YARMOUTH, Nova Scotia — After a four-year hiatus, Portland-to-Yarmouth ferry service is up and running, reconnecting two communities separated by 185 nautical miles.
On Friday morning, the $165 million Nova Star completed its maiden voyage to Yarmouth, delivering about 300 people and 81 vehicles to this small town on the southwest tip of the Nova Scotia peninsula. The ship returned to Portland Friday night with about the same number of passengers and 20 fewer vehicles.
An exuberant crowd of about 200 people greeted the arriving passengers in Yarmouth, where the loss of ferry service in 2009 brought economic hardship because many American tourists stopped coming to the region.
As each car rolled off the ship and headed up a hill toward Main Street, people lined both sides of the road, cheering and waving Canadian and Nova Scotian flags. Cars with license plates from “the states” got the biggest cheers.
“They’re guests,” explained Alyssa Jacquard, 20, the chaperone for 55 flag-waving students from the town’s high school and junior high school honor guard. “They are here to see our beautiful town, even though there is not much to it.”
David Saxton, 66, who served on a local committee that advocated for the revival of ferry service, said it was satisfying to finally see it.
“It’s a great day, eh,” he said. “It brings a lot of good hope for the town. This is what we need.”
One of the passengers who arrived on the Nova Star was Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood, who had rallied the community to revive the ferry service. As the ship neared the dock in Yarmouth, she was so happy she began crying.
“I lost it. I just lost it when it came into the harbor,” she said.
The ferry was far short of its capacity of 1,200 passengers, but officials with Nova Star Cruises Ltd. said it was better that the new crew had a chance to practice with a manageable number.
Locator map: Portland, Maine and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia
There were glitches. A 26-foot-long U-Haul truck got stuck on the ramp while being driven onto the ship in Portland, and the WiFi wasn’t working. Two passengers were booked into rooms that were already occupied.
In Yarmouth, many of the Portland-bound passengers were hungry when they boarded the ferry but only one of the ship’s four restaurants was open, and it had a long line.
The ship will cross the Gulf of Maine twice every 24 hours, so it can’t spend more than two hours in either port without falling behind schedule. On Friday morning, it left Yarmouth late, so it didn’t arrive in Portland until 8:05 p.m. — just over an hour behind schedule.
The crew needs practice, said one passenger, Bruce Porter, 61, of New Mexico, who owns a vacation home in Clare, Nova Scotia. “It’s opening night at the community theater, and they clearly don’t have their act together,” he said.
In Portland, a gangway for passengers has yet to be installed at the Ocean Gateway terminal, so disembarking passengers have to walk out on the same ramp as the vehicles, then walk back along the side of the ship to reach customs agents. A permanent gangway won’t be installed for months.
The ship has about 130 crew members, most of whom live on board and will work in shifts every day until the end of the season on Oct. 31. Most are from the Philippines.
Crew members handed out surveys to get feedback from passengers, and managers will move quickly to make changes to improve the service, said Lisa Arnold, one of the company’s top officials.
She noted that the ship’s buffet restaurant will open earlier in Yarmouth, starting Saturday, to accommodate arriving passengers who haven’t had breakfast.
The Nova Star was built for crossing the English Channel, but the French company that ordered it refused to accept it, citing construction delays and a dispute over the ship’s ability to carry as much cargo as promised.
The ship’s interior, designed by a Danish architect, has a European feel. Even the electrical outlets are European — 220 volts. The reservation desk supplies passengers with adapters.
The outlets were the top complaint on the passenger survey, although overall marks were high, said Dennis Bailey, spokesman for Nova Star Cruises. He said the outlets will be changed.
Passengers who were interviewed said they were pleased with the ship’s dining options, its cheerful staff and its cruise-ship ambiance. They said the crew needs time to work out details, as in any new enterprise.
Keith Joyce, 60, of St. Joseph, Nova Scotia, noted that the ship’s ride is much smoother than the choppy ride of the Cat, the high-speed catamaran that Bay Ferries Ltd. ran between Yarmouth and Portland until the 2009 season.
Joyce, who wore a Red Sox jersey, was on his way to Boston’s Fenway Park to see the Red Sox play on Sunday, the team’s annual Nova Scotia Day.
On the leg to Nova Scotia, most of the passengers were Americans who own vacation homes in the province. They said the ferry saved them the 14-hour drive to Yarmouth or the five-hour drive to Saint John, New Brunswick, which has a ferry that connects to Digby, Nova Scotia.
“The biggest thing is, it saves us a night’s sleep and you aren’t tired after two days of driving,” said John Gleason, 55, a Philadelphia resident who has a vacation cottage in Shelburne, Nova Scotia.
The ship was fairly quiet on the overnight trip to Yarmouth. The dance floor was empty for most of the night. A couple of dozen people were in the casino, which has two table games and 70 slot machines.
Most people slept in one of the ship’s 163 cabins, but some slept in reclining chairs to save money, such as Patricia Thornley, a video artist from New York City.
Thornley wishes the Nova Star were more of a no-frills ferry, like the Scotia Prince, which ran between Portland and Yarmouth from 1982 to 2004. “I don’t need it to be super-nice,” she said. “I miss the old boat that was just an old, rusty thing.”
Although the ferry operators say they are optimistic that they will serve 100,000 passengers this year, some passengers expressed concern about the small number for the maiden voyage.
Sue Curtis of Washington, D.C., who was traveling with her husband to their vacation home in Glenwood, Nova Scotia, said she hopes the ferry will be more crowded the next time she rides on it. “All of us are holding our breath that it gets enough passengers to make it viable,” she said.
Ian Slattery, 27, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, who rode the ferry to Portland and then took it back to Yarmouth, said he enjoyed the trip and was impressed with the quality and condition of the ship.
He said it’s too soon in the tourism season to worry about passenger counts. “It’s very early.”Â
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: