The 11:00 a.m. ferry from Tsawwassen to Schwartz Bay was one of the older, smaller vessels used to convey passengers to Vancouver Island. The usual sailing took one hour and thirty-five minutes and straddled the lunch hour. We had decided to grab a light lunch on board and, as soon as we had safely discharged our vehicle, we headed for the cafeteria, queuing up behind the dozen or so other passengers who had arrived before us.
Outside the cafeteria window, we watched as rain poured down in sheets. Heavy rain is common during West Coast winters, and locals are accustomed to it. Unfortunately, a heavy deluge can be accompanied by a wicked and powerful wind, and winter storms and ferry crossings do not mix well.
We were travelling to Victoria to visit my mother-in-law, a pleasant task conducted once a month to ensure she would not forget that she was remembered. We always hoped for, and expected, an uneventful crossing, and were likewise rewarded. However, this day, our expectations were considerably misplaced.
Standing in a lunch line-up is not so bad, unless one is hungry. We were, but we occupied the wait by watching the weather activity outside the large window. Seagulls were the only creatures senseless enough to be out in it. They thrilled at riding the swirling wind currents like a roller coaster, diving and gliding with enviable skill.
The gale-force wind blustered stiffly from the southwest, plastering the windows with a mixture of salty seawater and monstrous rain drops. At seventy kilometers an hour, the wind picked up the top of the ten-foot swells creating ghostly sprays that danced and dissipated into drops that fell along the shore and over the ferry.
The small ferry pulled away from the dock slowly, almost too slowly. In the stillness of the movement, one could imagine the skipper and his crew struggling to keep the vessel straight as it cleared the dock, but the wind was relentless and drove the ferry back, slamming it against the dock with a bang and a shutter that reverberated throughout the ship.
I looked at my husband as I reached for something sturdy to grasp. “That’s not good,” I said. “I’ve never seen a ferry pushed into a dock by the wind.”
The impact evoked a collection of astonished squeals and gasps, and other remarks similar to my own. Like me, standing passengers staggered to stay upright, reaching for anything that would offer anchorage. Two trays clattered to the cafeteria floor and dishes rattled in the galley.
The ship’s engines powered on, scraping the hull along the bollards until it finally cleared the dock.
In the open Strait, the gale blew with anger, increasing in strength and power. The sea swells amplified. Free from the confines of the dock, the ferry began to roll, side-to-side, first up, then down.
Still in line waiting to be served, we watched through the window as the ship rolled starboard into the sea and wondered whether we were about to get our feet wet. The horizon disappeared. The roll stopped. The motion hesitated, then began again, up-righting the ship and continuing to roll to port, with only roiling gray clouds in view. The roll stopped. The motion hesitated again, then began a return roll to starboard. The relentless rolling continued as the ship edged across the Strait of Georgia.
People staggered through the food line, buying drinks in paper cups with lids and unremarkable finger food, paid the cashier and struggled to reach the nearest table before their purchases parted company with the tray on the next swell.
“Attention all passengers,” a voice announced over the ship’s speakers. “As you are aware, we are experiencing some weather this morning. The captain asks that, for your safety, you find the nearest seat and make yourselves comfortable, until further notice.”
Passengers scrambled for seats.
We stayed where we were, in the cafeteria, and held onto the table to keep from sliding onto the floor. A young woman turned away from the cashier, having just paid for a meal that she intended to share with her small boy. She staggered toward the tables, balancing her tray of food in one hand and holding onto her son’s hand with the other. My husband reached for her tray. I extended my hand and encouraged her and her son to sit with us.
“Sorry to barge in,” she said.
“Don’t even think about it,” my husband said with welcoming smile. “It’s too dangerous to search for another table.”
The swells intensified. Something crashed in the galley. Loud shouting and commands filled the eerie quiet. A rope suddenly appeared at the entrance to the food line, and static from the ship’s speakers filled the air.
“This is the captain speaking. Due to the rough weather, all ferry services are suspended until further notice. In the meantime, I ask that everyone – passengers and crew – find a safe place to sit, immediately.”
The half empty cafeteria promptly filled with concerned galley crew.
For thirty-five minutes, the small ferry pressed its way across the Strait, rolling this way and that on swells that seemed to be half its height. Like the little engine that could, its engines pumped ‘I think I can, I think I can,’ and headed towards the shelter of Active Pass between the Islands of Mayne and Galliano.
No one moved from their seat. The galley crew had abandoned spilled soup and gravy, broken dishes and everything else that was not battened down when the captain gave orders to sit. Some crew, even seasoned ones, turned as green as the weak-kneed passengers singled out to suffer the bite of seasickness. The eerie quiet continued. Only murmured reassurances could be heard as parents tried to comfort wide-eyed children, or terrified worriers were coaxed to relax with calming words of trusted friends. Others prayed quietly for divine intervention.
Some of the crew muttered amongst themselves that they had never encountered such heavy weather; while others marveled that, despite years of service on the open seas, they had never had such an experience.
Twenty minutes later, the captain announced, “Folks, we’re just about to enter Active Pass. Please remain in your seats. It may get a little bumpy through the turn.”
A burst of nervous laughter followed as a few of the more quick-witted crew and passengers processed what the captain had said. In turn, they repeated his words to others and the laughter spread. The tension of a very long half hour had been broken, and a collective sigh rippled through the ship as she began the turn. While no one moved, people began to chatter about the unusual crossing.
As the gale became a wind and the rolling swells became a choppy sea, the galley crew regained their sea legs, and set about restoring the cafeteria. Trays and dirty dishes were collected. Broken glass and the muck of soup and gravy was scraped and washed from the floor, and, in time, the rope was removed from the entrance to the food line.
“Phew! I’m glad that’s over!” I said. “Why don’t we go for a walk. I need to stretch my legs.”
My husband pushed himself up from the table. “We’ll be docking soon enough, and I bet a lot of folks will be looking for their lunch now,” he said.
“They won’t have much time, but we should free up the seats for those who are brave enough to try,” I said, relieved that we were out of the storm.
Indeed, a few hearty passengers found their way to the cafeteria. The majority, however, remained in their seats.
We walked around the entire deck, marvelling at the quiet of the sea compared to the crossing. We had sailed out of rough weather into the brilliant sunshine warming the Gulf Islands. The skipper had outmaneuvered the storm and kept the small ferry, its crew and passengers safe.
Nearing the cafeteria once again, we spied a bank of seats, enough for six and occupied only by two. As we approached, I discerned quickly the reason for the available seats. Both occupants had vacant faces with glazed eyes. Each clutched a paper bag by the throat. The smell of fresh vomit permeated the air around them. These poor souls were true examples of those weak-kneed passengers singled out to suffer the bite of seasickness. We silently sent them thoughts of compassion and left them to their misery.
Having walked full-circle and found nowhere to sit, we returned to the cafeteria, assumed some still-empty seats and waited for the captain’s docking announcement.
The rain had poured in sheets. Gale-force winds had blown. The sea had churned.
Despite the weather, the small ferry had sailed true, and delivered us safely to the dock at Schwartz Bay.
Passengers and vehicles disembarked and, like the weather, dissipated, carrying us along with them.