The Island

Jack Knox is an award-winning columnist, now in his 30th year with the Victoria Times Colonist.

It wasn’t just that there was a topless woman playing guitar beside the Denman Island General Store.

No, what was remarkable was that no one gave her a second glance. Apparently it takes more than a little nudity to rattle the 1,200 residents of leafy, laid-back Denman.

As with many of the Gulf Islands, its demographic tilts artsy and older (the median age is 61). During last weekend’s literary festival, hundreds packed the community hall to listen to fledgling crime novelist Beverly McLachlin, who flashed a sense of humour she didn’t think it appropriate to show when she was chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

This weekend, 15 artists are featured on Denman’s annual studio tour. And Barcelona-based classical musicians Kai Gleusteen and Catherine Ordronneau will bring Brahms to the island.

Even Denman’s 44 million deer appear serene.

Still, if you really want to see some islanders blow their tops (as it were), just mention their new(ish) cable ferry.

“If something goes wrong, the negativity starts to come out,” says Grumpy McLoughlin, the owner of the aforementioned general store.

Something did go wrong a couple of weeks ago when a prawn trap and net got caught in the cable, temporarily crippling the ferry that links Denman to Vancouver Island at Buckley Bay, 20 kilometres south of Courtenay.

Service resumed after a few hours, but it’s a big deal when the vessel goes down for any time at all during the busy summer season, when hordes of tourists cross over to Denman en route to Hornby Island.

So, yes, Grumpy heard about the disruption from some customers who had already been ticked off to learn recently that the ferry’s underwater cables have been shedding bits of their protective plastic sheath.

On the other hand, he also heard from residents who wished the first group would stop trying to fight a lost war. After all, it has been three years since the Baynes Sound Connector (abbreviated by its critics to BS Con) replaced the 40-year-old MV Quinitsa.

So why does this drag on? To understand, it’s best to think in terms of a family. B.C. Ferries was Mom and Denman was the kids. The Quinitsa was Dad, aging but reliable. When Mom ditched him for a new Dad, the kids weren’t happy. You should really like your new Dad, Mom said, he’s more efficient, more modern. The kids didn’t buy it; the Quinitsa might not have been perfect, but it was theirs, tried and true.

“Everybody regarded it as OUR ferry,” says Frank Frketich, who chairs the island’s ferry advisory committee. That sense of proprietorship is common in island communities where the vessels become such an integral part of people’s lives. Frketich thinks even B.C. Ferries would acknowledge it did a poor job of getting residents on board (as it were) before imposing a decision on them.

From the perspective of B.C. Ferries, the cable vessel made sense. Using only half as much fuel as a conventional vessel, it would leave a smaller environmental footprint. With a crew of three instead of six, it would be cheaper to run.

Opponents on Denman saw it differently. Nowhere else in the world was there a saltwater cable ferry route this long — 1.9 kilometres. The boat couldn’t readily be swapped out with other ferries. What if something went wrong? It felt like someone was playing with their lifeline.

Sure enough, after the Baynes Sound Connector was eased into service in late 2015, taking the route over completely the next summer, there were some disruptions — though, as Frketich notes, every new ferry has a shakedown period.

Citing stats showing the new vessel has sailed as scheduled 99.96 per cent of the time, B.C. Ferries says it has proven reliable. The corporation also says it’s committed to fixing the plastics problem. Still, unhappiness persists: A letter to the editor in Thursday’s Comox Valley Record called for the boat to be scrapped. “We need a reliable ferry during regular hours, and one that is available for after-hours emergencies, not one that shuts down for ‘scheduled’ maintenance during the actual schedule, and may or may not be available after hours,” it read.

Frketich figures Denman is actually split pretty evenly over the ferry now. “I think it has served us well.”

He’s more concerned about plans to retire the 21-car Denman-Hornby ferry in 2030, replacing it with a 47-car vessel. Frketich worries that the math doesn’t work: If you take 47 cars coming off that boat, then add in the traffic from Denman itself, there won’t be enough space on the 50-car ferry to Buckley Bay.

Frketich wonders if the Baynes Sound Connector can be retrofitted — stretched — to carry 70 or 80 cars. B.C. Ferries replies that the cable ferry can handle the capacity problem by shuttling between Denman and Vancouver Island more frequently. And no, there are no plans to replace it.

“The cable ferry is here to stay,” Frketich says. “It’s not going away.” And that’s the naked truth.