February 26, 2010

Investors planning Boston-to-Halifax ferry

TOM BELL

— By

Staff Writer

While officials in Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, try to revive the ferry connection between their communities, an investment group is working to launch a year-round service between Boston and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Boston-to-Halifax service would make it harder to re-establish a Portland-to-Yarmouth ferry, said Portland City Manager Joe Gray. ''It would complicate things to have two services out of New England,'' he said.

Martin Karlsen, the lead project proponent for American Ferries Inc., said investors have never considered Portland -- where the state and the city built a $20.5 million passenger terminal two years ago -- primarily to serve the Nova Scotia ferry.

Last month, Bay Ferries Ltd. announced its decision to stop running its high-speed Cat ferry that connected Yarmouth, Portland and Bar Harbor. The company cited the loss of a subsidy from the government of Nova Scotia for canceling the service.

Karlsen said it makes more sense to operate a ferry out of Boston than Portland because Boston is a much larger market and the ferry could pick up more walk-on passengers. Likewise, Halifax, with a population of more than 275,000, dwarfs Yarmouth, population 7,100.

Karlsen said investors are still raising capital and are not counting on a government subsidy. While his group has explored the idea of a Boston-to-Halifax ferry for 10 years, he said, the cancellation of Cat service gives the plan additional momentum.

Many of The Cat's passengers came from southern New England. The Boston market was so important to Bay Ferries that it sent its 320-foot catamaran to Boston for a weekend in 2006 as part of a marketing campaign.

Christopher Wright of Digby, Nova Scotia, who is a consultant to ferry companies around the world, said American Ferries' plan should be taken seriously because Karlsen is experienced in the shipping and cruise industries.

Karlsen is president of Karlsen Shipping Co. Ltd. in Halifax and Polar Star Expeditions, which offers cruises to polar regions.

Unlike The Cat or its predecessor, the Scotia Prince, a Boston-to-Halifax ferry primarily would attract people seeking inexpensive cruise vacations rather than transportation, Wright said.

Halifax is a growing cruise ship destination, he said. From 1997 to 2007, the number of cruise ship passengers who disembarked in Halifax increased from 28,000 a year to 63,000.

Wright said Karlsen's plan makes sense for the summer, but he can't imagine many people would want to ride in the rough seas of the North Atlantic during winter.

The route between Portland and Yarmouth, inside the Gulf of Maine, provides more protection from heavy seas than the route between Boston and Halifax, which, at 380 nautical miles, is nearly twice the distance.

Karlsen's overnight ferry would leave one port in the afternoon and arrive at the other the next morning. He is looking for a ship that can carry about 1,300 passengers as well as cars and trucks, including tractor-trailers.

Such a vessel is called a ''cruise ferry'' because it combines the features of a cruise ship and a car ferry. Many passengers ride on the ships for the cruise experience, while others use them for transportation. The ships are popular in Europe, particularly in the Baltic and North seas.

Karlsen said it's very unlikely the service can begin this year. On its Web site, www.boston-halifax-ferry.com, the company says it's looking for an agreement with a ferry company to provide the ship and help operate it.

Yarmouth Mayor Phil Mooney said American Ferries shouldn't be taken too seriously because the company has been pushing its idea for years without success.

''They are probably lacking two things: money and a boat,'' Mooney said.

He said Nova Scotia's tourism industry and rural communities are lobbying Premier Darrell Dexter to continue the subsidy for The Cat for one or two more years. Bay Ferries had asked Nova Scotia's government for a subsidy of more than $5 million to allow The Cat to operate this summer.

Mooney said crucial meetings are planned today and early next week with Dexter and a member of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Cabinet.

Mooney said The Cat's subsidy is needed to give officials time to recruit a new kind of ferry service. He said a traditional, single-hull ferry has a better chance for success because it would be more fuel-efficient and have more room to carry trucks. The Cat does not carry trucks.

Mooney said truckers would prefer a Yarmouth-to-Portland ferry because it would make the crossing in half the time of a Halifax-to-Boston ferry. Much of the cargo would be fish, and it's crucial that it be delivered quickly, he said.

Tom Valleau, the former port director for Portland, said Portland and Yarmouth are ideally situated for a ferry because they are only 180 miles apart. That means a ferry can make a round trip in 24 hours. It's much easier to market a ferry that runs every day, because it gives people more flexibility in making travel plans.

Gray, Portland's manager, said there has been a ferry link between Portland and Yarmouth for 40 years and it's important to maintain that link because of the business it brings to the city.

Gray said he is contacting provincial officials and is trying to set up a meeting next month to discuss initiatives to recruit a new ferry service. He said that he, Mayor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. and possibly a representative of the Portland Community Chamber would go to Nova Scotia for the meeting, if necessary.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

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