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Hullo! A “Ferry” Promising Start

Trip Report: Hullo ferry Nanaimo – Vancouver

By Brendan, with additional reporting from Rick, Terry, and Kathleen.

Like most Vancouver Islanders I was hopeful but a little skeptical about the new Hullo, passenger-only, fast ferry service between Nanaimo and Vancouver that launched in August 2023.

Islanders have seen, and tried, many attempts to successfully operate such services, only to witness them founder on the rough waters of the Salish Sea and in the face of competition from seaplane, helicopter, conventional aircraft, and BC Ferries.

Will Hullo be any different?

The signs are promising:

— The parent firm, the Vancouver Island Ferry Company (VIFC), appears to be well-financed, fully aware of the waters (and what could and will happen), purchasing two new state-of-the-art Damen Fast Ferry 4212’s, capable of up to 40 knots (74 km/h). Having two vessels also provide redundancy on a limited schedule should one go out of service.

— The fares are affordable with three classes of service (Comfort, Premium, and Business) providing value for money and time when compared to BC Ferries.

— The VIFC has slowly and wisely rolled out its service, correcting (most) issues when they have been revealed, adding new features like a Nanaimo terminal-downtown Nanaimo shuttle bus. It is also working on expanding its limited food service (bring your own as it is not available in Comfort Class and not at the Nanaimo terminal. There are restaurants near the Vancouver terminal).

— There are convenient cubbyholes for carry-ons and plenty of space for personal items and paid (not inexpensive /reservations recommended) luggage handling for larger pieces.

— Hullo has employed savvy marketing and service extension with competitive pricing, additional sailings for special events and late evening sailings for major sports fixtures, and by partnering with charter operator Vancouver Island Coach Lines that supplied a bus from Langford to connect with sailings for the popular Vancouver Christmas Market near the Vancouver terminal.

Will there be permanent bus links, even rail (the tracks are near the Nanaimo terminal) to the rest of the Island in the future? The need is there. Intercommunity BC Transit service is slow and infrequent, while the IslandLink shuttle services currently only serve the Departure Bay ferry terminal in Nanaimo. Vancouver Island Connector has announced plans to resume service in summer 2024, but may remain seasonal.

Vancouver Islanders have rewarded Hullo with their patronage with the mid-morning sailing from Nanaimo often packed. The Hullo February 2024 schedule shows 4 trips per day in each direction, but the spring schedule generally shows only 3 trips per day in each direction. This would indicate that ridership has stabilized.

Should Hullo emerge this year with a strong reputation – and should it address the issues that we identify later in this article – its future may be assured; and British Columbians will benefit.

Need for New Service

There is no question that the service offered by Hullo is badly needed. Nanaimo and the central Island continue to grow and downtown to downtown service means the car can be left at home. The post-COVID-19 pandemic workplace of remote/hybrid work now permits people to relocate from Metro Vancouver to comparably more affordable Vancouver Island.

But equally critically – and top of mind particularly for Islanders – is that the alternatives: BC Ferries and commercial flights (wheeled, float, fixed-wing/rotary-wing) are too often delay-and-cancellation prone and/or very expensive. Flying is also very cramped and uncomfortable, even for short durations and boarding small craft can be challenging.

The Experiences (The Good)

— Very informative web site. Booking is intuitive.

— Comfort (standard) Class, on the main deck, is surprisingly roomy, like VIA or Amtrak seats. Comfort Class is the only accessible section as it is on the main level. There is plenty of room for wheelchairs at the designated seats. My wife suffers from arthritis, and she found the seats comfortable. Seats have beverage holders, no shortage of connection points (power sockets plus USB A and C charging ports). Complimentary Wi-Fi is available.

— Premium and Business Class seating is on the upper deck. The stairway is steep and closed during sailing. Business seats are larger than Premium and Business fares include a drink and snack. They also have more space around them for luggage. The Business area also has curtains which can be drawn to separate it from Premium. Snacks will be available to purchase in other classes of service, but were also being offered free initially, and equipment for hot drinks will be fitted shortly.

— There are some blocks of seats with a table on each level, and the seats have seatbelts, which are recommended for use in inclement weather (one previous service earned the sobriquet of “barf barge”).

— Having the terminal at the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre (VHFC) by the Convention Centre offers an elevator, stairs, and ramps, and for the most part is out of weather. It is also convenient for cruise ships. My wife and many others from the Island sailed on Hullo for that reason.

— The vessels are sleek. Getting aboard is easier than many similar craft. They each have a capacity for 354 passengers: smaller than the current FRS Clipper (Seattle-Victoria) Clipper V at 525 passengers, but fine for this route. Capacity is expansive as the two vessels accommodate over 700 passengers and are planned to make several round trips each day versus two round trips in the summer peak for the Clipper.

