Bowen Island water taxi grounded by Coal Harbour dock repairs

Vancouver Park Board tells water taxi it can no longer dock downtown, leaving business and passengers to find other options

Michelle de Cordova works for a financial institution that believes in making socially and environmentally sustainable investments.

She tries to walk the same walk when it comes to how she gets to work every day — only she does the commute by boat.

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As of Tuesday morning, however, the former diplomat will no longer be able to get from Bowen Island to downtown Vancouver in 25 minutes on the Bowen Island Land and Sea Taxi.

On Friday afternoon, the Vancouver Park Board told the water taxi’s owner that its dock at Coal Harbour needs repairs. An engineer had said the Harbour Green dock is unsafe so, as of Shannon’s last run at six o’clock that night, he could no longer pick up and drop off passengers there.

That leaves about 35 daily commuters without a quick and convenient way to get to work every day.

“It’s wrong what they’ve done,” says Murray Atherton, the chair of Tourism Bowen Island. “What Mike has done for the quality of life for commuters is phenomenal. [The park board] doesn’t understand the necessity of this — the quality of life you have when you can leave downtown and be on the island in 25 minutes.”

The availability of the water taxi was one of the reasons de Cordova decided to move to Bowen Island a year ago. She has a five-minute walk to get to work from the Coal Harbour dock. Ironically, when she lived in Kitsilano, it would often take her much longer to get home from work because of traffic and construction.

“We’re never caught in a traffic jam [on the water taxi],” she says.

More than that, the people on the boat have created their own sense of community. “Anyone who isn’t a regular, they will know everyone by the time the boat gets to the harbour on the other end,” de Cordova says. As well, the quick commute makes life more manageable and enjoyable for young island parents who work in Vancouver, she says, concerned that the island remain an option for all generations.

At $25 for a round trip, the water taxi fare is less than what it would cost to take a car back and forth on BC Ferries.

The loss of dock access is not only grounding Shannon’s commuter water taxi, which he's owned and operated since 2009, but also threatens the viability of his Granville Island summer water taxi for tourists and his island land taxi.

He had trouble finding a Bowen Island resident with a Class 4 licence to drive the land taxi so he’s been doing it. “If I have to go to town [to get work] I’ll have a hard time running the land taxi,” he says.

He also can’t afford the water taxi to be a seasonal business only. He needs the downtown Vancouver run to justify the costs of keeping the boat for the summer service.

“I don’t think we’re down and out but it is demoralizing,” he said Monday.

Shannon has been paying the park board $500 a month to use the dock. He offers two round trips early in the morning and two in late afternoon, also picking up a growing number of construction workers who live in Vancouver but work on the island.

Navy ships Coal Harbour Vancouver
Naval ships use the Coal Harbour public dock for training exercises, - Mike Shannon

He says the park board is concerned that commercial vessels damaged the dock. However, he doubts it was his boat, the Bowen Guardian, which is wrapped in rubber membrane and isn’t heavy or fast enough. “It’s like a floating bumper.”

Regular passenger Ross Beaty says the idea of the water taxi damaging the docks is bogus. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he says. The water taxi barely touches the dock and as soon as passengers are off and on, the water taxi is gone. "It's just touch and go. The water taxi is too small to do significant damage compared to much bigger boats that tie up."

Passengers have wondered if the naval vessels that regularly use the dock for training exercises might have caused some of the problem.

The Coal Harbour dock is in sections so Shannon is hoping the park board can fix one section at a time, leaving him space to dock for just a few minutes each day.

He’s also approaching other dock owners in the area. The private marinas are out because they have locked gates and Granville Island is not an option because not enough of his commuters want to land on that side of the city.

Bowen Island Tourism's Murray Atherton says that he put a good word into Harbour Air about the potential use of its docks. One of Harbour Air’s owners has property on Bowen Island and the float plane business already offers a sightseeing service there in the summer.

Ideally, Shannon says, he’d like to be able to use an old dock at the side of the Waterfront station, near the Seabus. It would make his business even more viable given the location’s quick access to downtown, the North Shore and the Canada Line to the airport.

The dock is unused and in disrepair; it is owned by Translink.

Until he finds a solution, commuters who don’t want to drive onto the ferry have two options. There is morning commuter bus that takes passengers from the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal downtown, as well as the regular Translink express bus (which, unlike the commuter bus, isn’t linked to the Bowen Island ferry schedule.) The commuter bus also has an afternoon service which is linked to Cormorant Marine’s water taxi service from Horseshoe Bay to Bowen Island.

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