“Excuse me; is this where we catch the ferry to Brentwood Bay?”
“Yes,” I answer, “as a matter of fact you can see the boat coming. See?” I say, as I point, “it’s right over there.”
“Do you catch this ferry often?” the lady asks me, as we strike up a conversation in the fifteen minutes preceding the ferry’s arrival.
“Not really,” I answer, beginning the usual explanatory spiel about my research, a spiel long enough to capture the attention of another couple of bystanders walking up and down the short car lineup. After a round of introductions the conversation soon turns to the purpose of this route.
“It’s funny how a ferry works” says Belinda, who lives in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley, “look at the four of us. Here we are chatting away, soaking up a little bit of early spring sun, enjoying the morning, we wouldn’t be doing this if we were driving up the highway, would we?”
“Yeah,” remarks Tony, who is coming from Thesis Island, “I mean, it’s sort of convenient if you’re driving to the airport, but not really. It’s more like an illusion that you’re saving time. That’s why I catch it, just for the illusion.”
“What do you mean?” asks the middle-aged lady who called the Mill Bay a dinghy.
“It’s a long story,” answers Tony, “but we should get back to our cars, I’ll tell you on the ferry.”
“Ok, see you on the ferry.”
“See you on the ferry.”
The Mill Bay-Brentwood Bay route, as Tony correctly observes, is just sort of convenient. A drive from the town of Mill Bay to the Victoria suburban community of Brentwood Bay can take about 40 minutes. The sailing time is only 25 minutes, instead. But the math is not so simple. To exit the highway and reach the Mill Bay ferry ramp one has to slow down from 110kmh to 50/60kmh. The detour takes about eight minutes, to which you need to add at the very least five minutes of waiting for the ferry. As well, you need to add driving from the Brentwood Bay ferry ramp to wherever your destination may be, which may mean having to take a longer or slower route than the highway. But there’s more to account for.
While many say they catch this ferry to avoid traffic, Vitoria’s traffic patterns are rather unique. Car traffic in Victoria has only one bottleneck that the Mill Bay – Brentwood Bay ferry users can dodge: the so-called “Colwood Crawl,” which chokes Victoria’s northern periphery from 7:15am to 8:30am, on the southbound lanes. But the earliest morning sailing out of Mill Bay is 8:05am. A driver opting to leave Mill Bay at 8:00am would hit the “Colwood Crawl” at about 8:25am, as the crawl is beginning to loosen up. Should that driver need to go south toward Victoria’s city centre, opting to sail across the Saanich Inlet would mean going the wrong direction and thus wasting a lot of time getting back into the city. Should that driver need to go northeast, then the ferry would save her five minutes at the most, and a at a higher cost than driving.
Once loaded, the four of us find a sunny spot on the car deck to continue talking. Riding a ferry is a lot different than driving a car. This is the true reason why this route is in existence: not every driver feels like driving at 110kmh up and down the narrow and slippery twists and turns of a notoriously deadly mountain pass. During temporary road closures, due to accidents or adverse weather conditions, the Mill Bay also takes care of those who must get to the other side of the island at all costs. And during other days, according to Tony, “it’s just a way of making time, making island time.”
“What’s island time exactly?” asks the middle-aged lady, who by now has a name, Andrea, “I always hear about it. Isn’t that just a way of saying that somebody is always late?”
“Well, yeah, in part,” answers Belinda.
“My teenage stepson uses it as an excuse when he comes home late at night on weekends,” I add.
“Contractors on Thetis Island use it an excuse to never start or finish their work!” erupts Tony. “But, no, really, island time is not just about being fifteen minutes late because the ferry is fifteen minutes late,” Tony picks up again, “it’s state of mind, it’s a way of living your life at a slower pace.”
“That’s true,” Belinda adds, “I live in Genoa Bay. Any visitor from the mainland says there is something different about the way we relate to life. This is not true of everyone, obviously. But those who are on island time try to take the time to think, to connect with friends and neighbors, to smell the roses, to go out for a walk, or to take up time-consuming hobbies, like gardening. I am very sensitive about this idea because I grew up in Calgary and when I moved to Vancouver Island my main reason for moving was to slow down, to switch off. And at first it was incredible how much energy it took me. I had to work hard at it. Sometimes I felt like walking up to the cashier at the grocery store to say: ‘ok, you’ve been talking with this customer for five minutes now, can you bag her shit and get us all going?’ but I had to tell myself it was ok, there was no good reason to be in a hurry.”
“That’s funny you just said that,” comments Andrea, just two days ago I was at the post office in Tofino and it took me 20 minutes to do what should have taken two minutes.”
“Oh boy, the post office!” I comment, laughing.
“The post office in a small community is not a place to get business done,” says Tony, “it’s the cheap version of a café!”
Another place where you can get a real sense of island time is a small island bakery. Even the names give you an idea. On Gabriola there’s Slow Rise, on Denman the bakery is actually called Island Time and the interior décor is wall clocks.
“Look, Andrea,” says Tony, “it goes back to the very idea why I’m catching this ferry today instead of driving on the highway. I hate to be in a hurry, and I want to feel like I’m not. I want to think I have time to give to my community. I want to think that I moved to a place like Thetis because I can bake my own bread, because I can live on the rhythms of nature, because I’m free to determine my schedule, because I can procrastinate, and because I can live a lifestyle that revolves around re-using and making things last longer, rather than using and throwing, but it’s only true in part.”
“I know what you mean,” agrees Belinda.
“Yeah, look, we’ve got a lot of challenges and contradictions to deal with, so for the most part we can only chip away at the clock, we can only slow down this much, or at least we can just be perfectly okay with the illusion,” argues Tony.
“I want to give you a couple of examples of what I think Tony is talking about,” says Belinda, “you can never slow down too much. It’s impossible to disconnect. Right now I’ve got a ferry to catch from Swartz Bay to the Gulf Islands, and Tony has a plane to catch at the airport. The idea of island time is all about trying, this is the keyword, trying, to slow down. So, yeah, most of us don’t wear a watch but on the other hand we can never lose sight of the rest of the world.”
“Yep,” agrees Tony, “the ferry schedule is woven into our consciousness, it wouldn’t be if we didn’t need to use it.”
“And that’s the thing about island time,” Belinda picks up again, “you change the speed of your life, but you don’t fully shut out the rest of the world. When you live in the city you don’t pay attention to its pace: you just keep spinning your wheels. If you’re on island time it’s like you’ve slowed down and moved to the side of the highway, but you know that sooner or later you need to get back on the highway, even if only for a short trip, and merging back onto it means you’re bound to crash hard. No man is an island, not even an island is an island.”