— The washrooms are plentiful and surprisingly roomy. Unfortunately, water problems on one trip meant the washrooms were shut down half-way through the trip.

— The departures from both terminals were fast and the ride was quite smooth, even on one windy, rainy day: far smoother than my recollection in similar conditions aboard similar vessels in area waters. And when there were obstacles, the crews nimbly slowed down and made their way around them, but hitting minor pieces of debris, felt like going over rough asphalt.

— Wildlife is part of the B.C. experience and on one sailing to Nanaimo the crew announced a pod of orcas, beautifully breaching, off the port (left) side.

But the BEST part is the crews. They are friendly, helpful, caring, and passionate about their work and about providing superb experiences for their customers.

The Experiences (Needs Work)

— Customer Service. Online customer service is slow. More seriously there are no phone numbers to use for immediate, real-time response: contrary to one meaning of its name. This is not acceptable considering that most people still prefer to talk, especially if they have an urgent inquiry or problem.

— Payment. Hullo needs to accept cash. Many people, particularly older individuals, still use it.

Terminal – Nanaimo

— Hullo uses the Nanaimo Cruise Ship terminal, some distance from the south end of downtown, on Port Way. There was no signage for those driving old school i.e., not relying on distracting GPS and navigation aids. I turned around, confused, but when I saw taxis and other cars heading that way, I followed them.

— Free shuttle bus service is available from downtown Nanaimo and the Nanaimo Transit Exchange. It operates 7 trips to the terminal and 3 return trips.

— Vehicle access is either:

• Port Drive from the city centre, by the Gabriola Island BC Ferries’ dock, which becomes Port Way, crossing the railway tracks to/from the railcar barge slip or
• Esplanade to Port Way which uses a narrow, old, wooden bridge spanning the same tracks.

There are agreements in place to prevent freight trains from delaying ferry traffic and plans to replace the Port Way bridge with a new access road at the south end.

— There is plenty of parking, but I’ve heard others complain how difficult it is to use (I used it when it was free, at the service opening). But it is easier to use and access, with more space than the parking for the old HarbourLynx that docked by the downtown Nanaimo seaplane terminal.

— As the Hullo terminal is located by the Helijet terminal, obtaining a cab should not be a problem. Be warned and be prepared: Nanaimo’s cab companies aren’t the greatest. Leave plenty of time and be ready to call the others, if yours doesn’t show up.

— There is a sidewalk to the terminal, that I’ve seen people use, but it is a long way around because of the huge Vehicle Processing Centre in between (could a vandal-proof walkway over the facility be built?)

— There is a small indoor waiting area, with passenger lining up outside for ticket checks. It is a longish, partially covered walk from the terminal to the vessels, which makes the experience not exactly pleasant in heavy rains and wind.

Terminal – Vancouver

— The VHFC waiting room had no signage or announcements for Hullo. My wife and I went there after we were “encouraged” to leave the small Hullo booking office. Others have been told to wait in nearby restaurants or use outdoor seating.

— It takes 15 minutes or so to walk to/from Waterfront Station. The Burrard Street access to Waterfront Station shortens the walk but is not accessible. It would have been faster, easier and safer (beware the drivers zooming in and out of the parking on Cordova Street and at the cruise ship terminal) if Hullo docked at the SeaBus terminal.

— There is, strangely, NO organized taxi rank at the VHFC. I had to walk in the street to flag one down.

Bottom Line…

Hullo is a much-needed, comfortable, affordable, convenient, and welcome option for travel between Vancouver Island and Metro Vancouver.

Hullo’s downtown access is far easier than the lengthy bus rides and long walks to board BC Ferries. Its 90-minute, downtown-to-downtown, travel time is quicker than the 3+ hour journey on BC Ferries. And B.C. resident seniors may find Hullo’s Comfort Class less expensive Friday to-Sunday when BC Ferries doesn’t offer free passage, particularly when you include the bus fare.

Finally, will there be, as many Islanders hope, a Hullo Vancouver-Victoria service? Not likely given the many failed attempts on this route because even fast ferries are not as competitive as driving + BC Ferries, or bus options (BC Transit + TransLink, BC Ferries Connector) as they parallel land for most of the way.

Hullo is staying mum on any expansion, wisely preferring to focus on getting the Nanaimo-Vancouver service right.

We wish Hullo well and look forward to sailing on it again.

Check Hullo Schedules and Fares

About the Author

Rick Jelfs

Rick Jelfs is the Secretary of Transport Action BC

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