God Save The Queen of Sidney
I turned off the Lougheed Highway just west of Mission, and drove out to the riverbank. Ahead of me, a ship’s funnel – painted with the old dogwood flower logo – rose into view over the tall grass, like the tower of a lost city. Hard to believe, and yet there it was. The Queen of Sidney, once the pride of modern Victoria shipbuilding, rusting amid a shantytown of cast-off boats.
At the gangway I met Bill, a friend of the Sidney’s current (and rather secretive) owners. “It’s sad,” said Bill as he unlocked the gate, topped with razor wire. “Initially we had no desire to scrap her, but now we don’t have a choice. Ultimately we’re going to watch this thing disintegrate on the Fraser River.”
We stepped onto the car deck, and Bill switched on the lights. “Once you’ve got power, it’s like a magnet,” he said, explaining the raft of other vessels tied up nearby. One was the San Mateo, a wooden ferry built in 1922 that travelled back and forth across San Francisco Bay until a bridge was built to Oakland. Another was a giant barge with a crane that had been used during WWII to retrieve training planes that crashed in the water around Lulu Island (today’s Vancouver airport). A bearded guy darted across the barge and into an old tugboat. Bill said the guy had been squatting on the Sidney until the tugboat owner got drunk and fell overboard and drowned, and now the guy was squatting on the tug.
We went upstairs. The ceiling had been torn out of the cafeteria. A swallow flitted through the forward lounge, the carpet littered with pellets left by BB-gun gamers; Bill said he’d also rented the ship to a horror-movie director. The brass portholes and railings had been removed, and a torn-up couch sat on the promenade deck. All in all, a tragic sight, considering the Sidney’s place in history.
It was the first ship in the fleet of BC Ferries. To prevent Vancouver Island’s economy from being held hostage by private ferry companies (and their striking workers), in 1958 premier W.A.C. Bennett announced that the province would construct car ferries of its own. Using an improved design of the Coho, the Victoria Machinery Depot yards built the Sidney at Ogden Point, where it was launched on October 6, 1959 with great fanfare. (Its sister Tsawwassen was launched in Vancouver on November 28.) The Sidney began service on the Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen route on June 15, 1960, and quickly won such a large share of cross-water traffic that Air Canada cut its number of Victoria-Vancouver flights by two-thirds.
The Sidney’s maiden voyage was historic in more ways than one. A few weeks before, Bennett had been in England and discovered that British Columbia had its own flag – the now-familiar sun and wavy stripes – assigned to the province by King Edward VII in 1906. (Before 1960, B.C. used the Union Jack.) Andy Stephen, a reporter who was on the Sidney with the premier that day, told me the rest of the story: “When we got halfway across the Strait of Georgia, he stopped the ferry and said, ‘I’ve got something to show you.’ His secretary brought out a suitcase, and Bennett opened it and pulled out a flag. The premier ran it up the mast and said, ‘That, ladies and gentlemen, is the first unveiling of our new provincial flag.’” The government officially adopted it a few days later.
The Sidney served nobly for more than three decades. But by the late 1990s its engines and generators were leaking oil and exhaust so badly that the ship’s engineers had to wear respirators. The company sold it in 2001 to a buyer who said he’d use it as a floating logging camp. Instead, it sat on the Fraser, and was continually raided by thieves.
“Wiring, copper pipe, tools, they’d take anything and sail away,” said Bill. His friends bought the ship in 2002, and for a while they lived aboard, turning the bridge into a bar and the officers’ cabins into apartments. There was some interest in the ship: a British company offered to refurbish it and put it on the Sidney waterfront in exchange for the right to operate the town’s port. “We had hundreds of ideas thrown at us,” Bill said. “Fix it for the Olympics, turn it into a floating hotel. But talk is cheap, and as time goes on it costs and costs.” So they started removing its remaining heritage parts – including Bennett’s flagpole – putting some into storage and selling the rest.
Certainly BC Ferries was aware of the Sidney’s historic value when it sold the ship, but that didn't count for much. “For us, there came a point that it wasn’t worth upgrading to meet Transport Canada standards,” Deborah Marshall, the company’s director of communications, told me – even though the operators of the well-maintained Coho say their ship can run for another 30 years. The Tsawwassen won’t be saved either: even though it's still in good shape, after it’s retired from service next year it could be sent to shipbreakers in Turkey.
The fate of these vessels is ironically appropriate, because in many ways BC Ferries has always represented our province’s ship of state. If British Columbians look upon our ferries with pride, it’s partly because they were built here. They once embodied a government’s bold investment in the talent of its citizens – and today that faith lies rusting on the shore. Undoubtedly the new Coastal Renaissance, which arrives here next month from its German shipyard, will be a sleek, well-designed ship. But I suspect that, at best, we’ll only regard it with cool, consumerist admiration – a feeling not much like pride at all.
For a two-part video tour of the Queen of Sidney as it appeared in 2005, see here and here.
UPDATE (January 31, 2008): The Times Colonist reported today that BC Ferries is putting four of its old vessels up for sale, including the Queen of Tsawwassen, upon which it already has two offers.
UPDATE (June 13, 2010): This week marks the 50th anniversary of the start of BC Ferries, and the Times Colonist has several articles mentioning the Queen of Sidney.
UPDATE (December 26, 2010): Larry Pynn has an update in today’s Vancouver Sun providing more info about the Queen of Sidney and the ship graveyard near Mission.
UPDATE (July 9, 2012): Fearing the Queen of Sidney would be washed away by the flooding Fraser River last month, the provincial Ministry of Environment declared the ship and its surrounding vessels an “environmental emergency”, and seized control of them; after the boats were secured, the township slapped the owners with a $100,000 bill. To see what the ship graveyard looks like today, check out this film location website. Fortunately, the Queen of Tsawwassen, renamed Inlet Explorer, seems to be enjoying its new life as a floating logging camp; check out the photos starting two-thirds down this page.