By Paige Dickerson
Peninsula Daily News
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Foot-passenger ferry changing to tour vessel, will still visit Victoria
By ANDREW A. DUFFY
Victoria Times Colonist (a news partner of the Peninsula Daily News)
For the first time in 20 years, the Victoria Express will not be offering scheduled ferry service between Victoria and Port Angeles this summer.
The scheduled passenger-ferry service, operated by Victoria Rapid Transit since 1990, has been discontinued and the company's operations — name, website, phone number and customer list — have been purchased by Black Ball Ferry Line, which operates the M.V. Coho.
"This is a great opportunity for us ... it solidifies us a little and provides a little more certainty," said Black Ball CEO Ryan Burles, noting the Coho's 1,000-passenger capacity, which is typically 80 per cent filled, will be able to handle the 149-passenger capacity of the smaller vessel.
"I think this is a good deal for both companies and good for the Olympic Peninsula as (Victoria Rapid Transit) will provide another service that has some good merit and will accentuate that area."
The Victoria Express vessel was not sold by Victoria Rapid Transit. It has been renamed Expeditions and will now be used in the company's new venture, adventure and eco-tours through the islands, Puget Sound, Juan de Fuca Strait, Washington state and Victoria from its home base in Port Angeles.
Victoria Rapid Transit has changed its name to Expeditions NW.
"You will still see us in Victoria," said president Jack Harmon, noting the new company will focus on pure tourism and leave the scheduled transportation work to Black Ball and the Coho.
"We will be running all kinds of specialty cruises, marine adventures and eco-tourism."
The company tried a few of those kinds of cruises last year and had great success, said Harmon, who said the problem they found was trying to fit them into its schedule.
"We've constantly had a conflict trying to take care of transportation customers and tourism customers, it's always a scheduling issue," he said.
"Now we will focus on the tourism and instead of zipping across the strait at 22 knots we will cruise at five or six knots and make it educational eco-tourism."
Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
The move may come as a surprise to some considering last fall Victoria Rapid Transit had floated the idea of expanding its Victoria-to-Port Angeles service to a year-round schedule from its usual summer-only sailings.
Harmon said they ferry between 40,000 and 50,000 people between the two ports each summer.
Burles suggested the lingering malaise in the U.S. economy and a tourism industry that has never completely rebounded from the terrorist attacks in 2001 may also have played a role in the decision to make this deal.
"They ran for 20 years and were a very good competitor and they've done well in providing the service, but I think we all know the times are not as rosy as they were," Burles said.
Burles all but dismissed the idea that a new player could step into the void left by the absence of the Express as a scheduled option, noting start-up costs coupled with weak tourism numbers and a fragile economic recovery make it unlikely.
"It could happen obviously, but it would be very difficult for someone to compete against us," he said.
Burles did not give specifics on how Black Ball will use its new resources, but he said they will continue to make sure "people are aware of the service."
Black Ball's car and walk-on passenger service ferries 400,000 between Victoria and Port Angeles annually and boasts up to eight sailings a day between the two ports.
Expeditions is expected to have its website and calendar of adventure options online soon, and the first trip to the tulip fields of La Conner, Wash., is already set for April.
© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist
Victoria Rapid Transit, which sailed the passenger-only Victoria Express across the Strait of Juan de Fuca on a regular schedule from May through October, sold its seasonal route to Black Ball Ferry Line.
It did not sell its boat or any other of the company's operations.
Deal effective immediately
The deal, which is effective immediately, means the Victoria Express will not resume its passenger-only service between Port Angeles and Victoria in May, as had been scheduled.
Instead, the company is launching a series of ecological adventure tours under a new name, Expeditions Northwest, said Jack Harmon, president of Victoria Rapid Transit, based in Port Angeles.
Both companies declined to release the terms of the sale.
The companies agreed that the Coho, which operates year-round carrying both vehicles and foot passengers, will ferry the passengers that would have ridden in the Victoria Express, said Ryan Burles, president of Black Ball Ferry Line.
Anyone who has already booked a ticket through Victoria Rapid Transit will have a spot on the Coho, he said.
“It is a win for both companies,” he said.
“It solidifies our operations, and I know [Harmon] is excited about providing a new service.
“This provides us the right to use the name, the URL and to take over the passenger list.”
Harmon, who also owns and operates Arrow Marine and Arrow Launch, is pleased to focus on ecological tours, he said.
“We will let Black Ball take care of the transportation, and we will work on tourism,” Harmon said.
Negotiations to sell the route began in October, and an agreement was reached in November, Burles said.
Harmon said he began pondering the idea last year after taking several groups on special cruises.
“These tours took on a life of their own,” he said.
“We wanted to focus on the marine adventure, but then I had all these customers already prebooked for the Port Angeles-Victoria route.
“We wanted to make it a win-win for both companies.”
In addition to charters, Harmon's company will offer specialty tours.
The first one planned so far is April 16 for the Skagit County Tulip Festival.
The company will transport passengers to the festival, where they can board two different buses for two different tours and return to Port Angeles in the evening.
Another potential tour would sail to Victoria and along the coast of Vancouver Island before returning via Neah Bay, Harmon said.
“The Explorer Series sailings will present opportunities to explore the ecological and cultural wonders of our region, an area that is significantly under-recognized for its amazing beauty and opportunities,” Harmon said.
“This new venture will greatly broaden our horizons and expand efforts to promote our region through offerings that will add an exciting new visitor experience to the growing tourism mix in Port Angeles and the Olympic Peninsula, featuring explorations into a wide array of areas of natural beauty and rich history that you don't see from the highway.”
The Coho is beginning its 52nd year of ferrying vehicles and passengers across the Strait; its maiden commercial sailing was Dec. 29, 1959.
This season would have been Harmon's company's 21st year of sailing a regular schedule across the Strait.
“The Harmon family has built a great company, and there is a lot of goodwill among their customer base,” Burles said.
For more information on Black Ball, visit www.cohoferry.com.
For more information on Expeditions Northwest, visit the newly launched website www.expeditionsnw.com.
More detailed information about tours will be added over the next few weeks.
Reporter Paige Dickerson can be reached at 360-417-3535 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.