March 15, 2010

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Staff Writer

The operator of The Cat, a high-speed ferry between Portland and Nova Scotia, has decided to scale back service and cut its season short by eight days because of low passenger traffic and high fuel costs.

Bay Ferries Ltd. said Friday that it will reduce the number of weekly round trips between Maine and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, from seven to five after Labor Day. It effectively is canceling the Wednesday trips from Bar Harbor and the Saturday trips from Portland, and it will end service for the season on Oct. 6, rather than the middle of October.

''We sincerely regret the necessity of doing this,'' Mark MacDonald, president and CEO of Bay Ferries Ltd., said in a written announcement. ''And we're doing everything we can to make it up to our customers.''

The company is contacting people who booked voyages on the canceled trips and hopes to reschedule them to other days, said George Driscoll, vice president of marketing and sales.

Bay Ferries knew last spring that it was heading into a challenging season because of a general decline in tourism to Canada, a strong Canadian dollar and weak U.S. economy, and record-high fuel prices. The 320-foot-long ferry, a high-speed catamaran, burns 1,321 gallons of marine diesel each hour at cruising speed and uses more than $25,000 worth of fuel for every crossing.

''It's tough,'' Driscoll said. ''I've been calling this season the perfect storm of marketing challenges.''

Along with added costs for its own fuel, high gasoline prices have kept potential customers home, he said. And a surprisingly large number of travelers shied away because of confusion about passport requirements, he said.

The United States will start requiring passports to re-enter the country next year.

Bay Ferries would not release any details about passenger trends, except to say that the numbers are down. The Cat does submit passenger data to Portland officials at the end of each season, and last year it carried 56,400 passengers.

The decline in business is sure to mean less revenue for the city -- which leases the Ocean Gateway terminal to Bay Ferries -- although the exact impact won't be clear until the season is over.

The Cat's rent and other fees are based on ticket sales, which allows Bay Ferries to pay less if business declines. Based on last year's ticket sales, the company was expected to pay more than $100,000 in rent to the city this season.

The lease with the city also has a clause allowing Bay Ferries to back out entirely if it gets into financial trouble.

Driscoll said there are no plans to do that, and that the company has been working on arrangements and schedules for next season.

Portland Mayor Ed Suslovic said he wasn't surprised by the difficulties.

''It's a tough environment to be running that service right now,'' he said.

Suslovic also said he was reassured about the future of the service last week when he met with Bay Ferries and Canadian officials in Nova Scotia.

''(MacDonald) said, 'We're absolutely committed to making this service work,''' Suslovic said. ''And knowing they didn't walk away during what must be one of their toughest years makes me confident they're absolutely committed to this.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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