The Canadian operator of the ferry service from Portland to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, finished its first season with far fewer passengers than its predecessor, but says it’s in better financial shape.

“Overall we’re very pleased with how the season went,” said Mark MacDonald, chairman and chief executive officer of Bay Ferries Ltd., which took over operation of the route from Portland to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, this year.

Bay Ferries said Thursday that it carried 35,551 passengers since launching the service in June with its high-speed catamaran ferry, The Cat. Nova Star Cruises, which operated the route from 2014-2015, carried 59,000 and 52,000 passengers, respectively, in its two seasons.

MacDonald said The Cat has a different cost structure than the larger ferry that Nova Star Cruises used on the route, allowing it to meet its financial projections for the first year with a $10.2 million (Canadian) subsidy from the Nova Scotian government. MacDonald cautioned that the ferry line’s fiscal year doesn’t end until March, so numbers won’t be final until then, but his company expects that it will be able to operate “sustainably” next year with a subsidy from Canada of about $10 million-$12 million (Canadian).

Nova Scotia also provided about $9 million (Canadian) to refurbish The Cat, which Bay Ferries is leasing from the U.S. Navy’s Sea Lift Command.

“The numbers (comparing The Cat with the Nova Star ferry) are not entirely apples to apples,” MacDonald said.


Nova Star Cruises, the Maine-based operator of the ferry in 2014 and 2015, was unable to meet its goals for passenger counts or finances for its more luxurious cruise service, despite $40 million in subsidies from the provincial government. Its vessel, the Nova Star, was seized in October as leverage to pay more than $3 million in outstanding debts. The company filed for bankruptcy and the Nova Star left Portland Harbor in December, leaving a trail of lawsuits.

“Because the fiscal year is not complete until March 31, 2017, unanticipated expenditures could arise; however, based on present estimates, the original projection will be met and no additional contribution (beyond the already budgeted subsidy) in 2016-2017 should be required,” the company said in a statement.

Although passenger counts and motor coach business was softer than expected, the company said it expects passenger volume will pick up as the service gains traction, and that motor coach tours will increase “if, and when, that industry perceives there is stability and long-term predictability to the business.”

The service transported 13,064 vehicles during the season, which ended Oct. 1.

Figures from the city of Portland indicate that use of the ferry picked up steadily during the summer. The city, which collects fees for both passengers and vehicles, said it took in slightly more than $11,000 for about a half-month of service in June, $32,529 in July and $41,927 in August.

MacDonald said Bay Ferries hasn’t lined up a winter route for The Cat, a common tactic in the ferry business to keep the ship operating year-round. He said the company wants to evaluate the impact of the daily crossings on the ferry this year, but may seek a winter route in 2017-18, if the Navy agrees.


MacDonald also said the ferry service will likely talk to officials in Maine and Nova Scotia about starting the season earlier next year. The first crossing this year wasn’t until mid-June because of the time it took to line up and then refurbish the ship, but MacDonald said the hope is that the service can begin in 2017 on Memorial Day weekend, extending the season a couple of weeks.

He said the ferry line felt it established a good working relationship with both Portland and Yarmouth officials during the course of the year, even though Portland officials were a little concerned this spring that The Cat’s arrival time in Maine in the early afternoon could interfere with cruise line operations in the late summer and early fall. The Cat makes a crossing in less than six hours, leaving Nova Scotia in the morning and arriving in Portland in the early afternoon and then departing Portland to arrive in Yarmouth in the evening.

Bay Ferries based some of its pitch to passengers on the faster crossing time. By contrast, Nova Star had touted its amenities and a leisurely ride similar to a cruise, but it took about 10 hours to cross the Gulf of Maine.

MacDonald said the ferry company is looking forward to 2017.

“We’re really proud of how it’s going,” he said. “There were lots of challenges, but we feel we have something to build on.”

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

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