New owners keep MV Frances Barkley afloat

Port Alberni, BC

New owners have stepped up to ensure MV Frances Barkley continues operation.

Business partners Greg Willmon and Barrie Rogers, who own Devon Transport along with a group of rental and leasing companies, announced Monday, Aug. 16 that Lady Rose Marine Services has accepted their offer to purchase the business. They gave assurances the passenger and freight service, a fixture of west coast life for generations, would continue uninterrupted.

Willmon, who has a residence in Bamfield, was unloading his truck a few weeks ago at Port Alberni’s Harbour Quay when he ran into Mike Surrell, who has operated Lady Rose Marine Services for the past 13 years. Surrell went public earlier this month with his plan to cease operation Aug. 31, explaining that the pandemic has robbed the ferry service of most of its business.

“COVID has basically destroyed this place,” Surrell said last week, before the purchase was confirmed, while hinting that there could be hope of saving the operation. “Nothing’s over until it’s over. The 31st of August hasn’t come yet.”

Numbers tell the story, as they do for countless other businesses stricken by pandemic impacts. In a typical year, Frances Barkley carries between 7,000 and 10,000 passengers. In all of 2020, there were only 154 passengers. Their freight business also fell off in part due to the high cost of lumber, Surrell said.

On the other hand, the scenic voyage from Port Alberni to Bamfield remains popular. Would-be passengers found themselves out of luck after the announcement of potential closure earlier this month. The service is fully booked (while adhering to pandemic safety limitations) until month’s end. Now, of course, those wanting to take the trip won’t have to worry.

The possibility of losing what many consider an essential service led the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District to hold an online meeting of stakeholders from various communities Monday afternoon.

Bob Beckett, ACRD area director for Bamfield, said he was among those surprised by the sudden news of the possible closure.

“I’m not sure folks know, especially those who live outside of the valley, Bamfield and Anacla, just how many services they do provide,” Beckett said. “There is something absolutely magical when the boat comes in.”

As one resident mentioned: “How are we going to know what day of the week it is?”

“It’s an integral piece of infrastructure that serves a lot of communities,” said Trevor Cootes, Huu-ay-aht First Nations councillor. “Our citizens living at home definitely rely on Lady Rose Marine Services for transportation and also have used it for medical purposes. It’s been huge there.”

Huu-ay-aht First Nations have purchased several businesses in recent years and the service is relied upon as part of their operations “right across the board,” Cootes added.

Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council is the biggest customer of Lady Rose Marine Services, Willmon noted.

Willmon, Rogers and their staff felt the shockwaves from the sudden news of the business closure.

“Destiny was set in motion during a conversation I had with current Lady Rose Marine Services owner Mike Surrell a few weeks ago,” Willmon explained. “We were unloading our truck on his dock. It started with a question, ‘How are things Mike?’.”

“They could be better, Greg. There is a 50/50 chance the Frances Barkley won’t be sailing next year, possibly sooner,” Surrell said.

Willmon asked if he would consider selling rather than shutting down. Surrell’s answer: “Let’s talk.’”

In the interim, Willmon spent “many hours” considering the purchase during a family vacation in Bamfield. He thought of the ramifications of losing what had long been a reliable service provided by Surrell, his wife Pauline, their staff and crew. After a meeting late last week, the two reached agreement in principle for the purchase.

“My wife and I could not be happier with the sale,” Surrell said Monday. “We are proud to be able to continue helping the new owners in making this company the success it was pre-COVID.”

Willmon said it was important to move quickly with the purchase in order to retain staff and crew members for the operation. The business employs a dozen people. He felt it was critical to get a commitment from Surrell to remain on as general manager.

“The plan is to continue operating the Frances Barkley,” Willmon confirmed. “We believe she has quite a lot of life left in her. We’re planning, over the next year, on doing some upgrades to her.”

Devon Transport is based in Nanaimo, part of an integrated group of companies that includes a Budget rental outlet in Port Alberni along with 27 other locations.

Lady Rose Marine Services has been in operation for 75 years. The company’s original flagship, MV Lady Rose, was retired from service in 2009 and replaced by MV Frances Barkley.

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