Sunday, December 27, 2009

The ferry that's seen it all

Capt. Steven Banfill on the deck of the MV Coho, which boasts a traditional wooden wheel. Photograph by the Olympic Peninsula Daily News.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail

December 28, 2009


Twice a day, Capt. Steven Banfill’s vessel eases into its berth in the Inner Harbour, a smooth operation run with stopwatch precision.

The car ferry dwarfs the yachts and pleasure crafts most often found in the waters fronted by the Empress Hotel, the Legislature and a wax museum.

The vessel’s arrival is an impressive sight, as is its departure, marked by a blast of the ship’s whistle.

Fifty years ago today, at 10:34 a.m. on Dec. 28, 1959, MV Coho arrived here 11 minutes ahead of schedule. It was a maiden voyage to inaugurate a ferry service across what was then often described as the world’s largest undefended border.

The spanking new ship, built in Seattle for a stunning $3 million US, landed at the wharf ahead of the official welcoming party, which included the mayor and other civic dignitaries. The kilted members of the Victoria Girls’ Pipe Band skirled a welcome.

“This will create a great deal of business between our two ports,” the mayor told the skipper.

There will be considerably less fanfare on the waterfront this week, in part because the Black Ball Ferry Line commemorated the golden anniversary this summer. The company marks its birthday tomorrow when the first sailing open to the public took place.

The Coho is a last reminder of the days when this city served as a centre for transoceanic voyages, when a working harbour delivered people and goods into the heart of a city with an imperial heritage and grand economic ambitions.

These days, the marine link serves what is mostly a tourist trade, connecting Port Angeles, Wash., to the British Columbia capital.

For passengers, the ferry offers a scenic, 90-minute voyage completed at an average speed of 15 knots.

For the crew, the sailing is a part of a routine workday.

“Everybody has to go to an office,” Capt. Banfill said. “Our office happens to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”

He has been working on the ship since 1967, when, at age 16, he got a summer job as a porter. His duties included moving bags, making up rooms, and cleaning the heads. Over the years, he worked his way up from ordinary seaman to able seaman to first mate, a post he held for a quarter-century. He has been captain for the past five years.

The sailings have mostly been without incident, though he does recall some scofflaw sailors nabbing a totem pole from a Victoria street and smuggling it across the border. It was a larcenous act of dubious merit, as it cannot have been two easy to fence a one-of-kind work.

As captain, he has had to contend with distracted boaters, some of whom have turned directly in the path of his ship. A 104-metre long ferry with capacity for 115 vehicles and 1,000 passengers does not maneuvre as deftly as a sailboat.

Once, as he pulled into Victoria, he faced a swimmer who dove in off Laurel Point with the intent of crossing the ship’s path before it arrived, a calibration that might have succeeded had the bather not forgotten to factor in his own fatigue. Happily for all, a collision was avoided.

Asked the name of famous passengers, the captain thinks for a bit. “Adam from Bonanza,” he said. “One of the guys from M*A*S*H. George Benson, the guitarist. Mike Holmgren when he was the Seattle Seahawks’ coach.”

He contemplated the list.

“Not anybody too amazing,” he admitted.

There was one passenger who stood out above all the others. A famous singer asked for privacy during the crossing, so she was placed in a private quarters near one of the ship’s offices. A plaque outside now declares it to be the “Barbra Streisand Room.”

The most notorious passenger is easy to name. Ahmed Ressam, a terrorist, disembarked from the Coho at Port Angeles 10 years ago this month, only to be captured by border guards after a foot chase through city streets.

Many of the crew live aboard the ship during week-on, week-off assignments. They have their own rooms, as well as the services of an onboard cook.

“We’re our own little city,” the captain said.

Black Ball is a venerable shipping name that dates back to 1816, when Captain Charles Marshall’s fleet of clipper ships flew a black ball on a red flag on the New York to Liverpool run. The flag was revived by an ancestor in 1928, becoming a prominent ferry service on Washington and British Columbia waters until most of the assets were sold to the fledgling B.C. Ferries after a devastating strike.

By the time the Coho first sailed into port here 50 years ago, the company had already been immortalized in a tune sung by Bing Crosby.

“All the people love to ride the blue Pacific,” he crooned. “On the Black Ball Ferry Line to be specific.”

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