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Mill Bay Ferry – The Oldest BC Route
By Ron Armstrong

For those driving the Malahat, the ferry is a crawling speck on the water below. For small boaters, it is the largest vessel they’ll meet on Saanich Inlet. This is the popular Mill Bay-Brentwood Bay ferry, and it turned 75 in 1999 – the oldest continuous ferry operation on the entire coast of British Columbia.

In the 1920s, the road from Victoria over the Malahat was gravel, twisting and subject to washouts. Two former naval officers, Kennaird and Williams, saw a way to bypass the road by transporting vehicles across Saanich Inlet. They converted the 22-year-old, 90-foot coastal tramp steamer Cascade to allow vehicles to drive on bow and stern. Terminals were established about 10 metres south of the present terminal location in Brentwood Bay and at Camp Point in Mill Bay.

The SS Brentwood as it appeared in 1926
Photo Courtesy Wilf Hankin

So much for the inauspicious start. The new ferry sank at her Brentwood dock just before Christmas 1924. The shell ice in the bay had opened the seams in her wooden hull. In 1933, the ship underwent a major refit. Another wheelhouse was set amidships upon a new superstructure rising over the car deck. Her steam plant was replaced by a horizontal Gardner diesel engine and her name was changed to Brentwood.

Cascade Freight and Trading Company was bought by coast Ferries Ltd in 1945. In 1947, the Brentwood had another power change when two Cummins truck engines were installed. Former Chief engineer Wilf Hankin referred to them as “two boys trying to do a man’s job”. After four unsatisfactory years, an inline eight-cylinder Gardner replaced them.

At 53 years old, the little ship was showing her age. Another partial sinking in Canoe Pass and a grounding on Johnston rock added to her normal wear and tear. So, Victoria machinery depot was contracted to build a replacement. Launched in 1956, she was an all steel construction, 125 feet long with a capacity of 18 cars (two more than the older ship), and she also received an eight-cylinder Gardner diesel engine.

Mill Bay Ferry departing the Mill Bay Terminal

Almost predictably, she was named Mill Bay. For two years both ships ran in tandem while the present Malahat highway was under construction. Since then the Mill Bay has become part of the Saanich Inlet scene as she makes her 18 crossings a day at a sedate eight knots.

In June 1969, B.C. Ferries bought the operation from Coast Ferries. For many years the Mill Bay, as well as being the smallest car-carrying ferry in the Corporation’s fleet, was the only one without radar. Her skippers combined skill with local knowledge to keep her out of harm’s way, even in the thickest fog.

Unlike her predecessor, the Mill Bay has only had one major mishap in her 43 years of service. On May 29, 1989, she ran up on the beach just south of Mill Bay terminal. Her strong bar keel prevented severe damage and she was pulled off safely. A later inquiry found the grounding resulted from the captain falling asleep. He hadn’t rested after a hard sail in the Swiftsure sailing race!

Over the years the crossing has employed four men with remarkable service records. In the engine room were Bert Clow (1924 – 1964) and Wilf Hankin (1951 – 1993). In the tiny wheelhouse were Capt. John Deacon (1945 – 1969) and Capt. W. Glenn (Red) Ryder (1956 – 1987).

Capt. Ryder’s memories portray a largely pleasant operation, but not without incident or anxiety. There were separate collisions with a fish boat and a windsurfer, but no personal injury and little damage.

The years without radio and radar were challenging. “When lost in the fog, many of the fishermen would head for the ferry, as our foghorn sounded frequently, and they could tell by the time which way the ferry was going. This created a scary situation, as so many of them were near or on our course line. One time Capt. Reakes (marine superintendent) was on board and I was trying to convince him of the necessity for radar. He spent most of the trip telling me how to miss the island, but he never once told me how to find my way through the boats and to the wharf.

In the last 20 years there have been threats of change of terminals and even a total shutdown, but residents on both sides rallied to save ‘their’ ferry. As long as her old Gardner keeps thrumming, the Mill Bay seems secure.

B.C. Ferries calls the oldest ferry link on the coast "The Island’s Most Beautiful Shortcut".

Written by Ron Armstrong
Freelance Writer
Victoria, British Columbia
The ferry Mill Bay was retired from service on 2 May 2011, and replaced by the MV Klitsa with effect from 1 June 2011.
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