Small communities and First Nations along Alberni Inlet and the west coast of Vancouver Island breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday after a Nanaimo-based company agreed to take over Lady Rose Marine Services and the ferry that delivers essential goods and services.
“This is really good news for all of our First Nations and everyone in the region,” said Tseshaht First Nation Chief Ken Watts.
This means the Tseshaht can resume their regular pilgrimages through their traditional territory, where large groups can visit sacred sites and listen to elders talk about their history from Port Alberni to the Broken Group Islands, Watts said.
The passenger and cargo service aboard the MS Frances Barkley is also a lifeline for the coastal villages of Bamfield and Anacla, providing building materials, groceries, mail and medical supplies such as laboratory tests and blood tests, and bringing students to the marine research center and tourists to pristine kayaking and hiking areas.
Devon Transport Ltd., which operates car rentals and self-storage outlets across BC, including Port Alberni, has thrown the lifeline to rescue the service, which has been hard hit financially by the pandemic, and announced that it would shut down on Aug. 31.
Greg Willmon, who co-owns Devon Transport with Barrie Rogers, said the ferry service was “far too valuable to the area” to allow closure.
Willmon and Rogers are from Nanaimo and Victoria, respectively. Both live in Nanaimo.
Willmon owns a summer home in Bamfield and fishes in the area regularly. He started at Devon Transport in Port Alberni and his company continues to do a lot of business there. “It’s vital business for so many people,” he said of Lady Rose’s service. “All you have to do is be at the dock in Bamfield to see the ship come in. There will be 60 people waiting for their mail, their groceries. You really get a feeling for how valuable this service is. “
Willmon said the deal will result in Devon Transport buying Lady Rose Marine Services from owners Mike and Pauline Surrell for an undisclosed amount, which Surrells and her entire team will keep and continue uninterrupted service.
Details of the deal were not disclosed.
Surrell said he has known Willmon for years and discussions about a sale began two weeks ago when Willmon was unloading cargo at the dock.
“My wife and I couldn’t be happier. We know how important this service is to so many people waiting for their mail, prescriptions or groceries, ”said Surrell.
“We fully understand the consequences of discontinuing this service and the impact it would have on Port Alberni and the Barkley Sound.
“We are proud to continue helping the new owners make this company the success it was before COVID-19.”
Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions said she was “absolutely thrilled” that the sale came so quickly, avoiding major disruptions in supplies to Bamfield and the Huu-ay-aht village of Anacla, which has approximately 150 residents and is home to Grocery stores depend on supplies from Port Alberni Stores.
“The risk of losing that ministry was terrible for these churches,” she said.
Minions said the ferry service is an integral part of the region’s growing tourism sector as the ferry rides are a major attraction for international visitors.
Surrell agreed and said on most days in the summer months: “English is not the first language … it’s German, Italian, French.”
The MS Francis Barkley has a capacity of 144 passengers, but is only allowed to carry about half of them under pandemic restrictions. The service was already booked for August and “the phones are still ringing from the receiver,” said Willmon.
“We see that the service is fully recovering. We’re already getting inquiries from tour operators for next year, ”said Willmon. “We’re heading into winter and a slower season, but the freight is always there.”
Watts said members of the Tseshaht are using the service to travel much of their traditional territory along Alberni Inlet to Bamfield, giving many the opportunity to connect with the 13 neighboring Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. The dock and land of Lady Rose Marine Services is also the location of the traditional winter village of the Tseshaht.
He said the ferry service allows its people to travel in a large group, while fishing boats and some barges allow much smaller gatherings.
The company was sold after an emergency meeting on Monday to find interim solutions to save the service. The meeting included Devon Transportation in discussions with MLA Josie Osborne, First Nations, Island Health, Canada Post, the University of Victoria – which has a marine research facility in Bamfield – and local and regional governments.
Lady Rose Marine Services has been a fixture in the region for 75 years, most of the time with her namesake MV Lady Rose and since 2008 with the MV Frances Barkley.
The Lady Rose was built in Scotland in 1937 and was the first single-propeller diesel to sail across the Atlantic on its own. The ship was sold to a group from the Sunshine Coast with family connections to the Union Steamships Company of British Columbia, who commissioned the ship.
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