Cat high-speed ferry service is coming back to Nova Scotia

Tina Comeau tcomeau@thevanguard.ca
Published on March 24, 2016

YARMOUTH – After eight years, The Cat is coming back. Not that Cat, but another one that is starting a new life sailing between Yarmouth and Portland. The agreement is long-term, with the government saying it is a 10-year arrangement.

The anticipated start time to the service is June 15 and it will run to Sept. 30.

After months of waiting, the provincial government and Bay Ferries announced on Thursday, March 24 that a vessel has been secured for ferry service that will operate between Nova Scotia and Maine.

It is the 2007-built high-speed Alakai, which has been under the ownership of the US Navy’s Military Sealift Command. Before that it used to service the Hawaiian Islands.

Mark MacDonald, president and CEO, of Bay Ferries, says they signed the contract for the ferry with the U.S. military Thursday morning. He says an extensive process was undertaken to find a ship. He noted there are size and speed requirements tied to this service, along with wanting it to be economically feasible, while providing a good service for passengers.

The ferry will leave Yarmouth in the morning, travel to Portland and return to Nova Scotia in the evening. It will overnight in Yarmouth. The estimated crossing time is 5.5 to 6 hours. That is about half the time that Nova Star took.

Bay Ferries expects to begin taking reservations around April 11.

“Our company achieved good success when we operated on this service in the past,” said MacDonald. The schedule should also place heavy business on the accommodations sector in southwestern Nova Scotia.”

Bay Ferries has opted to bring back The Cat name, because of it’s branding familiarity that already exists within the United States and other markets the service will target. MacDonald says in the years the two previous Cat ferries travelled this route, they carried 1.7 million people over 12 seasons.

FUNDING FOR THE SERVICE

The provincial government will provide an annual funding subsidy for the service, which also includes money for marketing. The first season the province has committed $10.2 million, with $9.4 million committed to Year 2. The government has not presented subsidy figures beyond year two. Those will become known during budgeting processes, which will include factors such as revenue and fuel prices.

In addition to this there will be $4.1 million for start-up costs, which will include terminal upgrades and $9 million will go towards the ferry’s retrofit, in lieu of the cost of two years of charter fees.

MacDonald says Bay Ferries had been following the Alakai for years. Another vessel being considered for this route was a conventional ship. If brokers brought forward other options, those were explored too. By December it became obvious that the conventional ferry they had looked at wasn’t going to be available, and so MacDonald said all attention focused on the Alakai.

The State of Maine, the City of Portland, US Senator Angus King, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling all played an agressive role in seeing this vessel secured for the route. There is, however, no financial dollars coming from state-side for the yearly operation of the ferry.

The Nova Scotia government has continued to maintain that it was committed to ferry service.

"This long-term support for a solid ferry operator provides stability and predictability for Nova Scotia businesses and tourism operators from all across the province," says Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal Minister Geoff

MacLellan says this ferry link is vital to Nova Scotia's transportation system. “It is as essential as the TransCanada highway."

ABOUT THE FERRY

The ferry can accommodate 866 passengers, but MacDonald says the company is aiming for 700 to 750 passengers, to allow for more comfortable seating options.

The vehicle capacity is 200 regular passenger vehicles. It does have capacity for tour buses, but it won’t serve commercial truck traffic. The City of Portland which owns the ferry terminal is not prepared to permit commercial trucks on the ferry service.

“It didn’t surprise us in the sense that we knew the Ocean Gateway facility in Portland was one which, from the standpoint of border security apparatus and so on, was not built to handle trucks," MacDonald said. "Some accommodation was obviously made over the past couple of years, but the City of Portland who leases the ferry terminal to us made it clear in no uncertain terms that they are not permitting large truck traffic any longer."

The province's deputy minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal told the media on March 24 that even if the Nova Star was still operating, trucks would not have been allowed this year.

"We had a meeting last summer during the operation of the Nova Star when the City of Portland officials came here and city officials advised us the Nova Star would not be able to carry trucks. So it predates the Bay Ferries file," said Paul LaFleche.

Bay Ferries is aiming for 60,000 passengers a year.

Bay Ferries says it would take 100,000 passengers for a break-even point where no subsidy would be required. However the province says it is not predicting or promising a break-even point. Rather, the target for the service is 60,000 passengers.

Asked why Bay Ferries decided to get back into this ferry route, Mark MacDonald said, "It's what we do...We've always taken the attitude that if there is business to be done in Yarmouth we would like to try and do it."

At a more emotional level, MacDonald said that when they got out of the business in 2009, he felt like a part of their company was missing.

Because the ship will be flagged in the United States – since it is still owned by the U.S. navy but being chartered to Bay Ferries - MacDonald says the requirement according to US law is that the crew be American. He says, however, that because the ship will overnight in Yarmouth, there is a maintenance program that will take place and that work will be done by Nova Scotians and people in Yarmouth.

MacDonald also said the ferry will be predominately supplied from Nova Scotia businesses.

As well, unlike Nova Star which had an American management structure, this one will be Canadian since Bay Ferries is a Canadian company.

Asked if the ride will be a rough one – many people used to complain the previous Cat made them sick – MacDonald said this catamaran has a different hull form that its architects have said will allow it to move differently and more smoothly in the water that the previous Cats did.

 

ABOUT THE SHIP

Onboard amenities: Gift shop, food service, movie lounges, kids' play area, and Visitor Services Area.

Passenger and vehicle capacity: Seating configurations will be finalized during the vessel’s upcoming work program, but passenger capacity will be at least 700 (approved capacity was 866 during her previous service). Vehicle capacity will be in excess of 200 regular passenger vehicles.

Fares: Detailed rates are being finalized and will be published when we go live for sales which we expect to be approximately April 11. Rates will be similar to those charged when The CAT last served this market in 2009. Discounted rates will apply in certain circumstances, e.g. round-trip travel, advance booking, combined travel with the Saint John/Digby service. We have had discussions with a large number of package partners throughout Nova Scotia and will offer package sales relatively shortly after we go live. We also anticipate offering a number of short notice/short term packages and specials over the operating season.

Reservations: We expect to begin taking reservations online and through our contact centre on or around April 11, 2016.

Crossing time and distance: The distance between Portland, Maine and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia is 185 nautical miles, which is equal to 212 statute miles or 341 kilometers. Estimated crossing time is 5.5 to 6 hours.

Commercial truck traffic: The service will not serve commercial truck traffic. The City of Portland, which owns the ferry terminal, was not prepared to permit commercial trucks to travel on the ferry service.

Accessibility: All public areas on the ship are wheelchair accessible.