Mary Woodman was expecting a long wait for the ferry to Wolfe Island Tuesday afternoon, when a surprise pulled up to the dock.
It was big, “beautiful” and cleared the lineup in one go — the new Wolfe Islander IV.
“We all got out of our cars and walked around,” said Woodman. “Everyone was taking pictures and the excitement was palpable.”
Island residents and visitors have been looking forward to using the new ferry for more than a year.
Back in September 2021, Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney shared a picture of the vessel on Twitter and said it was expected to go into service in spring 2022.
That target was later pushed to spring of this year. Now the goal is this summer.
The ministry has blamed a shortage of trained crew coupled with construction delays for keeping the new ferry docked.
Meanwhile, mechanical issues and staff shortages on the current vessel have led to disruptions and cancelled crossings.
The situation has left emergency services scrambling at times, as residents rely on the ferry for access to an ambulance.
The surprise trips offered Tuesday were part of the final stages of crew training on the new ferry, according to a brief email from the Ministry of Transportation (MTO).
It said the new ferry has to carry out initial crossings with passengers in order to meet Transport Canada regulations.
The statement did not say when other trips on the new ferry will take place or when it will officially launch, saying only that MTO is aiming for it to be in service “as soon as possible.”
Frontenac Islands Mayor Judy Greenwood-Speers said the crew has been “trying to get the courage up” to start carrying passengers and felt comfortable enough to give it a try yesterday.
“I can’t imagine how thrilled everybody was because not only were they catching a boat that was getting them home, but here they were getting the first view of that beautiful boat,” she said.
The plan is for at least two weeks of trials, according to the mayor, who said she’s still hopeful the new ferry will be operating by Labour Day.
Woodman said she wasn’t the only one who seemed caught off-guard by the unexpected twist her trip took on Tuesday.
“Even the staff on the boat, the deckhands, they were all I think pretty excited and said it was a surprise to them.”
A quieter crossing
The Wolfe Islander IV offers nearly 50 per cent more capacity than it’s predecessor, which has been serving the community of roughly 1,400 residents for almost half a century.
It’s also electric, a difference Woodman said she noticed right away during her first ride.
“I think my favourite thing about it was how quiet it is. We’re used to the old ferry. That’s pretty noisy,” she said, adding it was the “best crossing” she’s experienced in 40 years of visiting the island.
Her husband Darryl also managed to get aboard the new boat during a different trip. Photos and videos the couple took show rows of seats and benches, some surrounded by a ceiling and wall of glass, along with faux-brick dividers and a large map of the island covering a wall.
“It was much fancier than I had anticipated. It’s huge,” said Woodman.
“They took everybody in the lineup. It just cleared that backlog that we normally see every day.”
There are still plenty of unanswered questions about when the ferry will actually begin serving Islanders and what that will look like.
The ferry currently takes about 60 minutes to complete a round trip and Greenwood-Speers said Islanders won’t accept anything less.
She’s also pushed for both the new and old vessels to be used, which could cut the turnaround time to 30-40 minutes.
MTO has stopped short of a commitment to hourly trips, saying only that its goal is to be as close to the current level of service as possible.