The new operator of the Portland-Nova Scotia ferry service has finally landed a vessel to run the route and will begin its season no later than June 15, making the trip in 5½ hours – about half the time of its predecessor, the Nova Star.

Bay Ferries Ltd. announced Thursday that it will lease a high-speed catamaran, the USNS Puerto Rico, from the U.S. Navy and will rename it The Cat. That was the name of the high-speed ferry the company ran between Maine and Nova Scotia from 2006-2009 before losses led it to drop the run.

Canadian officials have said the new Cat can hold 280 vehicles and about 700 to 750 passengers. A preliminary sailing schedule calls for the ferry to leave Portland at 2:30 p.m. and stay overnight in Yarmouth before departing for the return trip at 8 a.m. Fares haven’t been decided yet.

One sticking point that remains to be ironed out is whether the ferry will carry trucks in addition to passengers and cars. While Portland officials have said the city won’t allow trucks to drive on or off the ship, lawmakers in Nova Scotia had hoped a new ferry would be able to carry more trucks to Portland, increasing trade between the state and the province.

Bay Ferries settled on the U.S.-built USNS Puerto Rico weeks ago, said Geoff MacLellan, the province’s minister of transportation, but it took some time to nail down a lease with the Navy. He said Sen. Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree encouraged Navy officials to get a deal together quickly and the result is a two-year lease, at $3.4 million a year, with an option for a two-year renewal.

MacLellan said the new ferry, which is roughly two-thirds the size of the Nova Star, will make the Gulf of Maine crossing in 5½ hours, compared with 10 hours for its predecessor.


The Nova Star lost so much money in its two years of service that it was held in Portland for a month last fall until its owners paid off its U.S. creditors. After two seasons of failing to meet passenger projections and burning through 40 million Canadian dollars in subsidies from Nova Scotia, the province yanked its agreement with Nova Star Cruises to operate the service and awarded the contract to Bay Ferries, which also operates two other ferry routes connecting other parts of Canada with Nova Scotia.


The Navy hasn’t used the USNS Puerto Rico since taking it on after the original owner went bankrupt. The ferry had been used to transport passengers between the islands in Hawaii.

City officials said they still have to negotiate an agreement with Bay Ferries so it can dock its ship at the Ocean Gateway terminal, and the truck issue is likely to come up.

Jessica Grondin, the city’s spokeswoman, said Nova Star Cruises was allowed to load commercial trucks on and off its ship under a temporary agreement. For a permanent arrangement, she said, U.S. Customs officials would require the city to devote more space for security checks at the gateway terminal and install more equipment, at a cost of about $4.5 million.

“We would have to spend a lot more money … which is money we don’t have,” Grondin said.


In addition, the area around the terminal is being developed with hotels and other tourist-oriented businesses, and having trucks rolling through that portion of the eastern waterfront is incompatible with those new uses, Grondin said. The city wants freight and truck operators to use the western waterfront, where a marine terminal exists, she said.

The city has yet to sit down with Bay Ferries, but the company already has been told of the city’s position in informal talks, Grondin said.


The truck issue is important in Canada, where the opposition Progressive Conservative party had hoped a new ferry would be able to carry more trucks to Portland. Seafood and blueberries from southwestern Nova Scotia often are trucked to the U.S., but the trip takes 12 hours. Being able to put those trucks on a high-speed ferry would cut that by more than half.

“To see that fall away with a shrug of the shoulders is really sad,” said Tim Houston, a member of the minority Progressive Conservative party in the provincial legislature. “I would have expected our officials to try to negotiate that.”

MacLellan, the minister of transportation, said his office also had hoped that the new ship and operator would provide space for trucks, but the ferry is too important for tourism to allow that issue to scuttle the operation.


MacLellan said the ship soon will head to South Carolina, where it will be retrofitted for its new purpose.

He said he doesn’t know the condition of the ship, but the Nova Scotia government is providing 9 million Canadian dollars for work on the vessel. It also will provide a $10 million subsidy for the first season and $9.4 million for the second, with $4.1 million for startup costs, including terminal upgrades in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said departure times also will be a subject of the negotiations with Bay Ferries. Last year’s schedule encouraged passengers heading to Nova Scotia to shop in the Old Port during the day and eat dinner before leaving. A midafternoon departure would change that.

The ferry service “is very important for the city and important for tourism,” Strimling said. “The negotiations on the schedule have not been finalized.”

A call to Bay Ferries for comment was not returned Thursday.


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