They don’t go very fast, don’t carry that many people and their trip is over before you know it.
But to many Vancouverites and tourists, the False Creek Ferries are a civic treasure. Getting out on the water for a few minutes changes your day, giving passengers a chance to slow down and chill from the hubbub of daily life.
“It’s very calming,” said Jeremy Patterson, operations manager of the ferries. “You disconnect from your phone and focus on the surroundings.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary that George McGinnis and his family took over the ferries. So on July 1, the False Creek Ferry fleet will be celebrating with a special “Ferry Ballet” in False Creek from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.
The synchronized manoeuvres include classics like the “Flying V,” the “Figure Eight,” and the “Circle of Death.”
Patterson explains the latter.
“We do two concentric circles, one inside the other,” he said. “One rotating clockwise, one rotating counter-clockwise, with a series of ferries. Then we simultaneously burst out of that — everybody makes a sudden turn, like a firework.”
The ferries have been doing the ferry ballet on special occasions for decades, usually just before the Celebration of Light fireworks display.
“One guy would sort of sketch it out on paper, come down and hand us a sheet,” he recounts.
“We’d look at it and kind of go ‘OK, I think I know what he means,’ and try it. We all have radios on the boats, so one person would say ‘OK, we’re going to execute this manoeuvre in five-four-three-two-one’ and then it happens.”
The service began in the summer of 1981, when Brian Beesley and Laura Gibson commissioned four small electric ferry boats and started taking people around False Creek for 50 cents.
Unfortunately they ran into financial problems and McGinnis purchased the fleet. In 1985 his former partner Jeff Pratt left to start a rival ferry, the Aquabus.
Today both companies run fleets (False Creek Ferries has 17 boats, Aquabus has 14) in and around False Creek. But business was tough during the pandemic.
“We were closed for three months,” said Patterson.
“Our business was off by more than 90 per cent, and it was a slow climb from that. But we’re busier now than we’ve ever been.”
In fact, False Creek Ferries just had its busiest May ever with an estimated 120,000 passengers. The record would be about 250,000 in a month, in a July or August.
Patterson started working for False Creek Ferries as a summer job in 1990. He tried other maritime gigs, but always wound up being lured back by McInnis, whose family still runs the business, many years after his death.
It’s a unique job.
“I was driving the ferry when that grey whale came up the creek in 2010,’ Patterson recalls.
“That was a bit strange. You don’t know what you’re looking at. I saw it take a breath, it exhaled and there was a bit of a spout, but my mind didn’t quite process it as I was looking at it. While I’m thinking, it’s coming right at me, and I’m going right at it.”
“The gears were turning very slowly. Eventually I realized what it was, but by that time, it was going under the boat. I had no chance to take any evasive action or anything like that.
“Once the word got out, people were up on the bridges looking down and all along the seawall. It went right up the creek, and the police and aquarium staff tried to escort it out of the creek. We had to stop the ferry service while that was going on. As soon as they left, it came back in again.”
The electric ferries were quite small and have been retired. The False Creek fleet now includes two types of ferry that run on diesel, including a 20-footer built in Port Hardy and designed by Jay Benford, “a fairly famous naval architect.”
The new edition to the fleet was built by West Bay Shipyard in Delta and is slightly larger (22 feet).
“It’s little easier to get in and out, it has a little more headroom,” he said. “A little steadier and more stable.”
Business slows down in the winter, when it’s mainly locals, but can boom to 2,000 passengers an hour in the summer, when it’s 70 per cent tourists. The ferries can carry 12 passengers each, and tickets range from $3.50 for a one-way fare to $16 for a day pass. You can also charter a ferry for a private trip, like Bono did when U2 were rehearsing in Vancouver a few years ago.
“We have nine different stops,” he said. “Our furthest stop west is the Maritime Museum in Kits and in English Bay at Sunset Beach, (the furthest east is) going up the creek to Science World.”
This prompts his standard joke: “Up the creek, with no paddle required.”
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