Clipping to Victoria

AS the Victoria Clipper left the Seattle dock, the pleasant young attendants behaved like the stewardesses on an aircraft. While one spoke over the public address system, the others stood at the front of the two enclosed decks, showing where the life jackets were stored, demonstrating how to put them on, and noting the placement of the emergency exits. The airline-like advice seems appropriate. This catamaran ferry hydroplanes over the water at 31.5 knots (nearly 38 miles per hour) when fully loaded. It is fast.

Built in Norway and owned by Clipper Navigation Inc., the 130-foot Clipper is the first ship of its type in the United States. A sister ship started a run between Fort Lauderdale and the Bahamas early this year. The Clipper began the Seattle-Victoria service in 1986, joining a number of other scenic ferry rides available in this island-dotted area of the West Coast. The ride takes two hours and five minutes or so, and it's fun and a safe adventure for a few reasons.

First, the trip is highly scenic. Traveling north on Puget Sound on a bright summer day, the Clipper passes dozens of sailboats.

On the left side of the boat you can see from your airline-style seat the spectacular snow-covered Olympic Mountains. On both sides there are green, woods-covered islands and shorelines. On occasion, the passengers may spot a pod of killer whales or a nuclear submarine on its way to or from a nearby base.

And the destination - Victoria - is one of the most beautiful, charming cities on this continent. Perhaps I'm biased. It is my hometown. But Meredith Tall, a co-owner of the boat, agrees: ``I never heard people disappointed with their day. Victoria has not been overstated. There are things to do for any age.''

Second, riding the Clipper is like being on a giant speedboat without the overpowering racket of the motor. As soon as it is safe to do so, the captain steps up the pace, and the boat rises onto its double hull and skims the water's surface at a hair-flapping speed.

If the captain spots some debris ahead that he can't dodge - a log or a bed of kelp - he pulls back on the throttle and the boat settles down into the water like a youngster belly-flopping from a dock. It happened twice on my trip, and the deceleration was most noticeable.

Second, the technology is fascinating - at least for those with a technical bent of mind. The $3.2 million boat is powered by two German-built engines that manage 2,010 brake horsepower each. These fuel-efficient diesels, burning about 180 gallons an hour, impel water jets that push the boat along. There are no rudders for steering. The water jets are turned instead to steer.

During the summer season (May 1-Sept. 13), the Clipper makes two trips daily. The first boat leaves Seattle at 8:30 a.m. and arrives in Victoria at 11 a.m., at Ogden Point, which is less than 10 minutes from the main tourist streets on a free bus service. A day-tripper can tour the city for several hours before catching a return trip at 6:15 p.m. The cost of a round-trip ticket for an adult is $59, a child or senior citizen, $49.

The Clipper has become so popular that it was running at 60 percent of capacity in April, with weekends booked solid. So, during the summer, an advance booking would be wise. This can be made easily through travel agents.

There are alternative ways of visiting Victoria from Seattle. You could take the grand old Princess Marguerite or the newly acquired Vancouver Island Princess ferries. These slower, car-carrying vessels, owned by the provincial government's British Columbia Steamship Company, take 4 hours for the trip. The ships have just been retrofitted with gambling casinos in the hope they will make a profit. But gamblers will have a limited time to lose their money: The casinos can only be kept open in Canadian waters, the shorter part of the trip.

Darrell Bryan, general manager of Clipper Navigation, suggests that tourists might like to ride the Scottish-built Princess Marguerite north and take the fast trip back on the Clipper. Or, the more adventurous can get a $70 package fare that takes them one way on the Clipper and the other way on a float plane that lands on the inner harbor in Victoria and on Lake Union in Seattle. The Clipper also offers package tours that include discounts on several hotels and motels in Victoria.

For those who love boat rides, there are plenty of other trips available in British Columbia. The provincial government ferry services, British Columbia Ferry Corporation, run by another crown corporation, has 39 ships serving 25 routes.

You can go from Victoria to Vancouver, leaving north of Victoria at Swartz Bay and arriving just south of Vancouver at Tsawwassen a route through a spectacular passage between two islands taking one hour and 35 minutes. There's another ferry connection between 300-mile long Vancouver Island and the mainland from Nanaimo, 90 miles north of Victoria, to Horseshoe Bay, just north of Vancouver.

Many have heard of the beautiful Inside Passage, the route to Alaska in the protected waters on the east side of a series of islands hugging the British Columbia coast. You could pay $1,500 or so for a week on a luxury cruise ship taking that Inside Passage north. But the budget-conscious traveler can cover much of the same waters for around one-quarter of that sum by riding ferries. Meals and a cabin will add something to that bill.

You drive from Victoria to Port Hardy at the north end of Vancouver Island. There you board the M.V. Queen of the North, which takes you 270 miles through the Inside Passage to Prince Rupert. Most of the 15-hour run occurs during daylight, thanks to long northern days in the summer.

``It's the same scenery,'' notes Betty Nicholson, a ferry company official, talking of the panorama of sea, mountains, and forests, lighthouses, small settlements, and coastal waterfalls.

From Prince Rupert you can take an Alaska State Ferry to Skagway. Or you can take a ferry over to Skidegate in the Queen Charlotte Islands. All these boats carry vehicles, and in these northern towns either your own car, a taxi, or a rental car are pretty well essential to see the sights. If you go

For information about the Victoria Clipper, call (206) 443-2567 in Seattle or (604) 382-8100 in Victoria, or contact your travel agent.

For details about the Princess Marguerite sailings (British Columbia Steamship Co.) call the Seattle terminal (206) 441-5560 or the Victoria terminal (May 3 to Oct. 12) (604) 388-7397.

For British Columbia Ferries' 24-hour recorded schedule information (May 18 to Oct. 13) call (604) 656-0757 in Victoria, (604) 685-1021 in Vancouver, or (604) 753-6626 in Nanaimo.

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