The Cat transported 7,677 passengers and 2,516 passenger vehicles from May 31 to June 30, healthy figures considering that it carried 35,551 passengers for the entire 2016 season. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Mechanics spent Tuesday analyzing the engine “abnormality” that forced the cancellation of three ferry trips between Portland and Nova Scotia, and operators of The Cat were hoping service will resume Thursday.

Economic and transportation officials on both sides of the border, meanwhile, are pleased with The Cat’s early passenger numbers and are optimistic the latest engine trouble will be a hiccup in a strong 2017 season.

“The department is confident that Bay Ferries has the situation in hand and will continue to operate in a safe and timely manner,” said Brian Taylor, spokesman for the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, whose provincial government is helping to subsidize the ferry service. “This news is challenging, but the service this season is still doing well. Bay Ferries has already exceeded last year’s total passenger ticket sales.”

On Monday, The Cat ferry arrived in Portland using just two of its four engines after the crew noticed something amiss with one engine during the roughly 6½-hour run from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. The ferry has been operating on three engines since it lost an engine for the season last month, slowing the trip across the Gulf of Maine by an hour and forcing a small reduction in the number of sailing days for the season.

Technical crews from Bay Ferries, which is based in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and engine manufacturer MTU arrived in Portland on Tuesday to inspect the engine. Bay Ferries President and CEO Mark MacDonald said late Tuesday that the team found a defect in one of the starboard inner main engine’s 20 cylinders.

“We will effect the repair tomorrow (a scheduled off day) and should be back in business Thursday in Portland,” MacDonald wrote in an email. “All subject to confirmation as we go, but this is how we see things unfolding at this stage.”

The company canceled three trips between Yarmouth and Portland – two crossings from Maine to Nova Scotia and one opposite crossing – on Monday and Tuesday because of the engine issues. The ferry does not operate on Wednesdays.

MAINTAINING HIGH-SPEED FERRIES

The Cat has reported strong advanced ticket sales and passenger counts since the seasonal ferry service resumed two months ago.

From May 31 to June 30, The Cat carried 7,677 passengers and 2,516 passenger vehicles, both viewed as healthy figures considering that the ferry reported 35,551 passengers for the entire 2016 season. Figures for July were not yet available from the city of Portland, which tracks passengers through fees paid to the city. But as of mid-May, Bay Ferries officials said advance ticket sales were already up five-fold over 2016 numbers.

The Cat remains docked Tuesday at Ocean Gateway in Portland. Technical crews from Bay Ferries and engine manufacturer MTU arrived Tuesday to inspect an engine in which an “abnormality” was detected on a recent trip. The ferry had been running on three engines since losing one for the season in July. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Bay Ferries took over the contract awarded by the Nova Scotia government in 2016 after two years of poor performance by the predecessor, Nova Star Cruises. The provincial government provided $19.6 million to subsidize Bay Ferries’ first two seasons, plus $4.1 million in startup costs and $9.1 million to refit the ferry, a high-speed catamaran on lease from the U.S. Navy.

Capt. Jeffrey Monroe, a maritime and transportation consultant who has worked with ferry operators in the U.S. and abroad, said today’s high-speed ferries require “constant maintenance” and are often more difficult to fix at sea than ships from decades past. A former port director for the city of Portland, Monroe said Bay Ferries has a strong reputation and is keeping up with regular maintenance, but “unforeseen circumstances” will always arise.

“Mechanical issues … tend to be unpredictable even when you do regular maintenance and do everything you’re supposed to do,” said Monroe, who lives in Cape Elizabeth. “Things do wear out and things do fail. The nice thing about having multiple propulsion units is you’re not going to be stranded at sea” when one engine experiences problems.

COMMITMENT ON BOTH ENDS

Monroe said he believes Bay Ferries has sufficient flexibility to quickly rebook customers, as long as repairs do not take too long or The Cat does not experience frequent issues. As for the Portland-to-Yarmouth route’s long-term prognosis, Monroe believes Canadian government officials realize it was a mistake to cut off subsidies, leading to a several-year suspension of the service after the 2009 season. The government now appears committed to the subsidies as an economic development tool.

“Do I think it is going to continue and that there is going to continue to be a market? Absolutely,” he said.

Across the Bay of Fundy in the town of Yarmouth, population roughly 6,500, there is “a lot of energy” about the increased passenger traffic from The Cat despite the engine problems, said Matthew Trask, executive director of the Yarmouth and Area Chamber of Commerce. From Trask’s perspective, both the Yarmouth area and Portland appear committed to the ferry.

“From all of the information I have received from my members, everything seems quite positive,” Trask said by phone Tuesday. “Traffic has certainly increased in our town … and enthusiasm seems to be high.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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