Where the school bus is a boat

On a gray November dawn, Scholarship makes its way among the Gulf Islands of British Columbia to pick up students headed for their high school on Saltspring Island. The 42-foot boat can carry up to 40 passengers and cruises at about 14 knots.

Four knots of tide boiling and eddying through Active Pass pop the bow of the boat from side to side. Capt. Dave Arnott peers ahead as early winter darkness begins to shut down his visibility. Huge green-water boils rise to port and starboard, then stream aft of the 42-foot aluminum hull. In the double row of cushioned seats behind the captain’s and deck hand’s elevated seats, the pleasant chatter of 25 high school students, on their afternoon run home, blends with the steady hum of the boat’s engine.

Active Pass separates the bluffs on the south end of Galiano Island and the gentler slopes at the north end of Mayne Island, two of Canada’s Gulf Islands that lie between the Gulf of Georgia and Vancouver Island. The islands and others in the Gulf Island group, lying just north of the U.S. San Juan Islands, are linked to Victoria on Vancouver Island and to Vancouver on the mainland by scheduled car ferry runs. But, for quick movement of passengers, water taxis and other small vessels have earned an indispensable role.

Many of the luxurious summer homes on the islands are accessible only by water, so small boats carry everything from building supplies to groceries. All the larger islands have roads along which parents can drive their children to meet the school boat. The Gulf Islands Water Taxi company was founded by Jack Hughes in 1978. According to one story, he asked the owner of a small taxi operation how he could get a piece of the action, and the man virtually gave him the struggling business. Over the years he has built the firm’s fleet to include one 12-passenger and three 40-passenger vessels. Two of the 40-passenger vessels handle the transportation of students to the high school on Saltspring Island from Galiano, Mayne, North Pender and Saturna islands.

Students boarding Scholarship at Sturdies Bay on Galiano Island. In addition to Galiano, the boat makes stops at Mayne, North Pender and Saturna islands.

Scholarship, which Arnott was taking into Active Pass on his afternoon run, is a single-screw aluminum boat from the late Gene Bellavance’s highly respected Argo Boats. A 450-hp Volvo 140D pushes the boat along at about 14 knots, fluctuating between 10 and 18 knots depending on tidal currents. Graduate is a similar sized fiberglass twin-screw boat. With both vessel names exhorting the students to excellence, the owner had a bit of fun when he named his smaller Tollycraft sport fishing boat Drop Out. The company has a third vessel of a similar size as a standby vessel, and they operate a smaller vessel that takes BC Coast Pilots to ships that use the anchorages in the Gulf Islands. This smaller 12-passenger boat also acts as a marine ambulance.

For the morning school run, the two skippers and their deck hands meet at the dock on Ganges shortly after 0600 four days per week to ready the boats. Two or three teachers who live on Saltspring, but teach on other islands, arrive a short time later for their commute. In spite of the early hour — and the chill of winter and darkness — there are island-friendly greetings as the two boats move out of the harbor promptly at 0630. Scholarship begins the morning with a 14-mile run to its first stop.

Arnott ran southeast down Ganges Harbour before turning east around the rocky point at the top of Prevost Island. The beginnings of a brilliant red sunrise appeared to the southeast over Mayne Island as the west end of Active Pass came in sight. A small boat with a big set of lights raced out of the pass. Arnott explained that it is the daily mail boat making its rounds at close to 30 knots. The lights help the operator spot drift logs in time to avoid running over them. As Scholarship entered the pass, a large tree complete with branches floated on the beginning of the ebb.

High school students boarding at Miners Bay on Mayne Island.

“That’s the one that someone said to watch out for last night,” Arnott said, “I swear the tide can carry some of those logs right the way around Mayne Island.” In reference to the number of drift logs that come down the Fraser River on the east side of the Gulf of Georgia, he added, “We call then Fraser River alligators.”

Driftwood on the heavily forested British Columbia coast has long been a major navigational hazard especially for high-speed boats. In addition to its roof-top spotlight, Scholarship has a “log light” mounted on the bow that helps spot the low riding logs before they are run over and damage the propeller, or worse. The increased use of log-barges and bundle booms has reduced the incidence of logs escaping from booms. But there is still plenty of wood to worry mariners in these tidal waters.

The ebb was just starting to push out of Active Pass and the school boat ran along the towering bluffs of Galiano Island before rounding the point into the more open waters on the edge of the Gulf of Georgia. There was a bit of a sea running from the southeast. Arnott explained that a flood tide against a strong wind from the east can build a steep swell here that has, at times, nearly launched the boat from its peak. He swung the boat north into Sturdies Bay where a breakwater and the car ferry dock protected the landing. Two teachers from Ganges got off and a couple of adult commuters boarded with about 20 high school students.

Capt. Dave Arnott and deck hand Mark Coulter in the wheelhouse of Scholarship while one of the BC Ferries passes by.

The boat was underway at 0743 and quickly crossed south to enter Miners Bay on Mayne Island as the sun rose over Washington State’s Mount Baker. More students and commuters waited on the float in the late November chill and the growing light. Deck hand Mark Coulter stepped onto the dock and made the boat’s lines fast. The passengers boarded safely using a swim-grid type of extension out from the stern with a protective railing and entered through a gate in the transom.

These young people have grown up around boats and move with ease around them. As the boat cleared this dock shortly after 0750 and began to retrace its earlier route, two of the larger BC Ferries car ferries entered the pass. But these are all scheduled runs and Arnott is accustomed to seeing them each day. He also keeps Vancouver Vessel Traffic posted on all Scholarship’s movements, as do the other boats in the area.

The students settled into the comfortable seats. As the light began to strengthen, some finished up homework while others visited. This routine would have them in Ganges along with the students from other islands that arrive aboard Graduate in plenty of time to get up to the high school for the 0855 start. Their school day would run an extra hour-and-a-quarter to 1615. This allows them to put in the number of schooling hours required each week in only four days. This gives them all a three-day weekend, while saving the school board a little on the high cost of operating boats for school buses.

Real estate on British Columbia’s Gulf Islands remains in high demand as more and more families find ways to escape the pressures of urban living for the beauty of these islands. The demand for the Gulf Islands Water Taxi services will grow and many more scholars will benefit from the unique ride to their school and graduation.

By Professional Mariner Staff