PORTLAND, Maine — The previous operator of The Cat ferry plans to renew a daily run between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, starting mid-June aboard a high-speed vessel leased from the U.S. Navy.
Bay Ferries Ltd. announced Thursday it chartered the Navy ship for two years and signed a 10-year multimillion-dollar deal with the government of Nova Scotia.
It plans to start the ferry service about June 15, with daily six-hour round trips between Portland and Yarmouth, until Sept. 30. The new ship, also to be called The Cat, will not stop in Bar Harbor as its predecessor did. Bay Ferries last ran that route from 2006 to 2009.
The province said the ship will leave daily at 8 a.m. from Yarmouth and at 2:30 p.m. from Portland. That schedule puts the ferry back in Yarmouth by 9 p.m., which the company said “will place a heavy demand on overnight accommodations” in southwest Nova Scotia.
Seeing a benefit to tourism from the United States into the province, Nova Scotia agreed to put up $23.3 million (Canadian) toward the service in its first year, with portions going to retrofitting the ship, startup costs and a $10.2 million subsidy for marketing and operations in the first season. That subsidy will decrease to $9.4 million in the second season.
In a statement, the province did not say how much it would contribute in subsequent years, but Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan said the agreement provides “stability and predictability for Nova Scotia businesses and tourism operators from all across the province.”
The company revealed Thursday that the ship is the USNS Puerto Rico, which was previously called the Alakai when it was operated by Hawaii Superferry Inc. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration acquired two ships from Hawaii Superferry after the company defaulted on loans. It transferred the ships to the Navy in 2012.
The company said in a statement on its website that it in January took a closer look at the ship but faced questions of whether the Navy could make a deal on the ship that had been mothballed at Philadelphia’s Navy Yard in 2012.
“Eventually, Military Sealift Command determined that this type of transaction could take place using a concept known as an Enhanced Use Lease, whereby a military asset is leased to a private contractor on mutually beneficial terms,” Bay Ferries stated.
The company credited Maine Sen. Angus King, Rep. Chellie Pingree and Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling with urging the Navy to consider the deal, citing economic benefits from tourism between the city and Nova Scotia.
The city issued a statement Thursday that they are in negotiations over a lease for the Ocean Gateway port.
Greg Mitchell, the city’s economic development director, said the ship’s focus exclusively on passenger traffic fits into the city’s plan to develop its eastern waterfront as a gateway for people, while the International Marine Terminal on its western waterfront serves freight. The ferry will serve tour buses.
The province picked Bay Ferries last fall to continue the service that was restarted in 2014 by Nova Star Cruises, a consortium of the Eliot-based Quest Navigation and the Singapore-based shipbuilder ST Marine Ltd.
That service had fallen far behind projections in its first season and used all of a multi-year subsidy agreement, crafting a separate agreement for the second season. At the end of its second season, a range of creditors got court approval to arrest the ship in Portland harbor until their debts were settled.
The Bay Ferries ship has more in common with The Cat high-speed ferry than the Nova Star. The ship will cross the Gulf of Maine in about half the time of the Nova Star, which billed itself more as a cruise ship, with cabins and an on-board casino.
On a Web page announcing the new ship, Bay Ferries said the onboard amenities include a gift shop, food service, movie lounges and a play area for children.
Bay Ferries said it would take possession of the ship on April 1 and send it to Detyens Shipyard in South Carolina for work to prepare the ship for service. The ship has a capacity of 866 passengers and 282 passenger vehicles, the province stated.
The company said it expects to start selling tickets in early April.