled to continue with a fare of $2 each way through the end of September. Clarke, noting that a SkyTrain public transit system has a station a short distance from the mainland pier, is hoping that the ferry can operate year-round to provide a valuable link for commuters.

The takeaway for owners of idle crew boats around the ports and harbors of North America is that niche markets can be created. As bridges become crowded and working waterfronts fill with concrete high-rises and townhouse developments, there will be a growing need for affordable ferry transport. Having a boat ready to go will be the key to turning these potential routes into practical revenue generators.

By Professional Mariner Staff