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The Cat Came Back — Nova Scotia-to-Maine Ferry Link Gets Its Boat

Wikimedia Commons
The Cat, in its previous life as the Hawaii Superferry Alakai, in 2007.

It looks like high-speed ferry service between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, will return this summer, now that Canada’s Bay Ferries has inked a deal with the U.S. Navy to lease a boat that can make the one-way trip in less than six hours.

So the Cat is coming back. In this case the Cat is the name of a catamaran ferry service that once ran between Maine and Nova Scotia.

Canada-based Bay Ferries says it has secured a charter lease for a boat owned by the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. It was originally called the Alakea, and it started life as a ferry around the Hawaiian islands. Rebranded as the Cat, it could start the Maine-to-Canada run by mid-June.

And the 700-plus passenger ferry will be on a daylight schedule, says Bay Ferries’ CEO Mark McDonald.

“Wake up in the morning, get to Portland, get on the ferry, be in Nova Scotia in the afternoon,” he says. “And the reverse is also true. People can get up in the morning in Nova Scotia take the ferry and get back to New York in the evening or Allentown. It’s a high-speed product and a great one for customers.”

McDonald says the 349-foot boat will take between 5 1/2 and 6 hours for the morning trip to Portland, and will return to Yarmouth and tie up there overnight.

Basic one-way fare will be around $400 American for two people and a car, although McDonald says various promotional efforts could substantially reduce that effective cost.

Reviving the Cat brand, he adds, should be an automatic boost. Consumer awareness was high in 2009, the last time a Cat ferry ran from Maine to Nova Scotia, and it has lingered.

“It was treated with great affection and even to this day,” McDonald says. “It’s interesting, we can track Internet search traffic and we continue to receive very strong search traffic of people looking for the Cat ferry.”

Another big boost is coming from the Nova Scotia government, which is putting up $9 million Canadian to retrofit the boat to suit its new mission. And on top of that, a $10.2 million Canadian operating subsidy in the first year. And $9.4 million Canadian in the second year. And $4 million Canadian for terminal work.

“We’ve got the right people in place, as of today they’ve got the right vessel, we’re going to have to work really hard to convince taxpayers this is a worthy investment,” says Geoffrey Maclellan, Nova Scotia’s minister of transportation and infrastructure renewal.

While the province’s government threw tens of millions of dollars into subsidies for a failed two-year effort to keep the larger, slower Nova Star ferry operating on the same route, MacLellan says the rationale for the subsidy remains.

“For tourism overall it’s critical,” he says. “But even more so this is a sustaining factor for the southwestern region of our province and all of southern Nova Scotia in terms of economic development and in terms of supporting the private sector. So when you have this level of visitors coming in from the United States it makes a critical difference to the bottom lines of many operators.”

The new service could be critical to the bottom lines of many Portland businesses, too, since the ferry could bring more than 60,000 people to and from the two countries.

“Every time we have one of those ferries you get people who are a little bit more leisurely as travelers,” says Sara Deane, a manager at Standard Baking Co. “So they are willing to walk down and see if there’s a bakery. They are taking it easy, not just trying to hit the gift shops and get back on board. And they tend to be people who are seasonal residents as opposed to people just coming back and forth from Canada, so they are good customers usually.”

Although state and city officials lobbied the Navy to make its boat available, some Portland officials are striking a note of caution.

City Manager Jon Jennings says some 100,000 cruise ship passengers are expected to land in the city this year, and Bay Ferry’s preferred docking hours may not be feasible. Negotiations, he says, are just getting underway.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.