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‘I’m proud of the people’: Long-time Victoria pickleboat captain signs off

After 19 years on the water, it’s the people Barry Hobbis will miss the most — the passengers, and the crew.

“The one thing they all have in common is they all love people,” said Hobbis, a long-serving captain and owner of Victoria Harbour Ferries, as he prepares for retirement.

The company, which operates small vessels known to locals as “pickleboats,” was founded in 1990. Hobbis, a retired RCMP officer, and his wife took it over in 2004, after he overheard the previous operator talking about selling.

“I’d never been on a boat, let alone understood what to do with a boat because I was a retired police officer,” he said.

“At that point something in my head just went ‘Bing’ and we took it from there.”

Since then he’s learned how to replace engines, repair fiberglass and just about any other job a mariner is called to do.

Over his tenure, the company has grown from just two boats and a couple of captains to 18 vessels and 120 employees.

And there have been plenty of memorable moments on the water — like the “slow speed” marine chase in 2021 that shaped up when someone broke into one of the ferries, sat down for a meal, then headed out into the harbour.

“The boat was leaving the dock, and I thought that’s impossible, he wouldn’t know how to start one — but he studied, and apparently he did,” Hobbis said.

“At several points he stopped in the water, and the police boat was about 100 feet away from him, and he talked very, very politely and calmly to the police, and then they’d say we’re going to come over and get you and he’d put it in gear. So it took forever — but it was funny, it was so funny.”

Most of the captains in his small fleet are retirees, like himself, that have the gift of gab and the love of meeting new people.

They’ve also been called on to step up as heroes. Hobbis estimates the ferry crews have participated in at least 30 rescues on the water.

“One rescue, the captain got a Royal Lifesaving award — it was just an amazing thing that he did.  He wrecked the boat, but he saved a young man from drowning,” he said.

Then there is the famous Pickle Pub Crawl — an idea Hobbis got from local University of Victoria students — that lets passengers hop on and hop off the vessels to take advantage of the city’s numerous waterfront drinking establishments.

The first year they ran the program, 300 people stepped aboard. The second year, it was 11,000.

And the company has become known internationally for its Harbour Ferry Ballet, a performance that sees the ferry captains perform synchronized maneuvers designed for the RCMP Musical Ride.

“We’re probably well over two or three million people that have seen it,” he said.

“I think the Harbour Ferry Ballet belongs to the community more than it belongs to Harbour Ferries.”

Now, at age 74, Hobbis is hanging up the captains’ seat and getting read for life on the passenger deck — and a life of family and fishing.

“It’s time, you know. It’s just time,” he said, tears welling in his eyes.

“The most important thing for me was to feel confident and comfortable that the last 19 years wasn’t going to collapse … I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the people I work with. And I’m proud of the role my family has played.”

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