Riding the ferry between Maine and Nova Scotia this summer will be a different experience from last year.

Gone are the dozens of cabins where passengers could snooze their way across the Gulf of Maine to Canada.

Gone is the casino to pass the hours as the Nova Star cruise ship plied its way between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

And gone, too, will be about five hours from the travel time.

Last fall, Nova Scotia’s government ended its contract with Nova Star Cruises, which had operated the ferry for two years, with disappointing results.

The ferry fell far short of its goal of carrying 100,000 passengers per year, managing barely half that number. The operator also burned through more than $40 million (Canadian) in subsidies from the province.

In October, the province chose Bay Ferries Ltd. to operate the ferry this year, and the company has leased a high-speed catamaran to make the run, with service expected to begin in mid-June.

Mark MacDonald, president and chief executive of Bay Ferries, said Wednesday that the ship will offer a different experience from that of the Nova Star. The emphasis will be on the speed of the crossing, he said, with the ship going about 40 mph, cutting travel time from about 10 hours to 5½.

The Nova Star offered a more stately trip, with 162 cabins, three restaurants, a casino and two bars in a 528-foot ship. The 349-foot Cat, on the other hand, will have a place for passengers to watch a movie or television, a mid-priced restaurant, a gift shop and two bars.

“It is a very pleasant interior,” MacDonald said.

The decision to focus on utility and speed over a lot of amenities reflects the different direction Bay Ferries is taking as it tries to “rebuild the service,” as MacDonald puts it.

Given that travelers are generally taking shorter vacations, often on shorter notice, the ferry line believes they’re going to be more interested in getting to and from Canada quickly, rather than spending a few more hours in a casino or restaurant, MacDonald said.

“The question is, do passengers want a slower overnight cruise, or do they just want to get there?” he said.

Based on the Nova Star’s inability to attract more customers, MacDonald said, Bay Ferries is betting that the answer is “to get there.”

“The experience is a unique one and, from a customer standpoint, a very efficient way to get from Point A to Point B,” he said.

MacDonald said Bay Ferries’ prior experience with a high-speed ferry – also named The Cat – suggests that promoting speed over luxury will be a winner.

In July and August 2006, Bay Ferries drew an average of nearly 550 passengers, in both directions, when it operated a high-speed ferry between Portland and Nova Scotia on weekends, MacDonald said.

The ferry later shifted its Maine base to Bar Harbor, and the service ended when Canada withdrew its subsidy in December 2009.

MacDonald said Bay Ferries hopes to start selling tickets next week. He declined to discuss prices, saying there would be a wide range of specials, particularly early in the year, as the company tries to draw more customers.

Off-season, one-way base fares for Nova Star started at $79 and rose to $129 during peak weeks. Ferrying a car cost an additional $129-$179.

Bay Ferries still needs to work out a contract with the city of Portland, which has made clear it won’t allow trucks to use The Cat, largely because of concerns over the cost of security measures that would be required by customs officials.

And ferry and city officials are apparently still at loggerheads on The Cat’s sailing schedule. Bay Ferries wants to leave Yarmouth around 7 or 8 a.m., arrive in Portland in the early afternoon and then start back to Canada by 2 or 3 p.m.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said that schedule would conflict with cruise ships, which will bring about 100,000 passengers to Portland this summer and fall, through the Ocean Gateway terminal.

Jennings said those cruise ships usually arrange shore excursions for their passengers – Freeport and Kennebunkport are popular destinations. Buses drop off passengers who leave on morning excursions, and pick up passengers for afternoon excursions at the same time Bay Ferries wants to arrive and depart from Portland, he said.

Jennings said city officials want the ferry to arrive and leave a little later in the afternoon, but MacDonald said Bay Ferries prefers to avoid arriving in Nova Scotia late at night.

Despite that, Jennings said he’s hopeful that the city and ferry line can reach an agreement, possibly in the next week or so.

Resolving scheduling conflicts between a ferry line and cruise ships, Jennings said, “is a wonderful problem to have.”


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