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Hullo aims to succeed where other ferry operators have failed

Vancouver-to-Nanaimo passenger-ferry venture sets sail after botched launch
Hullo ferries CEO Alastair Caddick is confident that his operation will be a success

Following in the wake of four failed private-sector ferry services between Vancouver and Nanaimo might be enough to give some entrepreneurs pause. 

Not those, however, who are backing the Wi-Fi-equipped Hullo ferry service, which endured a botched launch in mid-August. 

The venture was supposed to conduct four departures per day from each of Vancouver and Nanaimo, starting Aug. 14.

Instead, the first two days of sailings were cancelled.

Gusty winds caused a tree to fall on power lines, shutting electricity to parts of downtown Nanaimo on Aug. 13, and this also shut power to Hullo’s ferries, Hullo CEO Alastair Caddick told BIV

Environment Canada then issued a wind warning on Aug. 14, so Caddick made the decision to cancel all sailings on Aug. 14 and 15. 

His fear was not that the ferries would sink in those high winds, but rather that passengers would get sick.

Caddick told BIV that he did not want the voyages to be like a “vomit rocket.”

Instead, he made the decision to reposition the ferries with staff on board to monitor how well the boats navigated turbulent waters as part of training for future storms.

Ferry service launched with a reduced schedule of one sailing on Aug. 16 and then embarked on a schedule with two sailings per day from each of Nanaimo and Vancouver. Sailings are set to rise to four per day starting Aug. 31.

Winds will force future ferry cancellations, but Caddick said he does not expect that to happen on a monthly basis.

“It won’t be once a year,” he said. “It will be more frequent than that.”

Whether the ferry operation will be able to navigate turbulent business waters is perhaps a bigger question mark. 

“We know that there is skepticism in the marketplaces and in the community,” Caddick said. 

“Our job will be to earn the trust of both communities, both in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island, and we’re very confident that over time, we will earn their trust.”

Time may be right for the new ferry service

Boosters in Nanaimo, such as Mayor Leonard Krog, say the time is right for the service to launch.

Caddick agreed. He said the public can rely on his venture because the business case for the service is much stronger now, compared with the last failed private passenger-ferry venture: HarbourLynx in February 2006.

One big difference is that more people now live in Vancouver and in Nanaimo. Exactly how much difference that will make to the bottom line is yet to be seen.

HarbourLynx executives similarly told media when they launched service in 2003 that population growth was on their side. 

A lingering effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that more people have hybrid work schedules, Caddick said. 

“You now have more people who are able to work remotely and keep their jobs,” he said. 

That could prompt some people to consider living in Nanaimo, which has a small-town feel and more-affordable home prices a 70-minute ferry ride from downtown Vancouver.

Connections to other modes of travel have also improved.

The Evergreen Line launched in 2016, making it possible to travel on rapid transit to Coquitlam and Port Moody.

The Canada Line rapid-transit service between Waterfront Station, Richmond and Vancouver International Airport (YVR) launched in 2009. 

Not only are flights at YVR more accessible to Nanaimo ferry passengers today than in 2006, but those passengers can also board seaplanes at the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre, which opened in 2011. 

That facility is where Hullo ferries dock. 

When HarbourLynx ferry trips terminated near Canada Place, fewer seaplanes flew on fewer routes out of nearby Coal Harbour.

HarbourLynx service abruptly stopped in early February 2006 when one of the engines failed on its only ferry, which was an aging vessel that could carry 296 passengers.

Hullo operates two brand-new ferries which can each carry up to 354 passengers. 

“Each of our vessels has four engines,” Caddick said. “That means if we have an engine problem in one of those, we can still operate the ferry with the other three. So, we’ve got this built-in reliability redundancy in our vessels.”

Hullo, which is officially operated by Vancouver Island Ferry Co., is also much “deeper pocketed” than was HarbourLynx, Krog told BIV. 

Some financing comes from Toronto-based private-equity firm Conqora Capital Partners. 

It then brought in the larger, multinational investor InfraRed Capital Partners, Caddick said.

“I wouldn’t use that word [deep-pocketed] but I would say that we’re well financed,” he said.

Krog said Hullo’s service comes as Nanaimo has comparatively grown up since HarbourLynx went out of business. 

One example of that is the city’s Vancouver Island Conference Centre opening in 2008. It can host a range of events and conventions for up to about 1,000 people.

“If you want to have a convention, why would you pay Vancouver hotel rates, and face the crowds, when you can be in beautiful Nanaimo, after a lovely, leisurely, hour-and-10-minute fast-ferry ride?” Krog said.

He pointed to a Marriott hotel that recently opened about 100 feet from Nanaimo’s conference centre. There is also a relatively new Quality Inn that opened in Nanaimo’s downtown, he said.

“There’s proposals for a couple more [hotels], which I won’t or can’t comment on,” Krog said.

Nanaimo Port Authority CEO Ian Marr told BIV he thinks the route is viable

Past ventures proved that a ferry service between Nanaimo and Vancouver could work, even though the businesses wound up dissolving, he said. 

HarbourLynx’s catamaran service halted because engine failure put its single ship out of commission. The company was deep in debt and within weeks filed notice in court that it was insolvent.

The Royal Sealink Express was another failed private-sector passenger ferry service between Vancouver and Nanaimo.

That venture, which also had a route between Vancouver and Victoria, went kaput in 1993 after 11 months in business.

Marr said he believes that the Royal Sealink’s financial problems were mostly on its run between Vancouver and Victoria, not on its Vancouver-Nanaimo route. 

Newspaper reports at the time back up this thesis.

“Their Nanaimo route was actually very successful,” Marr said. “That’s why people have been trying to get it to get it up and running again.”

Hullo has a 400-stall parking lot on Nanaimo Port Authority land for which it has a 35-year lease. Hullo also has a 35-year lease for a docking spot at the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre, Caddick said.

He said that if all goes well, his company will launch three additional sailings each way later this year, to have a total of seven sailings each way per day. 

Vancouver departure times as of Aug. 31 are to be at 8 a.m., noon, 6:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Ferries will leave Nanaimo at 6 a.m., 10 a.m., 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

There are three classes of seating. One-way tickets in comfort class sell for $29.99, while those in the premium section sell for $39.99 and those in business class sell for $49.99 each. Slight discounts are to be had when round-trip tickets are purchased. 

Bookings, Caddick said, have been brisk.

The ferries are designed to only have sufficient space for passengers to bring carry-on luggage. 

Caddick said in some cases people will also be able to bring aboard backpacks, or a full suitcase each.

There is a small area that will allow passengers to bring “initially less than 10” bikes on board per sailing, Caddick said. If a larger space is needed, Hullo will adapt and make that possible, he said.

“We’re unlikely to be turning people away,” he said. “As a startup business, we are going to do everything we can to accommodate the needs of our customers.”

BC Ferries welcomes competition

BC Ferries CEO Nicolas Jimenez told BIV that he welcomes the competition that Hullo provides. 

He called passenger-only, Nanaimo-to-Vancouver sailings “a hard route,” and reiterated that many previous attempts at providing that service have failed. 

“Our hope is that they do really well,” he said. “Competition is good.”