Adam Cramer was a teenager when he landed a summer job scrubbing boat decks at Vancouver’s Aquabus company. He has since risen to the rank of skipper, ferrying tourists and local commuters around Vancouver’s False Creek waterways. Now a week never goes by without passengers asking how they can get a cool job like his.
A native of nearby Maple Ridge, Cramer was in elementary school when his father moved the family to Vancouver, stepping back from being a commercial fisherman and signing on as a skipper for Aquabus, based at Granville Island. Father encouraged son to apply for a part-time job there, and for a while their stints overlapped.
“I started during the summer between Grade 9 and 10 as a boat cleaner, scrubbing boats at the back dock,” recalls Cramer. The following summer, he was promoted to deckhand, which meant he worked alongside a skipper on one of Aquabus’s larger ferries, which can carry up to 30 passengers and accommodate bicycles. “The deckhands collect the fares, help pull the boat in at the dock, hold the gate for passengers. When I turned 18, they said, ‘How would you like to start driving?'”
Although Cramer was by then quite familiar with the vessels, Aquabus’s general manager took him through an orientation on the ignition procedures and the operation of levers. Cramer then accompanied one of the company’s veteran skippers onto the water. “On the first run, you just observe them. On the second run, they put you in the driver’s seat, without passengers. After that, when the trainer feels you have the hang of it, you do everything on a normal shift while he’s still there.” Only when the training skipper was confident that Cramer was able to handle things by himself was he permitted to drive unaccompanied, take on passengers and collect fares.
Initially, skippers needed only to be 18 years old and in possession of a Pleasure Craft Operator Card (PCOC) and a VHF marine radio licence. “You could get your PCOC online. It was pretty straightforward,” he says. When Transport Canada introduced a requirement that, as of 2009, drivers of passenger ferries less than five tonnes had to pass a Small Vessel Operator Proficiency (SVOP) test, Aquabus arranged for its skippers to take the four-day course at its Granville Island headquarters. “You do things like nautical chart work and learn water safety for the SVOP. We learned about flares and boating safety, what to do in an emergency,” says Cramer.
Since finishing high school, he has been a full-time skipper. The business operates 365 days per year, from 7:00 am until 10:00 pm, and shifts range in duration from six to eight hours. “If it’s an early shift and you’re starting a boat, you go to the back dock near the Granville Island Hotel. The start-up process is easy, thanks to the training. You check engine oil and fuel levels, make sure everything’s in order, turn it on and go. If you’re starting later, you go down to the front dock near the Granville Market and give someone a break.” Cramer will then start plying a designated route, stopping at as many as eight stations. Occasionally, Aquabus will rent a ferry to a tour group for a few hours, during which the skipper will maintain an unscripted banter with the passengers, commenting on points of interest along the way.
As an experienced skipper himself now, Cramer has started training others. “Anyone can be taught to drive the boat, given enough hours, but it’s harder to teach someone how to deal with people,” he says. “When I do training, the most important part is the customer-service aspect. A person who isn’t a ‘people person’ probably shouldn’t do this.” That said, there is no pleasing some customers: “The choppiest water we get is near Granville Island, because it’s the most open for roller waves. I had a little girl get sick on the water once, driving in from Yaletown. It was a rough day, rough for False Creek. It’s tough, because you can’t do anything except offer comforting words. You have a job to do steering the boat.”
Based on the frequency with which passengers say they want his job, Cramer realizes that his is “a unique way of life. I love the people I work with, I love the regular customers. I have friends in the restaurant business and in retail, and when I see their jobs I think it would be awfully tough to leave something like this.”