By Rita Button and Glenda Scott

 

Captain Ron. Photo by Rita Button

Last week, my good friend Glenda introduced me to Captain Ron. At least, that’s what we call him since he is the captain of one of the pickle boat ferries so noticeable on the Inner Harbour all summer.

Ron loves the water; he loves its unpredictability and its predictability. And therein lies the paradox that Is Ron—at least the small glimpse of him that I was shown in a short period of time one Monday afternoon. 

 

Although I come from the prairies, I appreciate the ocean’s vast space and seeming offer of freedom. In its waves, I can often see the swathed grain, waiting for the combine to separate the wheat from the chaff. But I am uncomfortable on the water unless I know that someone else is in control—someone who knows what he/she is doing.

Captain Ron is such a person. He’s always had a boat of some sort, he said, something he could use to be on the water, and, thereby understand the ways of the water. He started as a commercial diver who did all sorts of dives, some of which were photographed by the National Geographic team. The United Nations also played a part in Ron’s understanding of oceans when they chose him to be one of the participants on a team that would establish the pollution levels for lumber mills. The UN committee was referred to by its participants as the Sea Use Council.

As well, Ron was one of 85 divers who participated in the collection of data from the circle of plastic bags that went down 135 feet in a very large circle in the water near Victoria’s International Airport. The 85 feet wide cone-shaped bag had an umbilical hose attached to its end to draw sediment from the water into the bag for testing purposes. The goal was to create is a column of water that would illustrate the various species supported at different levels in the ocean.

I was beginning to see Ron’s quality of on-going, divergent learning.

In North Vancouver, Ron worked on the development of the Seabus. Its pod system was a new idea at the time the bus was being created. They turned the pods inboard to balance the pontoons. Grinning broadly, Ron remembered that the pod system meant that the boats could turn on a 360 degree radius. This pod system has eliminated the need for a rudder and is currently used on most cruise ships.

But then he remembered that he’d also worked on a project in which the travelling patterns of sharks were studied, and one finding is that sharks his team studied were parochial. He remembers that eighteen sites were used for the research. Ron was involved in the Solomon Islands site. Did he swim with the sharks? I would bet no, for at the end of the interview when I had finally figured out a small part of him, I said, “So, you just take things on the chin and deal with it.” He said, “By now, I’m smart enough to turn my chin to avoid what’s coming at it.”  So—doesn’t take unnecessary risks, but will take educated, calculated ones.

And then he talked about the voyage in which he and his wife Cathy brought a newly purchased boat to Victoria from Nanaimo during the cold spell in December of 2016. They had to chip off the ice to unlock the boat, and when they finally got out there, they battled a 45 knot gale. Nine hours late—but they got that boat moored in Victoria before the end of the day. Determination and focus were the qualities I noticed here—and he did stick his neck out, but it was unavoidable. Still, his knowledge of the sea environment helped him bring the boat to the dock successfully.

So how did he get to be the captain of one of the pickle boat ferries?

That happened about ten years ago.

Living on Gabriola for twenty years, Ron and Cathy always enjoyed coming to Victoria. On one of these visits, Ron was sitting on the harbour side of the Victoria Regency Hotel watching the little boats, and decided that he was going to get a job on them. Cathy readily agreed, so Ron visited the Harbour ferry administration office where he announced this intention. The guy he was talking to seemed noncommittal, so Ron said, “I’ll sit here until you make up your mind.” He stayed for ninety minutes; nothing happened, so he left and returned the next day. And waited. Finally, the guy said, “You really want to do this, eh?” Of course, Ron said yes, so he was told a safety and orientation meeting was currently going on—Ron would be late, but after the class, they’d be willing to give him a chance.

“It’s always fun,” Ron says, “but the harbour is busy and I have to keep my eyes and ears open.”

Of the two services the Harbour Ferries offer—harbour tours and taxi—Ron prefers working the taxi service because it’s busier and there’s no “down time,” but he is quick to add that the tour guides on the tour boats know a lot about the areas through which they tour and recount it in a conversational, interesting manner.

On his own, he wants to ensure people experience the West Coast water—“Go ahead, taste it, touch it,” he encourages the passengers on the boat, many of whom have never experienced the ocean. They discover, of course, that the water is salty, that it’s different from lake and stream water. He loves also, to show them the kelp which grows a foot a day.

New electric tour boats require a little more pampering than the familiar diesel ferries. Being experienced, Captain Ron prefers hearing the noise of acceleration, rather than a whirr. But he appreciates the effort to move to electric boats, conceding that “it is the way of the future,” as evidence to his assertion, he adds that “some sailboats have electric drives.” The tours go beyond the Gorge to the Selkirk waterway and the trestle bridge near Glo restaurant. 

The green boats dance to scripted ballet music every summer Sunday morning, and Captain Ron is a part of this troupe as well.

Living on the water, Ron is connected to those who live in boats. Sometimes, one of the community is lost as happened to retired university professor Paul Lim a few years ago. On his sailboat, by himself, returning to Victoria from Hawaii, he disappeared. In spite of efforts to find him, his life’s end remains a mystery, and Ron misses the friend he once had whose thirst for adventure was slaked one last time.

In sailing, diving and in life, Captain Ron has one belief that supersedes all: Control your brain. That is what he has done when he was afraid of situations he would get himself into as a diver or as a skipper on a boat. “Lock it back and concentrate on what you’re doing,” he says. And that’s good advice no matter the nature of the sea you’re travelling.