Mind the gap (or not)
Over the last five years, Phillip Vannini’s conducted 400 interviews in three dozen B.C. island and coastal communities and spent hundreds of hours on 250 ferry rides on every route BC Ferries runs and his new book entitled Ferry Tales: Mobility, Place, and Time on Canada’s West Coast, captures those experiences – it also chronicles his rides on the Queen of Capilano and his visit to Bowen Island.
Ferry Tales evolved from a printed publication to an integrated website (www.ferryresearch.ca) with maps, photos and excerpts. “I grew up taking visual media for granted,” Vannini said in a telephone interview. “Even when I’m reading a book, I feel the need to see what a place looks like or imagine what it might look like.”
Readers are not necessarily familiar with all the places Vannini visited. “That’s why I’ve included maps and pictures. That focus is driven by the fact that the visuals add another layer for the reader to see what and where things are and understand them better,” he said.
Vannini is an ethnographer who specializes in the cultural geography of the B.C. coast and has studied a wide variety of places. “When someone looks at multiple sites, there is a danger of finding things that are constantly the same. And that can create writing that can be very dull,” he said. “At the other end of the spectrum, there is the danger of finding things that are too different. Then you end up comparing apples to oranges.” Fortunately for Vannini, he found several similarities but also many differences.
Vannini said that Bowen Island was one of the places he enjoyed visiting the most. “There are two things about Bowen that I found fascinating,” he said. “Until I went there, I had limited knowledge about the high school kids who commute to school. On Bowen, a friend of mine threw a dinner party and invited some high school students. The first question I asked was, ‘What’s it like to take the ferry to school?’ We ended up talking for three hours.” Vannini got along well with the four high school students –he thinks they were in Grade 10 – and, on the following day, he saw them again on the ferry. He called them a “floating community of high school students” and said, “Students on other islands like Gabriola, Quadra, Denman and Hornby also commute but what is unique about Bowen is the number.”
The second issue that piqued Vannini’s interest is what he calls the “unique traffic pattern.” He said, “I spent a lot of time going up and down the line-up trying to understand the very complicated system of the gaps. Other islands have gaps too but they are usually small and rare and on Bowen, the behaviour is radically different. You have that wide road that allows for four lanes of traffic and there are a lot of spaces that allow for all kinds of permutations.”
Vannini inquired about the various signs about the line-up and ended up including a chapter in his book entitled Mind the Gap. “There is a significance in the gaps,” he said. “And I compared Bowen to Gabriola and Sointura. On Bowen, if you go and join the ferry line-up and lineup hasn’t stretched beyond overload sign, you can fill the spaces at the bottom of the hill. On Gabriola, you don’t do that ever.”
“One of the things the book focuses on is the sense of place and sense of time,” Vannini says. He thinks that the ferry connection has a heavy influence on an island community. “For Bowen, the ferry service is quite frequent and it is fast enough to allow commuting,” he said. “Bowen is also known as West Van lite. That makes sense when you look at the connection. Cortez is similar in size but in a very different situation. There are two ferries to Campbell River and when you get there, it feels like you’re stepping 50 years back in time.” Vannini explains that islanders up and down the coast jokingly refer to that difference as the Salt Spring index. He said, “Salt Spring is taken as the bench mark of development. Bowen is known as a -10, Cortes is a -40. That means it looks like what Salt Spring was 40 years ago. This shows you how what difference it makes when islands are well connected to the mainland. Salt Spring Island has three different connections and ports and people from Salt Spring can hold jobs in Vancouver or in Victoria.”
It’s the ferry connections that enable the relationship between islands and the mainland, according to Vannini, and where they are absent, he has found a different kind of island community, a different way of life.
Over the four years that Vannini did the fieldwork for the book, the work had an influence on his life. “When I started writing the book, I lived on Vancouver Island,” he said. “For me, it turned into a story of discovery because through my research I came to the decision that I wanted to live on a smaller island and I moved to Gabriola.”
Vannini hopes the Ferry Tales will lead to a better understanding of ferries that, according to him, are much more than a mode of transportation. “When you travel by ferry, you can go outside and soak up the sun,” he said. “The ferry is always there and on foggy days, I hear the ferry blow its horn and this becomes part of the soundscape.”
The book is available online at Amazon, Chapters and through the publisher Routledge. “I’m giving away 100 per cent of royalties to local charities because the book is the outcome of people who donated their time to my project,” said Vannini who supports two organizations on Gabriola Island. For more information on the book, to listen to interviews and see maps and photos, go to www.ferryresearch.ca.