To Phillip Vannini, a ferry isn’t simply a vessel to transport people across water from point A to point B.
It is often the pulse of a community, a public square, a clock or a gateway. It can be a source of frustration, or an opportunity to practice some down time.
A ferry can be the soul of a coastal community, with its schedule woven into its social fabric.
To research his new book, Ferry Tales: Mobility, Place, and Time and Canada’s West Coast, Vannini conducted more than 400 interviews with ferry passengers on each of the routes operated by B.C. Ferries. He spent hundreds of hours, including one 37-hour stint on the Queen of Chilliwack, on about 250 ferry rides while visiting virtually every coastal community the ferries serve.
“My motivation to do the research was to tell rest of province that is not ferry dependent to say ‘imagine what it would be like for you to have to pay a toll to drive into your driveway and to go to work every day,” said Vannini.
“We just want freedom of access, right to mobility as recognized rights.”
But the central theme in the book is the love-hate relationship people in communities who rely on their ferry have with their vessels.
Vannini says through anecdotes told to him, people indicated love for the fact ferries insulate communities from crime, overpopulation and other threats. But at the same time, ferries also provide isolation.
“When ferry fares go up and tourists don’t show up, we feel the effect first and foremost. Those are just examples of how the love and hate of ferries is so strong because we depend so much on them,” he said.
The book was inspired by a project Vannini, a professor at Royal Roads University, did with former student Jaigris Hodson called Island Time. That 14-page paper studied how the MV Quinsam, which serves Gabriola Island, influenced residents there. It spurred a similar project on a larger scale.
“I wanted to look at ferries and how they shape the Island and the coast,” he said. “It turns out time, place, economy, just about everything under the sun, especially on smaller islands, is connected in one way or another to the ferries. There are a lot of fun stories in the book.”
Ferry Tales employs seven parts, one of which explains how people from various parts of the coast react to missing their preferred sailing, and techniques used by people to make sure they catch their preferred sailing time.
Vannini admits to his own impatience after waiting for a vessel for 19 hours, which caused one central coaster who was waiting with him to suspect he was from the south coast.
“Here on the south coast if you miss a ferry, or it’s running late, you get cranky, maybe even a little bitchy, and it sort of interrupts your day. In Haida Gwaii, or the central coast, you can get delayed three days. People there don’t freak out, they’re used to it.
“As someone told me after I made a comment while waiting for 19 hours, ‘you must be from the south coast. We leave when we leave,” said Vannini, who originally called the project We’re All in the Same Boat.
Partway into his research, he realized the immense diversity of ferries and the culture they carry, and that the boats and communities they serve are definitely not the same.
From students who commute to school from Bowen Island to West Vancouver to seniors who hadn’t been off the mainland in 50 years, Vannini interviewed as many people as he could to get a bead on the influence of ferries and the cultures they create.
His personal favourite is the Queen of Chilliwack, a slow-moving vessel that plies the waters of the central coast during the summer months. It’s laid back culture enabled Vannini to meet most of the people on the boat.
“The reason why I like it is because if you’ve got time to kill, you get to meet everyone. The ferry’s crew comes out on the deck and they bring out a big barbecue and they barbecue salmon and burgers. It’s like going on a cruise,” he said, adding he also prefers the MV Bowen Queen, the replacement to the workhorse MV Quinsam that serves Gabriola.
“On the Bowen Queen, you get out of your car and step into the lounge and talk to people. The Quinsam is like a parking lot, at least to me, but everybody has their preference.”
Interestingly, Ferry Tales was released the same week as the commissioner for B.C. Ferries, Gord Macatee, released recommendations to rejuvenate the ailing ferry system. Many of Macatee’s suggestions are also given as ideas in the book.
“The escalation of ferry fares is a provincial tragedy. It’s a way of killing these communities I’ve visited,” said Vannini. “The more ferry fares go up the more diversity we lose because it ends up being only select people who can afford to live [in communities served by ferries].”
The book was released in traditional print form and hypermedia Jan. 25 through Routledge Publishing and is also available through Amazon and Chapters. For digital readers, the hypermedia version will give readers full access to information, recordings and photos simply by clicking on highlighted words for a more in-depth look at Vannini’s experience during his research.
Full proceeds from the book are being donated to non-profit organizations on Gabriola Island, where the author lives.