Vancouver commuter ferry
celebrates 30 years of service

The SeaBus ferries operate between downtown Vancouver and North Vancouver. Their 15-minute, 1.75-nautical-mile route takes the catamarans across the busiest shipping lanes of the harbor. The boats are propelled by four Detroil Diesel z-drives, giving them an operating speed of 11.5 knots.

In recent years British Columbia taxpayers suffered the embarrassment of what has become known as the “fast ferry fiasco” that saw hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on three large ferries. Those boats now sit idle in the Port of Vancouver. In contrast, every 15 minutes one of Vancouver’s two SeaBuses shuttles hundreds of passengers back and forth across that same harbor within sight of the idle fast ferries. Like the fast ferries, the

SeaBuses are aluminum catamarans. But all similarities end there.

The Burrard Beaver and Burrard Otter were commissioned in June 1977. The 111.5-foot vessels, with their hefty 40.6-foot beam, have capacity for 400 passengers. Capt. Ray Hughes has been with the SeaBuses since their inception and says that they regularly load to full capacity during rush hours and for special events in the downtown area. Part of the success of the two vessels is that they are an integral part of the Greater Vancouver transit system linking with the SkyTrain on the Vancouver side and with the buses on the North Vancouver side of Burrard Inlet. On the rare occasion that one of the ferries is delayed by harbor traffic for more than a minute or two, Capt. Hughes will call ahead to have them hold the buses for the commuters who count on the smooth flow between the propeller-driven and their rubber-tired complements.

The ferries were built with four Detroit Diesel 1271 engines, two located in each hull and driving fully rotating z-drives. About ten years ago these were replaced with Detroit Diesel 6V-92s. These have left the boats marginally underpowered but still capable of maintaining their schedule even with one of the engines down for service. While the boats have a design speed of 14 knots, their current operating speed of about 11.5 knots keeps the wake down while easily maintaining their 10- to 12-minute crossing times. “When we are making a landing,” explains Hughes, “we rotate the forward drives 180 degrees and this puts a real stress on the bottom end.”

Burrard Beaver’s Capt. Ray Hughes in the pilothouse.

The four z-drives, one located in each corner, give the SeaBuses remarkable maneuverability that is essential to their success on the two-mile crossing of the traffic lanes of a busy harbor. Terminal to terminal, the crossing is officially 1.75 nm, but the operators routinely bend the north-south course slightly to the east on the southbound leg and slightly to the west on the northbound leg. This keeps their wake from following them into the piece where six ramps come down on either side to meet the boat. Normal practice is for the maneuverable ferry to give way to all deep-sea ships and tugs with tows. But it is not only marine traffic that the operators have to watch for: the Port of Vancouver has 150 takeoffs and landings per day of float planes and helicopters. Governed by a control on top of a waterfront high-rise, the planes will often be sent out while the SeaBus is in the terminal to minimize the excitement of a plane’s floats passing just over the SeaBus pilothouse. Capt. Hughes says that the most memorable day of his career was Nov. 1, 2000, when a Twin Otter float plane crashed right behind his SeaBus. “When they took off, one engine caught fire and they crashed into the water. When we reached them the nose and most of the fuselage was under water. The last of the passengers and crew were just climbing up onto the wings. I launched one of our 150-passenger inflatable life rafts and, with the boat, pushed it into the space between the wing and the forward part of the fuselage. All 17 passengers and crew were able to step off the plane and into the life raft. Five minutes later the plane sank and most of them didn’t even get their feet wet.”

Mate Russell Karvas immigrated to Canada from Odessa, Ukraine, in 1999. Unable to find work in his trade as a seaman, he went deep-sea for a time. But when, in 2002, he saw an ad for SeaBus officers, he applied and was promptly hired. The transition from the bridge of a deep-sea ship to the box-like pilothouse perched atop the SeaBus took a bit of getting use to. “On the ships,” he recalled, “if there was another ship within a few miles we always called the captain to the bridge and went on full alert. Here we are winding our way in and out of deep-sea vessels all day long.”

When the ferry is in the dock, ramps come down and doors open on one side, allowing passengers to exit.

The SeaBus maintains a remarkable 99.99 percent service reliability that is largely a credit to the good match of vessels and system to the route that they travel. For passengers arriving at the North Vancouver terminal by bus or at the downtown Vancouver terminal by bus or SkyTrain, their transfer is quick and seamless. The terminals each have two berths with a waiting room between for boarding passengers. Each berth has six ramps per side. Once the SeaBus is in the slip the six ramps on one side are lowered into place and the wide doors open allowing the full load of passengers to exit smoothly and efficiently. This is controlled from on board the vessel so that once the cabin is clear the six doors on the opposite side are opened and the return passengers board. Since the passenger seating area is a single deck, the offload and load of passengers is completed in less than two minutes. The boats’ compact pilothouses are suspended above the passenger area and have a small outside wing area for a lookout in the foggy weather that is common in the late fall.

The fog presents special challenges including float planes circling around on the water surface waiting for a break in the fog so that they can take off. In spite of these challenges there has been only one incident involving injury in the 30-year history of the SeaBus. The short run allows for innovations in crewing. Each boat works with a crew of four: captain and mate on the bridge and two attendants on the passenger level. Crews work 10-hour shifts and get every second week off, a remarkable contrast to the offshore and coastal jobs that most have come from. A relief captain comes aboard to relieve each of the two captains for a series of coffee and lunch breaks, which they can take at the many fine eateries located at the North Vancouver quay adjacent to the ferry terminal. Similar arrangements are made for the deck crew. The boats don’t carry an engineer but engineers are located at the terminal and come aboard for regular maintenance or repairs while the vessels are in operation.

Then the doors on the opposite side open, allowing new passengers to come on board.

With an average of 126 sailings on a typical weekday, the two vessels have put up a remarkable record of reliability. Through the fall, winter and spring the two boats will carry an average of 17,000 people. The summer months, when tourists take advantage of what may be the least expensive harbor tour in North America, push the daily numbers to an average of 21,000. Turnstiles at the boarding point lock up once the vessels’ maximum 400 passengers have passed through. The record number of passengers handled in a single day is 28,257.

Capt. Ray Hughes has been with the ferries since they began operating in 1977. Part of their success is that they are integrated with other elements of the Vancouver area’s mass transit system, linking with buses to the north and the SkyTrain system to the south.

With so many commuters relying on them, periodic haulouts do present a problem and are usually put off for holiday weekends and are then scheduled as rush jobs. This should be alleviated somewhat when a third ferry is added later in 2008. Again demonstrating the success of the two 30-year-old boats, the new SeaBus will have essentially the same hulls and passenger areas. Operators are looking forward to a slightly less crowded pilothouse with fore-and-aft controls. The current pilothouse is reminiscent of an aircraft cockpit and has a seat that can be simply inverted for the change of direction each trip. The two joysticks that control the z-drives are located in the console so that the joystick on the operator’s right hand always controls the two aft drives no matter which way the vessel is traveling. The new boat is expected to have more conventional flat windows in contrast with the shapely but costly rounded contours of the present vessels.

As Vancouverites sip their lattes while riding their popular SeaBus back and forth between the mountain-rimmed north shore and the high-rises of the downtown shore, the taxpayers’ complaints over the fast ferry fiasco become less important as they enjoy these highly successful little ferries that have now carried more than 94 million passengers in their 30-year careers.

By Professional Mariner Staff