The Cat, Portland’s ferry to Nova Scotia, is undergoing a shakedown.

Not the maritime kind, in which they take a vessel out and put it through its paces to make sure everything is shipshape.

No, we’re talking about a financial shakedown – to the tune of almost $100,000 a year. And it’s brought to us by the good old boys at Portland Pilots Inc. and the Portland Harbor Commission.

“We value all our working relationships with everyone – in Portland and everywhere else,” said a tactful Mark MacDonald, president and CEO of Bay Ferries Ltd. “And we don’t lightly go to the court system.”

But the company, based in Prince Edward Island, is also trying to re-establish a ferry foothold between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. And a recent 70 percent fee increase by the Portland Pilots for every time they guide the ferry in and out of Portland Harbor poses, as MacDonald put it, an “extreme” challenge to the company’s bottom line.

Thus we have a lawsuit filed by Bay Ferries last week in Cumberland County Superior Court against both Portland Pilots and the Portland Harbor Commission.

It alleges, with ample evidence, that by recently rubber-stamping the pilots’ demand for more dough, the publicly appointed commission broke just about every rule in the book.

A little history.

Back in the 1970s, when ferry service was first launched between Portland and Nova Scotia, the ships came and went with no involvement by the harbor pilots whatsoever. The common-sense thinking held that if a ferry captain sailed in and out of the harbor virtually every day, he didn’t need a pilot looking over his shoulder showing the way.

Then in 1981, Maine lawyer and lobbyist extraordinaire Severin Beliveau, on behalf of the pilots, persuaded state lawmakers to enact a statute requiring that international ferries using Portland Harbor hire a pilot for the first 15 days that a new captain was at the ferry’s helm – after that, he could find his own way, thank you very much. (In an ironic twist, Bay Ferries is represented in its battle against the pilots by Harold Pachios, Beliveau’s longtime law partner.)

Fast-forward to 2012, three years after the Portland-to-Yarmouth ferry service was suspended.

With no ferry meaning no opposition, the pilots returned to Augusta and lobbied the Legislature to expand the pilot requirement – in the event a ferry service returned – to every time the ship sailed, in or out.

That’s the law that greeted Bay Ferries when it launched The Cat last year. Because the 349-foot vessel is far smaller than most ships that come this way, the pilots assessed their minimum fee of $709 each way.

Which brings us to the Portland Harbor Commission, overseer of all rates charged by the pilots, and an under-the-radar meeting May 11.

Following a “hearing” that the lawsuit alleges “took approximately four minutes,” the five-member commission voted to increase the minimum fee from $709 to $1,200 each way – meaning every time the Cat arrives and departs, the pilots now pocket $2,400.

“We’re working extremely hard to market the business, build it up, control our costs and do everything we need to do to succeed,” MacDonald said. “We were blindsided and shocked with this.”

They had good reason.

Consider, according to the court complaint, what the harbor commission didn’t do.

Despite a statutory requirement that the commission notify any “necessary party” of its upcoming hearings and votes, it failed to inform Bay Ferries that the minimum pilot fee was about to go through the roof.

Instead, it sent the company an email in advance of the meeting that made reference to a “Portland Pilot Cost of Living rate increase proposal” – a routine action based on the Consumer Price Index. The agenda contained nary a peep about a massive minimum-fee increase.

“Bay Ferries did not appear to contest the minimum fee increase from $709 to $1200 because Bay Ferries did not know the Commission was considering such a fee increase,” the complaint states.

It gets worse.

The commission is required by law to establish that all fee increases are “just and reasonable.” Which they did (wink-wink) in less than five minutes?

The commission is required by law to put its decision in writing. According to the complaint, that never happened.

The commission’s decisions, by law, are supposed to take effect no sooner than 45 days after the vote. Yet Bay Ferries received a letter from the pilots on May 22 informing the company that the fee would go up as of June 1 – just 22 days after the vote.

And if Bay Ferries refused to pay?

“The Pilots threatened to have the ship arrested if the full amount was not paid,” the complaint states.

We need not digress into the impact such a seizure on the open seas would have on the local tourism industry.

But it’s hard to read the words “have the ship arrested” and not picture an extortion scene straight out of “The Godfather.” (As Vito Corleone once said, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”)

The Portland Pilots declined to comment this week, and a request for an interview with the harbor commission went unanswered.

That’s too bad.

It would have been illuminating to hear how the Portland Pilots justify getting paid $1,800 an hour, according to the lawsuit, to stand on the bridge of the Cat and tell the captain what he already knows – maybe better than they do.

Or how the harbor commission, public officials every one, quietly allowed a fee increase that will cost Bay Ferries a whopping extra $96,000 a year for … what?

Or how the Portland Pilots’ services, established primarily to guide foreign vessels and captains unfamiliar with Portland Harbor, could possibly be needed, every day, aboard an operation that is none of the above.

“If you went down to the Cat this morning, you would find that the captain is Capt. Andrew Parker from Winthrop, Maine, who’s a graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy,” said CEO MacDonald. “And he’s driving a ship owned by the U.S. Navy” and chartered to Bay Ferries.

So what’s truly going on here?

“This is a big money-grabbing action, as far as I’m concerned,” said Henk Pols, who served for decades as president and CEO of Prince of Fundy Cruises.

Now retired and living in Cape Elizabeth, Pols has no connection whatsoever with Bay Ferries.

But he does have a few not-so-fond memories of the Portland Pilots.

Take, for instance, the time back in the mid-’70s when Prince of Fundy Cruises added the good ship Bolero to a Portland-to-Nova Scotia ferry fleet that already included the Prince of Fundy and the Caribe – neither of which required a pilot at the time.

Pols will never forget the day the black-and-white pilot boat pulled up alongside the Bolero on its first approach into Portland Harbor and ordered the ferry to slow down and allow a pilot aboard.

How did the Bolero’s captain and crew respond?

“They went straight past them,” Pols replied.

Sounds like a plan.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]