Dec 1, 2002 | Marmot, Winter 2002

Walk-On Ferry Passengers with Pets Beware…

I spend a lot of time on BC Ferries. On average I visit Vancouver Island two or three times per month. That means I ride a BC Ferry approximately 48 to 72 times in a year. With rates running upwards of $40.00 for a car and driver per trip it doesn't take a rocket scientist to calculate the annual cost.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that I don’t like BC Ferries, it’s just that I’m a rather frugal person who looks for simple ways of saving a buck. In the interest of saving that buck I decided it was time for me to leave my car behind and “walk-on” the ferry.

Now, BC Ferries provides a vast array of comforts for their regular ” walk-ons”. They have cozy waiting rooms where you can relax, purchase a beverage or a book and stay warm and dry. There’s a place to drop off your luggage and to pick it up at the end of your journey. And if you require assistance due to a physical disability the staff is eager to help. Just don’t ever walk on with your dog. You see I get the feeling BC Ferries doesn’t care much for dogs. I have a little pooch. Weighing only ounces over ten pounds, he’s not a big, slobbering mutt. He doesn’t bite, he doesn’t bark much but he does cry piteously when he’s not happy about something. The sound is enough to soften even the hardest heart. Or so I’ve always thought.

In order to make my little poochie’s journey as comfortable as possible I brought along his Hound-Hotel. It’s one of those pet carriers made out of beige plastic with a handle on top and bars on the door. Typical of any jail, it restricts the internee to a small but practical space. I even brought along his blankie. At the risk of embarrassing my pooch, I will admit that yes, he has a blankie and yes, I was kind enough to bring it, along with his toys and cookies.

My point is, the dog was restrained. I approached the ticket wicket and was promptly advised that the dog and I were not invited to share the comforts of the lounge on the upper level but would instead have to wait for the ferry under the dock, outside in the wind and rain. It was February, it was cold and I was stunned. If you’ve ever been caught in a west coast mid-winter deluge you will understand my horror. But being a law abiding citizen I dutifully made my way down into the bowels of the terminal.

So, there we sat, my pooch and I, plus a few Ferry employees dressed appropriately for the last leg up Everest and an entire parking lot full of cars waiting to load onto the next ferry. I shivered. My dog wailed a sad country ballad about his sorry state and I shivered some more. Now I’m a curious person, so I decided that this was a golden opportunity to explore the dark side of the terminal. I removed my reluctant and suspicious pooch from his luxury accommodation, clipped his leash onto his collar and went in search of some warmth. There was none to be had. Every doorway leading to a public area had a large “NO DOGS ALLOWED” sign firmly affixed to the glass.

What I did find in abundance were poochie potty bags. How nice of BC Ferries to remind us to clean up after the dogs they don’t want around in the first place. In the spirit of co-operation I made sure to pick up every smelly scrap of evidence that my dog left behind.

The ferry finally arrived with a long barreled hooooooo that sent my dog scrambling for safety behind me, of course. After watching disembarking cars stream by and spatter us with a shower of dirty droplets from their tires, we were told it was time to enter the ship.

The entrance to the car deck of a BC Ferry resembles a great, yawning, metal mouth, so it’s hardly a wonder that my poochie was a teeny bit hesitant. But remember, he’s a slight canine and I was holding the other end of the leash. That made me the boss. He slid on board in a squat position, like it or not.

And that’s when things got ugly. You see the Spirit Class Ferry I boarded appeared to have no place for dogs. No corner, no kennel, no remote out of the way anything. And cars were beginning to load behind us. ” Where can I take my dog?” I asked. “Beats me.” Came the answer. Beats me? What kind of an answer is that? But wait, it gets better. The kind gentleman informed me, none-to-kindly, mind you, that wherever I placed my dog, I had to stay with him and that taking him upstairs to the passenger deck was not an option.

Cars loaded and people pushed past me as I clung to the wall near the stairwell. They growled, they groaned and they complimented me on my cute poochie. But nobody offered any help. With a grunt and a wheeze the ferry shoved off and set sail across Georgia Strait. And my rear end froze as I huddled in a stairwell, buffeted by the frigid February wind. The only place to sit was on the Hound Hotel and the hound was blissfully snoozing, buried beneath his warm and fluffy blankie. As I sat there watching my fingernails turn blue I wondered if all ferry terminals and all BC Ferries were as welcoming to walk-on dogs?

Over the next year I made it my mission to walk onto as many ferries as I could with my pooch. Here is what I found: Horseshoe Bay likes dogs the best. Not only is there a covered walkway to keep both you and your pooch out of the rain but also there are plastic form-fitted seats bolted to the wall of berth #2 where you can sit in a slight semblance of comfort.

Departure Bay makes you walk approximately half a kilometre outside regardless of the weather and the baggage pick-up area is inside behind a door that is clearly marked NO DOGS allowed. When I asked the driver of the luggage van to please not slide my bags onto the luggage rack, he informed me that his job required him to put all bags on the sloped rack. Period. So, my luggage went inside while I was left outside with the dog.

