A long line of vehicles slowly snakes its way from CFB Esquimalt and HMC Dockyard, painstakingly inching along congested streets toward the West Shore or Victoria and beyond.
But Ordinary Seaman Jeff McConnell isn’t sitting behind the wheel of his minivan pressing the brake more often than the gas pedal. Instead, he’s standing on a jetty at the Naden side of CFB Esquimalt, waiting for his ride home after work.
“It’s horrible,” the naval sonar operator says of facing the stop-and-go commute twice a day.
That all changed in April when he started taking the Canadian Navy’s Blue Boat ferry, which shuttles military and civilian defence personnel across Esquimalt harbour between the military’s Colwood property and two stops at the navy base in Esquimalt.
“Going down (the Trans-Canada Highway) was the worst and Island Highway was terrible (when construction meant alternating traffic). A lot of times we’d turn our van off and wait,” McConnell says.
This afternoon he is first in line waiting for the 10-minute ride aboard the Blue Boat to Colwood, where his wife is waiting in the family minivan to pick him up.
McConnell estimates the ferries, which, at more than 50 years old are the oldest-operating vessels at the base, have saved him about $60 a week in gas money, and well as shaved more than an hour off his daily commute. The service has a total daily ridership of about 800 people.
“Without that it would add at least half of that (in vehicles) back on the road. It’s extremely valuable,” Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins says of the ferry service. “When Dockyard gets out (in the afternoon) then our roads get congested.”
Two Blue Boats make 13 trips between HMC Dockyard, Naden and Colwood every day, Monday to Friday from 6 a.m. to the last run at 5:45 p.m. They can each shuttle up to 67 personnel, plus three crew members, at a time.
Recently, an estimated 9,000 people used the service in one month, says Tony Steward, marine superintendant with the base auxiliary fleet section, which oversees the boats.
“If all the navy ships are in (at the base), then the passenger traffic goes up,” Steward says, adding that a commute by boat also frees up base and dockyard parking spots, which are usually at a premium.
“If the ferry wasn’t running, those (hundreds of) motorcars would end up in Esquimalt and the good people of Esquimalt wouldn’t be amused at all.”
Based on data supplied by CFB Esquimalt, B.C. Transit was able to determine that 46 per cent of people who work at the base are affected by the “crawl,” as the congested commute to and from the West Shore is known. There are more than 480 housing units for military families on the West Shore.
Some ferry users bike to the Blue Boat and bring their two-wheelers on board, which “promotes fitness (as well as) the whole idea of less people in cars,” says Sara Helmeczi, base public affairs officer.
Commuters outside the defence community may eye the ferry service with some envy, but due to limited carrying capacity, infrastructure and safety issues, the military is not in a position to offer the service to the general public.
“Our people would have to take priority,” says Helmeczi. “It wouldn’t be something that could be counted on. If the boat was full of (Department of National Defence) people, then there would be no room for anybody else. It’s just not practical.”
Once McConnell disembarks with the crowd in Colwood, another group of passengers comes onboard for a ride back to base.
Master Seaman Scott Buckland, who works at the fleet diving unit in Colwood and lives in Esquimalt, chooses a spot to stand on deck. He says the the ferry saves him time, gas money and hassle.
“I’d be screwed,” says Buckland. “It’s just so nice. I’ve got my headphones and I sit and listen to my music, stress free. It’s a great way to start the day.”