Vancouver's unique SeaBus ferry service went into service on 17 June, 1977. This efficient commuter service carries five million passengers a year between Vancouver and North Vancouver (a distance of 1.75 nautical miles). In 2001, the SeaBus system carried its 100 millionth passenger. Its heritage dates from mid-1800s when a ferry linked Vancouver and what was then known as Moodyville but which became North Vancouver in 1907. It may be interesting to note that the original ferries were superseded in 1937 by the Lion's Gate Bridge, financed by the Guinness family of brewing fame1.
SeaBus has become a bit of a legend in Vancouver to locals and tourists alike. Tourists visiting Vancouver (a city of over two million and growing) regularly take SeaBus across the harbour to the North Shore suburbs as an inexpensive cruise of the harbour. For the price of a regular fare transit ticket (presently between $2.25 and $3.50 CDN), SeaBus passengers enjoy a view of both Vancouver's skyline and the North Shore mountains, plus a close-up look at marine traffic operating out of North America's second largest and perhaps busiest port. In addition, either end of the trip is as fascinating as the journey itself. At the north end of the journey is the Lonsdale Quay which is worth the trip alone. On the south end is 'the Station' which leads to all the shopping, sightseeing and nightlife of Downtown Vancouver.
For the local commuter, the trip provides a brief, relaxing cruise that allows food and drink2 to be consumed while watching the view3. From 'the Station', a historic building on the Vancouver side which adjoins SeaBus terminal by a glassed-in walkway they can transfer to buses, trolleys, the SkyTrain rapid transit system4 or West Coast Express commuter service (rail line). On the Northshore side the Lonsdale Quay provides fresh produce, shopping, pubs and restaurants. A covered bus terminal allows access to all of North and West Vancouver including Grouse Mountain and Capilano Canyon. The immediate area known as Lower Lonsdale is becoming a very diverse, thriving and popular community.
Not only do the vessels provide a pleasant form of transport, but they are a valuable asset in marine safety as well. Having two stable marine platforms active in the harbour for nineteen hours a day has proved to be life-saving to some. On Canada Day, 1 July, 2000, two men in a small dinghy flipped their boat over. The accident was seen by a North Vancouver SeaBus terminal co-ordinator and the Burrard Otter was diverted from its course to assist the victims. One was rescued by a rope ladder lowered from the SeaBus crew and the second man was picked up by a nearby tugboat. On 2 November, 2000, the southbound Burrard Beaver came to the aid of fifteen aircraft passengers and two crew members clinging to their sinking Twin Otter floatplane. The aircraft went down due to engine trouble on take-off at approximately 3.10pm. The crew deployed one of the four 150-passenger inflatable life rafts and recovered all of the crash victims. The ferry's schedule was resumed within an hour.
SeaBus was designed and built in British Columbia, following planning begun in 1973 as a result of concern over increasing traffic congestion on the two bridges crossing the harbour. 32 years later, it boasts a 99.99% service reliability, a record unparalleled in North America transit systems. This is astonishing even if we are to consider that Vancouver harbour is certainly one of the busiest in North America, complete with its own Control Tower for traffic. On any given day, this Researcher can look out of his window at the harbour and perhaps see Seabuses, freighters, cargo ships, tugboats, cruise ships, floatplanes, barges, helicopters, pleasure craft and even a hovercraft all involved in an intricate marine and aerial ballet.
The SeaBus vessels and terminals were the first marine transit system of its kind in the world when they were built. The twin SeaBus vessels - the Burrard Otter and the Burrard Beaver5 - link the downtown Vancouver and North Vancouver terminals with 126 one-way trips daily. They are double-ended, aluminium-hulled catamarans, each powered by four diesel engines6. Extremely stable, the ferries can actually move in any direction including sideways due to the four swivel props, one at each end of the pontoons. This lightweight design and ingenious propulsion system means that they are able to stop in their own length. Designed double-ended, either end can become the stern or the bow in an instant and the controls are duplicated on both sides of the captain's 360-degree swivel chair7. The joystick controls use 'dual steering synchronisers' (DSS) to synchronise the rotation of the four prop modules. Operated by a crew of four, SeaBus travels at a cruising speed of eleven and a half knots, crossing the harbour's one-and-three-quarter nautical miles in 12 minutes8. In order to anticipate the greater volume of traffic in 2010 for the Winter Olympics it has been proposed to make the trip including turnaround twelve-and-a-half minutes rather than fifteen.
The two floating, fully enclosed SeaBus terminals are equipped to handle large numbers of passengers efficiently. A specially-designed flow-through loading system keeps boarding and exiting passengers completely separate. It takes a vessel just 90 seconds to disembark a full load of 400 passengers and another 90 seconds to take on another load. After that efficient three minutes, SeaBus is on its way again. On the occasion of bridge transportation difficulties during 'rush hour' when the terminal is stretched to capacity and beyond, the excess has been dealt with within a few hours.
The two SeaBus vessels are accessible to wheelchairs, scooters and bicycles. Together they make more than 40,000 crossings annually. During the fall, winter and spring, SeaBus carries 16,000 passengers on an average weekday. During the summer months, the weekday average climbs to more than 19,000 as tourists take advantage of this 'Mini Cruise'.