Of the ferries that run between Horseshoe Bay and Departure Bay, the Fast Cats had the cream of canine quarters. On the upper car deck are a bank of individual kennels that provide safety, warmth and protection from the weather and other dogs for your pooch. There are also dog dishes and a water hose in case of emergency Despite the fact that you must embark and disembark from the lowest car deck, it is fairly easy to find your way upstairs to the Pooch Palace.

Regular “C” class ferries on the same route provide a car deck compound that often contains an assortment of large dogs tied by leashes only. Occasionally they do break free of their restraints and I know of one specific instance where a renegade rover released himself and was romping roughshod round the car deck.

The Tsawwassen terminal is much the same. After purchasing your ticket, you walk inside with your dog to the luggage drop-off area, then straight out the door into the weather. I couldn’t find a covered outdoor seating area, so in poor weather you get wet. And as everyone knows, there is a good reason why BC is so green.

In addition, both Swartz Bay and Tsawwassen terminals have relatively few signs directing the disembarking passengers with dogs where to go to retrieve their luggage; or how to exit the terminal for that matter. I wandered around Swartz Bay for half and hour, completely lost until I finally found someone who directed me toward my luggage and the exit. Again, it was behind a door clearly marked, NO DOGS. Tsawwassen was much the same but in this case the driver of the luggage van told me simply to ignore the “No Dogs” sign and go inside to retrieve my bags. I have yet to ride a ferry out of Tsawwassen en route to Swartz Bay that provided any level of comfort for my dog and I.

The ferries that run to Duke Point have a small compound available for dogs. I wondered why the floor was covered with raised wooden skids and was shocked to discover water pouring into the area the moment the ferry left the dock. Yes, I said pouring. The floor was at least two inches deep in some areas before it slowly drained away. It is wide open to the weather and while there is a bank of plastic seats bolted to the wall of the ferry, the smell of exhaust was enough to make any person or dog nauseous.

The Duke Point terminal was the most frustrating experience of all. Not only is the luggage drop-off point behind the ticket wickets but one ticket-taker was firm in stating that the dog was not moving one step past his booth. He also curtly informed me that I would have to stand outside, in the sheeting January sleet without any cover for the full half hour prior to the ferry arriving.

It was more than I could bear. My luggage included my suitcase, my son’s Saxophone, my laptop computer, the Hound Hotel and of course, the hound himself. So, in the interest of fairness I waited a few minutes then went to another ticket counter and asked the same question. The woman looked at me and smiled. So far, so good. She immediately saw my dilemma and creatively suggested that I put the pooch inside his hotel and do my best to “sneak” him onto the ferry via the upper walkway. She advised me that if I ran into any difficulties to please let her know and she would escort me down on an elevator (that I couldn’t see anywhere) to the lower level. I am happy to say that my pooch successfully snuck onto the ferry. Mission accomplished.

However, the pooch patrol was in high gear and within thirty seconds of setting foot on the ferry, two separate employees approached me and indicated that the dog had to go below decks immediately. This while I was making my way to the elevator to take him down. They don’t waste any time in delegating the dogs to the dungeons.

Picking up your luggage from Duke Point when you have travelled with a dog is darn near impossible. Access to the luggage carousel is directly from the overhead walkway and due to security reasons there are several sets of doors between the luggage and the place you wind up with your dog. With two glaring exceptions, most BC Ferry employees were very helpful. It is not their fault that the ships and terminals are ill equipped to handle such a situation but they make the best of it. During one voyage an employee even sat with my little poochie for a while to keep him company while I went upstairs to get a cup of tea.

During the summer, the lack of dog conveniences wasn’t as big a problem. It is actually quite pleasant to sit out on the ferry car deck when the sun is shining and a warm breeze caresses your cheeks as the spectacular views of Active Pass slip by. Of course this means you have to ignore the announcement that requests all passengers leave the vehicle deck in order to enjoy the many services available on the passenger deck. Even waiting outside at the terminal can be a restful reprieve filled with all the sights and smells of seashore life.

In all fairness, I would like to point out that BC Ferries does not charge anything for your dog. That’s right, nothing, zero, zip. And for that, your dog is treated as unwelcome vermin. It wouldn’t bother me to pay a small fee for my pooch providing it was more pleasant to bring him aboard, the travel areas for dogs were warm and enclosed and the luggage pick-up access was improved. Not to mention the installation of a couple of directional arrows to help navigate the terminals. And since my first experience on a Spirit Class ship I recently discovered a sign designating dogs to the upper auto. Could they perhaps have heard my vociferous complaints about being stationed in a stairwell during my previous voyage?

Let’s face it; my dog has not enjoyed his experience as a BC Ferry ” walk-on”. For a pampered pooch that has slept numerous nights at the Empress Hotel it was a cold and windy slap in the face. Are you planning to walk your dog onto a BC Ferry? You might want to think again.

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