BC Ferries’ oldest vessel, MV Powell River Queen is retiring, and a longtime crew member has fond recollections of the ferry, both in the qathet region and on its current run between Quadra Island and Campbell River.
Geoff Gowans, now senior chief engineer on the Powell River Queen, said the ferry will make its final passenger carrying trip on January 17. The ferry, built in 1965, has a 59-car capacity and can accommodate 400 passengers and crew, according to the BC Ferries website.
“During the usual crew dinner break on January 17, the new Island Class ferry will take over the route and the Powell River Queen will sail to tie up at Buckley Bay for the night,” said Gowans. “In the morning, the vessel will sail for the BC Ferries refit facility at Deas Dock in the Fraser River.
“The Powell River Queen is currently the oldest ship in service with BC Ferries as both her sisters, the MV Bowen Queen and the MV Mayne Queen, have already retired.”
Gowans said he started on the Powell River Queen at Saltery Bay as an oiler on November 8, 1990. That job today is called engine room assistant. Gowans said his wife at the time accepted a job in School District 47 so they moved to Powell River.
“BC Ferries was the first job that I found,” said Gowans. “They were looking for people with proven mechanical aptitude. I had been working in the mechanical field in Vancouver and I just happened to apply at the right time.
“I didn’t know about the marine industry as a career at all. All of my focus had been toward automotive and I happened to find BC Ferries, just because I knew it was a decent job. They and the mill were the best two going at the time. I applied and was hired almost right away.”
His job was to assist the chief engineer and third engineer with routine maintenance, such as oil changes or assisting with plumbing repairs. Powell River Queen’s oiler back then only worked overnight, explained Gowans, sailing on the last round trip and then continuing the shift when the vessel docked for the night. He was initially hired on as a casual worker and worked his way up to full-time.
Gowans’ initial shift on the Powell River Queen was relatively short, because the following July after his hiring, the ship was reassigned to the Campbell River to Quadra Island route. He first worked on the Queen of Capilano, and later, the Queen of Chilliwack, sailing from Saltery Bay.
With those two vessels, the oiler’s job became a permanent around the clock position, so Gowans moved from night shift to rotating shifts. Most of BC Ferries’ vessels, other than the small ships, are 24-hour-a-day operations for the engineers, according to Gowans.
Gowans started his apprenticeship to become an engineer with BC Ferries for three years, from 1995 to 1997.
“Once I was on the ferry, within that first year, I realized I had found my career,” said Gowans.
He carried on sailing out of Saltery Bay until he transferred in 2004 to Swartz Bay near Victoria. That was a permanent job, but he continued living in Powell River, residing in a trailer on Vancouver Island and coming home on his days off. He took the job to work through the seniority system.
When Island Sky, now known as Malaspina Sky, was coming onstream, Gowans said he jumped on that project in the shipyard, from September to December 2008.
“I knew that if I learned the boat well enough to train crew, it would help me get my next higher ticket,” he added.
He then took jobs in Little River, and on the mid-coast run. In 2013, he went to Salt Spring Island and was there for four years. He transferred to Departure Bay in Nanaimo for seven months, but transferred back to Saltery Bay in 2018. He stayed there for a year and then transferred to Campbell River, where he was reunited with the Powell River Queen, in 2019.
Gowans said it was quite an experience to reacquaint himself with the vessel on which his marine career started.
“It was nice to know that I was coming back to my first ship, and coming back as chief engineer, rather than oiler,” said Gowans. “I had also worked on both of the Powell River Queen’s sister vessels before they were retired. The Powell River Queen is the last one standing of the three and it’s the oldest boat in the fleet right now.”
When the Powell River Queen is retired, Gowans will be going to the Quadra Queen, which will become the oldest vessel in the fleet with the Powell River Queen no longer in service.
“I’m going to go from the oldest boat to the oldest boat,” said Gowans. He’s pushing for the Quadra Queen to be moored at Saltery Bay in its off times because it’s a good location to tie up, according to Gowans.
“There are engineers there and the services at Saltery Bay make it a really good spot to park a boat,” he added.
Like father, like son
Familial involvement with BC Ferries has come full circle in the Gowans family. His son works at Saltery Bay as an oiler, or engine room assistant, carrying on the family tradition.
“I’m absolutely proud of him,” said Gowans. “He’s hoping to make his way up the system like I did.”
Gowans said he is going to miss the Powell River Queen.
“Taking the senior chief engineer job was only for sentimental reasons,” said Gowans. “The company came to me and asked me to do it, knowing the vessel was leaving. They asked me to be its last senior chief and take it out of service.”