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Set sail with Captain Hook on 100-year-old B.C. ferry ride

The sailing route between Brentwood Bay and Mill Bay celebrates its centennial year

Set sail on the Saanich Inlet with Captain Hook aboard the MV Klitsa — you definitely won’t see crocodiles but you may be lucky enough to ogle orcas.

Captain Aaron Hook has been with BC Ferries since 1991, and has been leading the sea training for the deck department at Swartz Bay for the last 20 years, but since December he has had the privilege of commanding of the MV Klitsa. Since taking on the run, Hook says he loves being on the small boat, and the meet-the-people attitude that comes with it. Another highlight for him was seeing a pod of orcas in March, something he had never witnessed personally in all his years pleasure fishing in the area.

“I’ve always enjoyed working this run… I like it down here,” said Hook. “It’s really excellent to see killer whales coming back into the Saanich Inlet. They went right down into Goldstream… I also really enjoy getting to know all the commuters and the people around here. I get to meet a lot of retirees, and they are a lot of fun too. I feel very lucky to be a part of this ferry and this route; it has been a big part of Brentwood Bay and Mill Bay for a lot of years and I hope it keeps going for many more.”

The route between Mill Bay and Brentwood Bay, dubbed as “The Island’s Most Beautiful Shortcut” by B.C. Ferries, is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year. With a boatload of history this route is the oldest continuous ferry service on the coast of B.C., and was first started by two former naval officers Kennaird and Williams in November 1924.

“BC Ferries is thrilled we’ve been able to provide service for so long, the journey to this milestone has been amazing,” said BC Ferries senior communications advisor Reet Sidhu. “The Mill Bay to Brentwood Bay route is such a scenic short cut for our customers and loved by the crew. We want to acknowledge that this route is in WSANEC [whe-SAY-nich] territory, specifically the territories and communities of Malahat Nation and Tsartlip First Nation. BC Ferries is proud to be building relationships with both nations.”

The initial service provided by Cascade Freight and Trading Company first made a splash with a 22-year-old, 90-foot wooden hulled coastal steamer then called the SS Cascade, which was altered to allow cars to drive on or off the bow and the stern. As the years passed the SS Cascade saw her steam engines replaced with internal combustion engines, and was eventually rechristened the Brentwood.

It was in 1945 that Cascade Freight and Trading Company was bought out by Coast Ferries Limited, and by the 1950s the Brentwood, which was more than 50 years young, was in need of a replacement. It was around that time Coast Ferries contracted out the construction of a new steel hulled ferry to the Victoria Machinery Depot firm in Victoria and the MV Mill Bay ferry first set sail across the Saanich Inlet route on July 20, 1956, just four years before the inception of BC Ferries which commissioned their first ferry route in 1960, and by 1969 had bought out Coast Ferries Ltd.

The MV Mill Bay Ferry that sails just under 6 km in 25 minutes had a few interesting trips back in 1989. The first was on May 29, when it ran aground due to the captain falling asleep at the helm. This stemmed from him participating in the Swiftsure Yacht Race earlier that day.

Later that same year on July 5, a problem arose with the Mill Bay ferry’s fuel line and the engine lost power — the fuel line was repaired as the ferry eventually made it to shore under her own power.

BC Ferries had proposed withdrawing the Mill Bay ferry service in 2000, but the waves made by a local protest were strong enough to counter the proposal and preserve the service.

READ MORE: BC Ferries resumes regular schedule between Brentwood Bay and Mill Bay

This warranted the Mill Bay being removed from service for two months during the summer of 2001 to undergo refurbishment that included replacing several sections of steel plating in the hull, extension of the bridge, and the addition of radar. Both the Mill Bay and Brentwood Bay terminals also saw upgrades that same year. The price tag for all repairs and upgrades ending up costing approximately $3.8 million.

The original MV Mill Bay was retired in 2010 and put up for sale in February of 2011 to be replaced with the MV Klitsa which was built in 1972. Last month the Klitsa came out of the water at the dry dock at Point Hope on April 15 for a refit which included a fine tuning of the systems and engines and new control panels — its sister ship the K class Kahloke took her place.

“It is going to be kind of fun to have the Kahloke down here for a bit,” said Hook. “The Klitsa is going to get a good mid-life refurbishment.”

