The Story of False Creek's Original Ferry Fleet

It's hard to imagine now, but the high-rises and parks that line False Creek were barely a glimmer in the eyes of city planners thirty years ago.  Log booms, cement plants, barges and rail yards were ubiquitous east of the Burrard Bridge, and few people thought of the area as anything more than a polluted swamp. Granville Island's renewal was only just beginning, and was still considered by many to be a daring experiment.

Such was the state of affairs when two local boaters, having grown frustrated with 20 minute bus rides to cross a mere 250 metre distance, decided the creek needed a ferry service.  Four little blue-and-white electric ferries were launched in the summer of 1981 & began taking people pretty much wherever they wanted to go.  Named after relatives with 'character', the Alice May , Iris Maud , Juanita Dee & Nora Eileen were a hit with locals, but many still thought the idea would never work...

Convincing the powers-that-be of the merits of a character ferry service was not without its difficulties.  Permanent landing rights on Granville Island were denied to the fledgling service for its first two years, a major blow to company's already precarious finances. However, just when it seemed as though ferry service in the creek would would tie up for good, the little blue boats were given a second chance when Granville Island Ferries Ltd took over in October of 1982.

Although local authorities were skeptical about the viability of ferries in the Creek, they were eventually won over. Landing rights on Granville Island were secured, and a new dedicated ferry dock was built behind the Aquatic Centre in 1983.  Ridership grew, albeit slowly, but ferries in False Creek were here to stay.

While pleasant to ride on a warm day, the original open-air electric boats were ill-suited for year-round commuter service.  The decision, therefore, was made to commission a new design from marine architect Jay Benford, and the "Spirit of False Creek" hit the waves in 1984.  Service expanded to the Maritime Museum & Stamps Landing, and four more of our now-iconic 'Spirits of False Creek' were built to meet the demand.

In just three years, the concept of ferries in the creek had gone from a pie-in-the-sky scheme to a no-brainer, and other ferry services began competing with FCF.  With a fleet of 8 boats, however, the original little blue ferries were ready for EXPO 86. Although the ferries were initially going to be prevented from serving the world's fair (ironically, one whose theme was transportation), public pressure quickly changed the minds of organizers and thousands of locals and visitors were introduced to the growing ferry service in False Creek.

By the early 1990's the little fleet was moving more people than it could comfortably handle.  Between the Children's Festivals, Sea Festivals, Summer Fireworks, Indy car races & service extensions to Science World, more capacity was badly needed.  Relief came in the form of three new 20 passenger ferries designed by Bob Lyon. Each new ferry was named after someone special to the company who had passed away: Cy Balfry, a former employee; George McInnis, founder; & Nora O'Grady, a west-end resident who helped convince the Parks Board to let our dock be built behind the Aquatic Centre.

A fourth 'Balfry-class' ferry was added to the fleet in 2002, just in time for the introduction of service to the new public Yaletown ferry dock at the foot of Davie Street. At the same time, work began on restoring one of our original electric ferries. With new batteries, new canvas and a new paint job, the Shelagh Mary (pictured below left) began charming a whole new generation of passengers.

The years leading up to the 2010 Winter Games saw three open-air sightseeing ferries added to the fleet, as well as a new public dock at David Lam Park.  During the games, the ferries moved the crowds with great success, just as they did during Expo 24 years earlier. With demand for ferry service continuing to grow as more people move into the False Creek area, three new ferries have been added since 2014.

With the former Olympic Village now a thriving new residential area, False Creek's 30 year transformation is nearly complete.  Touches of the past remain for those who look, though; a park named after a barrel factory, a reclaimed industrial building... or a little blue ferry chugging along, just as they have for the past 35 years.