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Cat ferry service starts its season between Yarmouth and Portland on June 8

The Cat ferry docked on the Yarmouth waterfront. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
The Cat ferry docked on the Yarmouth waterfront. TINA COMEAU PHOTO - Tina Comeau

YARMOUTH, N.S. – With Bay Ferries’ Cat ferry scheduled to sail out of Yarmouth on June 8 at 8:30 a.m. for its first crossing of the season to Portland, Bay Ferries CEO Mark MacDonald says ticket sales are already up compared to where they were at this stage last year and the company is optimistic about 2018.

Last year the Cat ran into engine problems with the starboard outer main engine. This forced a modification of its sailing schedule and only allowed for 84 round trips instead of the planned 112 round trips – an approximate 25 per cent cancellation of the crossings. The ferry – operating in its second season – still saw a modest increase in its passengers, carrying 41,623 in 2017 compared to 35,551 in 2016. MacDonald said following the season that the 2017 engine issue was disappointing.

Engine repairs were completed earlier this year with all costs for the outer main engine covered by the engine manufacturer. The vessel then underwent extensive sea trials. There are 108 daily round trips scheduled between Portland, Maine and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia during this season, which runs to Oct. 8.

Neil MacKenzie, executive director of the Yarmouth and Acadian Shores Tourism Association, says he believes the region will have a “very good season.”

“The tourism operators and businesses I've spoken to feel the same way and are reporting increased bookings for rooms and experiences,” MacKenzie said. “Our operators are very busy right now getting everything ready to kick off the season, I feel they're expecting a positive tourism season.”

While accommodations in the Yarmouth region benefit from the ferry’s evening arrival and morning departure, business from the ferry operation is spread province-wide as visitors travel throughout Nova Scotia. Bay Ferries carries out marketing to attract people to the service and province, but the overall role of marketing the province to visitors lies with Tourism Nova Scotia and other tourism associations in the province.

TERMINAL ISSUES WORKED OUT

Terminal facilities in Portland, Maine. TINA COMEAU
Terminal facilities in Portland, Maine. TINA COMEAU

Bay Ferries worked with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) all winter to ensure ferry service would happen this year given that the CBP said upgrades were needed to the terminal in Portland. Without these upgrades the season would not have been able to go ahead.

While the City of Portland said it wants to see ferry service continue, it also said it wouldn’t pay for the terminal property upgrades, therefore Bay Ferries and the Nova Scotia government footed the bill for the $1.5 million needed upgrades. The installed equipment is portable and now belongs to the Nova Scotia government. Bay Ferries says its budget also carries contingencies for work to be done at terminals.

PROVINCIAL FUNDING

Bay Ferries – which operated ferry service between Nova Scotia and Maine from 1997 to 2009 (the majority of those years between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth) – has a 10-year contract to operate ferry service for the province.

The Cat ferry. TINA COMEAU
The Cat ferry. TINA COMEAU

In its first sailing season in 2016 the province committed $10 million in operating subsidy for the ferry service. 

The operating subsidy for the 2017 season was supposed to be $9.4 million but ended up being $13.7 million as it included $4.3 million for a pre-season ferry engine overhaul that replaces the need to pay for the third-year of chartering the vessel.

“It was determined after the first season additional work was required and it was negotiated with US Navy (owners of the vessel) to do the work in lieu of paying the third-year charter,” says Marla MacInnis, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal. That engine refit was done prior to the 2017 season, still The Cat ran into engine issues.

“The engines problems The Cat faced in the summer of 2017 were covered by the manufacturer, MTU, which handled the retrofit. Those were done at no cost to Nova Scotia taxpayers,” says MacInnis.

The subsidy for the 2018 sailing season is expected to be $10.9 million.

“It’s an increase of $1.5 million. Rising fuel costs account for a large portion of the $1.5 million increase in the subsidy as well as revised revenue projections to reflect steady growth,” says MacInnis.

“That $10.9 million figure does not reflect the additional $1.5 million that had to be spent for security equipment as that decision came too late in the budgeting process to be reflected in the spring budget numbers,” she adds.

Bay Ferries has said once the service gets more re-established the goal is to see the subsidy amount decrease each year.

SWITCHING PORTS?

While The Cat sails to and from Portland, sailing instead to and from Bar Harbor is a consideration.

“We are always trying to identify the best and most efficient way to undertake the ferry service,” says MacDonald. “This is a matter which we continuously discuss with the province. And we have been very open about this with the City of Portland with whom we enjoy an excellent working relationship.”

MacDonald says there are merits – but different features – to both Portland and Bar Harbor. Portland is closer to key Boston market, he says, but it is also a longer transit to and from Nova Scotia (about 186 nautical miles), which therefore is a longer crew day and sees higher fuel burn. The crossing is about five-and-a-half hours. Bar Harbor is a shorter transit (about 106 nautical miles), therefore it would be a faster trip with lower fuel consumption and less fuel price sensitivity, says MacDonald. And Bar Harbor opens up access to a market that sees access to 3.5 million visitors who come to annually to Acadia National Park annually. However, it is further from Boston.

“There is an issue which will likely arise in the next few years in Portland as to continued availability of the present ferry terminal footprint. It may have to be reduced, which is challenging for our operation,” says MacDonald. “This is due to extensive redevelopment, which is occurring in the Portland waterfront area. So we must examine all options. We are carefully considering the issue.”

Earlier this week a breakfast was held at the ferry terminal in Yarmouth for those who receive direct employment from The Cat. While crew on the ferry is American due to regulations based on where the ship is registered – Bay Ferries charters the vessel from the U.S. navy's Military Sealift Command – there are around 100 people in Yarmouth who have employment directly related to the ferry service and its season. Categories include terminal and ticket selling staff, overnight maintenance personnel, security personnel, stevedores, management personnel, catering/food and gift shop personnel on board the ship, catering personnel on shore who each night make fresh food for the next day's sailing, on board customer service managers, on board tourism counsellors and on board entertainers (at certain times).

The Cat ferry overnights in Yarmouth and all provisions, including fuel, are purchased in Nova Scotia.

FRIDAY SEND-OFF

The Cat ferry gets a send-off from kayakers during the start to a previous season.
The Cat ferry gets a send-off from kayakers during the start to a previous season.

Becky Cottreau, owner of the Song of the Paddle kayak tours, is organizing another annual paddle on Friday morning to mark the start of ferry service and to wish Bay Ferries’ Cat well on her first passenger run of the 2018 season. The event is free and everyone is welcome. Participants should bring their own boat and gear. Kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards are welcome. Paddlers are asked to be at the Lobster Rock Wharf parking lot on Water Street by 7:30 a.m. in order to have time to get everyone in the water so they are not late for The Cat's departure.

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