Operators of the Nova Star ferry say they have found a winter route for the ship, a critical development that will allow the vessel to earn money in the offseason and return to the Gulf of Maine for a second summer.

“It will be fully employed all winter and come back into service next year,” Mark Amundsen, president and CEO of Nova Star Cruises Ltd., said Thursday at a business gathering in Portland.

Amundsen declined to provide details about the winter assignment and said that an announcement will be made next week. He said he’s certain the vessel will return for a second season of ferrying passengers and vehicles between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Speaking at a Propeller Club of Portland meeting at DiMillo’s on the Water, Amundsen said the ferry service got off to a slow start, especially in the beginning of the season, for a number of reasons. The biggest factor was that a four-year hiatus in the service disrupted people’s travel habits and it will take several years to rebuild the market, he said.

The last ferry service, the high-speed Cat operated by Bay Ferries, was canceled after the 2009 season when the Nova Scotia government ended its subsidy, which had grown to more than $5 million annually.

The Nova Star’s lower-than-expected passenger counts this year caused it to miss revenue projections. The Nova Scotia government has given the ferry operator $21 million this year, the total subsidy amount that was expected to be handed out over a seven-year period to restore the service.

Amundsen, who lives in Eliot, said the ridership has been increasing over the summer, with 20,000 passengers in August, and September is on pace to be busier than July.

While it’s been a “really challenging year,” he said, “we are happy to be where we are going.”

Amundsen’s appearance at the club came just three days after his company announced that it was ending this season’s service three weeks early and was offering refunds to 650 passengers who had already booked tickets on the canceled runs.

The Nova Star, which operates daily round-trip service, will make its final trip from Portland on Columbus Day, Oct. 13, and arrive in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, the following morning. The original final date of operation had been scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 2.

The service is considered an important investment for reviving the tourism industry in southwest Nova Scotia, and it also helps the Portland area because the ferry’s passengers spend money in the city’s restaurants and hotels, and most of its supplies, such as food, fuel and linen services, are purchased in Portland. The ferry uses $40,000 worth of fuel every day,

Members of the Propeller Club, made up of people who have business interests in the port of Portland, are supportive of the Nova Star, and Amundsen’s announcement that he has found a winter route for the ship was welcome news.

“It’s huge news. You can’t lay up a ship like that,” said John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority.

Nova Star Cruises is leasing the ship from its builder, Singapore Technologies Marine Ltd. The contract is for three years with options to extend up to seven years.

On Monday, the company said it planned to dock the ship in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, for the short term while looking for a winter route for the vessel or a different location to lay over.

To avoid the cost of heating the ship all winter to maintain its systems, the company would have likely used a layover facility in a southern port. However, that would have required the company to spend money on fuel to travel to the south and also to dock the vessel all winter.

The Nova Star’s predecessor, the Cat, found winter work ferrying passengers between the islands of Trinidad and Tobago.

Another ferry, the Scotia Prince, found a winter job ferrying passengers between Tampa, Florida, and ports in Mexico.

Jerry Angier, a Propeller Club member who has worked for 30 years promoting the cruise industry in Portland, was pleased that the Nova Star is returning next year because it needs more than one year to market the service.

The ferry operators missed deadlines to win business this year with major tour bus companies, which typically book their trips a year in advance. Angier was encouraged that 32 bus tours already have been booked for the 2015 season.

“You’ve got the whole winter now to market the product,” he said.

Earlier this week, officials with the Nova Scotia government said they were working to assure that the service operates next year. The government also is sending its top economic development officer to Maine this month to meet with Gov. Paul LePage to explore how Maine can provide some financial support.

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