3:30pm. The sailing is full of high school kids. Probably 100 or 150 of them crowd the small, ageing ferry. The Bowen Queen has very small tables and fewer seats compared to the regular ferry for this route: the Queen of Capilano. Boys and girls need to squeeze in like sardines on the Bowen Queen’s short benches to maintain allegiance to their in-groups. A group of eight boys seated around a table designed for four are jammed so tight that two of them need to balance half of their bodies on the piles of their backpacks stacked up on the floor. A ninth boy is leaning against the table, facing the opposite direction, staring at the vending machines.

“Hey, Steve, have you got those two bucks you owe me?” He asks a boy who is about to drop change into the soft drink dispenser.
“Hum, no?” Answers Steve in a guilty tone, pulling back the coins away from the machine as if to hide them.
“Come on man, I just saw you have a toonie.”
“Dude, I’m so thirsty,” pleads Steve.
“Well, at least get something that we can share.”
“Ok, what do you want?” Steve agrees.

While Steve and his creditor debate on the nature of their junk food fix, a whiff of nuked artificial butter originating from the stern intrudes into the forward lounge, blending with the fragrance of après physical education b.o. and natural hormone growth. Three kids immediately burst out of their tables, racing for the tiny cafeteria counter. Another pair of younger-looking boys timidly, but eagerly, appear from downstairs, helplessly seduced by the aroma.
“No popcorn for you nerds,” Steve warns them in jest, “back to your dungeon.”

While the majority of the older kids have found their lair on the main passenger lounge, at least two dozens of the younger ones have had to settle for the much smaller and stuffy downstairs lounge on the starboard side of the ferry. These boys and girls are, in the words of their older friends upstairs, “smelly grade eights.” Lacking tables and immediate access to the upper lounge’s ambrosia, these kids seem even more anxious to get their Queen of Capilano, with her ample lounge, back.

Seemingly happier with the Bowen Queen are instead the relaxed-looking dwellers of the lower lounge to the port side of the ship. Theirs is an entirely different scene made almost exclusively of adults quietly immersed in their books and newspapers, and safely tucked away from the food-sharing madness of the upstairs lounge. Three kids are here with them, all three of them plugging away at their homework either with their laptop computers or textbooks. These are “the French Immersion” kids, I’m told, who attend a different school and seem endowed with a certain je ne sais pas quoi of a different attitude.

Many adult islanders try to avoid “school runs” like the plague, and if they are ever caught on them as foot passengers then they quickly resort to begging adult friends and acquaintances driving onto the boat to let them ride in their cars with them. Some do this so often that they call themselves, due to their willingness to jump into anyone’s car, “ferry sluts.” Other few adults, unable or unwilling to find protected rides, castigate themselves into the “shame corners” of the lounges understood to be off-limits for them. There a watchful parent eyeballs a meaner-looking pair of kids plotting to use the washrooms for their larcenous schemes. Nothing pans out, at least today.

Meanwhile, back on the upper lounge it’s time to check on the latest rankings of everyone’s favorite ferry challenge. School-bound students do not have to pay for their ferry fare, but they still need to get a boarding pass at the Horseshoe Bay terminal, on the West Vancouver side. Even though it’s free, small, foldable, and light, the boarding pass is a big pain in the neck for every student. Because the four school buses generally unload all students at once in front of the four ticket booths, unless they’re first off the bus, kids have to deal with long lineups at the booth. Even though the line moves fast, no high schooler likes to delay stretching one’s legs after a long day on an early morning ferry, school buses, and sitting still in class.

Necessity, however, is the mother of invention. Boarding passes must technically be surrendered to a deckhand upon loading the boat. But no human, no matter how quick-handed and skilled, can stand in the way of 150 rushing teenagers and manage to collect a piece of paper from each and every one of them. In light of that advantage on “the man,” the kids challenge one another at holding their boarding passes the longest. To save your boarding pass today, after all, means avoiding an annoying line-up tomorrow.

Boarding passes are date-stamped, but the deckhands are just too overwhelmed by the rush onboard to check for such miniscule details, and therefore it is easy for the kids to surrender them at a later date, when sooner or later they have to, without being chided. And because they are date-stamped, it is quite easy for them to establish informal, but thoroughly accountable, standings. Cara’s in the lead today. She’s been holding on to her pass since Monday of last week, and Mike, the previous leader, had to give up his today.

If you asked these kids whether they like their daily ferry-catching ritual, by now as romantic as teeth-brushing, many of them would tell you they find it “horrible.” Adolescents are slumber fiends, and a ferry commute takes at least an hour off their sleep schedule and their extra-curricular activities calendar.

To boot, it is difficult for them to maintain relationships, like romantic ones, with peers who live “in town.” Why date somebody who lives on an island half an hour away, and a ferry fare away, when money and time are scarce and the choice in town is ample? Moreover, many of them have to deal with being stigmatized at their schools; as “island kids” they suffer the stereotypes of potheads, hippies or red necks, or nerds.

And finally, the ferry works as a means of social control against them. On small island communities the ferry is both a curfew enforcer, as parents simply have to say to their teenagers “make sure you come back home tonight, not tomorrow morning,” and a panopticon. The panoptic power of the ferry makes it difficult to misbehave while onboard. A while ago, on Malcolm Island, a boy thought it would be funny to moon his friends on the ferry. His friends laughed, but the crew and the grownups didn’t. It didn’t take a minute to find out who the boy “belonged to.” The captain phoned the offending boy’s mom and upon docking in Sointula, before anyone was allowed to disembark, the poor mother had to come onboard to publicly scold her pants-dropping son and force him to make amends with all the passengers. The boy was even revoked ferry-riding privileges for the rest of the week, and thus effectively suspended from school and grounded from going into town.

But despite the numerous inconveniences, most boys and girls who go through the motion sickness of routine commutes and early wake-up calls are also well aware of the positive transformation that ferry commuting generates in their lives, identities, and communities.

It is evident on any sunny day sailing, when the kids are out on the sun deck comfortably basking in the glory of the mountains and the water surrounding them, sometimes even timidly taking pictures with their camera phones. It is patent on every morning sailing, when the rambunctiousness and food-craze are replaced by convenient last-minute homework collaboration. It is obvious as they disperse from the boat, waiting in merriment till the boat literally “bumps” on the pier and the crew almost has to plead with them to get off. And it is clear as they disembark and head to their homes: not whisked away by frantic parents trying to beat rush hour or to protect them from perverts, but ambulating worry-free about the island on their own feet, or even hitchhiking and riding with fellow islanders who happen to be on the same ferry or who happen to drive by the terminal.

And whether it’s the rite of passage from the grade eights’ corner to the grade nines’ corner of the boat as a new school year begins, or the ritual of egging the last sailing on Halloween night, or the proud regular antagonizing of their urban classmates, their city-slicker peers who are barely lucky to spend summer week-ends on the beaches that island kids get to enjoy year round, these young commuters seem deeply aware that, replacement vessel or not, this ferry at least on two “hormone runs” per day is their ferry, and this island is their island.