Remaining optimistic throughout challenging times

Matthias Pahnke tells Justin Merrigan how FRS Clipper coped with extended pandemic restrictions and why he is confident the business and the wider ferry industry has a bright future

Remaining optimistic throughout challenging times
FRS Clipper offers year-round, passenger-only fast-ferry service between Seattle and Victoria

Sailing between Seattle in Washington, USA and Victoria, British Columbia in Canada, FRS Clipper operates ferry services in what is unarguably one of the most beautiful regions of the world.  

However, in March 2020, the pandemic forced the closure of the border between the USA and Canada for discretionary travel, immediately halting FRS Clipper’s ability to operate its core international fast-ferry route. The pandemic subsequently shut down the Seattle-based company’s business for more than two years.  

Matthias Pahnke, CEO of FRS Clipper and recently appointed director and co-president of Interferry, says: “We remained hopeful that the border would reopen in 2020. Unfortunately, it remained closed, and the majority of the FRS Clipper team had to be laid off. We were only able to retain a handful of employees to maintain business continuity and prepare for our return to business.  

“In spring 2021, while still restricted from operating our international service, we were able to reinstate domestic operations with San Juan Clipper, which is owned by our US partner. We provided fast-ferry services between Seattle and Friday Harbor, Washington, as well as whale-watching tours from downtown Seattle in a great team effort involving both onshore staff and onboard crew.” 

While other parts of the world experienced a relatively normal summer in 2021, discretionary travel to Canada was only opened again at the end of the season and even then, was subject to significant restrictions with travellers being required to be fully vaccinated and provide a negative PCR test. Despite these headwinds, FRS Clipper attempted to restart its international service but the restrictions proved to be too much.  

“Demand was too low, and the restart had to be stopped,” says Pahnke. “After another period of planning and waiting, the PCR testing requirement was finally removed for fully vaccinated travellers entering Canada in April 2022 and we were able to resume international service. 

“We learned the hard way that ‘hope for the best, plan for the worst’ was truly the only ‘strategy’ that worked. From my perspective, however, it was not strategy that carried us through the pandemic; it was people, our shareholders and our employees. Our shareholders demonstrated incredible patience and trust, especially in 2021 when the rest of the world was reopening while FRS Clipper sat on the sidelines constrained by the lockdown of the US – Canadian border.  

“Our employees continue to demonstrate incredible dedication and resilience, grinding through the years to keep the company afloat and returning to work for FRS Clipper, despite being furloughed on multiple occasions. I am incredibly lucky to have the chance to contribute to the success of this dedicated and loyal team.”  

Two years of not being able to travel internationally has created a significant amount of pent-up demand, especially for families and friends to reconnect and once again travel mostly without restrictions.  

“While demand for travel has been strong for summer 2022, skyrocketing fuel costs are certainly a challenge,” says Pahnke. “Furthermore, staffing challenges continue across the regional maritime and travel industry, requiring all employees to partake in shared additional responsibilities as we recruit for open roles.  

“Our biggest challenge for a full return to seamless travel remains having guests arrive at our terminal having completed Canada’s required ArriveCAN app prior to crossing the border. We are hopeful and optimistic that these points of friction will continue to ease with time.” 

Since 1986, FRS Clipper’s business has been built on the back of a year-round, passenger-only, fast-ferry service between Seattle and Victoria. Regionally, FRS Clipper is recognised as the fastest, most reliable way to connect between both cities.  

Pahnke is upbeat about the brand’s future and believes the ferry industry will continue to be a key facilitator and contributor for the economic success of the region. However, he concedes that the most immediate and challenging issue will be overcoming current staffing issues. “All key maritime players in the industry are struggling to find staff with the right credentials to support vessel and shoreside operations,” he explains. “Threats of a resurging pandemic and recession will linger, but I remain optimistic that by the end of 2023, staffing levels and overall business operations will begin to normalise once again.”

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2022 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.       

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Justin Merrigan
By Justin Merrigan
18 October 2022

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