The MV Klitsa sails nine round trips each day — four round trips in the morning and five at night. She is equipped with three lanes, two with no height restriction and one lane that passes under the superstructure for the wheelhouse enabling her to carry 19 vehicles, with the capacity to carry 150 passengers. To date, the Mill Bay ferry is not only the oldest working vessel in the BC Ferries fleet, it is also the most fuel efficient. It is powered by an L Gardner and Sons model 8L3 straight-eight engine that generates 152 hp, and burns diesel fuel at the rate of 14 litres per hour — she has 700 horsepower and travels at a maximum of 10 knots, or 18.5 km per hour.

The Klitsa has serviced the Brentwood Bay - Mill Bay route since the summer of 2011 and Hardeep Parmar has been the lone hardworking deckhand ever since. His responsibilities include discharge, charge, and loading, but also all the husbandry and check offs which include making sure all the safety equipment is up to snuff every day such as the rescue boat.

“There’s a lot of work, but I enjoy it,” said Parmar. “There is a lot to do here. The captain has a lot of responsibilities because he is the only person in management here, and his mate basically runs the rest of the crew. One of the highlights of my day is to see all the familiar faces — the commuters and even the tourists. A lot of young people who come up from the prairies have never been on a boat before, and as the captain was saying the biodiversity in this inlet has come back in a huge way. It’s nice to see orcas out on this trip and just the good morning waves, and hearing people say ‘hello Hardeep’ and ask how I’m feeling, it goes a long way. This boat has been really good to me, and I really appreciate everything it has done for me. Once I landed on the Klitsa, I felt like I was a part of the Klitsa, and it was a part of me.”

The Klitsa, which also serves as a bypass for the Malahat section of the Island highway, has certainly proved to be the little ferry that could and does, and Parmar has proved to be a part of it when it has needed him most. Parmar was one of the members of the relief group who stepped up to keep the island connected and weather the storm during the heavy rainfall that began on Nov. 15, 2021 — to this day is recognized as one of the most damaging storms in B.C. history. It put the Malahat highway out of commission and the Klitsa crew stepped up to do five days worth of work within the span of 72 hours.

“Though this route is recognized as more of a scenic detour of the Malahat, it assumed the role of an emergency lifeline and began a three day journey that would demonstrate how BC Ferries crew, terminal staff, and two communities came together in a time of crisis to keep the Island connected,” said Sidhu.

“We were going 24 hours that day,” said Parmar. “The line up was to the Co-op gas station in Brentwood Bay, up the hill around the bank all the way to the Butchart Gardens entrance. It was a long day — these ships go 12 hours anyway — it was hectic trying to get everybody on but we felt that we had to serve people going home to see their families. It took nearly three days to really clear it up, the lineup became less and less, but even on the last day we were having overloads galore. We were packing in up to 20 cars in some cases, and a lot of people even left their cars on the side of the road, just to walk on and get home. We really inside did not feel that it was a job that day, it was about pulling together for the community.”

It’s not just the vessel that’s got a cool history. The Mill Bay terminal made the movies in 1970 as it was used as a location for a scene during the filming of Five Easy Pieces starring Jack Nicholson and Karen Black. It had brushes with Hollywood again after its renovations with the 2001 film Black Point starring David Caruso and the 2006 film The Mermaid Chair with Kim Basinger. With the new film studio coming to Malahat Nation in the years ahead, it is exciting to think about what big stars may do a scene at the little terminal next.

It doesn’t cost much to take this scenic shortcut across the Saanich Inlet. For foot passengers 12 and older the fare as of April of this year is $7.55, the fare for those ages five to 11 is $3.80 and those under five sail for free. A standard vehicle excluding its driver and passengers is $17.80 and the fare for motorcycles is $8.75. Tickets for the Mill Bay ferry are 40 per cent off when purchased at Thrifty Foods in Mill Bay or Brentwood Bay, and the best part is they don’t expire.

Between the original M.V and the Klitsa the Mill Bay ferry has been smooth sailing for nearly seven decades, giving its passengers a time-saving and picturesque alternate to driving over the Malahat whether one chooses to take their vehicle or park it, and enjoy the sights and the sail.

“It’s a well needed, and well run route and I can see why it’s been here for 100 years,” said Parmar.

About the Author: Chadd Cawson

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